Driving from San Jose to Quepos/Manuel Antonio & Dominical
For tourists traveling to Costa Rica, the capital San Jose isn't their final destination. While Guanacaste attracts most tourists, many travelers are now flocking to the Southern Pacific Coast to places like Jaco, Manuel Antonio, and Dominical. Our family lives in in Dominical so we've made the three hour drive from the capital more times than we can count.
This part of the country is home to dozens of sleepy, surfing towns that offer beautiful landscapes and close up interactions to wildlife.
If you have plans on driving south to Manuel Antonio/Quepos or Dominical, check out my tips and must see destinations during your drive.
Getting your car rental
Before we purchased our own car, we would have to rent a car before heading south on highway Route 34, the main highway of Costa Rica. If you're renting a car, once you arrive at the airport the car rental agency will be located after baggage claim and will shuttle you to their office.
We always use Budget Rent-A-Car. We've always had great experiences with their staff and their vehicles are new and well-kept. Also, they have a location in Quepos which makes it convenient if we decide to get another car or return it early.
When you exit the airport, you'll be approached by dozens of hard-pressing, taxi drivers offering to give you a ride. While this is an option, the car company offers free transportation so its best to just use them. The taxi drivers will ask you multiple times so be prepared to have "no, gracias" on repeat.
When you have your car, the real fun begins.
Make sure to download the Waze app before you arrive. Most Ticos use this app for directions and for updates on road conditions. So far it has been the best navigational tool for our family, but if you prefer a GPS you can rent one from the car rental company usually for $10 a day. You can also download Google Maps of Costa Rica before you arrive which you can navigate offline if you do not have cell reception. Check out the instructions here.
The most difficult part of the drive is just getting out of San Jose. Its a fairly congested city with no grid system so its easy to get turned around. Take it slow, and know an open highway with spectacular views is waiting for you.
Once you get out of the outskirts of the city, you will see an exit for highway 34 which is your turn. Make sure to pay attention as the exit will take you to a roundabout. Your turn will be the sign that says "Jaco". This will lead you along the coastline through Jaco and Parrita down south to your final destination.
*Important* Make sure you bring coins (colones)! There are three toll booths you will pass outside of the city which will cost you around $2-3. You do not need exact change but you need the local currency. Sometimes there will be a police checkpoint at the second toll booth. The police officer will just ask to see your passports and you will then be on your way.
How long is the drive?
The drive from San Jose to Quepos/Manuel Antonio is around 2 hours and 45 minutes while the drive to Dominical is just over 3 hours. Much of the drive is open highway but it is common to get stuck behind a slow vehicle like a bus or even a tractor. If there is an accident, you can end up waiting for quit awhile so take the drive in stride and know paradise is waiting for you.
One of the perks of driving is having the freedom to stop and see sights along the way. During your drive you will be covering over 200km of countryside and there is so much to see!
One must-see pit stop is Costa Rica's infamous crocodile bridge which is roughly an hour away from San Jose. The bridge is over Rio Tarcoles and below sit dozens of wild crocodiles sunbathing on the banks. As you approach the bridge, you will see signs on the road with parking on the righthand side right before you enter the bridge. This attraction is hard to miss. You can join other tourists who are walking along the bridge peering over at this massive creatures.
While in recent years it has definitely become more touristy, its still worth stopping to dare yourself to look over the bridge and stare at these giant crocodiles. Its also a good pit stop to stretch your legs and get some pictures of the beautiful landscape. There are several stores and restaurants at this area but they are a bit more expensive than less touristy parts. If you have time and are interested, there are tour companies that will take you on a boat to feed the giant crocs.
After you pass through Jaco, there is a scenic lookout with a large, colorful sign of Jaco before the highway turns south. It offers some gorgeous shots of the Pacific Ocean and Jaco. If you end up driving by around sunset, wait awhile for the sun to go down and you will see some spectacular colors over the water.
During your drive you will also pass through small towns that have local markets with fresh fruits and vegetables, souvenirs and dozens of soda restaurants. You can get some great produce at reasonable prices and have a typical Tico meal. Make sure to order a batido which is a natural fruit drink to cool down.
Small stands will also be selling pipa fria which is a famous Costa Rican snack. Simply a chilled, green coconut, pipa fria is a refreshing drink perfect for warm climate in Costa Rica. It will either be served straight from the coconut or bottled by the vendor.
People and dogs are constantly walking on the side of the road, even on the highway, so always keep a lookout while driving.
Pedestrians do not have the right away in Costa Rica.
Motorbikes are popular in Costa Rica and can sometimes drive a bit crazy and will pass you on the shoulder.
Costa Rica roads are decent, but there are pot holes and spontaneous bumps all along the highway. Always pay attention, especially if driving at night.
The documentation you need to drive in Costa Rica is a valid drivers license from your home country as well as your passport. You can drive with a copy of your passport but it must be notarized to be valid. If you do not have your passport you may get a ticket that will cost $200+.
Seat belts are required and children under 12 need to be in a car seat or booster seat.
If you get into an accident, call 911 and your rental car company.
Gas prices are government regulated so if you need to fill up your car, do it at as soon as you see a gas station. Also, gas stations are full serve.
Driving from San Jose to the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica is an easy and interesting experience. I love road trips because I feel I can really take in the landscape of the area I'm visiting. Costa Rica's countryside is beautiful so if you opt to rent a car, you will truly get to see some beautiful parts of the country.
However, if you aren't in the mood for a 3+ hour drive or don't have the time, there are daily flights from San Jose to Quepos. From Quepos, you can rent a car and head to your final destination. ** The Queopos airport is currently under construction until further notice (December 2018)