Driving in San Jose, Costa Rica is absolutely crazy. I didn’t get out of the airport and onto the road until around 5:30 pm. Note that it gets light at 5:30 am and dark at 5:30 pm every single day in Costa Rica. They do not do daylight savings time. When starting my trip through San Jose on a Friday Google Waze took me all the back ways to avoid traffic. It was absolutely nuts. I felt like I was in The Hangover Part 2 driving through the back roads of a third world country. The roads are just wide enough for two small cars and there are always bikes, scooters and motorcycles whipping in and out of traffic. There are also people basically walking in the road.
You have to be very aggressive when driving in Costa Rica or you are going to get frustrated. You have to cut people off, pass in no passing zones and drive on the sidewalks. This is not an exaggeration. There were multiple times I passed cars on the right by going onto a sidewalk. Driving in San Jose at night and in the pouring rain was extremely challenging. If you are a passive driver or want to just have a relaxing drive to Manuel Antonio you should not rent a car. Let a private driver pick you up and take you to your destination. If you are more adventurous and want to explore the country to its fullest, rent a car and have some fun whipping in and out of traffic.
If you land on a Friday or Saturday you can expect to be stuck in traffic for hours. Although it is only about 95 miles from San Jose to Manual Antonio it took me three and a half hours to make the drive. It was pouring rain and there are no reflectors on the road. Also, people are passing whenever they can. While there are markings on the roads, it does not stop people from passing on solid lines.
Do not think driving is anything like the United States. You do not get on a 4 lane interstate and get off on an exit at your destination. There are a lot of two lane roads or three lane roads that offer a “passing lane”. This means it is basically a free for all. My intention was to see the gorgeous countryside on my drive down from San Jose to Manual Antonio but it was dark and raining the entire time. On the way back, in the morning, it was absolutely gorgeous. Costa Rica has an amazing countryside.
You may read online that you must have GPS because there are no signs or directions. I can see where they would think this but it is not exactly the case. There are signs but, once again, it is not like the United States. You definitely need Waze or Google Maps to get around. After getting over the mountain and into Jaco I was less than an hour from Manual Antonio. This part of the drive was a two lane road that was very slow. This is where the palm oil companies are and you can get stuck behind a work truck that is going 10-15 mph for up to 30 minutes. Once again, do not expect to get anywhere quickly when driving in Costa Rica.
The best part of the drive from San Jose to Manuel Antonio is going up the hill from Quepos to Manuel Antonio. This is a very steep incline and your small car may need a little extra juice to get all the way to the top. Most of the vacation rental places are at the top of the hill around Agua Azul and the soccer field. This is where you will likely meet you host and get into your rental. If you are in a hotel, you will likely have to WhatsApp or call them when you get to the location.