Driving to Costa Rica – Pan American Highway

Driving to Costa Rica via the Pan American Highway is a lifetime experience

Driving to Costa Rica via the Pan American Highway is a lifetime experience

Okay, so I have heard all the bad stories (carjackings, robberies and even murders) about driving from the US to Costa Rica. However, if you like the adventure (which it is a lifetime experience) it’s an expensive (about 3-$5000) trip, and time consuming (about 3-4 weeks). It is not great idea for a couple of hot females or an elderly couple to do this. First the trip is long, the roads are often bad and each border crossing is a real hassle and can be expensive. You need to be fully insured for emergency medical and health care plus insure the car. At each crossing you can expect a hassle for the car’s paperwork. If you do get into a hassle or delay over something, and traveling with a female, make her rise a stink at you. Latin men think this is funny and it will help you get through faster because they will feel sorry for you!

Overall Advice,

  • You better speak Spanish very well. Very little English is spoken (if not none) at border crossings. Don/t speaka the Spanish bueno, don/ta go!
  • Keep to the main roads. Use the toll roads when possible.
  • Get all (or most of them) your car permits in the States from the Consulates offices.
  • Do not carry any guns/ammo, nor drugs or anything that may be considered illegal.
  • Get an international cell phone or have a laptop with WyFi so you can send emails. Just about all large hotels have free WyFi
  • Check in with friends and relatives so they know where you are.
  • Get good maps and plan your trip as best you can.
  • Never, never pull over to the side of the road, or take some isolate road, unless it is an emergency.
  • Always try and follow and stay in a group of cars/truckers. This provides the old concept, “safety in numbers.”
  • Never drive at night.

Driving on the Pan American Highway is relatively easy, and the best way is to avoid El Salvador if possible. The biggest headaches/hassles will be at the borders and figure anywhere from average of 2-3 hours to a full day getting through immigration and customs.

There are two borders that are the worst of the worst and that is Honduras and leaving El Salvador and going into Honduras- expect a full day at these borders. At either, try and arrive EARLY, because the bank you need to finish your passport application closes at 5 p.m.. If that happens, you will be spending the night in your car in “No Mans Land” between the two nations to finish your paperwork in the morning when the bank opens.

All of the borders are set up in FOUR similar ways and you will usually enter about 5-8 different offices, with 5-10 different stamps for your passport and paperwork before you can get out of there.

IMMIGRATION – this is where you go to have yourself stamped out (in your passport) of the country you are exiting, and into the country you are entering. All borders are very ‘Military’ looking Expect to be stopped frequently by ‘Military’ with machine guns at check point’s especially in Mexico. In Mexico one time I’ve had the muzzle of a machine gun poking my ribs while helping me identifying personal articles and search the car.  It is a good idea to have boxes of candy or cookies or cold soda so you can offer it to the officers.

CUSTOMS– this is where you import/Export your car into and out of the countries you are visiting. This is the building that demands the majority of your time. Before entering the customs building make sure you have your car sprayed if it is required, and insurance for the nation you are entering if it is required. SPRAY- Some Nations require that your car be sprayed for bugs before you enter (Belize and Costa Rica). This service costs $3-5 and is performed at the border.

HELPERS – (I call them Klingons) that will tell you if you give them some money they will help speed up the process. Be careful, some are just tiny con men and you will hand them some money, and “Bingo,” they are gone and why speaking Spanish is most helpful. Usually they are local kids that will surround your car offering to guide you through the process. These kids take you to every booth in both immigration and customs that you need to go to; they translate for you, make sure you have all the paperwork signed by the people who need to sign it, instruct you on how and where to pay the import fees, and help you bribe the correct officials. If you use their services you should pay them US$5-10 (total) depending on how long the ordeal took. These kids can also be useful when you have to leave your car to enter customs, they will watch your car when it is unattended.

INSURANCE– The only 2 nations that require that you buy their national insurance before importing a car (which is what you are doing) are Belize and Costa Rica. This insurance is sold at the border and is really inexpensive. Insurance is not required in Mexico; however, you would be really stupid not purchasing Mexican auto insurance. In Mexico, if you are involved in an accident for any reason, both parties are held in jail until the police figure out who’s fault the accident is. This can take days to weeks…. and guess whose fault it always ends up being when there is a gringo involved. If you have Mexican Insurance, the policy guarantees to pay the penalty if (when) the accident ends up being your fault. You won’t go to jail or have a huge fine to pay in Mexico if you buy the insurance.

Expect the Bribe - it is a way of dealing with customs in Mexico and Central American

Expect the Bribe - it is a way of dealing with Customs and Immigration in Mexico and Central American

LA MORDIDA, or “the bite”, AKA, the bribe – this says it all. Always carry a wad (about $100) of ones and fives, nothing more. If officials see a few twenties, they will want it. You will be passing bills out like candy!

The Process:
Upon arrival at any border, you will be given a ton of forms. These forms you will have to record the VIN number of the vehicle, as well as the make, model, age and kilometers on the odometer. Be organized with folders on each border. So when asked for your paperwork in Mexico at the Costa Rica Border, you are not fumbling around looking for it. Be organize and your entry will be easier. When you are asked for your paperwork, slip the official a couple of fivers.

After you complete your paperwork, an inspector will take a look at your car. This is really straight forward, he will ask you about the stuff you have inside in plain sight, personal question, where you going? etc. Be polite and answer truthfully.

The Customs officials will put a large colored stamp(s) in your passport (your passport will be filled up quick). On these stamps they will write the date, car info, and VIN #. This is a temporary import stamp for your car. If it expires in Costa Rica, it will cost you a heavy fine and/or a bribe/fee to a Customs Official that cleared things right up.

You are finished when the stamp for the car is in your passport, your car has been inspected, defumed (if required) and the customs officials have handed you your signed/stamped papers. He will then point into the right direction, and if things go well, wish you a good journey.

Sound easy, not really, it is the hurry up and wait syndrome. Remember, you are on their time, just because there seems to be ONLY four cars in front of you, it may take hours before your turn comes up. Other than that, have a great time!

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  1. Lois Anne Smith says:

    I wanted to go to Ecuador from Oregon, thot the road went all the way, but the 2 cats I have will cost me more than my plane ticket. But I'm planning to live in Ecuador and the shpping costs for personal effects (no furnature) is $6-10,000. Does anyone have a better cheaper option? 

  2. Anthony says:

    $5,000 to from LA to CR? Try $5,000 from Los Angeles to Argentina and it can be done for less than that if you driving a car that gets excellent milege (VW TDI). 
     Driving in Mexico is not dangerous on the main roads and toll roads, especially in the day time. Just make sure your car is in good condition before leaving to lessen the chances of being caught on a remote area.

  3. I am thinking about driving from Oregon to Cuenca Ecuador in 2013 with my dog. Is that possible? I will have all the papers for my car, my dog and myself.
    Looking at the map, it appears that the road is not connected between Panama and Colombia. Any help would be appreciated.

    • Don,
      The road ends at the Darien Gap, and there is no way to get your car across the gap.
      You can ship your car by ship to Columbia for $500.00 to $600.00. US.
      Good luck

  4. Margot Peter says:

    what do you think of going down in a camper?  2 adults, 2 kids?  we would like to go down in November

    • admin says:

      Nowadays, I would not travel through Mexico unless one has a tank with a long line of military escorts.

  5. Claytou says:

    We're going to be in Costa Rica in August.  What's the best road from San Jose to San isidro?  Stay on the panamerican highway or go on the longer costal road. Thanks for your help. 

    • admin says:

      Stay on the Pan American Highway (2). Otherwise you will have to take the coastal route (34) until Dominical which you go east on the 22.

  6. Gerry Keenan says:

    How times have changed my friend and I hitch hiked from the Holland tunnel NYC. to Cordoba Argentina going via Pasadena – Laredo – Mexico – Central Amercia- Columbia – Ecuador – Peru – Chile, wearing our Kilts and tartan. The only real problem I had was the Mossi bites in Florida on the way back, that was back in ’78’ no mobile phones, laptops, no tents, just ruck sacks and sleeping bags and the ability to drink copious amounts of beer. I still remember the countless warnings we got from well meaning people in the Loch Ness Monster Pub in Pasadena, telling us not to go as we would get our throats cut within 30 miles of the US. border. Well I got back to Scotland OK going via Miami hitch hiking back to Pasadena the to Newport RI. before going back to NYC then home. Good luck to all you travellers wish I could turn the clock back but now I’m just writing my book about all my trips following the Scottish Football Team

  7. the projected cost of 3-5000$ seems insanely high…what is it encompassing?
    I’m planning to drive down with my buddy in October and we’re just trying to hash out some details.
    Hope you can help!!

  8. Some buddies and I are talking about riding dual sport motorcycles from the USA to the tip of South America and back. All advice is welcome. Thanks in advance for your time.

    • admin says:

      My advice to you, DO NOT do it! Mexico is dangerous. US State Department just issued another warning about traveling in Mexico, and with a group of bikers, you will be prime targets just for the bikes. Plus, don/’t forget the [overhead] cost, which can hit 1000s of dollars.

      • Jakob Jorgensen says:

        The state department warning is not for all states in Mexico, only some of them and the warning is for less states than last year. Just be cautios and follow the good advice given on this and other sites and it should be fine. Traveling is always a bir risky no matter where you go, that's life..
        Thanks for all the good info in above article, I'm driving from NYC to end of Argentina start of the fall 2013 taking my time…

        • Kate Feeney says:

          Hi JJ,
                 I am planning to drive from New Brunswick, New Jersey to San Jose, Costa Rica, soon.   I have set my departure date at July 1st, 2013.   I intend to take my good old time on the road.   I intend to stay at least three months and learn Spanish in Central Costa Rica as well as I can.   Perhaps, I will study at the University of Peace of the United Nations that is located there in Central Costa Rica.  They have a year long program that is of some interest to me and it starts in September and runs one year.
               I have a White Volvo with Jersey plates .. so if I see you on the road .. give a wave!   Good Luck with your journey, Kate Feeney

  9. Michael says:

    Your input about taking a bus to Costa Rica
    for me and my lady friend
    Any recommendations ?


    • admin says:

      If you are talking about taking a bus from the US to Costa Rica, I would not recommend it. It is very loooong trip, crowded, and can be more of a hassle. Buses break down, poor and/or no air conditioning (a must), and the ride through Mexico, buses have been known to get robbed. Crossing borders with X amount of people has been known to take several days. Road stops are only when they pick up people and those that do have bathrooms are usually overfilled and unusable.

  10. garrett todd says:

    what is the best route to take from san jose costa rica to liberia?

  11. Hi: does anyone know about riding a bike from Albuquerque New Mexico to San Jose Costa Rica? For example: how long would that take if you ride all day from sun up until sun down? Is it safe? How much hassle can you expect at customs? What about camping at night along where you ride? Is this safe or not? Thanks for any and all information you can provide. J

  12. Wow, thanks for the tips…exactamente lo que estoy buscando….im driving from mn to carate in december….do you recommend taking a highway through honduras and avoiding el salvador? if so, which one….their interstate system es loco

  13. Bruno says:

    Hi Admin, thanks for your post. I am planning to drive my truck from FL to Tamarindo-CR in the summer of 2011 to stay for 6 months, my wife and two kids will tag along, I understand we get to 90 days to drive around in CR, do you know what the extension after the 90 days is and how much it should cost? Do I get a temporary license plate or will I drive around with my FL plate? One last question, if we were to stay longer what would you recommend we do, drive back to the US and sell the old truck and buy locally in CR or buy new car in the US and drive down again? My wife and I would really like to stay for a whole year (school year for the kids). Thanks again.

    • Bruno, I have a similar idea in mind (from Denver to Tamarindo) and we're planning to stay for 6 months if possible. Currently deciding between flying down and bringing my vehicle. I am curious to hear how your trip went and any advice along the way. Thanks!  rockinivy@gmail.com

  14. We will be driving a 2006 f250 ford with a trailer signed “Ladonia Baptist Church Latin America Missions”

    Will this help in any way!

    • admin says:

      I doubt it … considering you are in Catholic territory, and crossing borders is all about time, hassles, paperwork and money.


  1. […] car on the Pan American Highway – Who would’ve known but apparently, if you got the time, the Pan American Highway will get you to Costa Rica from Texas in the United States. Bank on 2 weeks of travel, about 2300 […]

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