Costa Rica is one of the most popular destinations in Central-America but hotels don’t tell you that you might need to rent an ATV to be able to make it to the hotel (check-in); some roads are unpaved where you are not allowed (and physically unable) to drive a minicar.
Keep in mind that maps are not accurate on road conditions, even my National Geographic map showed roads with solid lines which would indicate a paved road but it happened many times in the Monteverde and Rio Celeste areas that the paved road broke up after half a mile leading to steep and rocky mountain roads which are only accessible by ATV.
Both maps and GPS show all unpaved roads because the roads do exist but it may be in a condition that requires a Russian tank. You need to have some driving skills to maneuver an economy car through a 20 mile mountain road, you need to accelarate uphill and use impulse downhill while finding your way though between the big rocks. You should never drive at night in the mountains because there are no street lights and you really need to watch out for any danger from crossing animals to incoming traffic, sharing a serpentine is difficult even in daylight, let alone at night. Just to give you an example your speed is around 10 mph if you manage to drive an economy car. If it rains, you need to get out as soon as possible because roads will become impassable, buses and small cars will get stuck in the mud and you can’t go anywhere in your SUV either because of them.
When traveling to Central or Latin-America, please note that there are no physical addresses. Both residences and businesses use a short description as an “address” like “800 miles from the gas station”, or “100 meters from the soccer field to the left”; I have seen them using a church or school as a landmark as well.
When you have a GPS (whether it is your own or belongs to the rental car), you can’t put in words like “800 meters from the gas station” but you can put in the name of the hotel, a national park, school, church or other land marks or just search for gas stations in whichever city. You can zoom in and out the GPS screen to have a bigger view, if not the whole city at least the neighborhood ahead of you.
I hate to burst your bubble but developing countries are lacking signals on the road. It sucks big time because without street/route names sometimes you don’t even know which city you are in because guess what, there are no city or county names posted! So, this is what I am suggesting you:
PRIOR TO YOUR TRIP please buy a road map which includes detailed city maps as well. When you arrive please take a few minutes to study it, be familiar with where you are and where you are going, see if you can memorize street names or neighborhoods you need to drive through. You certainly can’t hold the map while driving unless there is somebody sitting next to you, who can somewhat read the map.
In addition to the map, you will need a compass. No, I’m not kidding, you are going to need one. You can also use your smart phone’s compass application which is almost as accurate. You need a compass to have an idea if you are going to the right direction. If you know from the map that a road is north of you but you got no clue which way is north, then start driving, let your compass tell you. If your compass is on your smart phone, hold your phone down, the back of your phone should face your legs (when sitting in the car). The road won’t be completely straight but after a short drive you will be able tell your position.
Now, there is one more option, certainly depending on where you are. If you happen to be in a city near Starbucks, McDonalds, a shopping mall, gas station or any place with free wifi than go ahead and connect your smartphone and simply turn on Waze, get the directions to the place you are heading. KEEP IN MIND THAT ONCE YOU GET THE NAVIGATION YOU CAN’T MAKE A MISTAKE BECAUSE THE APP WON’T BE ABLE TO RECALCULATE WITHOUT INTERNET; once you leave the wifi area, you are on your own again, so if you do mess it up, I suggest you to turn back and do it right. The way Waze works is that even though you lose the internet connection, it will save the directions for you. You can thank me later, my friend, but you gotta use your common sense when everything else fails 😉
As a last resort: Ask locals for directions and show them the map. On the countryside don’t expect them to speak your language, you may need to polish your Spanish in terms of directions 😉
Regarding GPS: If you need to buy a download for the continent, don’t bother it unless you plain to visit other countries there later, and there is no need to pay $10 a day for renting it with the car, for that money you can already buy one brand new. We made it without a GPS and keep in mind that a GPS may not work either if you are in remote areas of the country, like being in a jungle or volcano area in Costa Rica. In Europe you certainly need a GPS, I would not do it any other way, but today I was only focusing on developing countries.
Photos from various sources: Remax Oceansurf, Loupiote, pacificlots