Do I need a 4×4 in Costa Rica?

4×4 Vehicle Rental

Most renters choose to rent an SUV for their Costa Rican vacation for the higher clearance that these vehicles offer over the sedan.  An SUV maybe a 2×4, but the majority of rental SUVs come with 4×4.  Visitors often think that 4×4 will be crucial to driving in Costa Rica, but in reality, unless you are travelling completely off the beaten tourist track the 4×4 won’t be used.  As most drivers are aware, the 4×4 is designed to provide extra traction when the road surface or incline makes driving difficult.  With the constantly improvement of Costa Rican infrastructure, the infamously pot-holed dirt tracks which were the tale of many a traveller to the country are in fast decline.
There are still parts of the country where a 4×4 is essential for access to more remote locations, such as less visited beaches or very rural areas.  Car rental agencies would recommend the rental of a 4×4 vehicle for visitors planning to drive to the Osa Peninsula, Nicoya and Guanacaste, if planning to explore beyond the more developed beach towns like Tamarindo.
Renters should be aware that there may be other places where 4×4 is a must; certain hotels in Arenal and Dominical, for example, can only be reached using 4×4 traction. Green season rental can increase the chances of needing a 4×4 vehicle in some parts of the country, where rainfall causes the road conditions to deteriorate.
If you are unsure whether or not your itinerary requires a 4×4 vehicle, ask your car agency representative for advice.

When to engage the 4×4

• When you are ascending a steep slope, and need extra power
• When you are descending a steep slope, as this will give you extra braking power
• On unpaved or very uneven roads where extra traction is needed

When not to use 4×4

• On a slippery surface, such as a wet road where the additional traction is of no real benefit.
• On streets and highways that are well-paved and fairly flat, because it isn’t needed in these conditions.
• When travelling at speed, as this can damage the vehicle. Drive no more than 55kph when 4×4 is engaged.
• Once you are stuck in mud or similar
• When it isn’t needed. Gas consumption is higher when 4×4 traction is engaged so watch your pennies by only using it when you really need to.
• When the vehicle is moving.

rural street

How to engage the 4×4

Traditionally, the 4×4 was engaged by turning a hub in the center of the wheels to activate the traction. The modern system is an easier and cleaner flick of a switch from within the vehicle’s interior.
Ask your car rental agency representative to show you how to engage the 4×4 when you are completing the pre-rental inspection of the vehicle.
One of the dangers of using 4×4 can be an over-confidence in driving. Cautious, slow speed should be the driving style when 4×4 is engaged.
Unless you are planning to sun yourself poolside for the duration of your vacation or remaining in the Central Valley around the capital city, a 4×4 is a better choice for exploring and getting away from the crowds. That hidden waterfall, deserted beach or mountaintop panorama might be missed otherwise!