Someone emailed this to me and I thought I'd repost it here to help future generatiuon of tourists from getting lost. I've made some additions and edits for clarity.
The maps mentioned in this article are at the end and you can click on them to find larger versions sutable for printing
***PLEASE review these directions and our maps before you begin your trip.
Do not wait until you are in your rental car!!!***
DRIVING AROUND OR THROUGH SAN JOSÉ
This drive can be intimidating or even dangerous and it is best to begin early in the morning to avoid the rain and fog which builds up in the mountains in the afternoon. Your goals should be to leave the airport area no later than noon (before 10 am is much better)
As you have surely realized by now, driving in Costa Rica is part of the adventure. Unless you have a compelling reason to explore Downtown San José, driving there is best avoided. Costa Rican drivers are remarkably aggressive. There are many one-way streets and because street signs and addresses are non-existent, it is very easy to get lost. We will give you our driving tips and these detailed descriptions of our routes and some simple maps. The rest is up to you. Adios!
GENERAL TIPS -- There are one way streets throughout greater San José (and later, in San Isidro, too). Sometimes the road ends and you have to make a quick zig-zag to pick up the route again. If you come to one of these dead ends, follow what looks like the popular choice and make a turn, then another turn to keep heading in the same direction on the next available road. We can’t be sure where or when this might happen on your chosen route, but don’t be surprised if it does. We know this sounds vague, but there is an element of going with the flow that is necessary in Costa Rica. Don’t stress out, but if you think you have gotten lost, do not go too far before stopping and asking for help or you may lose valuable time. People are happy to help nice tourists (However, Ticos also hate to disappoint, so even if they don’t know, they might confidently point you the wrong way. Double-check if in doubt. And remember to keep your eyes on your bags at all times. Lost-looking tourists can become targets.)
If you will be doing a lot driving, consider purchasing a good map of Costa Rica before your trip (Amazon has several good ones) or at the airport or your hotel gift shop. The maps provided by the car rental companies are not very detailed, but they will suffice for getting to Dominical from San Jose. When traveling between towns, you won’t necessarily see signs naming your final destination, so you need to know the names of the towns along your entire route as well as your final destination. A Tico in San José might not have a clue how to get to Dominical, but he probably can point towards Zapote or Cartago.
A good strategy to remember if you feel hopelessly lost in San José is to flag down a cab driver (in a red cab) and ask him to lead you out of town. Negotiate price in advance (dollars will be fine), offering half at the start of the ride and the other half when they get you within eyesight of the entrance to the highway on the other side of town.
STEP I - PLAN YOUR ROUTE. AROUND SAN JOSÉ OR THROUGH?
The airport is 19 km Northwest of San José. When taking the “Mountain of Death” route over the mountains via the Pan American highway to Dominical, you need to begin on the Southeast side of San José. You can either take a beltway that circles San José to the South (we will call this Route A) or drive through downtown San José on one of two possible routes (our Routes B or C). In our many trips, we have found the southern beltway to be much better for getting out of town quickly. Note: The highway that some maps show circling San José on the North has not been finished. Don’t try to find it. Routes A, B and C are our names – they won’t be on any one else’s map.
Whichever route you plan to take, you need to Exit Juan Santamaria Airport, and head east on the main highway (Autopista General Canas) towards San José.
ROUTE A – AROUND SAN JOSÉ TO THE SOUTH, AVOIDING DOWNTOWN TRAFFIC
Map 1. You will be on the Autopista General Canas for several exits (about 15 km) so it is best to get in the middle lanes for a while, then move into the slower right hand lanes as you near the 15km point. (Be careful...Buses will be stopping in the right hand lanes). You are looking for the exit to the outer beltway that circles San José to the South called the Circunvalacion.
LANDMARKS: Around this area, you might note the Immigration building (a large concrete and blue building) and then also around this point there is a large overpass bridge which should be your landmark. You need to be moving into the right lane at this point.
You will also see signs for the Best Western Irazu and a Denny’s on the left side of the road. At this point you need to be in the FAR RIGHT LANE & ready to merge onto the NEXT HIGHWAY (Note: The signs will say Hatillos, Pavas, Rohrmoser, or Escazu, or maybe even Circunvalacion Sur. Signs seem to disappear and change frequently in Costa Rica).
Map 1 or Map 2 at A1. As you are taking this exit ramp, you should see a large Globe-on-a-stick sculpture on your left. If the Globe-on-a-stick is still on your right, you’ve gone too far!!!
If you miss the exit and can take the next immediate exit on the other side of the overpass, no problem. Take the exit, go to the next intersection and then make a u-turn and you will be on the Circunvalacion.
If you have gone too far, no problemo. Retracing your steps will take time and you might get lost. You can just go through San José instead. If you do have to go through San José, see the directions for going through town on either Route B or C below. Just skip the next part and go to the heading which says ROUTES B & C, DRIVING THROUGH SAN JOSÉ.
A2 - Assuming you made the right exit, you are now on the Circunvalacion. You will be on this road for a while, so don’t get in the exit lanes. Stay in the middle lanes. At first you will be looking for and following signs that say Hatillos. (All of these names (Hatillos, Pavas, etc.) are just different barrios of San José). This highway will be interrupted with several rotaries. At each rotary, you need to go around and through the rotary, following the major flow of traffic, until you get to the one where you need to exit which I will describe later. It will be very clear. (You are ultimately looking for the Rotary with a large bronze statue of several figures. Don’t exit until you see the statue in the center of the rotary!)
A3-A5 So, as you follow along on this highway, you will come to the Hatillos, and then once you are in the Hatillos, do not exit, but instead look for and follow signs to San Sebastian. You will know you are on the right route if you see a Burger King on your left and a Hipermas store on your right as you go along the highway. Once you are in San Sebastian, keep following the highway - you might also see the name Paso Ancho (the next barrio) or Desamparados or San Francisco or Zapote. Don’t get confused, just keep following the main flow of traffic, heading in a generally straight ahead direction. You are making a huge half-circle around San José, so don’t think grid or N-S-E-W if you are taking this route. You may encounter construction on this road. If you are following the map closely, you may notice that a rotary or two is missing. These rotaries have been traffic bottlenecks for years and are being gradually eliminated in favor of flyover ramps. Construction began in 2007 and will continue through 2009. As the construction ends, you will go past a large park (Parque de La Paz) which is on both sides of the road and you will see a miniature replica of the Golden Gate Bridge crossing the highway.
A6 - After the park and the bridge, begin looking for the rotary where you will exit the highway. This rotary is larger than the others you have gone through so far. In the center of this rotary is a large statue we call the “Lenin statue” - it is sort of an homage to the working man/communist/socialist style group of large bronze figures. The exit signs here say Zapote and Cartago - but even if you don’t see the signs (they were missing in November 2007), if you do see the “Lenin statue”, take the first major right out of the rotary. You are now in Zapote on your way to Curridabat. You will be on this road for about 3-4 km. On the left, you will pass the very large Registro Nacional building and then a large store called Alyss. You will see signs for McDonalds, Pricesmart and EPA and then Multiplaza Este, a large mall, on your right.
If you think you are lost at this point, but think you are not too lost, stop and ask someone to point you to Multiplaza Este and pick up from these directions. If you think you are totally, hopelessly lost, it might make more sense to ask someone to point you to a road that will lead you to Cartago.
Now, despite the fact that I’m telling you that “Cartago” is a magic word, don’t begin following signs to Cartago that you might see earlier in the drive, or you will get lost. Many roads lead to Cartago, and we are trying to keep you on the best ones.
After Multiplaza Este, you will be in the area marked A7 on Map 4. This is a fairly confusing area, but keep heading east and you will eventually see a place where you can merge on to a larger, divided highway which seems to just appear out of nowhere. Follow the flow and you will see the highway signs that will say Tres Rios and Cartago. Get on this highway and head out of town. If and when you need to make a choice between Tres Rios and Cartago, pick Cartago. Go to Step 2.
ROUTES B AND C, DRIVING THROUGH SAN JOSÉ:
Map 1 or Map 2 at points B1-C1. If you miss the exit to Route A around San José, or if you decide you want to go through town, you can do it easily. However, there are very few street signs to help you and many one way streets. It is not a straight shot across town. The streets are laid out in a grid. Avenidas run east to west, Calles run north to south. You need to be on an Avenida to get across town, but there are dead ends and you will have to do some zig-zaging.
The Autopista General Canas highway from the airport will end fairly abruptly after a big curve towards the right and dump you into San José proper on a major N-S road called Calle 42. On your right, you will see a large Nissan dealership AND then the beginning of the large Sabana Park. (You will see lots of trees and grass). You will be taking a left turn at a traffic light very soon.
There are two main roads heading West into and through the center of San José. For purposes of these directions, we are calling them Route B and Route C.
Route B - Map #1 or #2 at B2 – This first downtown route turns at Paseo Colon (also called Avenida Central). Paseo Colon is a major left turn at a light not too far past the start of Sabana Park. No signs, just lots of traffic making the turn. Turn here and follow the crowd. You will eventually pass a hospital on the right. Just after the hospital the road ends and you have to turn (B3 on Map 1). At this point, turn right, and then immediately turn left onto Avenida 2. Continue to follow the main flow of traffic and you will eventually be back on Avenida Central (which is also called Paseo Rueben Dario at this point)(See Map 3). You will go through Los Yoses and then come to the San Pedro area and a rotary with a modern looking fountain (which may or may not be operating). (Map 1 and Map 3 at B4) (This rotary is on the Circunvalacion we described in Route A) You should continue around and through this rotary as if going straight across. Signs should say San Pedro and maybe Cartago, or Route 2, or Panama. This road passes the very large San Pedro Mall, so if you have gotten lost on this route, asking for directions to the San Pedro Mall should work.
Route C – Map 1 or 2 at C2 - If you miss the Paseo Colon turn, or if it looks ill-advised for some reason (sometimes there are parades or marches or strikes in the downtown area) you can stay in the left lane, and in 3 short blocks where La Sabana ends there will be another major opportunity to turn left, just before the railroad tracks. This is Avenida 10. Turn left with everyone else, and stay on this main street, following all the other cars. When you have to do a zig-zag here, taking a left here then the next major right should keep you heading in the right direction. This will take you all the way to the rotary and fountain in San Pedro where you again link up with Route B at B4. ) (This rotary is on the Circunvalacion we described in Route A). You should continue through this rotary as if going straight across. Signs should say San Pedro and maybe Cartago, or Route 2, or Panama. This road passes the San Pedro Mall, so if you have gotten lost on this route, asking for directions to the San Pedro Mall should work.
After you have made it onto the main road in San Pedro, heading toward Cartago, you will go through a very commercial area and then you will come to signs for the highway entrance. (Map 4 – you are coming from B4 into the messy and confusing area we call A7). You want to take the highway towards Tres Rios and Cartago. When and if you have to make a choice between Tres Rios and Cartago, pick Cartago.
STEP 2 – CARTAGO TO SAN ISIDRO
FOR ROUTE A, B AND C. Depending on where you enter this highway, you will probably come to a toll plaza. You need to pay 75 colónes. If you don’t have colónes - just offer a dollar and a smile and hope they will let you through. Stay on this highway. Keep following signs to Cartago and now also begin to look for signs that say San Isidro de el General, San Isidro or Perez Zeledon (all names for the same place and your new magic words). You will pass through a large industrial looking zone.
You do not want to go into Cartago proper. So, after you have been driving through this industrial looking area for a while, you should see a sign that says “Welcome to Cartago”. That means it is time to look for your next turn. At a large rotary or fork, you will see signs that indicate you should be in the left lane for Cartago. Don’t do that. Stay in the right lane to go straight, following the signs that say “San Isidro de el General” or “Perez Zeledon.”
That was the hard part. Now, you are on the Pan American Highway and heading toward San Isidro. You can’t really get lost on this road, but you might encounter foggy conditions as you go through the cloud forest. Be prepared for some aggressive passing (yours or theirs). Our strategy on this road is to find a bus to run interference and follow it closely. In general, you can count on the slower trucks to wave you on when it is safe to pass them.
Outside of San José some roads, even the Pan American highway, can be in bad shape, so you must always be alert for potholes. When you rent you car, be sure to know where your spare tire and jack are. Gas stations are far apart from each other, so watch your fuel gauge and gas up when you have the chance. You should be able to make it to Dominical on one tank, but if you have time you might want to stop in San Isidro for gas so that you won’t have to take time to gas up again until you are more familiar with the area.
There are many places to stop along this road if you have the time. If the weather is good you may want to stop and take pictures at the miradors. There are fruit and vegetable stands where you can purchase local produce. Or you may want to stop for a meal or snacks or a restroom break. We don’t like the larger restaurant stops because it can be hard to keep an eye on your car, which is always advisable when you have luggage in your car. Our favorite stop is a smaller stand called Kiosko Amistad located between km markers 49-51 on the right side of the road. They sell beautiful, locally grown flowers (calla lilies, birds of paradise, gerbera daisies, freesia, etc.) and also local coffees and cheeses, bread, and snack foods. They also have clean restrooms.
STEP 3 – SAN ISIDRO TO VILLA BAHA
Once you are in San Isidro, after the road becomes a divided highway, begin watching for the turn to Dominical. There are several gas stations on this main road and this is a good time to top off your tank if you expect to be doing a lot of driving during your stay. You will see a McDonald’s on the right hand side of the road. Turn right just before the McDonalds. This is Calle Central.
If you want to stop for groceries for your stay, this would be a good time. There are many markets in San Isidro, but the grocery store with the largest variety of goods is La Corona. After you turn at the McDonalds, the Cathedral and square will be on your left. Turn left just after the square (onto Avenida 2) and go a block or two. La Corona will be on the far right hand corner. La Corona has two fenced-in parking lots, one on each of the far corners. Even though you will see people guarding these lots, it is not wise to leave your car alone with your luggage exposed. If you have traveled lightly, you can bring your backpacks into the store and check them while you shop. If you can’t do that, then someone from your group should stay with the car to watch the luggage while the others shop. San Isidro is relatively safe, but “fresh tourists” can be tempting anywhere. If you can make yourself blend in and appear to be locals, you needn’t be as cautious.
If you will be at Villa Baha for an extended stay, you may want to skip shopping at this time and return to stock up on another day. (Thursday is the day for the very popular farmer’s market and a great day to explore San Isidro). You will be able to purchase groceries at the markets in Dominical if you do not stop in San Isidro.
TO RETURN TO SAN JOSÉ AND AEROPUERTO JUAN SANTAMARIA
(Maps 5 and 6) From San Isidro, take the Pan American Highway north following signs to San José. After you pass the industrial looking areas around Cartago, the signs start to become more specific and you will see the names of the now familiar towns and barrios you passed through on your way out of town.
Remember to fill up your gas tank. You can do that now if you intend to return your rental car with a full tank. (There are also gas stations off each of the exits on the airport highway and one right outside of the airport grounds if you are returning you car to the airport parking lot.)
Follow signs for San Pedro and San José and follow the main flow of traffic. The highway will end relatively abruptly, dumping you out onto a regular busy road. You will pass the San Pedro Mall and the University of Costa Rica – a heavily populated, traffic-filled area.
It is easy to hook up to the circunvalacion for your return trip if you want to drive around rather than through San Jose, but don’t try to find the non-existent northern arc of the circunvalacion. When you come to the San Pedro Mall area, you will see a modern, silver-colored fountain (which may or may not have water flowing) in front of you, and the highway overpass will be above you. Be in the left lane as you go into the rotary and go ¾ of the way around and up the ramp to the highway. Follow this highway around the city passing over and through a series of rotaries and exits for Paso Ancho, Hatillos, Escazu, Pavas, etc. You are looking for the Airport highway exit, a right ramp with a picture of an airplane.
Alternatively, if you have some extra time to kill, you can go straight at the fountain/mall area and go through San José proper. Remember, San José has many one way streets. If you come to a dead end, follow the general flow of traffic and zig and zag to keep heading in the right direction. Keep heading WEST on main streets and you are likely to find yourselves on either Avenida 3 or Avenida 8. Either will end at Sabana Park, where you will have to turn. (On our maps, you would be following routes B or C in reverse) GO RIGHT at Sabana Park. You will see signs for the Airport and Alajeula (the town where the airport is) which will lead you to the Autopista General Canas.
If you get lost, and are in a rush, stop and ask for help. Most people can point towards the airport. Remember that you are looking for Aeropuerto Internacional or Juan Santamaria. There is another smaller, commuter airport in the general area. Don’t go there by mistake.