Overlanding Costa Rica: Exploring The Roads Less Travelled With A Roof Top Tent

4wd with rooftop tents in costa rica

Picture December of 2022; the Costa Rican summertime (more like dry season) has officially started, and it’s one of the best months to explore the country. It’s warm, but there’s enough breeze to cool you down compared to other months. Costa Ricans are getting prepared for Christmas and New Year’s, so they don’t travel around the country as much, and the stronger waves of tourists are yet to happen. Beaches aren’t that crowded, the rainforest is still humid and green from the rainy season, and the weather is perfect. It’s my favorite month to explore this beautiful country I call home.

It’s been a dream of mine for years to drive as south of the country as I can. I grew up analyzing Costa Rica’s map, and at the southwest part you can see what I used to describe as two legs: the Osa Peninsula and Punta Burica.

Why not try and drive all the way to the very end of Punta Burica? Is it doable? I’m not sure, but I want to see where I can make it. I have been to Peninsula de Osa a few times, by far the most beautiful part of the country, where the jungle meets the ocean. An unbelievable place with some breathtaking nature.

But closer to Punta Burica, I’ve never been there, and it was time to go.

Three friends and I took upon the task of mapping a route to try and get there and explore the area. It meant we needed to use reliable 4×4 vehicles, in my case a 2005 Nissan Patrol, and the other car was a 2009 Toyota Land Cruiser Troopy.

Each vehicle was properly equipped with a small 12v fridge to keep food and drinks fresh, we had portable cooking equipment, shovels, knives, axes, portable lights, portable shower, a suspension system and the right AT tires. Most importantly, each vehicle had a Guana Equipment roof top tent, which allowed us to sleep very, very well during our journey.

Our adventure started in San José, the capital city. The plan was to drive for 7 hours all the way to Playa Pavones, an area quite close to Punta Burica, and from there see if the trip to the most southern point in Costa Rica was achievable.

Then, we’d get back, drive towards Peninsula de Osa, go towards Bahia Drake, back up the peninsula towards Playa Carate and Corcovado National Park, and then back to San José. A 4 nights and 5 days overlanding trip, which required us camping in national parks or beaches, driving through small rivers and muddy roads. A proper adventure.

This is a guest post in our series Discover the Americas

Playa Pavones, Surf & Dine

Our first day meant driving most of the afternoon and early evening, for 7 hours straight through Costa Rica’s famous “costanera” road, essentially the Interamerican highway. We made it to Pavones late at night, and literally set up camp in a random spot we found by the beach.

Little did we know we would be waking up the next day to the sound of the waves and one of the most breathtaking beaches we’ve seen. Palm trees everywhere, a long, long beach with great waves.

beaches in costa rica

Our goal was always to keep heading south, but since we’re surfers too, why not? We didn’t bring our boards, which was a bit of an issue, so we were lucky there are a few surf schools in the area, ideal for families even with kids that want to learn how to surf.

We rented our boards from Pavones Surf Camp Rancho Mar, and jumped into the sea as soon as we could. There are all sorts of waves and swells, so if you’re a beginner, it’s recommended to take surf lessons at a surf school and if you’re with children to keep a close look at the currents and rip tides. It’s family friendly, depending on the spot, but be cautious, Costa Rica can have some strong currents and waves.

After surfing, we took a shower at the surf school and headed south towards Punta Banco. There, we arrived at where the road ends. Yes, it literally ends. Nowhere else to keep on going, so to reach Punta Burica, we had two options: turn back around and head towards Panama, where there is a road that then crosses into Costa Rica to reach the point, or do a horseback riding trip guided by locals.

Unfortunately, there were no tours that day, and we were on a tight schedule, which meant giving up on that dream and instead finding a local place to dine and set up camp again near Punta Banco.

The good news is that in Pavones and Punta Banco, there are amazing restaurants. La Casona De Perron was our choice for the evening, with delicious and fresh seafood, and then back to Punta Banco, where we found a nice spot by the beach, set up camp, lit a small and contained bonfire, and enjoyed the views of the stars.

Bahia Drake: Hiking & Diving

Day two meant driving close to 3 hours. We had to go back north from Pavones, past Golfito (a large town with a marina in the area), and at Piedras Blancas, take a left and head south towards the Peninsula de Osa down a road full of turns and at the same time a beautiful view of the ocean, until we found the Bahia Drake crossing. That’s where the excitement began, as the road turned into gravel, or mud to be precise as it had been raining.

Luckily, our 4×4 vehicles were prepared. As we got closer to Drake, we had to cross a few small rivers, but nothing our vehicles couldn’t take. Once at Drake, which is a lively town despite its small size, you can find all sorts of activities. There are plenty of small boats that will take you diving or snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean or close to Isla del Caño. These are safe activities if you are a good swimmer and the marine life is out of this world.

We chose not to dive or snorkel this time around, and instead kept driving towards San Josecito beach. To get there, we had to go through a proper river that very few vehicles would make it through. It was pure adrenaline. We opened the windows, and you could literally touch the water with your hands.

Once you are close to the beach, you must go down a dirt road, which can be slippery and only with the four-lo traction can you make it back up.

We got there, a beach with only one house in the entire place, a green pasture perfect for camping, and a small trail that connected a string of beaches, one of them with what seemed like an abandoned hostel. We set up camp, jumped in the ocean, bathed, swam and then back to camp to cook under the stars.

That night it there was pouring rain, but our roof top tents held well. We didn’t get wet, the wind wasn’t a factor, and the comfort of the mattress allowed us to sleep like babies for over 8 hours straight with the background noise of the rain hypnotizing us.

The next day we woke up early and went for an 8-mile hike round trip through the small trail. We explored a couple more beaches, enjoyed the scenery and back for a swim in the ocean, before taking a shower and heading towards Puerto Jimenez, another 2.5-hour drive.

Parque Nacional Corcovado: Where The Rainforest Meets The Ocean

For those of you who don’t know, the Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica is perhaps one of the most beautiful places on Earth. You get to see amazing things such as waterfalls by the beach that flow into the ocean, “dantas” (a local rare mammal) sunbathing by the beach, jaguars walking through the trees, turtles swimming in the ocean and all sorts of birds.

4wd with rooftop tents in costa rica covered in palm trees

There is a 3 day hike you can do starting at Playa Carate, which is one of the activities I recommend the most to any adventurous human being in this planet. You will never regret it. It’s a life changing experience due to how magical the place is, considered one of the most biodiverse places in the planet.

If you want to visit, it’s recommended for you to first get an online permit, which you can get directly at the national park’s website.

Since we had already been hiking there in the past, we decided to just take a day pass, walk a few miles, explore the park and swim in the ocean. You get to leave your vehicle at the parking lot of Playa Carate, which is around 1 mile away from the entrance to the park. You walk through a path behind the beach, completely immersed in huge trees and overflowing green plants. You can also walk on the beach, feel the sand on your feet and enjoy the view of the rainforest meeting the ocean.

The day hike was great, and the drive back to where we were going to camp was also adventurous. All the roads are gravel or dirt, ideal for overlanding vehicles, and you go through tunnels of trees, literally tunnels of massive tropical trees and flora, things you haven’t seen before.

We ended up camping in our roof top tents at Playa Matapalo, closer to Puerto Jimenez. A white sand beach with light blue ocean water, with great waves for surfing and even turtles swimming next to you as you surf. Wild, magical, unbelievable.

a 4wd with rooftop tent attatched on roof racks under cloudy sky in costa rica

Wrapping It Up

The drive back from Matapalo to San José took 6 hours. It’s a long road, but a great one. You drive next to the coast for a long time, you get to see the ocean at times, and the highest mountain range in Costa Rica, the Talamanca range to your right.

Along the way there are several places that families, tourists and overlanders should stop by and check out. Amongst them are Nauyaca Waterfalls, Playa Dominical and its nice little surf town with amazing food and a famous brewery called Fuego Brewery, and finally Manuel Antonio National Park which is closer to the capital city.

Our 4 night and 5 day tour came to an end. We were lucky to camp right at the beach for 4 different nights, sleep great thanks to our rooftop tents in remote yet safe areas, surf, hike, eat great food and enjoy a clear sky with no lights other than the stars.

Overlanding in Costa Rica is one of the best experiences one can have. Whether that’s with family, friends or even on your own. It’s a one-in-a-lifetime experience in a country full of adventurous roads and trails, wild activities, great food, and, most importantly, unexpected surprises at every turn you take.

About the Author

Gianluca Boncompagni is a Costa Rican business owner who has been working in the automotive and overlanding industry for over 7 years. He has devoted his life to traveling and most importantly exploring countries, continents and the roads less travelled.

Work has led him to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the USA, where he has been able to not only go overlanding but also understand which vehicles, gear, and practices are best for a safe and enjoyable adventure. As such, he has made it his mission to help others gear up for life-changing adventures.

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2 4x4 cars parked under the trees in costa rica in a camp with title text overlay Overlanding in Costa Rica
a white 4wd with roof rack tent parked in the wilderness of cosyta rica with text overlay overlanding in costa rica  - exploring the road less traveled

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