Top Ten Maps of Costa Rica
1. Toucan Maps Inc. publishes the best (and for 10 years in a row, bestselling) Waterproof Travel Map of Costa Rica. It’s updated yearly and includes a detailed large scale roadmap of Costa Rica’s highways, secondary paved routes, gravel roads and many of the 4WD tracks plus national parks, reserves and wildlife refuges; recommended resorts, lodges and activities and extensive indexes. On the flipside is the only detailed map of the central valley from the airport to downtown San José available in print plus street level maps showing hotels, restaurants, bars, and other landmarks.
2. The 103 map topographic series from the Instituto Geográfico Nacional de Costa Rica is your best bet for really detailed (although fantastically out of date – most haven’t been updated since they were first published in 1972) maps for trekking. They are available at the institute in downtown San José or as large format prints from Omni maps online. Unlike most national parks in the U.S., Europe and Canada you often won’t get any kind of trail map when you pay for your entrance ticket in Costa Rica.
3. GPS maps/routefinders vary widely in cost and reliability for Costa Rica. None of the major manufactures have in-house data for Costa Rica; it is all supplied by aftermarket companies. The most common, current and accurate commercial product is EasyFind for Garmin although it’s quite expensive (~$200 for a full license or $8-$12 a day from your rental car agency) and we receive comments at least once a week about how it tried to lead people off a cliff instead of to the ferry terminal, routed them to drive an extra 50km on horrible roads, or it has no idea where some of the biggest resorts or most popular parks are. The good news is they are constantly improving…
4. Free GPS map apps from Google and Apple are massively improved from just a couple of years ago when they basically showed nothing but an outline of the country and the Pan American Highway but still suffer from a lack of detail, some scary bad routing and glaring inaccuracies in Costa Rica. Most locals (including us when we use a smartphone based system instead of our pro gear) use an app called WAZE which includes live updates on road and traffic conditions from thousands of users.
5. Free printable maps to fold up and slip in a pocket are also available from Toucan Maps. These are a great option if you’re not carrying a smart-phone, when connectivity is limited, or if you just don’t want to be routed off a cliff (see number 3.). There’s a countrywide highway overview that includes 99% of the routes most tourists are likely to drive as well as individual street level maps of the top ten destinations.
6. ITMB out of Vancouver Canada also publishes a waterproof map which is very large and easy to read and updated every three or four years. It lacks the detailed street level views of the Toucan Map mentioned above but provides the largest available overview of the roads.
7. National Geographic publishes another large scale roadmap but unfortunately it contains several errors and is not regularly updated. As might be expected it does an excellent job displaying the geography, topography, rivers, streams and parks, reserves and refuges. It does not include street level maps except for a small area of downtown San José.
8. Real estate is big in Costa Rica and detailed maps of small towns and rural areas are very hard to come by. The best bet is the Atlas Cantonal pdf series which hasn’t been updated since 1985 and has a clunky visual key that forces you to click through dozens of local maps searching for the one you want but does show every inch of the country in enough detail to spot individual buildings.
9.The best list of online map links that I’m aware of is at Costa Rica Guide.
10. Cartoon style advertizing maps of the local area are free on hotel counters and in tour offices in many tourist areas and can be somewhat helpful for navigation as long as you keep in mind that it’s a cartoon and on some parts of the map 1″ may equal 1 km while on the same drawing 1″ may represent 20 km and there’s no way to tell until you travel that road. In other words don’t set out on foot for a canopy tour that’s only two inches from your hotel until you’ve asked locally how far it is on the road! Another thing to consider when using these free maps is that only businesses that pay to appear are shown on the map and many of the best don’t really need the publicity.