Costa Rica Fuel Distribution Network

Costa Rica Fuels

Fossil Fuels vs. Brighter Alternatives

If you are going to own a vehicle in Costa Rica, a big part of your life (and budget) is going to be spent filling her up. Here is some information about fuel varieties, the national refinery and distribution system, and the choices you may make in buying a car.

RECOPE – Distributors

In Costa Rica the national refinery (RECOPE) is in charge of all fuel importation, it’s a government owned and operated monopoly. At this time Costa Rica doesn’t produce petroleum, although there are a number of bio-fuel operations and China has expressed an interest in exploration, production and refining petroleum extracted here. (information on RECOPE source Diario Extra interview in 2018 with General Manager of Recope )

But for now, all fossil fuel is imported in one form or another. RECOPE provides close to 70% of the national consumption for transportation, according its figures. Even though RECOPE is the national refinery, it hasn’t actually refined petroleum in many years. The institution claims that they would now like to transform themselves into a company that provides clean energy (hydrogen fuel, for example). And is asking for a change in their articles of incorporation that will do that, they would also like to incorporate bio-diesel into the mix, as well as introduce a percentage of ethanol into either Super or Regular gasoline.

RECOPE claims that the fuel quality is the highest in Central America, which could be true. But the fact is that the octane level is lower than in Europe and the US, which causes some issues in some cars. In some cases it’s advisable to use super gasoline, or purchase additives to put in when you fill up, normally every other time is a good schedule. Some new car dealers have had problems they attribute to fuel quality, they have provided service under the warranty to clients who were affected, but some dealers have stopped importing some of the more advanced engines to avoid this issue.

The government “refinery” imports and distributes this fuel to every gas station in Costa Rica. The government regulates fuel prices via ARESEP, among other services and products, so you don’t have to bother with locating the best price — every distributor has the same price. There are a number of distributors throughout the country, with some being multinationals: Delta, Total, Uno, and JSM come to mind. Most are operated as local subsidiaries though and the difference in quality or service between brands is debatable.

Many years ago there was an explosion at a Shell station in Escazu, a mother and her 2 kids were killed. Shell corporate washed their hands of the whole deal and blamed the local subsidiary, which subsequently went bankrupt and never paid any criminal or civil penalties to the family. Some people prefer local distributors for this and other reasons.

However, many locals believe that the corporations are less likely to alter the gas pumps to deliver less fuel, and also that they care for the fuel better during transport and storage. There is a local organization of independent distributors, ENERSOL, and I have found the stations in this network to be clean and reliable. In any particular area the family owned station may or may not be reliable, the main problem is the storage of the fuel, if it hasn’t been modernized the quality of the storage tanks can be questionable, and the fuel can be contaminated with water or foreign particles that can damage your vehicle.

Full Service Stations and Prices

All gas stations in Costa Rica are full service. Since there is no price competition and the cost for wages is factored into the government regulated price, stations have never made the switch. There may even be a goverment policy in place, in order to preserve the pump jockey jobs this industry generates. You want to check the meter when you ask for fuel, make sure that it resets when the operator lifts the nozzle. An old trick is to put 3000 or 5000 colones into one vehicle and not hang up the nozzle properly. Which means that the next car in would start at that number. Seeing the pump go back to zero eliminates that possibility.

Since the stations are full service, take advantage of that fact and ask the attendant to check the air in your tires, brake and power steering fluid, oil level, radiator coolant reserve tank and battery terminal connections.

The price of fuel here is often double that of fuel in the US, but about half of what you pay is tax. In theory this would go to fix the roads and also to plant trees to offset carbon emissions. In practice it’s hard to believe that it really goes to road repairs, but does go into the reforestation fund. The price of fuel is a big reason most SUVs have small engines, with 3000cc being relatively large for a gasoline engine, and 2.5 liters being about standard for a diesel motor.

Gasoline vs. Diesel Engine


The big issue in terms of buying a vehicle here is the decision of gasoline vs. diesel motor. Most sedans are gasoline engines, so it is more of a decision with SUVs or pickups.

  • Advantages of Diesel: more fuel efficiency and less costly per liter. Diesel engines have a longer useful life (500,000 kilometers vs. 300,000) Great low end power for towing or 4 x 4 situations.
  • Advantages of Gasoline: More responsive on the road, passing trucks for example. Better with automatic transmission, diesel tends to be sluggish except for CRDI versions.
  • Non-issues: Cold weather start up. Diesel is available at all gas stations nationwide.

Note regarding Sulfur content: (2007 and newer diesel vehicles from the US)
Diesel is not popular for passenger vehicles in the US, so these are imported to Costa Rica as new cars from the manufacturer, or brought from Korea and Panama as used vehicles. If you did find a car in the US that you wanted to import, then you had to get a pre-2007 version. This is because new emissions controls were implemented for vehicles manufactured in that model year. The equipment on the vehicle would be damaged by the high sulfur diesel sold in Costa Rica. However, this changed in January of 2011, when RECOPE switched to a low sulpher diesel. This fuel now has 50 particles per million, as opposed to the previous 500 parts per million.

Alternative Fuels

Environmentally friendly, and beyond!
  • LPG – Some SUVs have been converted from gasoline to LPG gas, which is cheaper per liter. One mechanic I talked to said that there is a concern regarding this, when the engine is a newer model. The old steel blocks are good for LPG conversions, whereas newer alloy engine blocks may not hold up over time to a corrosive effect that the gas has. We have not helped any client purchase an LPG vehicle, but this would be an important issue to research. LPG is available at a number of gas stations around the country.
  • Bio Diesel – Bio-diesel is not readily available for sale around the country, but it could be possible to make your own and use it without any special permits required. A waste oil or vegetable oil adapter could be a great option, most are installed with a secondary tank, so that you can still use regular diesel or bio diesel, often this is necessary for starting the vehicle when cold.
  • Electric – Electric or hybrid vehicles fit very well with Costa Rica’s green image. One drawback that proponents of electric cars in many countries face is that a lot of electricity in the grid is from coal-fired plants, so the “greenity” of the electric vehicle is questionable — it wouldn’t appear to reduce emissions any more than an efficient gas powered vehicle. However, in Costa Rica this isn’t an issue, up to 100% of our power is generated through renewable means. This percentage drops a bit in dry years, when the capacity of hydro plants is reduced due to less rainfall.
    • In San José — Electric cars are perfect: the distances are short and travel times are long because of traffic jams, so you don’t waste fuel when idling and protect your health by not breathing emissions from your own car at least. The range of modern cars means that you probably don’t even have to charge every day, and you can mainly charge at home or the office.
    • Intracity — Until 2018, the electric car wasn’t good for travel between cities — but this has changed. The ICE has a network of charging stations throughout the country, a map is available at http://www.conectaev.com These are free to use at the present time, and during 2019 20 quick charging stations will be added to the network. These stations allow an electric car to charge to 80% capacity in about 30 minutes, which is perfect for a restroom break and a coffee while in route. There are also private and institutional projects that may be open to the public and will be online in the short term.
    • Other EVs — Electric Bikes, Scooters, tricycles and motor cycles are also coming to Costa Rica, as of 2019 there are at least 5 distributes with several different product lines — prices range from $1200 to $12,000. Polaris offers a 2 passenger ATV, the Ranger EV for $17,000.
  • Hydrogen – Franklin Chang is the most visible proponent of hydrogen power, there is a bus running in Liberia that is a pilot project his company Ad Astra is involved with. It isn’t a viable option for the general public at this point, no vehicles are formally distributed here and there aren’t any public fuel stations either.
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