Driving in Costa Rica - Some Useful Tips

by Julia Thurston

So for those of you considering driving in Costa Rica. Is it a good idea or not? In my opinion if you are an experienced driver and maintain some caution on the roads you should manage to avoid trouble. If you are a bit of a nervous driver you may be better off hiring transfers if only to save yourself the stress and allow yourself to fully enjoy your vacation. Below are some points to bear in mind:

La Nacion, February 2006
(Translated from the Costa Rican daily newspaper)

‘Nicoya: An unusual incident occurred yesterday at 3.30 pm, when a taxi fell completely into a pothole that was 2 meters deep and 3 meters in diameter, in a suburb of Los Angeles. ……… The taxi, license 287, weighed nearly 2 tones and was left on its side totally submerged in the road. …...... In better times, (the road) was made of asphalt, however, the rains in the area eroded the ground and this ‘obstacle’ appeared.’

The driver thankfully got away with only minor cuts and bruises and was left scratching his head and pondering the task of extricating his car from its not so shallow and somewhat premature grave.

This story while an amusing anecdote provides an extreme example of the road conditions in Costa Rica. The endless debate among Costa Ricans about the appalling roads is one that has not appeared to be getting any closer to a resolution until recently. Sadly it seems that only the influx of foreign investors in the Papagayo region may galvanize the government into action, and not the idea that it may benefit Costa Ricans themselves. At a Tourism Investment Summit organized by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute in March 2006, the man in charge of roads, Minister Quiros, was belatedly added to the list of speakers due to the demand by attendees that their concerns be addressed. It is possible that something may be done in order to placate those bringing money into the country although when that might be is anyone’s guess.

Some top tips:

Drive Slower

Drive slower than usual as the roads will be unfamiliar to you.

Avoid night driving

Avoid driving at night as you will find that most roads, even along the panamerican highway, are unlit as soon as you leave any built-up area.

As well as this many roads have unmarked lanes.

Reflectors warning of bends are non-existent.

Drink driving is fairly common in Costa Rica and there is more likelihood of coming up against one of these reprobates at night time.

Yet another time to avoid driving at night is if you are are heading up into the hills, for example to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve where certain sections have perilous drop-offs unseen to the visitor's eye. This writer has once been on the bus downhill from Monteverde which had to make a quick stop in order to help out a car full of Ticos balancing with one wheel hanging off a cliff. They were winched to safety and rather sheepishly carried on their way - at a rather more sedate speed.

If you’re not comfortable don’t overtake

The highway is only 2 lanes in most places which means that if you didn’t know how to overtake before you arrived in Costa Rica you will have to learn pretty quick.

You can frequently get stuck behind 5 or 6 trucks on a not so straight road resulting in much ‘backseat driving’ from your co-travelers. ‘You totally could have gone then!’ and such like mutterings coming from the comfort of the passenger seat.

At night it's almost impossible if you don’t know the road.

Road Potholes

Road potholing may become a new Costa Rican sport before too long if they get much deeper! O.K. possibly a slight exaggeration, still, don’t take your eye of the road unless you want to do some serious damage to your car.

Additionally, a car up ahead, swerving to avoid a pothole does not always accompany this with a check on whether anyone is coming up on the inside. In fact using mirrors at all, seems to be viewed with a somewhat ‘take it or leave it’ attitude, so be careful.

4x4 or not?

You can get away with a standard car if you want to. There are a few roads which can only be traversed in a 4x4 but these are very localized. However, if you don’t want to travel at a snail’s pace on certain roads or to have your internal organs rearranged we would suggest a 4x4 as being a more comfortable mode of travel.

Speed Limits and the Costa Rican Traffic Police

Take note of the speed limit wherever you are as the traffic police are usually out in force with their radar.

If cars are flashing you from the opposite direction it is usually a warning that the traffic police are up ahead. If you are stopped accept the ticket that the policeman gives you. If he tries to charge you on the spot this is illegal, as he well knows that you are supposed to pay the fine at a State Bank such as Banco Nacional or Banco de Costa Rica. Any money that you give him is going straight into his pocket and is consequently against the law. Frequently, if you continue to insist on being given the proper ticket he will wave you on to save himself the hassle of a bit of ticket writing.

A traffic infringement could cost anywhere from $4 - $50 US depending on the violation.

If you have rented a car, usually the rental agency will be able to take care of the ticket for you although they will add an extra charge for this service.

Julia Thurston lives in Liberia and works through http://www.liberiacostaricainfo.com where you can find information on hotels, transportation and tours in Liberia, the North West Pacific beaches and the Guanacaste region.