A comprehensive guide to surviving the Costa Rican road experience
Have you heard about the driving in Costa Rica? If you know anyone who’s been here, I’m willing to bet you have. Is it really that bad? Well, it can be. Unless you grew up driving in Costa Rica like I did, driving here can be more than a little intimidating. It can be maddening, amusing, or enough to scare the bejeezus out of you, but it’s never boring. I’ve heard some tourists say it was exhilarating—like jumping out of an airplane, I guess! Driving in Costa Rica is an adventure in and of itself, and this small country often makes the top ten lists for worst drivers and driving conditions in the world.
There are many wonderful things about Costa Rica, but highway infrastructure is not one of them. Roadway design might best be described here as haphazard and “what were they thinking.” It’s always a work in progress, and never very efficient. The main problem is that traffic here didn’t increase gradually; it exploded from non-existent to moving parking lot in a period of a few years, and lack of foresight and money have prevented the powers that be from planning and building accordingly. Bottlenecks are a daily fact of life, and there is simply no easy way to get from point A to point B.
I won’t even attempt to describe Costa Rican drivers. You will soon learn that the easy going ticos lose most of their gentle nature when behind the wheel of any kind of vehicle, although to be fair, I’ve heard Los Angeles drivers are much worse. Having said that, ticos are quick to come to your assistance if you break down or need any kind of help. As in other parts of the world, texting while driving has added a whole new dimension of danger, because as it is, one really, really needs to be paying attention here.
Let me try to give you an idea of the hazards of driving in Costa Rica.
Pedestrians. Adults, school children, street vendors, and dogs walk along the road, stride between lanes, and hop over barriers between lanes with the mistaken impression that everyone sees them and will move over for them. One of several reasons I personally dislike driving during rush hour and after dark is this dangerous foot traffic factor on poorly illuminated roads. On weekends, ballgame nights, or in beach towns, drunken revelers increase the driver’s stress. Heavy seasonal rains only exacerbate the danger to pedestrians and drivers anytime and anywhere.
Motorbikes (motos) of every make, model, and vintage come at you from all directions, randomly passing you on both sides, weaving around to bunch up at the head of the line at traffic lights, and creating heart stopping moments for everyone as they dart through traffic inches from bumpers and side mirrors like fearless bullfighters. They’ll even cross in front of you at the last minute to make a turn with no thought of signaling their intentions. Motos will drive you nuts, and will be the primary reason you’ll learn to use the more colorful *@!& local language.
Driving Costa Rica style generally requires endless patience, split second eye/foot/steering coordination, the ability to calculate speed and distance (of several vehicles approaching from various directions) with lightning speed and accuracy, while simultaneously scanning the roadway for pot holes, people, and motos that appear out of nowhere. Cyclists tend to be more careful, but they are another thing to watch out for.
Developing brazen nerves of steel and becoming a more aggressive driver are helpful skills for driving almost anywhere in the greater metropolitan area. There’s no hesitant pulling out into traffic here—commit and move it, or take a taxi. The old saying “lead, follow, or get out of the way” is especially appropriate here. Keeping one hand on the horn will become second nature, mostly as a defensive measure. Don’t be shy about using it.
Roads are generally in good to excellent shape, although none have enough lanes. Shoulders are another thing entirely. Gutters, when present, are necessarily deep and wide, but can be treacherous if you aren’t careful. Do not get off the pavement unless you can clearly see what is at the edge. This is especially true on mountain roads. Drop offs of hundreds (or thousands) of feet are common while guard rails are not. Painted lines are periodically eradicated by the tropical rains. Street lights are nonexistent on most roads once you leave the cities.
In rural areas, or just on the outskirts of any city, be prepared to share the road with any type of slow moving form of transportation– horses, an overloaded small truck, and even the occasional oxcart that is really being pulled by oxen.
The loose, unstable soil here means that rock slides and roadway collapses are fairly common, particularly during the rainy season. (A major reason why road building is harder to do here.) Pot holes big enough to break an axle can develop practically overnight, but tend to occur in the same predictable places no matter how often they are filled.
All of this is why, unless I know the road, I avoid driving at night because I just don’t feel safe doing so. Keep in mind that daylight hours here are about 5 am to 6 pm all year around. There is no long period of dusk here; within minutes of the sun going down, it will be dark.
It’s important to understand the amount of time it will take to drive a given distance here. It could take you 20 minutes to drive 10 miles, or an hour. A 50 mile drive can easily take you 2-3 hours because of narrow, winding mountain roads and traffic. Yes, this means a 100 mile drive to a northern beach can take you 6 hours. The earlier you’re on the road, the better; it can mean a 1-3 hour difference in travel time.
Within the central valley, home to the greater metropolitan San José area, the “time to distance” ratio depends on the hour of the day or night, the day of the week, and sheer dumb luck. The only time I can almost guarantee minimal traffic is 5-9 am on Sundays. Once you leave the central valley, traffic is rarely an issue, although Highways 1 and 27, tourist destinations, and larger beach resort areas can become congested, especially on weekends.
An accident can tie up traffic for hours and getting caught out on the road for extended periods of time is entirely possible, so always use the bathroom before going anywhere, and make sure you have a bottle of water with you. I carry a bag of nuts with me, too. If you have little kids, you’d be wise to keep a bag of necessities including a few toys in the car.
You will learn to tailgate here. If you don’t, you will find every other car sliding in to fill the gap you have provided them with—even if they almost clip you to do it. It’s like they can’t resist the temptation to move up a space. Once you’re out of the city, you can relax a little and leave a safe distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you.
If you see a Despacio (Slow) or Peligro (Danger) sign, use appropriate caution. Whether it’s due to construction, local wildlife, or a landslide, these signs should be observed and respected. If it’s bad enough that they bothered to put a sign up, it warrants your attention!
Red triangles or branches in the roadway are common ways to warn of an obstruction in the road ahead. Slow down immediately! A stick with a can or rag hanging on it may mark a deep hole or other road hazard, so don’t ignore it either. A missing manhole cover could seriously ruin your outing.
There are countless short, one lane bridges all over the country and you will need to watch for the Ceda el Paso (Yield the Right of Way) sign that will be posted only on one end of it. Obviously, no sign means you have priority, but during rush hour traffic, the side that has to yield can become very impatient. Sometimes a kind soul who has the right of way will flash lights at the waiting vehicle and cede the passage for a few moments. Don’t hesitate to jump in at this opportunity and get across as quickly as you can. A thank you wave or beep is warranted.
Speed bumps are everywhere and sometimes impressively high. They’re darkly amusingly called “muertos” which means “dead people.” They may or may not be painted yellow or white, or they might not be painted at all, but rest assured you’ll get immediate feedback if you hit one you didn’t see at full speed. Snug seatbelts should prevent your back seat passengers from hitting the roof. You laugh, but if you drive much here, sooner or later, this will happen to you!
Stop, look, and listen at all train crossings. Do it quickly, but do it. Some tracks are no longer in use, and many others are. There is no way for you to know which are which, and there will be no lights or barricade bar to warn you when a train is coming.
You are neither required nor expected to stop for buses that are loading or unloading. Watch for passengers who may cross the street behind or in front of the bus, and know that the bus will pull back out with little regard to the traffic flow around it.
Right turns on red are permitted unless otherwise posted. Turning left might require going straight and U turning further ahead.
All over the country, two, three, and even four lanes must constantly squeeze into just one or two in order to cross a bridge or intersection, avoid parked vehicles or buses, make a 90 degree turn due to oncoming one way traffic, or get past an area where someone (years ago) thought a sidewalk (or light pole) should just jut out into the road. These funnels also happen when coming up on random turning lanes that are sometimes created merely by painting extra lines on existing lanes. And no, there usually isn’t any advance notice of these other than the jockeying for position that takes place by the locals who know what’s coming.
Of course the areas immediately before and after toll booths (peaje) where lane demarcation is either non-existent or ignored, offer their own sphincter factor excitement to the uninitiated. Picture a diamond shape with the booths in the wider middle. Some booths are Quick Pass only, and one might be a wide load or “exact change only” (monto exacto) lane. Newbies are the wild eyed folks trying to pick a booth with one hand on the steering wheel while fumbling with change in the other, as they risk life and limb by traveling at half the speed of all the other vehicles swerving across lanes around them.
I really dislike toll booths here and happily pay a dollar a month to have the Quick Pass on my vehicle. It doesn’t eliminate the issues, but it does allow me to bypass some of the craziness more easily, and gain an advantage in clearing the area as vehicles leaving 3-8 booth lanes must squeeze back in to only 1-3 lanes in a very short distance. It’s an “every man for himself” moment most of the time, especially if there’s a major turn off immediately following the toll booth area.
FYI: You must have a bank account here to get the Quick Pass. Toll amounts vary from stop to stop, with amounts posted as you enter the area and again at the booths themselves. When in doubt, hand them a red ¢1,000 bill with the knowledge this will currently cover any toll fee. You will always be given a receipt, by the way. Signs giving you notice of the approaching Peaje are located about a quarter of a mile out. Highways 27 (toward the west), 32 (toward the east), 1 (toward airport and past Alajuela), and 2 (toward Cartago) are the only toll roads as of this writing.
One way roads exist all over the place and No Hay Paso (Do Not Enter) signs aren’t always as prominently displayed as they could be. Many communities are made up of streets that are two way most of the time but suddenly become one way with little to no warning. So, if everybody else starts crowding together and moving over, consider it a possible clue to what’s ahead.
A street might have two way traffic for miles and suddenly become one way in either direction. You might come around a curve and unexpectedly find yourself facing two lanes of oncoming traffic, at which point you jerk the steering wheel around to stay in the flow of traffic that is also careening around a 90 degree corner, only to turn sharply again in the opposite direction at the next corner! This arrangement is most common upon entering or leaving a small town.
For help in identifying one way streets, remember that a white middle line indicates one-way traffic, while a yellow middle line indicates two-way traffic. Traffic light configuration is another way to determine directionality from a distance. Signs painted on the pavement itself can also help. Never base your decision on the direction parked cars are facing!
Then there are the roads that have a “reversible” lane; one that changes direction depending on the time of day to aid in moving traffic in and out of the city during our prolonged rush hours. On one road to Heredia, an overhead illuminated sign shows a red X or green arrow to tell drivers what direction middle lane traffic should be traveling in, but of course it is wise to recognize that some drivers are clueless, or will elect to make use of the lane to pass the solid line of traffic ahead of them with no real plan as to where they’ll manage to squeeze back in.
My strategy is to follow a really big truck when compelled to use the reversible lane!
Know that Highway 27 often reverses all lanes for traffic returning to San José from the coastal areas on Sunday afternoons. The reversible lane hours and dates are posted on illuminated highway signs and you will see heavy transit police presence during the days/evenings that the lane reversal is in play. If you wish to travel from San José toward the coast on those days, you must use the old highway routes.
Regarding traffic circles and on/off ramps; Costa Ricans haven’t really learned the art of merging very well. (Neither have people in East Tennessee or Southwest Virginia either, but that’s another conversation.) Just keep in mind that coming to a complete stop (where you least expect it) and the sudden slamming on of brakes is business as usual here in circles or when merging into traffic.
The “radial” loops that connect a number of towns around the central valley bog down at exits and intersections with roadways never designed for the major traffic that clogs them. You might have to stay in the left lane until just before your exit. Also, exits aren’t numbered and signs are often confusing, resulting in having to make a split second decision about whether to exit immediately or at the next turnoff.
When I returned to CR to live in 2016 after 20 years away, I spent two early Sunday mornings driving around these outer loop radials and exiting at different ones to learn my way around again without having to deal with the traffic. If you’re planning to be here for an extended time, I highly recommend taking the time to do this, as it will ease some of your stress when you are caught in fast moving heavy traffic, and when taking a wrong exit could cost you an hour of being stuck in traffic trying to get turned around.
You’ll be pleased to know that road signs are fairly self-explanatory as they follow international symbol standards. The bad news is that they are too few and far between, poorly located, or they’re ignored.
Streets in downtown areas are usually well laid out in numbered Calles (Streets) and Avenidas (Avenues). Avenues run East – West, and Streets run North – South. Now, once you’re out of the city, things get interesting. Many streets have no name at all. Or they have a name, but it’s not posted, and no one who lives near it actually knows what it’s called either! It might be known as the road to the next town, or the street the school is on.
From this we have the famously quaint Costa Rica style directions method: 200 meters north of the Pops Ice cream shop and 25 meters west to the house with red bars and a green door. Or, in front of where the old coffee processing building was just past the new church at the top of the hill. Or, from the SW corner of the park 150 meters east and 25 meters north. One of my friends told me her house was “the one with the red tile topped entry and the palm trees in front.” Hysterical because half the houses on her street fit that description!
Yes, this is how directions are still given, even on correspondence that the post office must deliver. Costa Rica is working on changing to posted street names and house/building numbers, but it’s going to take a while, so …
Directions are always given in meters (think of yards) and 100 meters is generally considered to be a block. So if someone tells you to go 300 meters, figure 3 blocks or the approximate equivalent distance. Blocks here are shorter than New York or Washington city-length blocks, by the way. 50 meters is half a block, and 25 meters is a quarter block. If you stop to ask directions, make sure you confirm with at least 1-3 additional individuals. Costa Ricans hate to admit they don’t know, so they might tell you anything—all with the best of intentions, though! Taxi’s are usually parked near churches and if willing, can provide the most reliable directions.
The absolute best solution for getting from here to there is WAZE. This free navigational app for cell phones will get you where you need to go with remarkable accuracy. I realize you might like google maps or some sort of GPS device like Garmin, but most ticos use WAZE. It is much better at identifying local landmarks and little known back roads. It lets you know where traffic is getting heavy, reroutes you when necessary and can speak your language. No, it’s not infallible and it might try to take you a long way around, but it’s a valuable tool.
Bring something to mount your phone on the dash and program your drive into it while you have wi-fi, or get a local SIM card (some hotels like the Hotel Bougainvillea now provide these at check in). Trust me, it will be well worth a few minutes of your time to get this set up. I have mine running almost anytime I’m out, not because I don’t know my way around, but because in the event of a traffic jam or accident, it often warns me and I can immediately turn off and let it reroute me to the best alternative roads.
Word to the wise tourist: Take screen shots of your trip route so if you lose reception along the way, you will be able to refer to the pictures as a roadmap. This is especially important if you leave the metropolitan areas, because cell reception is often poor in the mountains.
Highway 27 from San Jose to the Pacific Coast is one of the few highways where you have a chance to get up to decent speed for extended periods of time if you happen to be an early riser or manage to time your trip when there is a major soccer game being played. This highway is mostly two lane with occasional divided three and four lane sections, or passing lanes, and quite a few toll booths.
I will just warn you that all the signs telling slower traffic to keep to the right might as well say the opposite. 99% of the time the slow traffic will stay in the left lane and you will be forced to pass them on the right, never knowing for sure when your right lane will come to an abrupt end. Be cautious and use your best judgment when passing.
A word about personal safety—The unfortunate truth is that carjacking and grab & run crime happens here. Not often, but it happens. Costa Rica has the same kind of crime as areas of Atlanta, New York, Rome, or Madrid. Always lock your car as soon as you get in it, and as soon as you get out. Check your surroundings before you unlock and get out, too. Ticos do this, and if you stand out as a tourist, you absolutely must.
In fact, be aware of your surroundings anytime you are stopped, even at a stop sign or traffic light, and keep your windows rolled up when you are in stop and go traffic. Cell phones and trendy sunglasses are favorite targets of the on foot or motorcycle grab and run. Neither purses nor valuables should ever be on the passenger seats since smash and grabs are not unheard of either. Use common sense and if something feels “off,” get out of harm’s way as quickly as possible.
I neglected to mention parking in Costa Rica in my original post.
First, never ever leave anything valuable in sight. I use a black shawl to cover items in my black upholstered floor or seat–makes it hard to see anything from outside. Do not place things in the vehicle or trunk and then walk away from the vehicle. Load in a less visible place and don’t reveal more than necessary when anyone can watch you.
Parking in a public Parqueo is the safest option most of the time. You’ll need to provide your license plate number to the attendant who will give you a time stamped ticket. Don’t lose it!!!! Also, make sure you know what time the lot closes lest you return to find your vehicle locked into the lot for the night.
Parking in the street is often necessary and most of the time there will be one of our infamous “wachiman” (watchman) hanging around to “watch” your vehicle. I make a point of nodding to them, adding, “me lo cuida?” (watch it for me?). In this way, I have agreed to pay something upon my return. Now, sometimes the person is legit and trustworthy. Sometimes, not so much. But it is better to pay this agreed upon bribe of a dollar or two than to return to no car or a car that’s been broken into. These people also like to help you park, back up, or pull out into traffic. Sometimes they can be very helpful, but more often than not, they are one more hazard to keep an eye on as you try to maneuver.
Parking in the street in certain downtown areas might require a special type of ticket, and as soon as you approach or pull in, someone will run up to you to explain the system.
Last but not least, a word about traffic control and tickets. Despite many outward appearances, there are speed limits and traffic laws. You can be pulled over for a number of reasons, or for no reason at all, as random check point stops for seatbelts, required windshield stickers, or drivers license aren’t uncommon.
Do not attempt to bribe a Costa Rican traffic officer. Yes, it happens, but it isn’t business as usual here and your chances are about even at being successful or ending up in jail for the night. Likewise, don’t agree to pay a fine on the spot unless you are willing to be a participant in the bribery. Officers are not legally allowed to collect fines, so if they suggest it as an option, especially if you are certain of your innocence, they are attempting to collect a bribe.
Speed limits are very low and fines for speeding or other moving violations are fairly high. If you have an accident and are found guilty of an infraction, your car insurance may not cover you. (By the way, if you have as much as a fender bender, you must not move the vehicle until an officer arrives—even if this means blocking the road.) In the case of minor fender bender types of accidents, the parties sometimes take stock and agree to go on their separate ways, but this will mean loss of any insurance or legal recourse later, and I don’t recommend that tourists ever do this.
I have the advantage of having lived and worked in many different areas of the central valley throughout my life, so I know my way around and have never been lost. I may have to circle the block because the street I used to take is now one way in the opposite direction, but I always know where I am. This familiarity is priceless experience.
I lived in Santa Ana before and after Highway 27 and the bridge to Belen were built. Most of the roads there were gravel or dirt and there was nothing other than the occasional house once you left the small “downtown” area. I could drive from the university in San Pedro to my grandmother’s house in Tibás in 10-15 minutes without passing more than a dozen cars on the way. Those were the days!
Yes, things have changed drastically, and today’s wild traffic almost kept me from returning to Costa Rica to live. If you stay long enough, though, you will adjust and adapt. You’ll choose to live in a place convenient to schools, work, and shopping. You’ll plan your outings carefully like ticos do, and you’ll find ways to avoid getting into the worst of the traffic. Learning one’s way around makes it infinitely easier, and the more you drive, the more comfortable you will become with the lay of the land.
I think I’ve covered almost everything, and hope this has cleared up some confusion for you. Tourists and residents drive here everyday, and the vast majority do so with no major trouble. Within weeks, you’ll probably gain confidence to drive Costa Rica style like a tico without thinking about it.
The day will come when you go to rent a car in a place like Mexico City or Madrid, and the agent will say, “are you sure you want to drive here?”
And like I did, you’ll answer, “Of course! If I can drive in San José, I can drive anywhere!”
Pura Vida, everybody!
Credits for above photos: Images of toll booth and road signs from hola.cr and image of traffic entering circle in San Pedro from the TicoTimes. Other images of Highway 27, train crossing in downtown SJO, trucks blocking intersection outside Heredia, and rural road, are my own personal photographs.