Costa RicaCosta Rica

Tips on Driving in Costa Rica

There's nothing quite like hitting the open road with little more than a tank of gas and a pack full of clothes; having my own set of wheels is my preferred method of travel in Costa Rica. You may have heard stories of kamikaze drivers and unpredictable road conditions -- driving here is often described as an adventure sport in itself. But just like in any country, exercise caution and patience and the country is yours to explore safely at your own pace.

I was an avid fan of public transportation during my first years living in country, but somewhere along the line I developed motion sickness on public buses along with a keen desire to get off the tourist trail. Some of my most exciting road trips began about three years ago, when I purchased my trusty Dodge 4X4. It's more than 20 years old, but it runs perfectly, is fixed cheaply and fits the bill for my Costa Rica travels. I call it my roving rectangle of dust, and since it tops out at 55 mph, I don't worry too much about speeding.

A couple of months ago I was cruising to Alajuela, when a traffic cop motioned me to pull over. Even now, in my 30's, my heart rate seems to triple in the presence of the law. I knew my vehicle registration and safety inspection were up-to-date, but when the officer asked for my license and passport I answered in nervous Spanish while thrusting my documents out the window. I was traveling with a copy of my U.S. passport, and quickly discovered I needed proof of my entry date. He kindly reminded me to either carry the passport itself or a copy of my entrance stamp page. In the holiday rush, we had forgotten to place my 2010 registration sticker on the windshield. He pointed this out as well and, after digging it out of the glove box, he offered to put it on for me. After doing so, he wished me a pleasant day and waved me on -- lesson learned.

First-time drivers in Costa Rica are often advised to drive during daylight hours or at least avoid long trips at night. A three-year car owner, I still avoid driving at night. Part of this is due to the lack of evening activities in my small town, and the rest is squarely blamed on navigation which can be a challenge at times. Costa Rica's more rural roads, although very scenic, offer minimal signage along with plenty of opportunities to get lost. If you find yourself astray on a backcountry road, just ask any local for help. Costa Ricans are famously friendly people and are happy to help point you in the right direction. One of my favorite resources are taxi drivers; I've had several go out of their way to lead me (free of charge) to the correct highway or turnoff.

With the the recent paving of the Costanera Sur, remote locales like Dominical, Golfito and the Osa Peninsula are much easier to access. And the new Caldera highway allows travel from San Jose to the Central Pacific coast in less than an hour. The country's main roads are in decent condition, though all are susceptible to landslides and sudden flooding in the rainy season (May-November). This is evident right now, with sections of the Caldera highway temporarily closed for repair.

Be aware that distances can be deceiving in Costa Rica. A 35-mile journey may take one to two hours, depending on road conditions, terrain and traffic. The country's mountainous geography means numerous switchback roads, with very few opportunities to safely pass slow-moving vehicles and trucks. Take your time and enjoy the rural panoramas around you; it's a lot more pleasant than rushing to your next destination.

Road signs are similar to those in North America. Alto means stop and ceda means yield; right turns on red lights are illegal in Costa Rica. Salida indicates an exit, while despacio means slow down. If planning a long road trip, fill up your tank before you depart as service stations can be few and far between. Gas stations are known as bombas in Costa Rica and all pumps are full-service; most major credit cards are usually accepted.

If you're planning on exploring Costa Rica by car, follow these driving tips for safe and smooth travels:

  • Your current driver's license from the States or Canada is accepted for up to three months in Costa Rica, as are International Driver's Permits issued by the American Automobile Association.
  • Always travel with your current drivers license, passport, or a copy of your passport and entry stamp page and rental car papers.
  • The law requires all car drivers/passengers to wear a seat belt.
  • Slow down and be alert, especially on switchback roads.
  • Be extra cautious on two lane roads that feed into one lane bridges.
  • Watch out for motorcyclists weaving in and out of traffic and keep your eyes on the road.
  • If you're driving in rural parts of the country at night, be wary of animals that may stray onto the highway.
  • Cones & Branches: slow down if an approaching vehicle is flashing its head lights or if you see a makeshift traffic cone fashioned from branches, there is probably a broken down vehicle ahead.
  • Tickets: most major roads have speed limits of 50-62 miles (80-100 km) per hour, while secondary roads are 37 miles (60 km) or 25 miles (40 km) per hour. Traffic enforcement exists in Costa Rica; you may see checkpoints manned by traffic police in blue cars with a yellow stripe, labeled "MOPT traffico'. They use radar and can stop you for speeding or not wearing a seat belt.
  • Never pay your "fine' to the traffic police on the roadside.
  • It's better not to leave anything of value in your car.
  • If you're in an accident, do not move your vehicle - always wait until a police officer arrives and prepares a report. You can also report the accident by calling 911.

Keep in mind that the Minister of Public Works (MOPT) has initiated new fines and penalties for reckless driving in Costa Rica. Tickets that were once $20 will now set you back hundreds of dollars. All the more reason to buckle up, slow down and stay alert. But most of all, take time to enjoy your journey through beautiful Costa Rica.

Tips on Driving in Costa Rica in Pictures