Driving in Costa Rica – Tips and Hints

 

1.  Costa Rican Road Conditions

Most of the main roads in Costa Rica are paved and are in good to fair condition.  However, many side roads are in desperate need of repair.  Over the last five years, great strides have been made to repair roads, but potholes and other road damages still persist.  Therefore, we suggest renting an all-wheel drive vehicle (4×4) to maximize your comfort with higher clearance.

Being aware of the season in which you’ll be visiting will help you prepare as well; whether it’s Green (Mid-April to October) or High (November to Mid-April) season.  View our Traffic Alerts for specific seasonal information.

Challenging Costa Rican Roads
“Challenges in Costa Rica” © VamosRAC
Marked Pothole
"Marked Pothole" photo © VamosRAC
One-Lane Bridge
"One-Lane Bridge" photo © VamosRAC
River Crossing
"River Crossing" photo © YouTube

Please keep in mind that new shocks and tires are not going to smooth out the ruts and hard-packed dirt roads that you may encounter.  This is a part of Costa Rica; you may have to "rough it" a bit.  Smile, roll with it and live to tell the tale of the car-sized pothole…they’re still out there…somewhere.

Once out of the capital, unless you’re traveling at the height of High Season, the roads are fairly quiet and you’re more likely to pause for cows crossing the road than you are for a rush hour crush.  Here are a few pointers that may help you to negotiate the roads:

  • A hole in the road ahead may not be indicated by official tape or cones.  Locals may have helpfully marked the large pothole by inserting a tree branch, tire or similar item…so watch out and leave plenty of space as you drive around the obstacle.  A large puddle should be avoided as it may well be hiding a pothole and be much deeper than it appears on the surface.  Steer clear of puddles with inserted tree branches as these are the most dangerous.
  • Bridges are often one-lane only.  A traffic sign will indicate which side has the right of way on the bridge, so wait your turn and then seize the moment as soon as you can.  Hesitation on your part will be taken as weakness and the vehicles waiting on the other side will immediately start crossing.  Potholes are not only restricted to the roads.  Many bridges may be equally damaged.  Follow this rhyme, "If you can see the river below, take it slow!"
  • Rivers may cross the road.  If they’re deep, then turn back and find an alternate route — as your insurance will be void if the vehicle is driven through a river.  However, as this isn’t uncommon, you may see a raised stone or sandbank which allows the vehicle to cross in only a couple of inches of water.  Hence why it’s a normal sight to see locals walking in the water, prodding the depths with a stick.  They’re gauging ‘luck’ versus ‘loss’.  There’s already several ‘bad judgements’ posted on YouTube.com, so considering your liability, please don’t follow their examples.

Wondering about other road users?  Generally, the rule is to drive defensively in Costa Rica.  Although "Ticos" are known as friendly and relaxed people, there tends to be a transformation behind the wheel!  Clues for deciphering Tico driving are below, but be warned.  You’ll have to take your best guess at what they’re trying to tell you.

Oxen on Road
"Oxen on Road" photo © VamosRAC
  • Lights flashing can be another driver’s way of saying "Thanks" or an invitation to pass, a warning of traffic police on the road ahead, a reminder to lower your headlights for oncoming traffic or that there’s an issue with your vehicle door not being closed properly.
  • Horn honking is used to warn another vehicle that the driver behind is in the process of overtaking your vehicle, the traffic lights changed color three milliseconds previously, there is an attractive woman within the driver’s vision, or that a vehicle is waiting outside a door or gate — otherwise known as the "Costa Rican doorbell".
  • Hazard lights can apparently be used on any road or highway if the driver of the vehicle needs to dash out to the store, stop to speak to a passer-by or simply pause roadside.  The hazards may be switched on before, during or even after the driver has stopped the car.
  • Be prepared to share the road with cyclists, pedestrians and any number and variety of wild or domestic animals.

Driving in San José is much like any other big city.  Taxis will try to cut in front of you, impatient commuters will honk their horns at a millisecond’s delay, and peak hours are when you’ll hit lines of traffic.  The bonus though is that San José is a small city, so although the one-way system may make you feel like you’re driving in circles; you’ll find your way in the end.  Don’t expect signage to be the key out of your confusion though — there isn’t much!  If you find yourself overwhelmed, stop and flag down the nearest cab to lead you through the city and towards your vacation route.

Nevertheless, if you’re staying mainly in the Central Valley (San José, etc.), then a sedan is probably a better choice — for gas mileage, parking limitations and blending in.  You’ll miss out on your opportunity to spot the "Great Pothole", but we certainly understand that not everyone finds this as amusing as others do.  Return To Contents

2.  Finding Your Way

Volcano
“Volcanos throughout CR” © Sara Ford

You will receive a complimentary road map with your rental documents.  Our knowledgeable, bilingual staff will ensure that you have sound directions to your first destination.

Major tourist destinations are marked with road signs.  However, these signs may not always be clearly visible the first time you drive by.  There are few street names and even fewer street numbers.  Addresses are given by distance from landmarks (for example:  300 meters North of the city hall).  A compass may be beneficial.  A quick rule of thumb, almost all church entrances face West — making it easier to get your bearings (North, South, etc.).

Remember, you can always call us with the supplied cell phone (free of charge) to ask for directions!  Don’t feel shy, it happens to the best of us.  Return To Contents

3.  Global Positioning Systems (GPS)

Safely reach your destinations with the least amount of worry and time-loss.  Your electronic co-pilot will guide you comfortably through Costa Rica, so you can enjoy more time relaxing on your vacation.

Our GPS systems are updated at least twice a year with the newest coordinates to ensure accuracy.  Our maps even show speed traps and one-lane bridges.  How’s that for peace of mind?

We offer the optional GPS system for an additional $8.00 per day.  Please request the GPS at the time of your reservation.  This allows us to prepare your vehicle without delay.

Alternatively, our new WazePhone may be rented for $4.95 per day ($3.95/day if renting for seven days or more) and it functions not only as a real-time GPS, but also a Wi-Fi hotspot, and of course…a mobile phone.  Return To Contents

4.  Basic Road Rules

You may drive using the drivers license issued by your home country.

Speed Limits
On highways:80 kph/ 50 mph
In urban areas:60 kph/ 24 mph
Near schools and hospitals:25 kph/ 15 mph

Please note:  These are general speed-limits guidelines.  The actual speed limit will be posted on signs.

Some other legal points to bear in mind are:

  • Legal driving age is 18.
  • Maintain safe following distances.
  • It is illegal to drink and drive and voids all insurances.
  • It is illegal to drive without your seat belt buckled.  You will be ticketed.
  • Driving on beaches is strictly prohibited everywhere and voids all insurances.
  • Children must be seated in an appropriate infant seat or booster!  We offer a complimentary child seat/booster — free of charge.  Please mention your needs at the time of your reservation, so we may arrange it for you, again, without delay.  Return To Contents

5.  Emergency Vehicles

Emergency vehicles do not have the luxury of time to obey the same traffic laws that other drivers do.  When their sirens AND flashing lights are on, emergency vehicles trump all others regarding right-of-way; one exception is a school bus with it’s crossing guard sign displayed, but otherwise, green lights, yield signs, and roundabout politeness are set aside for any police vehicle, fire truck or ambulance.

When a siren approaches from behind:

  • Slow down.
  • Check for traffic around you.
  • Resist the fear to suddenly jerk the wheel to the right — there may be another car, cyclist or even a pedestrian in your blind spot.
  • Once a clear path to the shoulder appears, turn on your flashers/blinkers and make your way over to the right hand edge or curb of the roadway, parallel to the roadway, and clear of any intersections.
  • Stop and remain stopped until the emergency vehicles have passed, unless otherwise directed by a police officer.
  • Be alert before pulling back into traffic for there’s usually more than one responding to the call.

When a siren approaches from the front:

  • Don’t panic.
  • Follow the standard procedure; pull to the side of the road as safely as possible and turn on your hazard lights.
  • Responders will occasionally need to use the wrong side of the road to bypass congestion.  Pulling over creates space for them to proceed.

When an emergency vehicle is stopped:

  • Move over — away from the emergency personnel; including tow truck operators.
  • If it is not possible to move over, slow down and pass with extreme caution.

Following an emergency vehicle:

  • Stay back; approximately 300 to 500 feet (a football/soccer field’s length)
  • Do not tailgate — even if your loved ones are in the ambulance ahead.  You’ll only increase your chances of being an accident yourself.

Driving over a fire hose:

  • It is illegal to drive over a fire hose which is in use, unless otherwise instructed by the fire officer in command.
  • This endangers the firefighters and the pump operator.

Let’s help the emergency responder to do their job by keeping them (and us) alive.  Slow down, pull over when clear, and stay alert.  Return To Contents

6.  Fuel (Gasolina)

Fuel stations (called Bombas or Gasolineras) are widespread across Costa Rica.  Regular, Super and Diesel fuel are readily available at all gas stations.  Fuel prices are regulated by the government and thus are all exactly the same at every gas station — leaving you to enjoy your vacation without being on the look-out for the cheapest gas pump.

Service at gas stations is provided by attendants, or what they call in the U.S. as "full-service".  There is no need to leave the car.  Tipping is at your own discretion.  On long trips, use fuel stops as an opportunity to relax and freshen-up.  As of March 27, 2017, the price of regular gas is approximately 598 Colones or about $1.07 per liter or $4.05 per US gallon (exchange rate:  559.62 Colones = 1 USD).  Likewise, the price of diesel fuel (without all the math) is $3.22 per US gallonReturn To Contents

7.  Police

Policia
“Uniform Policia” © VamosRAC

Pull over if a police officer signals you to do so.  Police officers may ask you to stop if there is an accident ahead, a checkpoint, or if you are violating the law for such things as not displaying a license plate or exceeding the speed limit.

Your personal documents, as well as the vehicle registration papers, are private property and may not be retained by police officers for any reason.  If a police officer insists on stopping you or retaining your documents for no apparent reason, ask him to escort you to the nearest police station to clear the problem.  If you believe a traffic police officer or any other law enforcement official acted inappropriately, or you have questions regarding their behavior, call 2257-7798, ext. 2506 and ask to be referred to the nearest police station.

If you are given a ticket, please pay it at the nearest state-owned bank and present a copy of the receipt to our staff when you return the rented vehicle.  If you fail to do so, your credit card will be charged for the amount of the fine, plus a $15 administrative fee.  Return To Contents

8.  Accidents

In case of an accident, stay with the car and DO NOT MOVE IT, unless ordered by a police officer.  Costa Rican law states that you must wait until the police arrive at the scene.  Contact Vamos immediately for further assistance.  You may also report the accident by calling 911 or 800-800-8000Return To Contents

9.  Other Driving Tips

Many flights arrive fairly late in the day.  Consider staying the night at one of the many nearby hotels and allow us to deliver your car early the next morning.  You will be refreshed and enjoy the sights on the way to your first destination, instead of driving your first night, exhausted and lost in the dark.

Driving at night should be avoided, unless you have visited Costa Rica and are familiar with the road conditions.  It is not like driving back home.

  • Drive confidently and stay alert.
  • Do not stop for people waving you down and never stop for hitchhikers.
  • Do not drive through, or leave your car in poorly lit areas.
  • Never leave your car on the street unattended; always park it in a safe parking lot.
  • Do not leave any belongings in the car where they might draw the attention of delinquents.  Return To Contents

Summary

Although it may seem daunting at first, annually there are tens of thousands of visitors to Costa Rica who enjoy the freedoms to discover the country at their own pace with the help of their rental vehicle.  After all, getting there is always half the fun of any vacation!

Don’t forget to visit our Tico Tips — outlining 7 insider tips from a local perspective.

Sara Ford

Sara provides tips for navigating the roads in Costa Rica, so they won't drive you to distraction.

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