Driving in Costa Rica may seem, at first sight, quite intimidating. Even if you are not driving and a local driver is doing the task. However, as you start driving and learn some tips about the roads of Costa Rica, you will find that, in general, is not that bad, and certainly it gives you a freedom that you don’t have when you pay for separate transportation. However, the following tips will certainly help you with this roads challenge.
When driving in Costa Rica, all you need is a valid driver’s license from your country, as well as your passport or a copy of it in case you are stopped by the traffic police. In general terms same rules apply as mostly everywhere: Road are marked with double lines when passing is forbidden and where the passing is allowed. Seatbelts are compulsory, and children under 12 are restricted to booster seats. The speed limits sign is almost everywhere and is in Kilometers. Stop signs (Alto) exist in the corners, and “Yield” (Ceda) is painted on the roads and streets.
However and quite often, drivers bend or directly break the rules in one way or another, and you must be prepared for this. And different rules are usually broken in the cities, and some are bend only in the country areas.
Roads in Costa Rica, range from well-paved highways (usually two or three lanes only) to pothole-ridden dirt roads with tricky river crossings. In the Central Valley and most popular tourist destinations, the streets and roads are smooth and nice however as you get out of the most popular areas, conditions can be quite different.
Costa Rica’s topography is incredibly diverse, with everything from almost vertical and rainforest surrounded mountains to flat farming plains. The roads of Costa Rica can be quite challenging.
While in several regions (Especially tourist areas) the roads are accessible without a 4X$, some are not, and in some, it is simply easier if you have one. Please ask your travel consultant when planning your trip.
Must say, though, that in the main touristic routes of Costa Rica, the road conditions are pretty good right now. Please ask about the road conditions to your travel consultant.
Depending on where you go when driving in Costa Rica there will be roads signs or not. In general, again touristic areas have road signs.If you go off the beaten road, there might be some, but again, they will be in Spanish.
Now, in general, Costa Ricans don’t care or even know about road numbers or even streets and avenues names and numbers. Our best advice is to rent a car with a GPS and learn a few Costa Rican phrases to get by. The only road numbers that you can be certain Costa Ricans know are the 32 (Caribbean Region route) and the 27 (Central Pacific Coastal Road)
Exits on highways are also known for being badly marked, or the sign is right at the turnoff.
You can use Waze, or Google Maps (Download them on your phone, not all Costa Rican roads have a phone signal).
Landslides and washouts in the rainy season
When you travel in the rainy season, landslides and washouts are common in some areas. And it is important that you check with our Operations Support Team if there are any special road conditions to watch for.
Ask especially if you are going towards the Caribbean region (Road 32), the road to Arenal, and the South Panamerican Highway.
Pedestrians and Bicyclists
Depending on where you are but mostly everywhere, when driving in Costa Rica, it is quite common that locals go by foot or on a bike. However in the remote areas and quite often they are not dressed in reflective fluorescent colors or have any lights, so please be extra careful about them.
Important to know that even if by law pedestrians have the right of way, in the practice pedestrians will never expect for you to stop for them.
You may also enjoy: Can you really enjoy Costa Rica in the rainy season
Motorcycles and Dirt Bikes
Motorcycles and dirt bikes are very common, and especially on highways you simply need to be careful with them as they do not reach the same speed as cars. In most all cases they will pull way to the right when a car comes following to let them pass.
In the cities please also be aware of motorcycles and scooters zigzagging in and out of lanes and in the breakdown lane. Sometimes they get so close to your vehicle that you think there is going to be a crash.
This is another rainy season situation. Potholes are quite common on the regional roads and watch out for them if the road is wet and they are covered in water. They can be deeper than you think and you may even end without a tire.
In some cases, you will see that Costa Ricans put a palm leaf, a wooden stick or even a banana plant to mark them.
Use of Hazards
Costa Ricans often turn on their hazard lights for the cars behind to know there is a problem ahead- It is especially done on highways where cars go fast. To let the following vehicle know that there is a problem ahead and they will slow down.
To warn about traffic police, or a road event (Like a crash), flashing of the headlights is a common practice.
Tractor Trailers and Container Trucks
Costa Rica is a main shipping route from the Panama Canal to North America and additionally has important ports on each coast, so tractor trailers frequent many of its roads. An important tip when driving in Costa Rica behind a tractor trailer is to know that if they turn the left signal for you to know when it’s safe to pass.
It is a suggestion and makes sure you are safe when passing.
On the other hand and depending on where you go, from January to May there might be huge sugar cane container trucks and tractors.
It’s important that you also read: The Insider’s Guide to safety in Costa Rica
Driving at Night
Easy: Avoid driving in Costa Rica at night. If you are outside of the Central Valley simply avoid driving at night. Street lighting is only used in the town and the cities. You will find the roads outside of the towns and cities to be very dark. The roads are not marked in many places and if it’s raining or foggy the only way to know where you are is to remain on the grass line.
In many areas of Costa Rica, you will find that bridges are one lane only and using a Yield (Ceda) sign and in some not even that. However, it is a common courtesy thing to let one line of cars pass from one side and another line from the other side. Please look out for the sign of Puente Adelante (Bridge Ahead).
One of the most common perils of driving in Costa Rica is unsafe passing. You will see people passing on curves, on double striped roads, and in areas where it is simply impossible to see who’s coming. Please remain alerted and be cautious. The best way to avoid a situation like this is to leave enough space between the car in front of your and yours. As a way to avoid any accidents that may happen. And the more winding the road, the slower you should go.
Some rural areas, especially in Osa Peninsula and Guanacaste, some ways include river crossings. In the sunny season, it can be an easy to pass a stream, However, in the rainy season, a tiny stream can turn into a flowing river not recommended to go across not even in a large 4X4. River crossings are not covered by car insurances and car rental agreements.
It’s a good idea to wait for another car to do it first. If the river is close to the coast and tidal dependent, check the tide charts. The best is to call our Operations Support Team and ask them if there might be any on your way.
Near to International borders, and while driving in Costa Rica, you may find police checkout points. They will ask for your passports and car papers, and the trunk contents. In general, they are checking on illegal immigrants passing or imported items smuggled in the country. They are routinary, and you won’t have a problem with them.
If you get in an accident while driving in Costa Rica, call 911 and our Operation Support Team. Do not to move your car. Our Support Team will tell you what you need to do and know.Make sure to have our 24/7 number with you at all times.
Gas stations are located everywhere in Costa Rica although they might be spaced out. Fill your car up every time you can.
In Costa Rica, we have the same government-regulated prices, so shopping around is useless.
Gas stations are full-serve, and the workers are usually nice and helpful. If you need oil, washer fluid topped off or air for your tires, just ask.
Protecting yourself, your car, and your things while driving in Costa Rica
Rental cars are a target in many areas in Costa Rica. They usually use the same brands and are easy to recognize.
Follow the following tips to protect yourself, your car and your valuables.
- Never leave anything in sight inside the car—even things with seemingly no value.
- Leave someone watching after your car or lock your doors and bring your valuables with you.
- Don’t take any hitchhikers never mind their appearance or if they have children
- Don’t stop for a crash in the middle of nowhere, call our 24/7 Operations Team, and tell them where you are, they will get help.
Extra Tips for driving in Costa Rica
- Check oil and water levels at all times
- Make sure that your car has a GPS, if not, use Waze, it is probably even better.
- Make sure you have enough food & water for two people just in case you get stranded.
- Pay attention to the car in front of you and look for their brake lights if they are working or not.
- Always check your mirrors before pulling out, it is usual for cars to overtake 4-5 cars at once.
- If for any reason you have to drive in the pouring rain, fog or at night in one of the main roads of Costa Rica, let a public bus or a tourist bus to go in front and use their backlights as guides. Usually, they know the roads and are in radio communication with other drivers.
2017. SEÑALES DE TRANSITO. no-date. Blogspotcom. [Online]. [1 April 2017]. Available from: http://victoria-tinoco.blogspot.com/p/la-conceptualizacion-de-las-senales-de.html