Driving in Costa Rica: Tips on Surviving Your Rental Car Experience
This article of mine originally appeared in The Costa Rica Star, please stop by and have a look around. Thanks, Solson
Do pay for the GPS option. You’ll learn to love that heartless voice. And if you’re thinking you’ll turn it off. Don’t. You’ll want to keep your eyes on the road.
When you come from any developed country driving in Costa Rica may be the most maddening, if not downright terrifying thing you can undertake. I read an article recently that suggested that Costa Rica would have to invest $2 billion per year for 25 years to catch up on its road infrastructure. Throw in an average fleet age of 13 years and a notable absence of traffic cops (which are a different group from regular cops) and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. I don’t recommend driving on your visit especially if you suffer cardiac conditions or would like to preserve the health of your marriage, but if you must I’ll try to help you survive.
It took me about a year to stop breaking into a sweat every time I had to venture into San José in morning traffic. Every intersection seemed like a bumper car rink where someone had turned off the power; motorcycles materialized out of nowhere and the buses were always in the way. I suffered a thousand tiny heart attacks every time a cab pulled into my lane. Eventually I began to learn a few of the basic local rules.
Lanes are more like suggestions—if they are even marked at all. What may seem like a dangerous invasion of your lane is pretty normal even on the highway, and a necessity in town. Buses have legal stops all over the place (including highway lanes) and will often stop anywhere someone requests. This slow speed stop-and-go game is no fun for those behind them. So folks just go around. If you are on a road with two lanes in the same direction you need to be aware that people will just squeeze into the other lane a bit to get around the stopped bus. Your normal first-world reaction is to slam on the brakes, honk the horn and curse. Here your reaction should be to just drift a bit left even at highway speeds. If you have time, do a quick mirror check for motorcycles. If you’re on a two lane road and you see a stopped bus in an on-coming lane be prepared for someone to pop out suddenly from behind.
Certain intersections in urban areas will get choked with magically appearing extra lanes as locals jockey for position. A good rule of thumb is to add at least one lane to whatever is marked. A hand wave and eye contact are often effective in slow speed merge situations. Flash your high-beams or wave to let someone in. Wave or blink your hazards once to say thank you if you are let in.
Speed limits are very slow by most developed standards and change very frequently and often for no apparent reason. Try to follow them reasonably closely (within 10kph or so). Scoot a bit to the right to let someone by if they want to go faster, you’re probably on vacation and not in such a hurry anyway.
If you get pulled over, don’t offer a bribe. That’s illegal here just the same as back home. While some cops might pull you over just in the hopes of collecting a bribe, it’s not worth the risk. Also it’s worth noting that police vehicles run around with their blue lights flashing permanently, it doesn’t mean you’re being pulled over. Traffic cops that stop you will generally be in a fixed position and just point to you and signal you to pull over. If you hear sirens then you do need to pull over, either to let them by, or get your ticket for an infraction.
If you’re hauling suitcases and/or surfboards be careful where you park. Those flip-flops and shorts you’re wearing make you a target for getting all your stuff stolen (plus you’re driving a late-model car). Most public places have a gentleman in a reflective vest hanging around helping you park and “taking care” of your car. While they will certainly not be held responsible for any damages to your car they do provide a small amount of security and not playing along is often a sure-fire way of having a problem. The going rate for tipping these guys is 500-700 colones per hour and is a good way to use those giant coins you accumulate on your trip.
Back to that GPS I told you to get.
Directions here are really difficult to follow since they require you to know some fixed reference point and also which way is North, South, East and West (not hard for people from Saskatchewan). A great tip for figuring out which way is North is by finding a Catholic church. Nearly every Catholic church faces West, so that should help you get oriented. If you forgo the GPS or it doesn’t have the reference point you want, don’t be afraid to ask. Your wife will thank you and locals are very helpful in this regard since we have to ask as well.
Also local vernacular will often substitute “abajo” (down) and “arriba” (up) for left and right. In flat terrain “abajo” means left and “arriba” means right, this all goes out the window if there is a hill. If you are confused get clarification via left and right before proceeding.
Now you know why you and your wife will end up loving that monotone self-righteous GPS voice. Welcome to Costa Rica.