Driving in Costa Rica
Page Table of Contents:
Bridges - Required Reading
Do I Need A GPS?
Price of Gas and Travel Restrictions around San José
IMPORTANT! For you tourists, a new law requires that the Consejo de Seguridad Vial (COSEVI), aka Los Transitos, aka the traffic police, report unpaid traffic fines of any foreigner driving in Costa Rica to immigration, the folks who control the frontiers/airports of this country. The immigration service (migración) is then obligated to deny exit to any foreigner who has any outstanding (unpaid) traffic fines.
One of the questions I get asked about most is "How is the driving in Costa Rica?". Most people like the freedom of having a car parked nearby for unplanned trips or just to know it is there. In general, there is no problem driving a car here, but there are things you should know to do this safely.
One thing to know from the beginning is that these people drive like idiots! I have driven in Chicago and LA so I KNOW a nut case when I see one, and this place can be scary... especially in San José.
If you are visiting Costa Rica, you may drive on the driver's license issued by your home country so long as your visa has not expired.
This is important! Depending on the country you are from, your tourist visa may be as long as ninety days or as short as thirty days. Once it expires, you cannot drive legally in Costa Rica unless you have applied for and received your Costa Rica drivers license. To see visa regulations, click here then go to Visa Regulations.
As with many Central American countries, there are no street signs, often no street lights, no addresses, no numbering systems, and with the exception of a portion of San Jose, the streets do not run perpendicular to one another. Read more about this
Add this to a person here who may not speak the language, then add in a bit of darkness.... and you can have some serious problems. Further, there are often large potholes (and I mean LARGE ones) that can cause serious damage to your car. Manhole covers are occasionally missing, in fact there is one missing near my home for more than four years now. If you don't know where it is, it is almost impossible to avoid hitting it. I also know of many locations where a tree will be growing in the street (see photo below). Still others have phone poles (the 'don't give' type) actually 4-5 feet out in the roadway (see photo below).
There are also not a large number of directional signs, and those that are here can easily be misread.
Traffic lanes often simply end, even on high speed highways, with less than 100 yards notice. In the daytime, you might have time to react at 60MPH. At night, you may well not see it until it is too late. Bridges often have no guardrails, especially after you leave San Jose. The drops can be a few feet or a few hundred feet. Be careful.
Yup! We have them here too, though San José and the surrounding areas are really the only places I know of in Costa Rica where serious congestion is an issue. There are simply too many cars and not enough roads. Further, the existing roads are not wide enough to handle the traffic. It is only going to get worse.
Here is a short video of what a normal rush hour looks like near San Jose between the airport and the city. Click the little arrow to play.
Top of page
Bridges in Costa Rica
Bridges in Costa Rica, while generally safe, can be very narrow and many do not have guardrails as in the photo right. Often there are openings in the road bed that allow you to look down anywhere from 10-15 feet to maybe 200 feet.
In the daytime, crossing these bridges can be very disconcerting. At night, they can be downright scary! People, read that as men, often think I am exaggerating or a nervous nelly. I am not.
However, with that in mind, below is a video taken in October 2006 by Costa Rica resident and generally funny lady, Sally aka SaraTica.
I think this should give you some idea of what I am referring to. Click the arrow to play the movie.
PLEASE be respectful of the dangers of driving in Costa Rica. I am not saying don't do it! I am saying that you must truly take your time, drive when refreshed and not on a tight time schedule. Be prepared for truly difficult road conditions in some locations. As Sally said in her Blog, the second or third time is just a non-event, but the first time is attention getting.
If you do decide to drive here, take it very easy until you know your way around. For my driving safety tips, see below.
Driving at Night in Costa Rica
Driving in the daytime in Costa Rica is a problem only in that navigating is a pain. Driving at night with no experience can be a recipe for disaster.
In many countries, there a a zillion signs giving you fair warning of what to expect. In the US, you sometimes are notified two miles ahead of major changes and again three or four more times before you get there. This is NOT so in Costa Rica. Here, roads end, lanes end, curves appear, telephone poles and trees grow in streets, and often a manhole cover is missing and left off for years! In fact, there is one missing near my home that has not been there for almost three years. In the daytime, the gaping hole is visible. At night? No way! You just have to 'know'.
Some of the highways can be especially dangerous. Many times, three lanes merge to two, or two lanes merge to one. Bridges are often narrowed to one lane. There is supposed to be a yield sign (Ceda), telling who has the right-of-way, but often there is not.
So you can actually see this stuff, here are a few pictures to demonstrate my points.
Click the thumbnails to enlarge the photos in a new window.
|Here, the Pan American highway into San José merges from two lanes to one.
You approach at 60 MPH (yeah, right) from over a hill, and your first notice is the Ceda (yield) sign, only about 100 feet before the lane ends. There is little or no time to react.
||Here, again from over a hill, you have maybe 200 yards.
If you live here, you know to merge before you get over the hill. The problem is this is the main highway into San Jose and often there is NO way to merge left easily after you clear the hill. The drop off is about 300 feet deep.
|Here, the lane simply ends! Not a word of warning.
Though hard to see in this photo, that unpaved area is maybe two feet deep at the edge. While you probably won't have a life threatening accident, your suspension and maybe your front tires and suspension are history.
||Ever see a telephone pole growing in the street? This one is in an unlit but highly trafficked are. Turning left is an interesting experience if you don't see it until the last minute.
|Similar to the pole example is this beautiful street with trees growing in it. While beautiful, it presents a challenge at night if you don't expect it.
||One lane bridges are common. Most have a yield (Ceda) sign, but many don't. Who has the right of way? Well in this case, HE does. Might makes right.
Do I Need A GPS in Costa Rica?
If you have read this web site, you already know that there are no street addresses in Costa Rica nor are there many street names. Houses and buildings have no numbers. Addresses here are in terms of location from a known and hopefully permanent landmark i.e. a church, cemetery, major company (Intel) etc. Example: 300M norte y 150M oeste de la iglesia, etc or 3 blocks North and 1.5 blocks West of the church. This can drive tourists a bit batty and if you plan to move here, this can be a daunting bit of cultural adjusting. Everyone gets lost. Yeah... even after over 11 years, me too.
So, the Global Positioning System aka GPS can be a blessing, especially if the maps are kept updated as Costa Rica is ALWAYS under construction and new roads and neighborhoods are added literally monthly.
So again.... do you need a GPS?
Yes and Maybe!
If you are a tourist, then my answer is yes if:
1. You will be doing a lot of driving while here or just enjoy exploring and/or
2. You do not speak Spanish at a sufficient level to ask and receive instructions and/or
3. You are just into gadgets and having a GPS makes you feel cool!
BUT, if you are coming here to live, then the answer is only a MAYBE!
Why maybe? Because you may use it as a crutch to get around and if you do, you will not learn the streets and routes... and you really need to learn to get around. Being GSP dependent may not be a good idea. Now after you can get around on your own, then my suggestion is the same as above (See 1, 2, and 3!).
I own a GPS (Garmin) and use it often to find places that are new, access roads that did not exist two years ago, but I use it sparingly because if you live here, it is really important that you learn your way around. Regardless, I find it very handy to keep it in my car as a backup!
Most car rental companies will rent you a GPS in Costa Rica though the prices are pretty steep currently averaging about $9.00 to $10.00 per day. A two week trip can cost you $140.00 and lower end GPS units can now be found on sale for less than that!
You will then need to buy a current Costa Rica GPS map, download it, and install it in the GPS. This is not hard, but is easier for older folks if there happens to be a 12 year old handy! Unless you buy your GPS here, often VERY expensive, a Costa Rica GSP map will not be included with the unit.
Many companies sell COSTA RICA GSP maps. Not all the maps are as good as they should be. Even companies that advertise that they update regularly may not do so. Sadly... I have no solution. I know of no map company that offers a guarantee, so if you install a map and are not happy... well just too bad. Use another map company next time!
Make sure that:
1. The company you use promises (and delivers) updates regularly, at least every 2-3 months or better every month or two. These updates should be FREE for at least six months or better, a year.
2. Shop around! I know for my Garmin there are at least 4-5 companies offering maps. I have tried three and plan a future Blog article on my experience.
So, you have an accident. What now?
Stay with the car and DO NOT MOVE IT unless ordered by a police officer. The law here is that you must wait until BOTH the police AND your insurance agent (adjuster?) arrive at the scene. No, that is not a typo!
As you might imagine, this causes enormous backups, sometimes for miles. Oddly, Costa Rica is trying to seek ways to save on gasoline. Seems simple enough to change this rule so several hundred motorists are not waiting for a long time with motors running... but I digress.
If you do move your car, there are legal implications.
In fact if you drive much, you probably will get into one of these traffic jams, so keep a good book in the car at all times.
- Take taxis if possible, especially at night. They are cheap and everywhere. Read about taxis here. If you rent a car, which I actually recommend for a better visit, it is better to not drive at night until you get some experience.
- NEVER leave valuables in plain view in your car.
- When in San Jose or in slow traffic, do not leave anything valuable on the seat next to you if the windows are open. A person can and will reach in and grab stuff.
- Until you know how things work here, I urge you not to drive at night. I recommend not driving at night until you know the route first.
- Keep your windows UP while at traffic lights in San Jose or in very slow traffic. The other day, I saw a bad guy reach through an open window and snatch an earring right off a woman's ear! This was in daylight at 3PM.
- There are traffic laws here, but there are no police to enforce them. If you EVER drive defensively in your life, do it here. Ticos are... well ... creative drivers... and most traffic laws are flaunted. Just because there is a red light, don't make the mistake of thinking everyone else plans to stop.
- Be especially careful of motorcycles. They obey NO rules and can come out of nowhere. They also can be the vehicles used when snatching stuff from you car through an open window.
- If you rent a car, here is a common scam. Someone will punch a very small hole in your tire or loosen the valve stem before you take delivery of the car or perhaps while you are at a restaurant or shop. You leave and maybe 30 minutes to an hour later, you get a flat. Then, miraculously, some really nice folks appear to assist you. In this case, assist means to separate you and whatever valuables they can find.
- If you rent a car, make sure you go over the car very carefully and make sure the attendant marks down every nick and scratch on his sheet. Failure to do this can result in huge adjustments to your bill when you return the rental.
- Watch your gas! In the central valley, there a a lot of gas stations (bombas), but where they are is the problem. Few are advertised with signs to follow. Do not drive on that last quarter tank unless you know where the next service station is located. Gas Stations, (bombas), while not scarce in Costa Rica, are sometimes difficult to find. There is not the signage here to tell you where to go to get gas. As you leave the valley, gas stations are farther apart and may be even more difficult to find. Check your gas gauge often so you do not find yourself in an emergency situation when you pick up your rental car (some do not fill the tank) and be sure that you have a full tank when you leave the San Jose or airport area.
- Pedestrians and animals use or cross the highways everywhere, even where the speed limit is 80 kilometers/hour, pedestrians, bus riders, cyclists are to be found on the highways. The highways around San Jose are notorious for people crossing the road anywhere. Many die each year. While hitting one of them won't be your fault, it will ruin your time in Costa Rica.
- Night Driving on the highway should be avoided for the same reason unless you have visited Costa Rica and know how things are here. Additionally, in the mountains, domestic and wild animals often choose to sleep on the paved highway because it has retained heat from the afternoon sun. This condition is not prevalent along the coast highway, but always use caution especially when vision is limited.
- Passing Slower Traffic is a national sport in Costa Rica. Many large trucks and busses, along with an assortment of ancient vehicles (usually pickup trucks) travel the highways at speeds well below the posted limit, especially in the mountains.
The mountain roads and highways provide very limited opportunity for passing and caution should be used. Exercise caution in your own passing strategy and be constantly aware of local drivers, most of whom are averse to following slow-moving traffic. This applies to cars, trucks and busses. Defensive driving is a must.
Price of Gasoline
Like every other country, Costa Rica is affected by rising gasoline prices. As of March, 2013, the price of a US gallon of gas is close to $6.00. It is heading up!
Further, the government has placed travel restrictions on where a person can drive while in Costa Rica. Currently, this mostly affects the San José area, but the government is talking about making these rules nation wide.
If the last number on your license plate ends with:
1-2 You may not drive in or sometimes even close to San José on Mondays
3-4 You may not drive in or sometimes even close to San José on Tuesdays
5-6 You may not drive in or sometimes even close to San José on Wednesdays
7-8 You may not drive in or sometimes even close to San José on Thursdays
9-0 You may not drive in or sometimes even close to San José on Friday
Weekends have no restrictions.
As gas prices and these restrictions are changing often, I would urge you to check out our Blog for the most recent info.