Tips for Driving in Costa Rica

By patrick on

If you visit Costa Rica on a tour, you don’t have to worry about sitting behind the wheel. You can sit back and enjoy the scenery as someone else navigates the traffic and mountain roads of this beautiful country.

However, if you are doing Costa Rica on your own, renting a car is an easy, excellent option. There are several companies to choose from and several types of vehicles. However, the driving isn’t going to be like home. These are a few of the differences to be aware of:

  • Signs: Or lack of! While there are a few signs here and there, there are very few street signs because Ticos don’t use them. Instead, they ask directions from other Ticos. You can ask directions too but if you don’t want to practice your Spanish, you can also rent a GPS navigating device with the car, or download a navigation app for your mobile device. This is crucial for getting around San Jose and the Central Valley!
  • Defensive driving and motorcyles: Don’t expect other drivers to follow all of the rules. That includes turn signals, pulling over to the side of the road, and driving in the slow lane. Just be extra careful and you will be alright. Motorcycles are mentioned here because they follow no rules as they zip in and out of traffic.
  • Lack of stop lights: Sure, there are stop lights but not in many places where you need to turn left. If you don’t feel like waiting 15 minutes for a break in traffic or pulling out into traffic and forcing it to stop, just take a right and find a place where you can turn around and get back on track.
  • Obey speed limits: There aren’t many traffic police in Costa Rica but the ones you encounter will probably be manning a speed trap. Ignore the fact that most everyone else is driving 20 ks over the limit and stick to the posted limit (often painted on the road). This is usually 40 kph in urban areas, 60 kph on rural roads and at bridges on the highway (also spots for speed traps), and 80 or 90 kph on the “highways”.
  • Don’t pass on a double line!: Another big fine and with good reason. Too many people pass that slow truck where they can’t see oncoming traffic and die as a result. Seems like an obvious thing to avoid but can be tempting when you are stuck behind a slow vehicle and have birds to see.
  • Flashing the brights: Others drivers often stop to let you make a left turn and do so by flashing their brights.
  • Police vehicles: Police cars and trucks typically keep their flashing lights on at all times. I usually let them pass but it doesn’t mean that they want to pull you over. For that, they also use the siren, or motion you to pull over while standing on the side of the road.
  • No shoulders: The general lack of shoulders makes birding from the road impossible in many places but who wants to bird with cars and Mack trucks thundering by anyways?

    Stop at a national park, hotel, or reserve to get satisfying looks at a Black-mandibled Toucan.

If you would rather not drive on your own, not to worry, you can also get around with buses, taxis, and shuttle services in Costa Rica.

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