(This is a long post, but an important one to read if you are thinking of coming to Costa Rica and wondering if you should rent a car.)
People planning trips to Costa Rica often ask what it’s like to drive a car here. A gamble! Here are a few things you should know if you plan to drive here. These tips aren’t meant to scare you so that you won’t want to drive, but are intended to acquaint you with what you might encounter when driving in Costa Rica and to help make your experience driving here as accident-free as possible. The cardinal rule: BE CONSTANTLY ALERT.
* Potholes/huecos. You could paddle a canoe in some of them! When it’s raining and the streets fill up with water, you can’t see them, making for a real axle-breaker if you hit one. Also, if you are approaching a vehicle and all of a sudden it swerves into your lane right in front of you, the driver is probably dodging a hueco.
* Stolen manhole covers. Sometimes large holes in the road are obvious because they have palm branches or boards sticking out of them as a warning, thanks to some kind soul who placed them there. Other times ………
* Grates covering gutters and drainage ditches. These are often missing because they have been stolen and sold to (unscrupulous) scrap iron dealers. If you turn too sharply (which would be fine under normal circumstances), your car will drop off, your axle will get bent or worse and you’ll be stuck for a looooong time. I’ve seen a semi hit one of these holes – big problem.
* Pedestrians. People – sometimes walking 3-4 abreast – use the street because sidewalks aren’t available everywhere. I guess their conversation is so scintillating that they don’t notice they are in the middle of the road. (When walking, you need to be extremely careful. Walkers are not given the right of way. I swear some drivers aim for pedestrians!)
* Bicyclists. Riders drive up mountain roads (amazing!) and on the autopista (4 lane divided highway), especially on the weekends. If you’re in the mountains and humming along and go around a curve, you could come upon a bicyclist.
* Highway merging. Drivers don’t move over to allow cars to enter and merge. This makes it necessary to try to get up to speed from a dead stop at the entrance to the pista sometimes.
* Cars/trucks parked in the road. For some reason, drivers who park (often suddenly) can be oblivious to the fact that they are on a road with cars going in both directions. Though there might be a shoulder next to the road, that’s irrelevant. The road suddenly goes down to one lane.
* Sudden stops. I’ve run into the rear of a car this way. Fortunately, no damage was done, but it made it very clear to me that you need to be looking in all directions at all times and be ready to react.
* Passing. Yellow lines mean nothing, unless they mean “hurry up and pass” now that you have 100 feet of clear highway. Being a mountainous country, there are many winding roads and just as many opportunities for people to tempt the Grim Reaper.
* Turning cars. This may happen as you are in the left lane heading forward and the car on your right decides to turn left in front of you. You can be making a left turn and suddenly a moped will be zipping up beside you on your left – the moped driver planning to go straight ahead, unless they run into your car turning left, of course.
* Mopeds. Businesses and restaurants use mopeds to make deliveries. No space between cars, buses or trucks is too narrow for a moped to try to get through. I have seen several accidents involving mopeds.
* Shoulders. Roads can drop off suddenly. Over the years and several layers of resurfacing, roads gets narrower and ditches gets deeper.
* Yielding. Don’t ever assume you have the right of way or that someone will yield.
* Slow drivers in left lane. The notion of “slower traffic stay right” hasn’t made it to Costa Rica.
* Signals. All cars in Costa Rica are equipped with turn signals – none of them are worn out from over-use.
* Pick-ups piled high. Watch for falling furniture, wood pallets, steel, trees, livestock, etc. in over-stuffed trucks. You don’t want to be behind one of these going under an overpass, either. The same is true with big trucks. I was following one once and it got stuck – it was too tall and didn’t fit underneath. Another traffic jam!
* Accidents. As you might guess, they happen frequently and when they do, no vehicles involved can be moved until the police and the insurance inspector can visit the scene and record whatever it is they need to record. Traffic can be blocked up for hours and for miles around, probably causing other accidents.
* Unregulated intersections. Traffic lights are not always in places that would benefit from them. With no lights, but lots of traffic, it’s a free for all as to who goes when. The oldest car usually leaps first!
* Stop signs. Drivers often toot their horns as they approach an intersection to warn other drivers who should stop at that intersection that there is a car approaching.
* Horns. Used profusely. If you don’t leap forward the split second a light turns green, you will be chastised for your negligence by a cacophony of honking horns.
* Muertos. These are raised areas stretching across the road, sometimes painted yellow, but not always – quite a jolt! Some are huge and will give you a real bump.
* Buses. The country is blessed with great bus service ……… some buses stopping anywhere someone flags them down. Others stop only at assigned stops. You never know which one you are following.
* People. Although there are some overpasses for walkers, there aren’t very many of them. Where there aren’t, you can see a woman in spike heels and a short tight skirt running across the highway and then climbing over the cement divider to continue her run across the other lanes of traffic… during rush hour. In addition, this woman might be holding the hand of her child or carrying a baby! Hearts painted on the highway signify the death of a pedestrian and are hoped to be a deterrent. I have seen someone killed this way. Horrible.
* Flooding. Rains can come quickly and fill up roads with tumbling rocks, chunks of cement and other debris. It’s a challenge dodging these items and avoiding hidden huecos and drop offs.
* Landslides. During the rainy season, these are potential hazards, especially when driving in the mountains.
* Wash-outs. Sides of roads can wash out in the rainy season, especially in the mountains.
* Dogs. Street dogs are in abundance.
* Cows. Be alert for herds of cattle, especially in rural areas.
* Street signs. Huh? What are they? Unless you are in downtown San José, no one knows the names of streets (and even there, most won’t know the names). Most streets don’t have names.
* Sunday. People go to the beach on the weekends. Sunday traffic heading back to the Central Valley can be like a parking lot.
* Driver’s license. Some licensed drivers have “bought” their licenses instead of taking the test.
I have conversations with drivers every day. They never hear me and they never change their driving habits, but I keep talking to them, pointing out the errors of their ways. You might find yourself doing the same. I hope you have better luck than I.
(If you’d rather avoid driving altogether, you can live downtown in a San José apartment like this one and walk or take a taxi anywhere!)