Driving in Costa Rica


Curves can corkscrew down steep hills with no guardrails to save you from plunging hundreds of feet.

So you just flew into Costa Rica on one of the major airlines. You have gone through customs, picked up your luggage and are ready to head out on your first Costa Rican adventure. So far things have seemed very similar to the way it is in your home country. The lines, the process, the wait, all seemed standard. Now it’s time to head outside and take advantage of Costa Rica services like catching a bus to the rental car agency. Once you have filled out all the paperwork you pull out of the parking lot. Which way should we go? Which way is north? Where is the beach? Where are we on this map?

Driving in Costa Rica is an art, in my humble opinion. You need to have eyes 5 cars ahead of you, as well as in the car behind you. Things come at you fast, and no one seems to care about obeying any traffic laws here. Red lights seem like suggestions and lines on the road are there to make math easy. 4 lanes mean you can fit 8 cars and 4 motorcycles in that space. Pedestrians seem to dare you to hit them and if the car coming at you is an official vehicle such as a police car or ICE (power company) truck you need to watch out. They always have the right of way even if you are sure that you should. Once you learn all these little nuances things start to make more sense, but your first few minutes "out of the gate" will surely be wild.
Driving in Costa Rica

On top of these nuances, there are almost no street signs in Costa Rica and the ones that are visible do very little in the way of helping you understand where you are and where you need to be. When receiving an address in Costa Rica you are likely to get something along the lines of 200 meters west of the hospital and 50 meters south of the McDonalds. That would work if you were familiar with the area, but otherwise it does little to help until you stumble across one of the landmarks.

Costa Rican roads also help to keep things exciting. You can go from 3 lanes to 1 with little to no warning and from smoothly paved to pothole-filled in a matter of meters. Curves can corkscrew down steep hills with no guardrails to save you from plunging hundreds of feet.
Driving in Costa Rica

We haven't told you these things to discourage you from visiting Costa Rica, but we want you to be aware of what you are getting into as a driver. If you have a bad sense of direction, or are not the most competent and comfortable person behind the wheel, there are other ways to travel through Costa Rica. Private and Public transfers are great travel options that allow you to sit back and enjoy the ride while someone else pilots the vehicle. Flying to regional airports is yet another way to get to different areas of the country without having to brave the roads. Costa Rica has small regional airports close to most tourist destinations. You can rent a car from there or do the transfer or taxi thing.

Technology is helping to overcome some of the Costa Rican driving issues. Almost all rental car agencies offer GPS with their rentals, but I have found that they are more accurate when helping you arrive at popular destinations and can throw you a curveball when trying to help you locate lesser known ones. There is a fairly new application for mobile phones called Waze. Waze is a community driven GPS application that allows drivers to share information on road conditions including traffic jams, police stops, accidents and more with other drivers in real time. We have seen it come a long way in a short time and think that once more Costa Rican roads have been uploaded to the service, it will be an invaluable tool no matter where you are in the country. So far it is more helpful in the metropolitan areas.
Some helpful links :
The Costa Rican Highway Patrol (Transito) website showing the current state of roads - transito.go.cr/estadorutas/index.html