Driving in Costa Rica (Rules and Regulations): The most important legal requirements

driving in costa rica


The four words “driving in Costa Rica” alongside the three words “rules and regulations” will bring a smile to the faces of most people, foreigners and Ticos alike, who have experience behind the wheel inside of this country. They might even bring sarcastic laughter as old hands know down here that the only real rule is that there are no rules.

Well – that’s a little inaccurate – there are rules for driving in Costa Rica, it’s just that nobody really cares about them, including the transitos (the Costa Rican traffic police, akin to the Highway Patrol in the United States). The laws of the road are frequently ignored by all drivers to an extent where people who do actually obey basics like speed limits are seen as oddities at best and dangerous at worst. Actually, it’s extremely difficult to adhere to speed limits due to the near universal lack of signage throughout the country letting you know the speed you should be driving at in the first place! Sad, but true.

Drivers routinely overtake on both sides, rarely trouble themselves with signaling before turning, and treat Costa Rica’s roads like they are competing in the Daytona 500. People just don’t really receive proper, official driving lessons, and to get a new license in Costa Rica (for Costa Ricans – not expats) all that is required is a medical examination and a short written test. Once the license has been received, that is the point where they “learn” to drive, using the trial and error method of the open road. Many people never learn properly because they just copy the bad habits of everyone else around them and on it goes. That’s just how it is in Costa Rica!

And motorcycles. Don’t mention motorcycles! These guys weave in and out with impunity, often just on one wheel, acting like they own the road. Although helmets are mandatory in Costa Rica, oftentimes people ignore that rule (like all the others) and fatality rates are high.

When it comes to traffic police, it’s important to note that they are not interested in enforcing laws. You will occasionally see them on the side of a rural road with a speed gun, but the truth is that that is often more about soliciting a bribe than trying to keep people from driving too fast. The transitos are really just around to respond to accidents rather than from making sure that accidents don’t happen in the first place. When you’re out on the road in Costa Rica, you’re on your own. It’s an every man for himself mindset.

Costa Rican roads themselves are generally in a bad condition. There are a couple of new highways that have opened up in recent years – Ruta 27 from San Jose to the Pacific port of Caldera, Ruta 34, which runs down the Central and Southern Pacific coast from the 27 near Caldera to Palmar Sur in the south, and some stretches of the Interamericana in Guanacaste. But outside of these new roads, the infrastructure is bad. Potholes the size of small vehicles are common and signage, as already mentioned, is virtually non-existant. Bridges often collapse under the weight of trucks and landslides can knock out roads and routes for days or weeks, especially during the rainy season. Welcome to life in the developed world.

Costa Rican cities are built in grid formation, and the vast majority of them have one-way rules to deal with traffic and ensure it flows smoothly. Again, due to lack of signage and just lack of respect for the rules, many people ignore them and chaos ensues. That’s not exactly fair in the bigger Central Valley cities such as the capital, San Jose, or Alajuela, as there are some – some – semblance of rules in these places, but the reality is that due to the chronic traffic jams in these cities, not to mention lack of parking, no-one in their right mind would consider driving in them anyway.

All in all, the driving situation in Costa Rica is not great, not if you’re used to driving in the developed world or driving in a place where the rules of the world are respected and adhered to. Most travel agencies and experts in Costa Rica recommend that tourists coming to Costa Rica on vacation don’t drive at all, and leave it the professionals who know the roads and the conditions. For tourists who insist on renting a car in Costa Rica, travel experts basically tell them how it is and let them know that they need to be adventurous, aggressive drivers in order to succeed on the roads. Driving in Costa Rica is not for the faint-hearted and it’s only fair that people coming down with the intention of driving know that.

Now with all that said, it is possible to drive around Costa Rica and have a lot of fun doing so. As long you’re aware of how things are, and all the craziness of the roads in Costa Rica are no big surprise, then getting out on the road can be good, and if you’re living in Costa Rica (as opposed to just vacationing in Costa Rica), it’s often essential. Rural areas are better to drive in as there’s less traffic, although the roads are generally far, far worse. Cities are a no-go because there is too much traffic and the narrow streets clog up with cars leaving you sitting amid honking horns and rising tempers. Not good. Anywhere else lies somewhere between these two extremes. It can be done, of course, and many do it. It’s just not for everyone.
The most important legal requirements for driving in Costa Rica are detailed below, but this list is by no means exhaustive:

What Should I Do If I’m Involved In An Accident Driving in Costa Rica?

The follow tips will help you to sort out the incident:

  • Do NOT move the vehicle.
  • Call your car rental representative on your complimentary cell phone.
  • Wait for the Transit Police to arrive.
  • Stay close to your vehicle if you can do so without being in danger from other road users.
  • You may move the vehicle with the consent of the Transit Police AFTER they have investigated the scene of the accident.

What are local speed limits?

If you are used to driving on the flat and carefully maintained highways in North America and much of Europe, you’ll be accustomed to driving at greater speeds than is generally permitted in Costa Rica.

A guideline to speed limits while driving in Costa Rica would be:

On highways: 90 kph/54 mph
In urban areas: 40 kph/24 mph
Near schools and hospitals: 25 kph/15 mph

  1. Be aware of the posted speed limit and be prepared for sudden decrease or increase in that limit over a short distance. Restrictions in place for schools should be observed throughout the day and even into the night as most educational institutions work with students entering in shifts throughout the day and nocturnal classes for mature students.
  2. The definition of an urban area is fairly loose; a city or town in Costa Rica is considerably smaller than its North American counterpart.
  3. If you are given a speeding ticket, do NOT pay any cash to the police officer who issues the ticket. You should take the ticket to a state-owned bank to pay it and present the receipt to your car rental company upon your return.

What Should I Do If The Police Pull Me Over?

Stop!

The police may ask to see your documentation and you should provide your driver’s license, your passport and rental vehicle documentation.

Do NOT hand over your original passport and/or drivers license. Present a copy instead; keep your originals safe — preferably on you at all times in a money belt.

 

Remember you also get a free GPS with your affordable Costa Rica Car Rental only if you mention you saw the video on WeLoveCostaRica.com

 

The passengers in the car should also be able to provide a copy of their passports, the officer cannot retain any of your documentation.

If you are in any doubt as to the conduct of an officer, call your car rental representative immediately for advice.

What Should I NOT Do?

  • Drive at night. Try to plan your journey to arrive at your final destination by 5:30p.m. to avoid driving after dark.
  • Park in badly lit areas. Find a secure parking lot and make sure that no valuables are left behind.
  • Leave valuables, loose change or anything else that might be visible to an opportunistic thief.
  • Drive or ride in the car without a seatbelt or appropriate child seating. You will be fined.
  • Drive onto the beach. This is illegal and voids all insurance policies.
  • Drive through rivers.
  • Drive under the influence as this too is illegal and voids all insurances.
  • Pick up hitchhikers — no matter how desperate they may look. Call someone instead.
  • Drive without due caution past pedestrians and cyclists, especially on unpaved roads where you can splash them on a rainy day or throw stones from your wheels.

 

Remember you also get a free GPS with your affordable Costa Rica Car Rental only if you mention you saw the video on WeLoveCostaRica.com

 

So what practicalities does one need to know about driving in Costa Rica? Outside of all of the crazy, no-rules stuff? Are there any guidelines to adhere to in order to make things as smooth as possible? Well, yes there are. Here’s a couple below:

  • Nighttime driving. This one is simple. DON’T. All of the craziness on Costa Rican roads is magnified at night. Not to mention there are more drunk drivers at night and potholes are harder to see. Not even the majority of Costa Ricans like driving at night at all.
  • Talking of drunk drivers, don’t drink and drive in Costa Rica. You need your wits about you enough, without driving while impaired. Just because it often seems like everyone else is doing this (and a lot do), doesn’t mean that you should. There are laws about drink driving in Costa Rica. In fact, they got harsher in recent years, which is a good thing. The only problem is that they are rarely enforced.
  • Accidents. In the event that you are involved in an accident in Costa Rica, the important thing to remember is to not move your car. In the US, Canada, Europe or wherever, the automatic instinct after a fender bender is to pull over to the side of the road to inspect the damage and swap insurance details and so on. In Costa Rica, this is prohibited. It’s about the one rule that is strictly enforced. In a collision, both cars need to stay in the same place in the middle of the road and not move until the police get there and interview both drivers. This blocks up traffic, coming and going, on both sides of the road, but those are the rules. Moving your car immediately afterwards can result in big trouble and possible jail time. Just know also that your car might be there in the middle of the road for hours until the police – and an insurance investigator – show up.
  • Your license. Foreign drivers in Costa Rica can use their driving licenses issued by the country of their origin for up to 90 days. After that, they either need to get a Costa Rican license or leave the country and reenter in order to use their home-country license for another 90 days. Getting a Costa Rican license is ONLY possible with official Costa Rican residency. Once residency is obtained, it’s easy to obtain a license by bringing your valid foreign license to the COSEVI office in San Jose (COSEVI is the Costa Rican equivalent of the DMV) and presenting that alongside your residency card and certificate verifying that you’ve taken the medical examination (available at the office), as well as a receipt for the COSEVI fee that must be paid in a local bank (around $20). Once you have all that, you’re good to go!

Keeping these four points in mind, as well as the aforementioned aggressive and adventurous attitude to driving talked about above, really sums up what you need to know about driving in Costa Rica. Pura vida!

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