Driving in Costa Rica – What’s All the Honking About?

That familiar early morning sound drags me from sleep again — is it the dawn’s chorus from brightly colored song birds, the low rumbling roar of howler monkeys beginning their daily fruit foraging? Nope.

It would be the school bus beeping its horn so that my neighbor’s sleepy teenager can stagger out of home and slump back into slumber on the way to the high school in the next town. The Costa Rican doorbell as it is sometimes called, is the habit of sounding your horn outside the home of the person you’re picking up. Why leave the car and knock on the door when you can just blare from the street?

Car horns have a variety of uses, some of which you may be familiar with, but not all of them have anything to do with driving. There’s the kind greeting horn, which is more efficient in smaller towns than pausing to inquire after the health of every friend, acquaintance and neighbor that the driver may pass. It is a quick beep accompanied by a wave of the hand.

If the driver’s identity is in question, simply nod and raise a hand in response. The sudden sounding of the horn as I am strolling down the street has jolted me out of plenty of thoughts — enough times that this hand wave reaction has become automatic. Although in my short-sightedness, the drivers could have been greeting the person behind me, in front of me or even all of us at the same time!

For me, the most heart-stopping use of the horn is at traffic lights. I call this the roadrunner horn, for it signals the immediate acceleration from zero to 40 KMPH. I absolutely hate being the first in line at traffic signal. My palms sweat with anticipation, knowing that if I do not pull out at the same moment that the lights turn green, there will be a barrage of blasting of horns from behind me.

The day I stalled at the lights, the noise was deafening and accompanied by exasperated shouts from taxi drivers who couldn’t believe that they were forced to wait for a few seconds before moving. Naturally, the more frazzled I became, the more I fumbled with the ignition key, until sweet relief, the engine started — just as the lights turned red.

I pulled my sunglasses out of my glove box and cranked up the radio in an effort to block out the noisy outrage from the line of traffic behind me. It is worth reminding yourself that these apparent road rage lunatics revert once they exit their vehicles, restricting their horn access privileges, to become the same smiling and friendly Costa Ricans that you meet daily. When behind the wheel of a car, there is a transformation, true to scale to Jekyll and Hyde!

The best horn use though is celebratory; the newlywed honks. After a big soccer game, it is obligatory to drive around in a car with your friends and family dressed in team attire, hanging out of the windows while you hold the horn down or blast out chants on it.

Case in point, Costa Rica’s successes in the World Cup held in Brazil this year led to the whole country being drowned out as jubilant Ticos parading through cities and the countryside with their horns blasting out loud and long!

Other countries in Central America might see such blatant horn use as aggressive so use discretion outside of Costa Rica, where the legal restrictions on horn blowing near hospitals, clinics and schools seems to be virtually unknown or at least unheeded. Honk at your own pleasure here!

So get some practice on beeping your car horn before arriving and you’ll blend right in with the locals!

(Important note from Scott: Please and I mean PLEASE remember that this tip is for driving in Costa Rica and not other countries in Central America where using your horn “to signal your displeasure” could get you shot! – I am not kidding!)

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