Costa Rican drivers are generally a little more confident in taking risks and unfortunately a little less competent in driving skills than the average North American driver.
Some people claim that this stems from the fact that most are first generation drivers, that their parents may have owned an ox drawn cart but did not own a family vehicle, so please stay alert for unsafe driving such as overtaking on bends or speeding in poor weather conditions.
Anyone who has lived in Costa Rica for more than a year will know that in a traffic jam, the Ticos can create five lanes when in fact there should only be two but it does make for an entertaining travel experience.
How Do I Get There?
Costa Rican roads are often badly marked or without a signpost altogether. Street addresses are virtually non-existent and the directions to a place are normally based on local landmarks (e.g. it is 100 meters south and 50 meters east of the Rodriguez
To help you find your way:
- Ask your car rental company to send you a free good quality Costa Rica road map before you fly. You will also receive a map with your rental documents.
- Ask for GPS when you reserve your vehicle.
- A compass is useful, but remembering that nearly all Catholic churches in Costa Rica face to the WEST, making the entrance on the east, might help you to navigate in towns.
- Ask! It is always wise to ask more than one person for directions as it is culturally unacceptable a Tico to admit that he doesn’t know the way somewhere and you may find some locals who are so eager to help that they’ll actually send you the wrong way rather than simply admit that they do not know…
A useful route finder is YourTravelMap.com or you can call your car rental representative to assist in your journey’s organization.
Driving in Costa Rica: Where should I park?
You should park your vehicle inside the grounds of your hotel. Check when you make your reservation that the hotel does has secured parking. Outside of your hotel, try to park in well-lit designated parking areas with a guard.
You should expect to pay a small hourly rate for this service. If you are stopping somewhere en route without such facilities, then keep your vehicle within view at ALL times, including the far side.
How Do I Get Gas?
Gas stations are fairly easy to find in the Central Valley, but there can be some distance between them in more rural areas. Make sure you travel with plenty of gas. A gas station is called a bomba but please don’t practise using that word when you’re standing in line at the airport, OK?
The gas station will fill your gas tank for you; simply say how much gas you want and which type of fuel your vehicle uses.
- Always check that the counter is on zero before the attendant begins filling your tank.
- If you need to use the bathroom, please ask for the washroom key. The attendant usually has it.
How Are The Roads?
The shocking reputation of Costa Rican roads is due to the extreme weather conditions, years of poor maintenance using sub-standard construction materials with a little corruption thrown in too. However, there have thankfully been many improvements in recent years and it is far easier to get from Point A to Point B these days.
Road Conditions In Costa Rica
The first thing to know when it comes to road conditions in Costa Rica is that you’re not in Kansas anymore. If you’ve never driven or experienced the roads and infrastructure in a developing Latin American country before, then you’ll be in for a bit of a shock. This article is about trying to lessen that shock for you as much as possible.
If there were one word to describe the road conditions in Costa Rica, then that word would be “poor”. There’s no getting away from that. Outside of the new Ruta 27 highway – it’s still called “new”, even though it opened a few years ago now – between the capital city of San Jose and the Pacific port of Caldera, there are very few decent highways, and to be honest, it would be a stretch to call the 27 decent (but it’s about as decent as you can get in Costa Rica, and even has some good stretches!). The road south down the Pacific coast from Caldera to Palmar Sur, Ruta 34, also has some decent modern parts, as has too some stretches of the Pan-American Highway, Ruta 1, around Liberia in the province of Guanacaste; but other than that, decent highways are the exception rather than the rule.
So what is the rule, then? Well, as mentioned, the rule is that the roads are poor. Costa Rica is a mountainous, forested country, and most roads are just one or two-lane affairs that wind up and down and through some of the most beautiful terrain on the planet, which actually also happens to be some of the least-suited-for-roads terrain on the planet as well. The roads hark back to a time when there were very few cars in Costa Rica, and when the principal means of getting around was by horse or mule or oxcart. The topography and the design of these roads hasn’t changed much since those days, and as more and more people have been getting cars in Costa Rica, the worse and worse that additional traffic has made the roads. They were simply not designed for the volume of traffic that they now have to bear.
This traffic volume plus the tropical rains each year that cause landslides and flooding over many roads plus, of course, the lack of government funding to properly repair and fix them means that the first-time visitor to Costa Rica is likely to be shocked by the infrastructure in the country.
In the cities of Costa Rica – which for all intents and purposes means in the Central Valley where the Gran Area Metropolitano (GAM) turns the separate cities of San Jose, Alajuala, Heredia, and Cartago into one big urban sprawl – the road are better but the traffic is murderous. Basically, in the GAM, which is where the majority of Costa Ricans live, the expansion of the middle class over the last 20 years or so has meant that more people can afford cars, which means that there are now too many cars on the road. The streets throughout the GAM’s cities are narrow, potholed, and clogged up. San Jose has attempted to alleviate its traffic problems by alternating the days that cars can enter the city, depending on their license plates, but it’s still a losing battle. In all honesty, driving in San Jose or in the other cities is not recommended, especially when it’s so easy to get a bus, taxi or Uber into town.
In the countryside the roads are murderous but the traffic is better, except when traveling on some of the main arteries through the country such as the Pan-American or the route from San Jose to the Caribbean Coast. On these main arteries the traffic can be just as bad as in the GAM, as traffic backs up behind trucks that are driving slowly on the narrow, mountainous roads. Outside of these routes though, the driver will rarely see much in the way of traffic. They will see enormous potholes (the city and the countryside have potholes in common), and road washouts, especially in the rainy season and especially when the road isn’t paved. Many roads outside of the GAM are not paved and are just made up of either gravel or dirt.
The mountainous terrain and abundance of rivers in Costa Rica mean that there are a lot of bridges. Many rural bridges are poorly maintained and there are often stories in the local press about bridges collapsing. Bridges all over Costa Rica are the main areas where one will drive by construction crews, rebuilding or fixing bridges that have had problems, either through just overuse or the weather. Bridge repairs are another source of long traffic backups in the countryside, alongside being stuck behind a huge semi-trailer lumbering through the mountains at 10 miles an hour.
The other thing to take note of when talking about road conditions in Costa Rica is the lack of signs, either giving directions or telling you what speed you’re meant to be doing or letting you know about hazards ahead or anything like that. There is a dearth of them. The same thing applies with guardrails, both on mountain roads and on bridges, so extra care is definitely needed. This is one of the main reasons, as well as because of the general road conditions in the first place, why driving at night in Costa Rica is not recommended at all.
Costa Rica is a small country, and glancing at a map of it, one might think that it’s easy to get from coast to coast or from the northern border to the southern border in easy time. In the US, the freeway system, with its smooth blacktops and multiple lanes would allow you to get from any given point to any other given point within a territory the size of Costa Rica in no time at all. A few hours, tops. However, given the road conditions in Costa Rica being what they are, it’s necessary to realize that the ease and speed of how you’d get from A to B in the States is absolutely not applicable here. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.
So with all that said, yes it’s true that driving can be a frustrating nightmare given the road conditions described. But it can also be fun, especially for people with a good sense of adventure and who don’t stress out about being somewhere at a set time or getting lost – and most drivers do get lost in Costa Rica! All that’s needed is a understanding of the conditions and of what to expect, a full tank of gas, a decent 4×4, and a GPS application along the lines of Waze and you’ll be good to go. This article isn’t about trying to put people off driving in Costa Rica (although, if you’re a nervous driver who gets stressed out easily on the road, you should be put off, in all honesty); it’s about offering a realistic, truthful account of the conditions that everyone faces on a daily basis on the road network in the country. They say that knowledge is power, so if you’re considering driving around when you come to this beautiful country, consider yourself as of now a little bit more powerful. Pura vida!
Driving in Costa Rica: What to watch out for:
- Sticks or other obstacles in the road which may have been placed there to indicate an over-large pothole or to provide advance warning of a danger ahead in the highway, such as a broken down truck or landslide.
- Missing ‘Give Way’ signs at the side of a bridge or narrow section of road. If in doubt, give way to be on the safe side!
- Pedestrians, cyclists and dogs which can frequently appear as if from nowhere on roads which rarely have a sidewalk.
What Should I Do If I Get a Flat Tire?
There have been incidents reported of supposed good Samaritans stopping to help drivers change a flat tire, only to rob the occupants of the vehicle. Thieves target rental cars when they have stopped at a gas station, restaurant or tourist attraction and deliberately puncture a tire to provide an opportunity to hold up the stranded driver and passengers further down the highway.
If you do have a flat tire, keep driving slowly until you reach a gas station or a well-lit inhabited area before stopping to change it.
If you choose the right rental car company, you can always use your complimentary cell phone to call a car rental representative if you realize your tire is punctured and need assistance.
‘Must Have’ Useful Telephone Numbers:
- Emergency Services 911
- Ambulance 128
- Clinica Biblica (private hospital, San Jose) 2522-1000
- CIMA (private hospital, San Jose) 2208-1000
- Directory Inquiries 1113
- International Collect Calls 1175
- Visa 0-800-011-0030
- MasterCard 0-800-011-0184
- American Express 229-9494
- U.S. Embassy 2519-2000
- Canadian Embassy 2242-4400
Hoping To Rent An Affordable Car or SUV in Costa Rica?Call now on(800) 601-8806
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