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Driving in Costa Rica

Updated on April 23, 2013

Photos from Costa Rica

One of the ferries in Costa Rica
One of the ferries in Costa Rica
A street in a small Costa Rican town.
A street in a small Costa Rican town.
Some of the secondary roads are challenging.
Some of the secondary roads are challenging.
A paved road in one of the town of Costa Rica
A paved road in one of the town of Costa Rica

What is it like to drive in Costa Rica?

Prior to visiting Costa Rica, I practiced being a ‘good tourist’ and read up on the country and its roads. In doing homework on driving in this central American nation, I encountered many horror stories about what driving their roads was like. I had some concerns, since I visited during rainy season, which is the time when the roads are at their worst. After ignoring half the stories, I decided that I was ready to take on the challenge of driving in Costa Rica.

The first reality is that the insurance coverage on rental cars provided by American companies is of limited or no use in Costa Rica. You will need Costa Rican insurance rather than some policy written by a company out of Ohio. No matter how many, but I thought, or but, I was told, or but the website said…it does not matter. In Costa Rica, they want Costa Rican insurance. Given the numerous horror stories I read, I went ahead and opted for the ‘official’ Costa Rican insurance. Once this challenge was settled, I was on the road. Many of the rental companies offer the services of GPS, at a fee of course. I opted out of the GPS and chose the old standby of a map and a compass.

In Costa Rica, you will find yourself driving on the right side of the road and having steering wheels located as on the American version of cars. You will also find many models of cars on the road that you are not familiar with. Sure, you will see an occasional Chevy truck, but be prepared for many models from Toyota, Ford or other car makers that you are unfamiliar with.

The roads are notorious for sudden changes in speed limit and lanes suddenly changing. When you are driving during daylight hours, this is not a major challenge. At night, when sight is more limited, the sudden changes pose a greater hazard. These changes are manageable. What made things more challenging was the frequent twisting and turning of their roads. You can take off on a road, thinking that you are headed north and with a few turns, you are headed south. Such changes in orientation and direction may leave you wondering if you are on the correct road.

The main highways are definitely preferred over the secondary roads. The secondary roads are not always marked well, if marked at all. The directions on major roads are marked, yet not always at every intersection that you wish they were. You may have to remember which city you were headed toward and what comes between that city and where you are.

Speed limits often change quickly and for no apparent reason. Although the signs indicate schools or some other reason, those reasons are not always visible. When the roads twist through hill cuts, it becomes apparent how dangerous landslides can be. When the ground grows too wet, the hills fall down. It really is that simple. During rainy season, you have daily rains, so the possibility of dirt or rocks falling as you go through the hill cuts is high.

Like many American cities, you will also encounter drivers who go as slow as possible on any thoroughfare. There are also those that will pass you, no matter how fast you are going. Along with these types, there are the slow moving trucks, tractors and other items associated with farming communities. There are also the locals who often walk to where they are going. Since there are few sidewalks, they often walk along the side of the road. So as you are driving, you have to be careful of the ‘Ticos’ as the local are called in this nation.

Besides these road hazards, Costa Rica also has speed cameras that monitor your speed on portions of their highway. There are websites that alert you to where these cameras are, so they do not need to be a major concern for you. Besides the cameras, there are also toll booths on the major highways. The tolls tend to be small and are only a minor inconvenience. Many of the rental cars have toll tags that allow you to sail through the toll booths, which makes travel less interrupted.

There are parts of the country where the roads are marked clearer than other portions. Since they do not have the duplicate and triplicate road signs that you encounter in the United States, you have to pay greater attention to the signs that you encounter. The signs that alert you to the road number that you are on are not nearly as frequent as what you are used to, so you have to remember the last sign that you saw.

One of the most confusing hassles I encountered were the ferries. With the ferries, you have to be at the landing prior to the scheduled departure. Once at the landing, you have to find someone that has the tokens. You ask for a token. Once you have the token, you can then purchase a fare for the ferry. You have to pay for each person and the vehicle. With each fare, you are given a receipt. Once you have the receipt, you have to present it to another person, who allows you to line up for the ferry. Once lined up, you wait. When the time arrives, you are allowed to either drive or walk onto the ferry. If you drive, you will have to leave your car, since no one is allowed in their car during the ferry ride.

I found it confusing trying to locate the right person to obtain a token. My assumptions were that all one had to do was pay the fare and all was fine. Paying the fare is only allowed when you have the tokens. Although I found the whole process confusing, the locals navigated through it like there was nothing to it. Fortunately there are not very many ferries that I encountered.

Many of the secondary roads are unpaved, or suddenly end their pavement. When the pavement ends, you will need to be ready for the rough and bumpy ride that follows. The unpaved roads have many ruts in them. There are also wash outs where running water cuts rivets across the roads. In some locations, the secondary roads cross streams and rivers. You will need to study your map and know where these crossings are located.

Although there were many challenges encountered in driving through Costa Rica, none were insurmountable. It is possible to drive in Costa Rica without losing your mind or your cool. Remember that you are in Costa Rica, and that just because you are in a hurry does not mean that the locals need to be in a hurry as well.

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