The Ultimate Guide to Driving in Costa Rica

This is a guest post by Jeremy Martin, devoted husband to Annie, CTO at InfiniteTakes, and struggling WordPress designer for Not Just Abroad.

The Part with the Anecdote

As no surprise to regular readers here, Annie and I recently completed a 12 day vacation in Costa Rica. One of the “travel tips” that we learned some years ago is that without your own form of transportation, you’re invariably limited in your attempts to explore areas off the beaten path (or otherwise outside of your hotel’s overpriced tour bus route).

For us, freedom in the transportation department usually translates into picking up a rental car. For me personally, this additionally implies some time spent in advance reading up on local street signs, “rules of the road”, and other basics, like, you know, what side of the road to drive on.

Let’s use that thought as a segue into something more Costa Rica specific, then. You see, as I eased out the clutch and we made the transition from the rental lot to the busy streets of downtown San José (note the diacritic – we’re not talking about California, here), it rather suddenly occurred to me that I had completely forgotten this critical preparation step. Less verbosely, I had no idea how to drive in Costa Rica, and yet there I was… driving.

And so it was that we logged the first of our nearly 1,000km on Costa Rican pavement, rocks, dirt, and sand, and the most fun driving I have ever had.

Beautiful View from a Costa Rican Road
Much of Costa Rica’s beauty lies off the tourist track, waiting to astound you around the next corner.

The Part with the Driving Tips

In just about every sense of the word, driving in Costa Rica is a foreign experience. I’ve been behind the wheel in 16 states and a handful of other countries, but nowhere else (thus far) has offered such a unique feel.

The quality of the road infrastructure in Costa Rica might best be described as inconsistent. While the major freeways are actually quite nice, the conditions can change quickly and dramatically upon exiting to city or county roads. Our travels in particular saw us driving through and between San José, Quepos, Arenal, Sardinal, and Liberia, as well as a substantial amount of exploration of the surrounding areas. While this by no means establishes me as an authority on the subject, there are a number of tips we gathered along the way, and I’m happy to pass them along here.

Signs

Fortunately, there’s little need to enumerate every traffic sign you’ll see in Costa Rica; most of them follow typical international conventions (the big red octagonal sign means “stop”), or are readily discernible by their graphical representation. Obviously being able to read Spanish is a bonus here, but at least in my case that wasn’t a strict requirement (whew!).

To give you an idea of the signs you’ll encounter, the Policia de Transito website offers the following mashup of Costa Rican regulatory signs:

Costa Rican Regulatory Signs

If the meaning of any of these aren’t clear to you, then I suggest a quick Google search for the relevant phrase.

Like I said before, and as can be seen above, most of these signs are pretty obvious based on their graphical representation.  That being said, we did see a few signs here and there that were text only.  These are the specific phrases I recall seeing like this, so take a moment to ensure you’re familiar with them:

“NO HAY PASO”: While not a literal translation, this one is the equivalent of our “DO NOT ENTER” signs. Again, most of these are accompanied by a very clear graphic —no translation necessary— but not all of them.

“CEDA EL PASO”: Basically, “yield”.  We saw these printed in “text only” form by several bridges, whereas most of the time it’s a familiar-looking upside-down triangle with red border.

“PUENTE ANGOSTO”: This literally translates to “narrow bridge”.  As is discussed further down, these “narrow” bridges are often a single lane, and are therefore accompanied with the previous sign, CEDA EL PASO, if your direction is required to yield to oncoming traffic.

Schools

Keep a lookout for schools, which can take any form from multi-building campuses, all the way down to single-room shacks. Nearly every town you pass will have one, and most are marked by paint on the road (and occasionally speed bumps), but not with street signs. Conveniently, our Garmin nüvi was also able to warn us when approaching school zones.  This should go without saying, but school zones are obviously associated with a reduced speed limit, which you’ll need to pay attention to.

Speed Bumps

Speaking of speed bumps, they’re not always marked. While most of them have yellow paint, we managed to find quite a few that offered no advanced warning (which, when coupled with the lack of lighting along many roads, lets them blend in quite easily at night).

Bus Stops

Along with the schools, the other most common causes for reduced speed zones are bus stops, which are plentiful. Interestingly to us, it’s not too uncommon to see non-buses make stops at them as well. We’re not sure if this was just a culturally-acceptable form of kindness amongst strangers, small village dynamics, or simply an easy way to get the bus fare for yourself. Either way, pay attention, as often times the “bus stop” requires stopping in the middle of the road.

Speed Limits

Speed limits are posted in kilometers per hour.  The speedometer on your rental (or other locally-provided vehicle) should be in kilometers per hour as well.

One Way Bridges

They’re all over the place, and they really are one way. The most important thing to remember here is that one direction of traffic always has a yield sign (“CEDA EL PASO”, remember?), while the other direction gets the right-of-way.

Single Lane Bridge

Be Aggressive. B-E Aggressive.

This is perhaps an appropriate time to mention that Costa Rican driving tends to be much more opportunistic than stateside. Compared to the relatively cautious driving you might expect to see when two oncoming vehicles approach a single lane, in Costa Rica this often closer resembles a game of chicken.  That’s not to say it’s chaotic or reckless; it’s just time to bust out your inner aggressive driver. Know who has the right-of-way, and be assertive if it’s you.

Fuel

Gasolineras and Tipping

While there’s certainly not a shortage of gas stations (called “Gasolineras”), the distances between them can be long in certain areas.  While we were there, we aimed to keep the tank at least 1/3rd full. This proved to be more than adequate (if not bordering on paranoid), but it did contribute to our peace-of-mind when were were 80km from the last station, and ??km to the next.

Similar to states like Oregon and New Jersey, you can’t actually pump your own gas.  An attendant will ask you how much you want (a combination of Spanglish and hand gestures is sufficient to communicate “all the way”), and they’ll request a form of payment from you afterwards. Plastic was accepted at all the stations we went to, although we opted to use cash.

Tipping the attendant is up to your discretion, but… just tip them, OK?  Again, the amount (if anything) is up to you, but we usually went with a ₡1.000 bill (worth ~$1.85 at the time).  If the attendant went the extra mile and took care of the windshield, we doubled it, which was met with very large smiles.

Cost

At the time of writing this, the average price for gasoline in Costa Rica is a hefty $5.30 per gallon.  You can calculate a more current cost for yourself by visiting this site.  Just keep in mind that the numbers reported there are per liter, so you’ll need to multiply by 3.78541 to get to gallons.

Tolls

Despite all the driving we did, we only encountered one toll road, Hwy 27, which stretches all the way from San José to the Pacific coast.  According to Explore Costa Rica (my own memory isn’t quite sharp enough for the details), there are four toll booths along Hwy 27:

  • Ezcazu: ₡320
  • Guacima: ₡480
  • Atenas: ₡640
  • Pozon: ₡490

In total, you’ll pay ₡1.930 each way ($3.56 at the time of writing this).

4-wheel Drive

Get it. If you’re staying within the confines of a city like San José or Liberia, you can get by without it.  If you plan to explore at all, though, get 4-wheel drive.  This is doubly important during the rainy season.

Dirt Road in Costa Rica
This road got thrice as steep and at least 3 times narrower. Now imagine a torrential downpour. Get the 4-wheel drive if you’re going to be exploring.

Assuming you are going to be renting a car, I highly recommend this guide by Anywhere Costa Rica.

Parking

Parking was actually one of the stranger aspects to us at first.  Given the fact that you’re reading this, you’ll probably be playing the role of tourist, and therefore visiting some of the tourist attractions.  Most of the time, you’ll be looking at either a pay lot, or parking on the side of the road somewhere with a random person demanding money.

A Warning About Pay Lots

Not really a whole lot to expand on here: the cost should be clearly posted, and security is typically provided.

Don’t get suckered into parking too far from your destination, though.  When we visited Manuel Antonio Parque Nacional, we got waved into a lot by a vest-wearing “official” in a park shirt, who informed us that it was the only public parking.  Things didn’t quite smell right, so we hesitantly got back in the car and continued down the road, while the lot attendant yelled that we wouldn’t be welcome back.  A few hundred feet further, someone tried waving us into another lot. And then another, and another, etc.  Well over a mile later, we finally arrived at a lot (cheaper than the first) within 100 feet of the park entrance.

Take from that story what you will, but don’t be afraid to question what you’re being told, especially if everything doesn’t seem to add up.

Random Roadside Parking

Roadside parking is common for public beaches and other tourist attractions.  At many of these spots, you’ll encounter one or more individuals asking you to pay a marginal fee in return for them keeping an eye on your car.

If you’re clearly not in a private / pay lot, then paying is up to you.  However, smash-and-grab car theft is fairly common, and clearly marked rental cars are particularly popular targets.  So, our philosophy was that we’d rather not add the unofficial lot attendant to the list of people to worry about.  We were informed that this is actually a primary source of income for many Costa Ricans.

We did, however, opt to “name our own price” whenever the requested fee was exorbitant. Some of the more aggressive attendants aren’t afraid to put the pressure on, so don’t be a push over.  Hand over an amount you’re comfortable with (₡1-2.000 should be sufficient), say gracias, and be on your way.

Parking at Playa Grande
Parking at Playa Grande. It was “free”, but we opted to pay the attendant (and bought some of his coconut drinks!).

In any case, there’s no guarantees, so don’t leave your valuables in the car.

Traffic Violations

Inside Costa Rica offers a nice roundup of various traffic violations and the fines they incur.  Be sure to give it a read for a more thorough rundown, but here’s a few quick ones:

Speeding: violations start at 20kph (~12.3mph) over the limit, with fines going up from ₡47.000 (~$87.00).

Hands Free Law: expect a ₡280.000 (~$517.00) fine if you get caught talking without a hands free device.

Driving under the Influence: the blood alcohol content limit is 0.5 grams per liter of blood (effectively .05%).  Note that this is stricter than the .08% used by most states.  If you measure at or over the limit, you can again expect a ₡280.000 (~$517.00) fine.  Note, however, that if you are at or above .075% BAC, it’s time to call the consulate, as you’re looking at a 1-3 year prison sentence.

Side note: be aware that the police are not authorized to collect a fine directly from you, although there are occasional reports of less-than-ethical law enforcement officials attempting to do so.

Again, feel free to check out the article for additional information, but in general you’ll find that Costa Rican traffic laws are quite reasonable.  Don’t be an idiot, use common sense, and you’ll be fine.

Have Fun!

Like I said at the start, I’ve never enjoyed driving more than in Costa Rica.  Maybe it was just getting to release all my pent-up aggressive driving, or the rush of negotiating cliffside, single-lane, washed out roads, but I loved just about every aspect of it.  Take the tips and cautionary tales for what they are, but don’t let them dissuade you from experiencing one of the most beautiful countries on the planet with the freedom that only your own transportation can provide.  Be smart, drive safe, and have fun.

Deer crossing the road

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