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Costa Ricans drive on the right side of the road with traffic rules and signs approximating those of the United States and Canada. However, the country’s challenging terrain and sometimes subpar road infrastructure means drivers should expect to maintain a high level of concentration behind the wheel.
Is it safe to drive from the United States to Costa Rica?
It took us several trips to gain the courage to finally get behind the wheel. But once we did, we never went back. Having a car in Costa Rica gives you the freedom to stop and go as you please, opening up a world of possibilities. Here are our tops tips for driving in Costa Rica.
Also be sure to have your passport or a copy handy in case you get pulled over. Lanes are marked with double solid lines when passing is not allowed, and hatched dotted lines when passing is permitted. Speed limits in kilometers are posted with signs, though usually not as frequently as what we were used to in the US. Seatbelts are required. Children under the age of 12, subject to certain height and weight limits, are supposed to be restrained in car seats or booster seats.
Although these are technically the requirements, enforcement is another issue. The rules are bent everywhere you go. Road Conditions Roads vary from well paved two-lane highways to pothole-ridden dirt roads with treacherous river crossings. While many areas are accessible without four-wheel drive, many are not.
We have two posts on road conditions that will help you decide what type of car to rent. Road Conditions of Specific Routes in Costa Rica gives up-to-date info on the conditions of popular routes. This covers the two major routes and has video clips showing what the dirt roads are actually like. In rural areas and beach towns, signs are also somewhat of a novelty. While you may see signs letting you know how far away a certain town is, it is rare that a road or highway will be marked with the route number.
Exits along highways are also notorious for being poorly marked or having very small signs right at the turnoff. For these reasons, we recommend that people using our Rental Car Discount add a Wifi stick or GPS to their rental or use some type of map program on their phone.
The Waze app is popular because it takes traffic and construction into account. Costa Ricans use Waze a lot, so it is usually really updated. Having a hard copy map is also not a bad idea just in case GPS sends you in the wrong direction. Another thing to keep in mind is that pedestrians do not have the right of way.
If you do stop, just be careful not to get rear-ended. Motorcycles and Dirt Bikes Motorcycles and dirt bikes are other popular ways to get around. On highways, these guys will often pull way over to the right when a car comes behind to let them pass.
Motorcycles weaving in between traffic in downtown San Jose Potholes and Road Hazards Costa Ricans have some unique ways to convey that something is awry in the road. For example, potholes are often marked with whatever is lying around.
Many times, locals will cut a big leaf or small branch from the side of the road and lay it in the road as sort of a road cone. This keeps traffic from getting too close to a broken down car or warns drivers that something is around a sharp corner. Creative Use of Hazards Locals often put on their hazard lights to let the car behind them know of a problem up ahead. To signal oncoming traffic of a problem, the standard flashing of the headlights is also common practice.
Tractor Trailers Costa Rica is in a major shipping route from Panama to North America and also has major ports on each coast so tractor trailers frequent many of its roads. What they consider safe and what you do might be different, though, so pass with caution. Passing One of the biggest things to be aware of when driving in Costa Rica is unsafe passing.
We have seen too many overturned tractor trailers and had many close calls ourselves not to emphasize this point. The fact is, a lot of people pass without much regard to oncoming traffic. You will see people passing uphill, on curves, and in other places where it is not possible to see if an oncoming car is approaching. We always try to leave enough space between us and the car in front of us so that we can avoid an accident and also go the speed limit so that we have time to react.
Couple that with narrow, curvy roads with no guardrails, and it can be downright scary to drive after dark. When we bought our first car in Costa Rica , we had to drive it back along a curvy mountain road that recently had been paved. Not painting the lines may sound like a temporary problem but sometimes it takes road crews months or even years to get around to it.
Nervous about driving? Leave it up to someone else by taking a shuttle. Shared or private shuttles are a great option for getting between destinations. We even wrote a whole post on how these work that you can read here. You can also check our Shuttle Transfers Booking Page to compare rates and book your dates. This means that you have to take turns with oncoming traffic to pass. Technically one side of the bridge will have a yield sign and cars on that side are supposed to wait their turn.
The general rule, however, is whoever gets there first has the right of way. Instead of cars rotating one at a time, the whole group of cars coming from one direction cross at the same time, while the cars on the other side wait. Once all the cars have gone through, the other side can go. These bridges sometimes come up fast so be on the lookout for Puente Adelante Bridge Ahead signs. River Crossings Some rural areas of the country have roads that require river crossings. If you do decide to cross a river, always be sure to wade through first on foot to check the depth.
If the river is tidal, check the tide charts before setting out to time your crossing right. Crossing a small river near Nosara Police Checkpoints Along major routes, you may see police checkpoints set up, often near international borders. They may stop every car or one every certain number. Sometimes they will want to see your passport. Accidents If you get in an accident, call and your rental car company. Your rental car agency should give you a pamphlet with all the emergency numbers you need.
Also be sure not to move your car. This is so that the authorities can do a proper investigation. The police and an insurance agent will come to assess the accident and damage, and the rental car company will come to help and give you a replacement car. Gas Stations Gas stations are located throughout the country but are sometimes spaced out.
If you need air in a tire or washer fluid topped off, just ask. One safety tip for gas stations is to always watch the attendant to make sure they zero out the meter before pumping your gas. The majority of attendants are honest but there are a few bad ones out there. Protecting Your Valuables Rental cars are targets in Costa Rica because many of the models are the same and easy to identify. But you can keep your valuables safe by following a few simple steps.
The first is to never leave anything in sight inside the car—even things with seemingly no value. This goes for at the beach, the grocery store parking lot, or anywhere else. Thieves are sometimes watching from afar and will strike even in the time it takes to go from your car to bring back the shopping cart.
Always lock your doors and bring your valuables with you; otherwise, leave someone in the car to keep watch. Can you spot the non-rental car? Secondly, try to find safe parking. A lot of restaurants, national parks, and other tourist attractions have attendants to watch your car. Sometimes they are paid by the business, but usually they are just self-appointed watchmen and this is their primary job. As an example, the parking attendant at Carara National Park once told us about some tent-making bats hiding under a leaf that we had walked right by.
Parking Restrictions Something fairly new to be aware of are parking restrictions. The crazy thing is that when they do find a car parked illegally, they not only issue a parking ticket, but they also remove the license plates. It is a real pain to get these plates back. From what we have heard the process can take weeks and several trips to faraway offices. Usually the traffic police are looking for cars along the street that have parked in a restricted zone, like too close to a fire hydrant, taxi stand, loading zone, or bus stop.
These areas are usually marked with yellow paint on the curb or with a sign. Some cities and larger towns also require paid parking along the street. These areas are marked with signs. Instead of a parking meter, usually you will have to purchase a small piece of paper to stick in your windshield.
Sometimes it can be tricky to find the papers for sale so you may have to ask a local business. If you are uncomfortable with this process, we recommend driving around a bit until you find a private parking lot. There are often plenty around, especially in areas where parking on the street is hard to find. Have you ever driven in Costa Rica? What did you think? Cost of Traveling in Costa Rica — What to expect for hotels, restaurants, tours, and transportation, plus tips to help save you money.
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