How to Safely Drive in Costa Rica

How to Safely Drive in Costa Rica

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Costa Rica is a beautiful country with many fascinating landscapes and unseen spots. You can explore these places by taking public transportation. Or you can drive, which is a better option because you’ll have more freedom.

But you’re probably wondering what type of driving license you need to be allowed to drive in Costa Rica.

Driving in Costa Rica can be challenging if you’re just getting started. As in everywhere else in the world, you need to know the country’s driving regulations and safety procedures.

It’s also necessary for you to learn Costa Rican driving etiquette. Once you’re all set, you’ll be navigating in and out of the city in no time.

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General Safety Rules

If you’ve never driven in Costa Rica before, there are many important points you need to remember if you’re going to drive. These include:

  1. Cars drive on the right side of the road like in the United States.
  2. It goes without saying, never drink and drive — or else suffer dire consequences such as jail time and/or deportation.
  3. The rule when stopping at a stop sign is: first to arrive, first to go. Unlike in the US where the vehicle on the left is allowed to go first, in Costa Rica the first vehicle to pull up at a stop sign is the first one that gets to proceed.
  4. Make sure your car doors are locked while driving.
  5. Make sure you get a flat tire changed at a gas station or an auto repair shop, and get a new tire later.
  6. Right of way is pretty much nonexistent as most drivers ignore it. You will notice this wherever you are driving, including parking areas. A good example is when a vehicle suddenly starts to back out of a parking space while you are behind it, forcing you to back out too.
  7. Tailgating happens a lot, so it is best to always remain calm and maintain your current speed. Just stay calm — they’ll drive around you eventually.
  8. To safely drive throughout Costa Rica, it is best to drive defensively. That is, be aware of your surroundings and anticipate problems that may be caused by the weather or other drivers.

Driving License

To drive legally in Costa Rica, you need to have a driving license from your home country and a valid passport with a tourist stamp with you all the time. If you are not a tourist, you need to have a Costa Rica driving license.

You should have an official license; a temporary license is considered invalid.

Age

To drive legally in Costa Rica, you need to be at least 18. However, if you want to rent a car in here, you need to be at least 23 years old. These are common requirements by most rental car companies in Costa Rica.

Speed Limits

In Costa Rica, the system of measurement used is the metric system, so all vehicles have kilometers on the odometers.

Costa Rican roads have signs for speed limits, but drivers tend to ignore them most of the time especially drivers outside of the cities.

As an expat in Costa Rica, you should follow the speed limit at all times; getting a speeding ticket could cost you hundreds of dollars.

Speed limits vary and depend on the nature of the road and area where you are driving.

The minimum speed limit on Costa Rican highways is 40 km/h, which is indicated on signs posted along the roads.

  • Highway speed limit: 120 km/h
  • Secondary road speed limit: 60 km/h
  • Urban driving speed limit: 40 km/h
  • School and hospital zones driving speed limit: 25 km/h

Traffic Signs

Traffic signs in Costa Rica are in Spanish. Fortunately, they are in the same color and shape as in North America.

You’ll be able to guess the meaning of the sign even if you do not speak Spanish.

However, if you want to drive while living in Costa Rica, you should be able to learn all the important traffic signs to prevent accidents or problems with traffic police.

traffic signs costa rica
Important traffic signs in Costa Rica.

The traffic signs you will see a lot of include the following:

  • Alto (red octagon) = stop
  • Desvio = detour
  • Ceda el paso (red/white triangle) = yield
  • Despacio = slow
  • Una via = one way
  • Puente angosto = narrow bridge
  • Carretera en mal estado = bad road conditions
  • No estacionar = no parking
  • Velocidad maxima = maximum speed
  • No hay paso = do not enter
  • No virar en u = no u-turn
  • Cruce de animales (shows a picture of animals) = animal crossing
  • Tarifa liviano = lightweight fare; seen at all tolls
  • Calle sin salida = dead end

You can see a list of all important traffic signs in Costa Rica from this website.

Road Conditions

Road conditions in Costa Rica vary in different areas. Many of the roads are paved, except some backroads.

However, the roads in major cities like San Jose, Alajuela, Cartago, Puntarenas, Liberia, and Heredia are all completely paved and lined.

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The roads are also paved in beach towns and tourist areas, including Jaco, Playa del Coco, La Fortuna, Puerto Viejo, and Manuel Antonio.

Note that you will see very few stop lights as soon as you are driving outside of the capital city and on highways.

Driving in San Jose

In San Jose, there are almost two million people living and working in the city. That’s only a little less than half of Costa Rica’s population, so expect major roads to be backed up if you drive during rush hour, particularly in the afternoon.

If you can, avoid driving during rush hour in the morning and afternoon. The morning rush hour is normally between 5–7 am, while the afternoon rush hour is between 3–5 pm.

If you really have to drive during these times, remain vigilant and watch out for other drivers.

While in San Jose, you will see many roundabouts with many vehicles going around them in a disorderly manner mainly because there are no lines marking these areas. Drive carefully when in roundabouts as they tend to get unruly most times.

Note that not many drivers will use their blinkers or allow other vehicles to get ahead of them. You will often experience having many cars honking at you, but it is better to remain calm and patient than give in to pressure to hurry along and then get into an accident.

You can also expect that in most cases, drivers will cut you off and refuse to yield, which can certainly be annoying. So stay patient.

Occasionally, you may want to be assertive to get to where you need to be. This may, in fact, be necessary as the concept of yielding is foreign to most drivers and asserting your right of way is the only way you can move along.

Also, be warned that there are speed bumps (which may or may not be visible) in certain areas like schools and parks.

Driving in Highways

The highway system in Costa Rica is pretty decent, but it may not be similar to what you’re used to seeing in your home country. A highway in Costa Rica may be made up of one lane for certain distances.

Costa Rica’s main highway, the Interamericana highway 1, is the best in the country and has received a nice upgrade of two lanes in recent years.

Driving in Rural and Farm Areas

When driving in rural areas, expect very few paved roads, which usually extend from main rural roads. Also, sidewalks are unlikely to be found within these areas. There are, however, much fewer cars and a lot less traffic unlike in cities.

Don’t be surprised to see animals such as cattle and chickens crossing the roads as well as the occasional pedestrians.

As there are fewer sidewalks, you need to take precaution while driving through roads. Some roads are quite narrow and bike lanes aren’t very common.

Animal crossing Costa Rica
Watch out for animals crossing when driving in a rural area.

Take extra precaution when driving in or around farms as the animal population is rather large in such areas. Free-range chickens may be making their way to the other side of the road or a cow may have you waiting until it has crossed. You may even see the occasional sloth slowly crossing.

The rural area begins as soon as you drive out of each city’s limits. These areas will have vast rural areas, and you will also see fewer vehicles as you go further along.

Stay focused while driving as roads could turn into an off-road rather quickly, whereby you will then need to quickly merge back into traffic.

Planning Your Route

When you’re driving in Costa Rica, it is best to plan your routes so that you don’t encounter surprises and you get to your destination faster. Make sure to look up the road conditions of the route you are taking.

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Moreover, make sure you have the right type of vehicle for where you plan to drive. Driving a 4×4 is best for driving along off-the-beaten-path roads.

Dealing with Pedestrians

Pedestrians will happily wait for cars to pass before they cross the road. That is, when they do decide to cross, they may end up toward an oncoming vehicle and not around it. When this happens you should not be alarmed.

When you slow down and/or stop for pedestrians, make sure to send a signal to the other drivers to slow down by turning on your flasher lights.

When you are at an intersection or merging lanes, take extra precaution. Many drivers around you will not pay attention to what you’re doing and instead try to squeeze in without the courtesy of using their blinkers.

Making a Pass

Due to Costa Rica’s many one-lane roads, there may be a problem when big vehicles are going too slowly, whereby it may be necessary to overtake them to keep the traffic flowing. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s alright to overtake.

If you’re not quite sure you should overtake, feel free to wait and then overtake as soon as you see that it’s completely safe to do so.

And if other cars begin to overtake a vehicle up ahead, do not assume that it is safe for you to do so, too. The last thing you want is to get into a head-on collision. Always err on the side of caution; if you are overtaking a car, make sure that the car behind you will not do so the same time that you do.

Some drivers may not use blinkers when changing lanes. Look over your shoulder prior to changing lanes.

Driving Over Rivers

In Costa Rica, land around rivers and similar terrain might cause you to encounter potential water-related hazards when you drive along them. Often during the rainy season, you may find yourself having to drive over a river when driving along off-road areas. Keep these in mind when driving over a river:

  • Insurance through a car rental agency does not cover damage caused by water.
  • During the rainy season, flash flooding in rivers is common.

Driving over a river is never a good idea. Trust your gut not to go driver over a river if you have a gut feeling that it is a bad idea or if a river you’re about to cross looks like it’s about to overflow. In these scenarios, it is best to head back to safety. Sure, it may look like a fun adventure, but remember that danger is always lurking around the corner.

Safety should always be your priority.

Driving at Night

You may find yourself debating whether you should drive at nighttime. You may be concerned that the presence of animals on the road might make it likely for you to hit them. That’s certainly possible, but whatever you decide, always drive safely.

Some people might suggest to completely avoid driving at night. Know that the safety of driving conditions depends on the area where you’ll be driving and how far it takes to get to your destination. In any case, if you feel tired and unsure, then it’s best not to risk it.

While driving at night, make sure you keep an eye out for pedestrians as they may not be wearing any type of reflective safety gear. The same goes for people riding their bicycles; they will be riding along the road too so it is best to give them space when necessary, or you could slow down.

Road in Costa Rica
Driving at night can be difficult in certain areas since some roads are not paved and there are few traffic lights or none at all.

Driving long distances at night is never a good idea even if you have done it before, whether it’s rainy or dry season.

Ultimately, because of pandemic-related driving restrictions, driving a private vehicle is only permitted during the day.

In case you’re flying in to the country and arriving at night, you may opt to drive to get to your destination. Note that taxis are the only vehicles permitted to ply the roads at night because of the driving restrictions in place. No matter what the distance is and which airport you land in, taxis will have to be the ones to drive you to your destination.

You may be able to drive for a few hours after dark but not later than 10 pm. If your flight arrives at 10 pm or later, you’ll need to take a taxi.

Rainy Season

During the rainy season, you may want to avoid driving altogether particularly if you need to get to an off-road area but don’t have a 4×4 vehicle.

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Dealing with a Car Accident

Getting into a vehicular accident is never fun, and so is getting a ticket. If you get involved in an accident, it is best to dial 911 to inform the traffic police. If you are driving a rental, then you need to notify the company immediately.

Be suspicious of those who want to help you; more often than not, these people are hatching schemes to rob you. To avoid becoming a victim, wait for the police and stay inside your vehicle. 911 is reachable, day or night.

Moving vehicles off the roadway is only permissible under these conditions: if both parties involved agree to it; if one of the parties takes responsibility; if traffic is blocked; or if neither of the parties sustained injuries.

Dealing with Traffic Police

Being pulled over by the traffic police in Costa Rica is as common as waking up in the morning. The police can stop you when they feel the need to, without question. This is why you need to have your papers and passport with you at all times.

Traffic stops usually happen for a valid reason and usually involves traffic police looking for illegal substances. So as long as you are “clean”, you are safe in case you get pulled over.

If you don’t understand Spanish, prepared to be asked to show your passport and license. If they need to talk to you further about why you were pulled over, they will get an English-speaking officer to talk to you to prevent any confusion. In any case, being respectful will help in resolving things smoothly and expeditiously.

Whatever you do, do not attempt to offer a bribe. They can easily refuse your bribe, arrest you, and have you deported.

Similarly, an officer who tries to get you to bribe them in exchange for not giving you a ticket will be punished. If you find yourself in this situation, you should get the officer’s name and badge number, and report them as soon as you are on your way.

Getting ticketed can also add an extra expense on your car rental. This is because you will have to pay it as part of the drop-off process. The sooner you pay it off, the sooner you can board your flight.

When you fail to pay your outstanding ticket, you will get delayed in boarding your flight and you might even get detained for noncompliance. To avoid all that, pay your ticket.

Driving Codes

Driving codes are what drivers use to communicate with other drivers using vehicle lights. This is a commonly used mode of communication on roads. So if you see a car flashing light at you, you are probably being told any of these messages:

  • Police ahead: This signal is quite helpful and may prevent you from being pulled over and being given a ticket. This is how it’s signaled: a driver will flash their lights twice, one long flash and one short flash, to signify that there’s police ahead/incoming.
  • Thank you: If a vehicle signals for you to pass, then it is simple courtesy to say thanks. To signal thanks, turn on your emergency lights; the other driver will then blink their lights at least twice.
  • Passing others: This signal can be seen on highways and is meant for the slow semi trucks that are preventing the flow of traffic. Because it can be difficult to see the signal, the driver will turn a blinker on, which signals that you may pass them over while they wave their arm to say “go ahead”. When you see this, practice safety to avoid colliding with incoming vehicles.
  • Accident ahead: When there’s an accident ahead, the drivers ahead of you will flash their lights. This is also done for anything that’s blocking the flow of traffic.
  • Flashing the emergency light: If a vehicle ahead of you suddenly flashes its emergency lights, that vehicle is saying “approach slowly”. This signifies that the driver was forced to suddenly brake. This happens frequently for many different reasons.

Parking your Vehicle

You will see a lot of private and public parking lots in all the major cities. The paid parking lots will have guards while public parking spaces will not. To keep your car safe, you should park in the paid parking lot, especially if you’re parking overnight. That way, you can rest assured that your car will still be there the following day.

If you’re driving outside of the city limits and have to park your vehicle at some point, you might have to park in the nearest available space. You will see many cars parked in the strangest places, such as in front of stores and taking up three parking spaces and with their emergency lights on.

In such an instance, the driver will likely be in the market shopping and completely unbothered by the bad parking. Just move along and find other parking spot.

Tickets are handed out for parking violations and parking with expired parking meters. Meter maids are common in Limon, so always make sure your meter has sufficient time allotted while you conduct your business.

Also, you should choose to park in areas that are well-lit and as close to other vehicles as possible to prevent break-ins. Never leave valuables inside the car and always make sure it is locked as you exit.

Obtaining Driving Directions

While driving and getting to a certain location may seem easy, knowing the address and navigating your way there is an entirely different story. This is because addresses are more commonly found using a point of reference instead of using street name and house/building number to locate them.

So when asking for directions, you will likely be told a certain amount of meters from where you need to go.

Having GPS will help you find a location as well as by using Google Maps, which is pretty accurate.

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You can also just rent a GPS and program it with your destinations. If you rent a car, you can have a GPS included. If you are unfamiliar with GPS, then you can have the rental associate program it for you with the destinations you want.

Highway Toll Booths

Toll booths are located along the main highways and exit points toward locations at the coast. Toll fee amounts vary and are generally inexpensive.

Toll payments must be made in cash and preferably in Costa Rican colons; this will make the process a lot easier for you and the toll collector. That said, if all you have is US dollar, you can still pay using it. You will just need to be patient because your change will be in the local currency at the current exchange rate, which the toll person will have to calculate.

As you drive along the highway, you will see a warning saying you’re approaching a toll plaza, that is, when you see a sign saying “Peaje” along with a list of toll prices for every type of vehicle. Make sure you line up in the appropriate line for your vehicle type. Also, don’t go to the lanes intended for vehicles with a toll pass or you may risk getting a ticket for not paying.

Filing your Car’s Gas

Because the metric system is what’s used in Costa Rica, gas is measured in liters. The current price for a liter of gas is 750 colones, which is a little more than US $1.20.

In Costa Rica, gas stations are manned by gas attendants; customers then wait inside their vehicle. The process is simple: after you pull into a gas station, you turn off your car and the attendant asks you how much gas you want.

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