If you’re planning to drive during your next visit to Costa Rica or you just moved in and are about to explore Costa Rica, you’ll discover that some of the driving habits and the mentality of the Costa Rican drivers are very different than the ones you have gotten used to back home.
In this guide I will go straight to the point and tell you the main differences you’ll experience when you drive in Costa Rica.
I agree that the best way to get around Costa Rica is by renting a car (we have an exclusive discount for our readers) so let’s try to make our driving and walking experience more enjoyable and safe.
Here’s part two and a more in depth guide to driving in Costa Rica. Read part 1 for road signs, road conditions, what to do in emergency and driving restrictions.
Important facts about driving in Costa Rica:
- In Costa Rica you drive on the right side (just like USA or Canada).
- Driving signs are in Spanish and in kilometers.
- The normal speed limit on the highway is 90 Km/h.
- Driving tickets are expensive so avoid getting one. For example you can go to jail if you drive with .76+ alcohol in your blood or pay more than $500 for speeding +120km/h.
- Always be alert and drive defensively. You might find dogs wandering around the main roads, potholes and lots of drivers doing whatever they want.
- In my opinion driving is the best way to get to know Costa Rica.
Differences Between Driving in the City and Rural Areas
This is one of the most common questions we get on the blog when it comes to driving in Costa Rica. There are huge differences between driving in San José downtown or Heredia than driving in most of the touristic places.
There are more than 1.5 million citizens who live and work in San Jose, representing almost half of the total population in the country. Therefore the main roads are always packed during rush hour and traffic is terrible.
My advice is to avoid driving in the cities during rush hour but if you want to visit, try to go from 9 am to 3:30 pm. You’ll still run into traffic but it won’t be that bad.
On the other hand if you are in Guanacaste or other touristic areas, the traffic is more fluid and easy to drive though. Also, in rural areas you’ll notice that some locals don’t wear helmets when they ride a scooter/motorcycle or they fit the whole family in a scooter so be extra careful when you drive in these areas.
Tips for driving in Costa Rica for the first time
Whether you’re renting a car or you just got your own, it’s important to understand the Costa Rican driving mentality before you get on the road.
Driving in Costa Rica isn’t as difficult as say, India but it it would be better if you keep in mind the next tips for driving in Costa Rica so you have a great and safe time.
- There’s no such thing as a 4 or 3 way stop. All the stops (“Alto” in Spanish) are normal as in you have to stop and then you can go.
- Costa Rican drivers aren’t as kind as most of the drivers in North America. If you’re on the highway and you’re going to change lanes, your blinker will mean almost nothing to other drivers. Make sure to look 3 times before you do.
- Road conditions aren’t the best but they’re good enough to drive from point A to point B. Just be aware you might encounter some pretty bad potholes. If you see the car in front of you slowing down and driving around something, there’s a good indication there’s a big hole.
- Some roads don’t have painted lines. If you are in a situation like this assume there are cars coming on the other side of the road. I have seen accidents happen because of this.
- Some Costa Rican drivers think that they’re ready to go to Nascar so if you see a guy tailgating, just let them pass. Usually they are not smart and going slow or speeding up will not do anything to back them off.
- People are not used to cars to stop for them when crossing the road, so don’t be scared if you see a pedestrian getting too close to your car, they are just trying to cross the road (try to give the space so the other drivers will watch and hopefully learn).
- If you stop to let pedestrians cross the road, be aware of the cars behind you. They might not know that someone is crossing so they could pass you and hit the pedestrian. Flash your emergency lights to let them know.
- When parking you will notice that Costa Ricans get very close. Just be aware when you park and choose a wide space. I always try to leave half a car distance so no other car will park in front and to have space to move away.
- If you’re driving in the city at rush hour or in a traffic jam, be very careful at interactions or the merge areas. Other drivers will completely ignore you and just try to jam themselves in front of you without using their blinker or checking.
- Assume that every car/bus/bike/person is going to walk out in front of your car without looking.
- Pay attention to the car in front of you and take note of whether their brake lights are working or not.
- Always check your mirrors before pulling out, its not unusual for someone to be overtaking 4-5 cars at once.
- Check oil and water levels at least once per week.
- Best “GPS” app for Costa Rica is WAZE.
- Make sure you have an emergency kit in the car which includes enough food & water for 2 people for 48 hours.
Here are some pictures I took from a recent drive through the city. These kinds of traffic jams happen pretty much in all the major cities and most of the drivers (not all of them) act like the ones in the pictures. My intention is to show you the truth and not to discourage you to drive, just try to avoid the main cities 🙂
What to do if a police officer stops you or you have an accident
In Costa Rica, anyone can drive with their home country driver’s license as long as they have a valid “tourist visa.” Make sure to have a color copy of your passport and the entry stamp or your original passport.
- If you have an accident, call your rent a car company immediately. Some people will try to approach and help you but use your common sense. There have been some cases where people act like they’re helping but instead rob the person. Keep your values with you and remember, the emergency number is 911.
- Do not drink when you drive. You can get yourself in serious problems so do not even think about having one or two beers before getting behind the wheel. You never know what can happen and the last thing you want is to get thrown in jail in a foreign country.
- If a police officer stops you and you don’t speak Spanish, try to speak slow and as clear as you can (not louder). All the police officers have access to an English line in case they need it. Just be respectful and don’t try to bribe a police officer. You might have heard stories that you can but you can get yourself in trouble if the police officer refuses and reports you.
Also make sure that the police officer who stops you is a real police officer.
If you get a ticket, call your rent a car company and start the payment process as soon as possible so you won’t have problems in the future.
Costa Rican Driving “Lights vocabulary”
If you see cars flashing their lights, they are actually sending a message. This is the Costa Rican lights vocabulary which I’ll explain.
- There is a cop ahead of you: This is very useful and it might save yourself from a ticket. If you’re on the highway and you see the car coming from the other direction flashes their light twice (one short, one long) it means that a cop is ahead of you.
- Thank you: Let’s say that the person in front of you slows down to let you pass, we usually say thank you by turning on the emergency lights for a few seconds (blink 2 or 3 times).
- Pass me: I’m not a big fan of this one but just in case you see it you’ll know what’s going on. When you drive on the main highway you’ll see big semi trucks going really slow. Since it’s hard to see, the driver will turn on his left blinker to let you know you can pass him. Like I said I don’t like this one but it’s very common.
Directions in Costa Rica
If you are driving in Costa Rica, you will see that addresses are a little different than in the United States, Canada or the UK.
Costa Ricans use referral points to get to places and these kind of directions might not work for a tourist. You’ll see addresses like “From the kids hospital turn left 3 blocks and as soon as you see the leather boots factory turn right and your destination is the second yellow building on your left.” Many times they are something like “200 meters west of the bus stop.”
You’ll find these directions all throughout the country. Main roads and destinations have signs but it’s recommended to rent a GPS or if you have a smart phone with data (using a pre paid sim card), download an app called WAZE. It works very well in Costa Rica.
Extra Tips! How to Cross the Street in Costa Rica
Walking is way easier than driving but it will be better to keep these tips in mind. You can’t just look both ways once!
- Most of the drivers will NOT stop for you to cross the road. It is very different than the USA or Canada. Just a few drivers will stop for you especially if you’re a woman but still be very careful if someone stops for you since other drivers might not know that you’re crossing.
- Cars will get as close as they can to you. The 3 to 5 feet rule here doesn’t apply in most cases so don’t be surprised if you’re touching cars as you walk
- Some roads don’t have a pedestrian path. If you are in that situation, walk on the left side of the road where you can see the car coming towards you and vice versa.
- You will see many locals waiting in the middle of the road. I don’t recommend doing this. Look both ways several times to cross the street, not just one side of the street.
If you want to see Costa Rica and explore as much as you can, driving in Costa Rica is the best way to get around. You won’t have to rely on public transportation which isn’t always reliable outside the city and you can go wherever you want. In my opinion renting a car is the best option since you’ll save time and will be more comfortable.
The most important thing to take away is to drive defensively, don’t drink while driving and stay alert. City driving is hectic but most visitors don’t stay in San Jose very long for this reason. In the rural areas and small town, driving is much easier and less crazy.
Have as much fun as you can in Costa Rica and I hope these tips for driving in Costa Rica were helpful. If you have further questions, please leave a comment and we will answer you as soon as we can.
Happy driving !
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