Driving in Costa Rica – The Ultimate guide

Driving in Costa Rica

For a first-time visitor, driving in Costa Rica can be a scary experience. Tourists often prefer public transportation due to its safety and security.  However, this can be a great disadvantage for individuals following a schedule or looking to explore the city. 

Having a car in Costa Rica allows you to go wherever you want, whenever you want; opening up a world of possibilities. With a little education and experience, driving in Costa Rica can be a thrilling experience.

Things you need to know while driving in Costa Rica 

There aren’t a lot of legal restrictions when it comes to driving in San Jose or Costa Rica in general. Some documentation you need is: 

  • Your passport and visa, or a copy of it 
  • Your international driver’s license or a Costa Rican license 
  • Vehicle registration 

When it comes to driving, Costa Rica is very similar to other countries. Lanes are marked with double solid lines, signs are used to display warnings and speed limits, and basic driving etiquette is followed. 

If you are an experienced driver, driving in San Jose, Costa Rica should be an easy task. However, it might take some time to get accustomed to the road etiquette of the country.

Drivers usually prefer a laid-back approach and often bend safety rules for their convenience. This can be troublesome for tourists accustomed to law-abiding drivers. 

The roads in Costa Rica will also take some getting used to. Depending on your location, roads can vary from smooth highways to dirt roads ridden with potholes.

While driving in San Jose can be a pleasant experience void of bad roads, other cities in Costa Rica are often riddled with poorly constructed roadways. 

To ensure you are prepared for reckless drivers and unideal roads, there are certain things you must take into consideration. 

Street Signs

Street signs are important indicators for drivers. They help you understand the requirements for the area you are driving in. However, during your stay in Costa Rica, you might notice that signs are often lacking around the country.

Major streets in San Jose are sometimes littered with signs or on the walls of buildings, but more often than not, street signs are nowhere to be found.

Signs are somewhat of a novelty in rural areas and seaside communities. While you could notice signs indicating how far away a town is, a road or highway will rarely be labeled with the route number. Highway exits are also renowned for being inadequately marked or having extremely small signage immediately before the turnoff.

You can make up for the lack of street signs with a traffic app, such as Waze, a digital or physical map, or a GPS. 

Hazards to Look Out For – Driving in Costa Rica 

Driving in Costa Rica can be extremely hazardous. There are several concerns a driver should look out for; such as weather conditions, local crime rates, driving etiquette, and other such safety issues. Here are popular dangers new drivers in Costa Rica face, and how to deal with them. 

Pedestrians and Other Drivers 

Many residents of Costa Rica do not own vehicles and rely on walking or cycling to get about. In the breakdown lane of main roads, you will often see men with machetes coming home from work and families with children in tow. Alongside keeping an eye out for oncoming traffic, always be on the lookout for stray pedestrians. 

Pedestrians are used to crossing the streets with active traffic and are not accustomed to drivers stopping for them, thus make sure you don’t cause a rear-end accident with an immediate break. 

Other common modes of transportation include motorcycles and dirt bikes. Some motorcycles are not capable of reaching the same speeds as automobiles.

When a car comes up behind them on the highway, these drivers will often pull over to the right to let them pass. If this happens to you, simply leave when it is safe.

Be wary of motorbikes and scooters weaving in and out of lanes in the breakdown lane of San Jose, where there is a lot of traffic. Oftentimes the bikers get close enough to cars to nearly cause an accident. 

Safety Precautions You Should Know

Costa Ricans have some interesting ways of communicating if something is wrong on the road. Potholes, for example, are frequently marked with whatever is laying around. Oftentimes a palm leaf or large stick with a processed food packet as a reflector can be spotted protruding out of a hole. 

Locals are accustomed to cutting large leaves or sizable branches from the side of the road and placing them in the middle of the road as a road cone. This alerts drivers of any calamities on the road such as broken down cars or sharp turns. 

Drivers in Costa Rica are accustomed to using subtle warnings, such as flashing hazard lights, to alert others behind them of a problem up ahead. This can be useful for fast drivers approaching backed up traffic. The standard flashing of the headlights to warn approaching vehicles of a problem is also common practice.

Driving Etiquette in Costa Rica

To new drivers, the road etiquette in Costa Rica can be extremely dangerous and oftentimes pose a large risk. However, if you are looking to drive in Costa Rica, it is better to adjust to the environment instead of trying to control other drivers. This can lead to severe accidents and bodily harm to you and those around you. 

Driving in Costa Rica can be tricky, but if you remain cautious and alert of your surroundings it can be a pleasurable experience. 

Avoid driving lengthy distances at night until you’ve gotten used to driving in Costa Rica. Street lights are used sparsely across the country. Add small, twisty roads with no guardrails to the mix and driving after dark can be downright terrifying.

Most minor bridges in Costa Rica are one lane wide to save money. This means that in order to pass, you must take turns with the oncoming traffic. Usually, stop signs are placed on one side of the bridge, and drivers from that side are expected to wait their turn. 

However, the basic rule is that whoever arrives first has the right of way.

Rather than cars rotating one at a time, the entire group of cars approaching from one direction crosses at the same time, while the cars on the opposite side wait their turn. After all of the cars have passed, the other side can proceed.

To prepare for these bridges, be on the lookout for Puente Adelante (Bridge Ahead) signs. 

Dealing with the Police and Emergencies 

Police checkpoints are routinely set up along major highways, especially near international borders. They may choose to stop every vehicle individually or in groups of a specified number.

Most of the time, all they want to know is where you’re going. They may occasionally ask to view your passport.

Don’t be concerned; these inspections are common, and most tourists in rental cars are just waved through. If you are stopped, cooperate and you will soon be on your way.

If you are involved in an accident, contact 911 as well as your rental car provider. Your rental car company should provide you with a brochure containing all of the necessary emergency phone numbers. However, if this is not the case, do not panic and ask locals around you for help. 

If you end up in an accident, make sure you do NOT move your car. Moving your car after being in an accident is against the law in Costa Rica, regardless of whether you are blocking traffic or have civilly resolved the issue. Make sure you contact the police so they can conduct a thorough investigation. 

The police and an insurance agent will arrive to inspect the collision and damage, and a representative from the rental car business will assist you and provide you with a new vehicle.

Off-Road Driving Risks in Costa Rica 

There are things a driver in Costa Rica should look out for outside of risky drivers, accidents and miscommunications on the road.

Oftentimes rental cars in Costa Rica are targeted by mobs of thieves or other small criminals. This is why you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep your guard up even outside of the car. 

When you rent a car, that vehicle becomes your responsibility. This is why there are certain offroad precautions one must take while driving in Costa Rica. 

Always park in a safe space – Driving in Costa Rica 

Avoid empty parking lots and random parking spaces in deserted areas. Ruffians often look for easy targets and cars they can steal without drawing too much attention.

If you park in a crowded or active area, the chances of your car being stolen are less than they would be in an abandoned place. 

Do not hand over your car to strangers. 

This is a given and might seem like common sense, however, tourists should be wary of who they hand their car over to.

While driving in San Jose or Costa Rica in general, make sure individuals such as the person on the valet counter, employees on a gas station, etc. are wearing a uniform before you hand over the keys. 

Do not leave your belongings on the car seats 

Thieves are more inclined to steal cars that have belongings, such as phones, purses, or necessities, on the car seats. Make sure you lock away all your belongings before you exit the car, and if possible, purchase a car cover to ensure people cannot peep into your vehicle at night. 

Driving in Costa Rica is an adventure. If you follow the rules, make certain safety precautions and get accustomed to the drivers in Costa Rica, it can be a fun and thrilling experience.

Read More: Why Is Costa Rica Best For Remote Work?