To avoid mishaps or other grievances when driving in Costa Rica for the first time, one must be prepared, and the best way to get ready is to know what to expect. Being a foreigner and now a Costa Rican resident, I had my own share of mistakes while driving in Costa Rica. Below is a guide that I wish I knew before I started:
Right to Ride
Using an international driver’s license in Costa Rica is accepted, but not necessary. You can save yourself the trouble of applying for one and spending for it since Costa Rica allows any driver with a valid foreign license to drive within 90 days upon their entry into the country. It is important to have your license and passport (that shows the stamp from the immigration regarding their arrival date) while driving.
Despite the 90-day validity period to drive in Costa Rica, visiting foreigners or tourists should take note that their Costa Rican visas could expire sooner than the given grace period. To check on how many days you can stay, do visit the Costa Rican immigration site.
Know the Law
Much like the many other countries on the planet, cars are driven on the right side of the road. The speed limits (in kilometers per hour) are clearly visible on the signs on the side or painted on the main roads.
The most common signs you will see are “Ceda,” which is equivalent to “Yield” for merging into a traffic, and “Alto” which is “Stop” to give way to cars who have the right of way. A complete listing of road signs could be found in the COSEVI website.
When it comes to driving under the influence, anyone caught, especially those who were involved in an accident, gets instant jail time and a hefty fine. Besides from the speed traps officers monitoring the road for suspicious drivers, there are several checkpoints on the road on different parts of Costa Rica.
Embrace the Weather
As some locals say, Costa Rica can experience different seasons in a day, though technically there are only two: summer and winter. The morning could start off as sunny with clear skies, but towards the afternoon, it could start raining hard. At night, in lieu of a downpour, a mist or fog could linger until daybreak.
Typically, the rainy season, also referred to as the Green season, starts in May and lasts until November. The rest of the months are the peak season, though it’s not unusual to have a downpour every now and then during that period.
Be Familiar With the Road Conditions
Depending on the destination, the road could be winding along the outskirts of a mountain, crossing through a rain forest, or roughing it out on an unpaved
path. Do not be surprised to see an iguana or another wildlife creature crossing the road, just make sure to watch out and not hit them.
Despite the government’s effort to do away with the wear and tear of the roads, it is apparent that the upkeep is lacking in some areas. Due to the weather, heavy use, and lack of maintenance, potholes, uncovered manholes, and cracks are something to look out for.
Understand the Road Lingo
Having an effective communication between drivers could very well be what is needed to keep traffic fines and car accidents at bay. Besides from universal middle finger, other gestures could be misinterpreted and lead to unwanted collisions.
In Costa Rica, headlight blinking means a couple of things. The first is when an incoming car from the opposite lane blinks, the driver is simply putting out a warning that a police car was spotted ahead and it is on the lookout for speeding cars. A blink back or a quick honk on the horn from the opposite driver shows appreciation or a “roger that.”
On other circumstances, headlight blinking could either mean that the driver is asking for an OK to pass in front of you or giving you permission to a car to do so if you need to cross. The opposite driver could blink back to agree or wave the hand to say No.
The hazard lights are also used by the locals to communicate along the road. Besides the usual cautioning signal, locals use it to add more safety while driving. When the traffic suddenly slowed down, locals put it on to avoid being rear ended. Furthermore, hazard lights are turned on to say “thank you” to drivers who let them cut into the traffic.
Just a word of caution, not all drivers know the road lingo, despite that it is widely understood by the local drivers. There are cases when they become misinterpreted, so using one’s best judgment and Spider sense should be exercised always.
In Case of An Accident
Whether it is a fender bender or a major crash, help is just a 911 dial away. If the vehicle involved is a rental, it is also best to notify the company and ask for instructions. By all means, the vehicles involved must not be moved until the authorities arrive since they will need to assess whose fault the accident was and whose insurance will cover it.
As a rule of thumb, cars who rear-end the front car will be at fault because it is assumed that they should have maintained a safe distant. For petty accidents, some drivers resort to discreet settlements, though it is frowned upon by the law.
Thanks to modern day technology, getting around in Costa Rica just got easier. Using the navigation app Waze or GPS devices are currently the best way to locate places.
For those who prefer the old school way to find to their destinations, there are maps readily available in souvenir stores, bookstores, and some supermarkets. Renowned tourist spots have signs along of the road to show you the way and how far they are. Drivers can also ask locals on the street or restaurants for directions, though not all of them know or are comfortable in speaking any other language besides Spanish.
Costa Rica recently started putting names on their streets, besides the ones that already exist in downtown San Jose. However, locals might still use the old method of giving addresses, which is using landmarks and indicating how many meters away the destination is from there going in a certain direction.
All in all, driving in Costa Rica opens up possibilities of discovering new places and venturing around on one’s own terms. By weeding out and preparing for the thinkable bad driving circumstances, the entire experience could be a memorable one, in a good way.