I get this question all the time, “Should I rent a car when I come to Costa Rica to drive myself?” That is actually a very good question. When we came to Costa Rica for the 1st time in Nov. 2012 we brought a friend with us who has a son who lives here with his mother. He is familiar with the area and how they drive here so it was a win for us. He made it seem so easy. He found everywhere we wanted to go, driving was a breeze for him and it just seemed so simple.
We go home and decide this is the place for us. Our purpose of our trip was to look at houses and to live here for 10 days to see if we would like it. We did! Feb. of 2013 we moved here. Our friend Will made driving here look so easy I decided I would rent a car. We get into the airport at 8pm. Great! We head out and can’t seem to find where to go pick up our car? Damn! We walk though the parade of taxi and bus people trying to get us to use them. We finally walk past all of those and are looking around. Nope nothing. So I call and they send a pickup for us. Great!!! Now we are on our way.
We get to the rental place and get all signed in and they get our car ready. A nice gentleman puts our bag in the car. I am talking to the rental agent and trying to get directions to our hotel. He gives me this map (I am horrible with maps!) OK, no problem he writes on it which directions to go and tells me to go out turn, than turn at the end of the road take it down past the bridge and yada yada yada giving me land marks to look for in true Tico (I didn’t know this than) fashion. Many times they use places like the Coke factory (Which has been closed for years) as a land mark, but luckily the sign is still there. Or you get turn left after the cow tied to the big mango tree. Sorry for people if that farmer ever lets that cow loose or has it for dinner. Off we go me thinking I can do this! My wife thinking, “Oh God we are never going to find this place!”. She knows me so well.
We get in the car and off we go. OK made the turn, yep I see the bridge OK going good. Wait what? That’s not a road! Keep going. Oh wait maybe it was. Nope didn’t look like one and there was no sign. Keep going, and going, and going. Nope I think we missed it.
So to make a long story shorter than it already isn’t. We arrive at 8 pm we didn’t get to a hotel (not ours) until midnight. After driving and driving and driving I stopped and asked a taxi driver to take me to the hotel. Well little did I know there were two of them with that name so he took me to the old one not the new one. I got a room and the actual hotel send a car in the morning to take us to the right hotel that was and I kid you not 10 min drive from the car rental place! Yep that was our 1st adventure in Costa Rica. I did however get to see a lot of Costa Rica that day! Back to what this article is about.
We have now been hear in Costa Rica for 1 year and 5 months! I have learned a number of things that will help you should you decide to drive yourself here in Costa Rica. Before I give you my top things you need to know one of the basic things you need is a course in defensive driving! You will need it! Here are my top things to know about driving in Costa Rica.
1. Laws we don’t need no damn laws! All traffic laws are just suggestions. You come to an intersection with a stop sign, expect someone isn’t going to stop! Be careful of any intersection no matter if it is a stop sign, a red light, a flashing yellow on their end, it doesn’t matter. Always check and be on the look out. Now should you be caught in violation of those rules you will be stopped and fined. So follow them, but know others may not!
2. 2 Wheels Cool and 4 wheels drool! 2 wheel vehicles will come out of no where and dart in and out like nobody’s business. They will cut you off, they will come up behind you and along side of you even if there isn’t really a lane on either side. They are going to be hard to see and God help you if you are not on the look out for them. They seem to think they rule the road and they really do not have to pay attention to any rules at all! None!
3. Honk if I’m sexy! Oh yea! They love to honk their horn! All the time and for any and all reasons. In the states we were always taught that you don’t honk unless it is an emergency! Here if you sit 2 seconds past the light changing they honk. They like your car they honk. You are going to slow for them they honk. They want you to get the hell out of their way they honk. They win the world cup match they honk like mad!!!! That one I understand! Go Tico! They didn’t win but they did one hell of a job. They see a pretty girl or a nice looking guy they honk. I think you get it they honk a lot!
4. Leap Car anyone? If there is a car in front of you than you must pass it! It doesn’t matter if they are going the speed limit if they are in front of them they must speed up and pass any vehicle that is in front of them. I totally understand when there are slow moving cars or those big trucks that can’t do the hills. If I am going 10 km over the speed limit and you still feel the need to pass me you go right ahead. Make sure you honk at me as you pass me as well. 🙂
5. Chicken anyone? Watch for vehicles coming at you in your lane!!! Again the whole passing thing. If they have to drive in the wrong lane to pass they will do so and will do so as long as they feel they can. I was driving on day and we had two lanes on our side and there was a very slow moving 18 wheeler on my right side lane so I was in the left. There was only a single lane for the oncoming traffic and it was a down hill thing. We had a double yellow line meaning neither I nor they should cross as well all know. Well good luck with that. A truck pulls out into my lane to pass the 18 wheeler and 3 other vehicles that were in front of him moving slowly down the hill. So I keep going and going and he is getting closer and closer and closer. Finally I had to speed up to pass the cars on my right so that I can swerve to the right so that he misses me by inches and he cuts off the 18 wheeler to miss me. Vehicles coming at you in your lane is not uncommon here. Either for passing or because the road on their side is so bad they need to move into your lane. Its just how it is.
6. No Hay Paso (gringo speak Do not enter one way) Yea ok sure! remember rule number 1. I can’t tell you how many times vehicles have come the wrong direction on a road just because it is quicker. I understand it to a point because sometimes in towns the way they have roads flowing just doesn’t makes sense. If it say do not enter don’t enter just because you are in a hurry.
7. Here a Tico there a Tico everywhere a Tico. Yes most don’t have cars so they walk everywhere. Day, night doesn’t matter the time you will have people walking in and along the street. Why? There are no sidewalks really. So driving at night can be a little dangerous as some like to walk in the road and wearing all black!!!!!!! Some do have reflective gear. Some don’t. People will ride bikes everywhere they go as well so they fall under rule #2 above. Now most people on bikes do wear reflective gear or have something reflective on their bike and some don’t.
8. Bark, Bark, Hissss, Moo, and Cockadoodledo. When driving please, please watch for the animals. There are a lot of street dogs that wonder the roads, or just sit in the middle of the road. That one I don’t understand as you would think as hot as it gets here the road would be so hot for them. Not sure how they can stand to do that. Most won’t chase your car. I always say if a dog barks at your car and chases you its an expat its not from here. Yes dogs, cats, cows, horses, rooster and chickens can all be found wondering the roads. Not just the back roads, but the main highways as well. So don’t think just because you are traveling a highway like 27 that there won’t be an animal or two or 20 that you must contend with!
9. Stop Police! There are a couple different types of police here, but for this article I will only speak about the Traffic police. There are usually somewhere a check point setup. If you are here for a few days or a week or living here now you will at the very least see one. If they step out and wave you down stop!!!!! You really don’t want them to come chance you and they will. They are checking to see if you are here legally. They will ask for the drivers passport and valid drivers licenses. Now a couple schools of thought on this. Most will only carry a copy of the front of their passport and the current visa stamped page. I hear that is ok. I carry my actual passport. I have heard stories of the police taking the actual passport and requiring you to pay them to get it back. I have never had that issue (*knock on wood) I also have only been stopped 1 in 15 months. The one time I was stopped my passport was in the back seat in my man purse. Yes I have a purse and I am secure enough to admit it! 🙂 They did let me get it, but he was willing to accept my wife’s as well who was sitting next to me. So up to you, but stop if they stop you! Only the traffic police can give you a ticket. The regular policía are for criminal activities only. The tráfico policía can only stop you for traffic violations. Now the tráfico policía are usually accompanied by regular policía at the traffic stops so that if you are in violation of immigration rules or criminal laws they can lock you up.
10. Last and by no means least! GPS systems actually do a fairly decent job here. Not wonderful, but most do work. So if you have one and it has Costa Rica maps that you can download you should do it. Get that done before you come and bring it with you. Do not leave it in plain site or anything of value when you leave your car. There is one system that I happen to love! It is called Waze! If you have a smart phone download it! You will love it. Our GPS is about 90% accurate with roads and such but Waze is 99.99% up to date at all times. Its great! If you have data on your phone it will give you live up to date traffic conditions from accidents to traffic stops! All entered by other Waze members as it happens. It really is great!
So, that pretty much covers it. I am working on compiling some video’s of how they drive here and once I get that done I will post it. I have a lot of footage to go though to pull out the specific examples so that is going to take a while to get done. I will get it done and post it here. So enjoy visiting Costa Rica and driving here. Really just use your head and be alert at all times and you should be fine. Think of it this way if you get lost what an adventure! Be sure to stop at the local places where you are lost and check things out, takes some pictures and enjoy it! Sample the local food and maybe just maybe if you don’t speak English you will run into someone who does and they will help you find your way. Even sometimes when you don’t speak Spanish you can still get a taxi driver to help you out like I did! Just pay them for their meter to take you where you need to go! That is what I did! Oh I almost forgot make sure you rental is a min. of 6 cylinders under the hood or you could be one of those slow moving cars on the road!