Driving in Costa Rica

Please see why you should come and visit Costa Rica

Created: prior to 2018

For many countries, like Canada and USA, your driver’s license is good in Costa Rica, unless you stay a long time (months.)

While I have driven in about 15 countries around the world, both right and left side (and both right and left vehicles in both types of countries), most of my experience is driving in Canada and the USA, so my comments are biased heavily based on that. If you come from another country, please consider how my advice may be incorrect for you.)

Most of the rules are the same as I am used to. Costa Rica drives on the right (right hand, and from our perspective the right – correct) side of the street, the steering wheels are on the left hand side like we expect.

If you are not used to driving around the world, you probably will want to let someone else drive you the first time you come. But if you are comfortable driving in several places around the world, you will find Costa Rica to be in the ‘normal’ range.

Drivers are more aggressive than I am used to in ‘polite’ Alberta, but I’ve driven in US cities where the drivers are just as aggressive as Costa Rica. I find it a little unnerving the first few hours, but I get used to it quickly and learn when to be pushy and when to be polite. (I do get honked at from people behind when I let buses in, and when I’m ‘too polite’)

Pedestrians do not have the right of way usually. (They might legally, I don’t know, but in practice they don’t.) If you stop for a pedestrian, they show concern on their face, like they think you are waiting for them to cross and then you are going to run them down.

Pedestrians will start gaining momentum to pass behind you, if you brake for them, both you and they will be thrown off, and the driver behind might hit you.

So, be careful, and after a few hours of driving in a city, you’ll catch on to the pattern. When renting a unit, be careful of road descriptions. There is one location that my wife and I tried to drive to in 2018 that describes itself as “Located near the end of a short but rugged semi-private road” the “short” road was at least 3 km (over 2 miles) long and, at the point we decided to give up and turn around, we saw a couple with their child who had abandoned their car and were walking through the deep mud with their carry on luggage – I’m not sure how much further the very nice hotel was – but I’m sure the phrase ‘rugged’ lost it’s exotic appeal when walking through mud.

In San Jose, instead of removing asphalt and putting down new asphalt they often just put down new asphalt, but things like man hole covers are not raised to the new height so you end up with many dangerous holes that are 4 inches to 12 inches deep and give you quite the jaw rattling experience, not to mention losing hubcaps and damaging your vehicle.

Also someone removes some of the grates from a storm drains leaving 3 foot deep holes that are very dangerous. At speeds fast enough to not get stuck, it feels like it is knocking the fillings out of your teeth and can do serious damage to your car. At low speeds you can get stuck in them and unable to get out without a tow or several helpful bystanders to lift/push you out. Drive with caution!

There are many big bumps for slowing traffic down. These are called “humped zebra crossings” in some places. If you hit these too fast, your car will drop down when the 1st wheels go over and hit the top of the bump. Most people choose to slow down quite a bit before going over these, then they speed up.

In the rural areas, there are a lot of dirt and gravel roads. If you are used to driving all on pavement, you may be horrified by the quality of these roads. Indeed, the road from Sámara and Nosara to Prados del Sol is paved in places, a total of about 1/3 of the distance, the other 1/2 to 2/3rds is a ‘gravel road.’ If you are used to nice country gravel roads – you too may be shocked at the quality of the roads. In my area of Alberta Canada, there are two places you can find roads this bad: The forestry roads, and occasionally some of our lesser travelled gravel roads in the middle of spring. Lots of potholes (drive slow), and if you get onto the dirt roads – in the rainy season ‘mud roads’ would be a better name.

The gravel roads, like the 2/3rds parts going to Prados from Sámara and Nosara are navigable even in a small car all year round. But the mountain roads and the dirt roads in the rainy/green season need a 4×4 vehicle.

The road from Sámara and Nosara to Tamarindo and Playa Conchal along the coast, the ‘costal highway’ can now be navigated even by a small car (in 2008 it needed a 4×4 due to all the river crossings – but it now has bridges for all but one river.)

So, driving in Costa Rica is a bit of an adventure if you are used to wide, paved roads everywhere.

The speed limits are all in KPH – Kilometres per hour, so if you are from the US, it may be a bit of a change. However, the rental cars, like most of the world including Canada all have the speedometers in KPH so it really isn’t that hard, just check your gauge. Also the speed limits are lower but the roads are more curvy, so most of the time it will feel like speeds you are used to – regardless of whether you are used to MPH in the US or KPH in Canada etc..,

  • Speed limits on unmarked roads ‘in town’ are 25KPH (about 16MPH)

  • Speed limits on unmarked rural roads are 60KPH (about 35MPH), this includes the ‘Costal Highway’ – a road that most people from Canada and the USA consider a pothole filled alleyway.

  • On the few paved ‘highways’ expect to travel no more than 1KM at a given speed. On the number 1 highway, expect to go up and down from 40KPH to 90KPH. Don’t be surprised when the speed limit jumps up to 90KPH (60MPH) for 200 metres (200 yards) and then back down to 60KPH for 200 yards and then down to 40KPH just 200 metres further!

Travel times in general will take longer than most people from Canada/US are used to.

For those not used to Metric, here are some working tips:

  • 60KM on paved roads will take you 1 hour to drive (or a bit longer) just like 60MPH will take you 1 hour or a little LESS to drive in the US.

  • 100 metres (also known as 0.1 kilometers) is about 100 yards. (Technically 100meters is a bit longer – but really – can you point out something that is 100 yards away?)

  • GPS’s in cities will tell you ‘turn in 200 meters’. 100meters is about 1 city block. So 200 meters is about 2 blocks.

  • In Canada and the US, there are about 16 city ‘blocks’ in 1 mile. Which is convenient – because it turns out that a kilometer is 1.6miles – so in the US and Canada, city blocks are more or less 100metres apart.

  • Bonus: 20C is what many people around the world consider ‘room temperature’ – about 70F. But unless you have air conditioning – don’t expect the temperature to be that cold.

CEDA – means Yield. This will often be written on the road before 1 way bridges. Sometimes it will be on a triangle sign which will help you learn it.

ALTO – means STOP. Most of the time it will be on a hexagonal sign, but sometimes it will just have ‘ALTO’ written on the road with a line in front of it … the ‘stop’ line.

DESPACIO – slow down

ADELANTE – means ‘ahead’ as in ‘Intersection Adelante’

ADELANTAR – means ‘ahead’ as in ‘to pass’, as in DO NOT ADELANTAR.

There are areas with Double solid lines – this means ‘do not pass’. Many people do, and many accidents occur. Think twice, and then once more before passing and possibly killing someone. Take life easy in Costa Rica, and be careful of idiots passing illegally that may head on collide with you. ‘Being dead right’ isn’t worth it.

Imagine narrow lanes, shared with motorcyclists, bicyclists and people walking with ‘no concern’ knowing that no one will hit them … And it is worse at twilight and dark, I couldn’t believe how many cars, motorcycles, bicycles and of course pedestrians walking with no lights. You may be in ‘the right’ when you kill them … but you probably don’t want the mental stress or the insurance headaches, so just be aware. I recommend, until you get used to driving in Costa Rica, don’t drive at twilight, in some ways that is the hardest to see pedestrians and other ‘unlit’ objects, animals etc.., Just pull over into a Soda, or find some other activity to do to pass the twilight hour. Side note: The twilight period is much shorter the closer you get to the equator – while Sunsets in my part of the world often are a 1 hour or longer event, they are only minutes long at most in Costa Rica.

Oh, and don’t forget the livestock – chickens, horses, cows as well as dogs and a few cats. If you hit a chicken – pay the owner for it even if you think you are in the right, the owner is probably very poor and that may represent a week or more of protein. And in general, just drive in a way that you won’t hit them.

River Crossings. Over the past 10 years (2008 to 2018) there have been a lot of bridges put in place on the ‘costal highway’ and others making the roads much more passable. There are still some river crossings though, and you need a vehicle that can handle it if you want to go down THOSE roads. Some river crossings are shallow (in the dry season) and rocky – almost any car will do, others are muddy and/or deep and you need a 4×4 – if that can even do it. If you do get out to check the depth before driving through … remember crocodiles. Check before you go out in the water, if you don’t know how to check – don’t go out, turn around instead.

When you are traveling in places such as Nicoya to Sámara and Nosara, you will find that frequently the speed limit drops from 60kph to 40kph. Most of the places it drops to 40kph are either one way bridges or heavily populated areas. Very few people slow down to 40kph – don’t be one of the idiots. There are places, school zones, that drop down to 25km (this is 15 miles an hour). Take note that school times may be different than you are used to. It may be too extreme, but I assume dusk to down for those school zones. I have never seen the exact times they apply to, and when I asked a Tico he said “I don’t know, probably they go to school at 7am, noon and 5pm. It was 5:30pm and over the next 15 minutes near Nicoya we saw 3 school busses dropping kids off.

Now, if you follow my advice and drive at (or even close) to the speed limits, especially in the 40KPH zones, you are going to have people pile up behind you – people who want to go faster. Don’t be ‘the jerk’ that tries to force other people to obey the law. What I do, and I recommend is: every few minutes, find a safe place to pull over, let them pass, then move on. It won’t cost you much time, and it might save a life; (not you directly killing them, but by others passing you when they shouldn’t have, because frustrated drivers will frequently pass where it is clearly not safe to do so.)I know some people think it is your responsibility to enforce the speed limits, but it isn’t. So … let them pass, and live to enjoy another day.

If you want, have fun driving at 60kph, there are places, such as from Nicoya to Sámara and Nosara, where going at the speed limit is a bit dicey in places but a lot of fun. But make sure you ALWAYS remember this: There might be a pedestrian or bicyclist around the next corner traveling VERY slowly. So make sure at all times that you can slow down or maneuver to avoid hitting them. If you are a less aggressive driver than me, just take those sections a bunch slower.

If you are traveling on a road based on your map (computer or paper) and you hit a T intersection, and there may be no indication, no signs, telling you which way to go – generally, look at your 2 choices and choose the road that is ‘the same quality’ as the road you have been traveling on.

Funny side note, traveling up to the number 1 highway, at the famous restaurant Tres Hermanas (Three sisters), we were surprised that there was no signage at the intersection. I guess it was ‘obvious’ that the road was the #1 highway, and obvious that you turn left (west) to get to Liberia and turn right (east) to get to San Jose. But it was a definite surprise to us that there was no signage at such a major intersection between 2 highways, one the most important highway in the country.

Don’t be surprised when in San Jose that you will be on a named highway when the road is a narrow road only allowing travel in one direction at a time due to the cars parked on both sides of the road. Don’t assume it is the wrong road just because it looks like a small town road.

You will see lots of signs that have three black dots on them. Best I can figure out, it means ‘danger – you aren’t going to get out if you go off the road on this side”

Make sure you have waze, in Latin America, Google maps has not enjoyed the accuracy of waze - not sure why given Google owns both! But you'll be glad you switched from google maps to waze

In Costa Rica - you do not want to park illegally. The police are empowered to take your license plate if you park illegally, and if you are renting a car, the rental agency will charge you (plus costs for their inconvenience) to make it all right with any fines and fees.

Having said that, there are NO beaches where you have to pay to park. If there is a parking spot at the beach - you can park.

Having said that, at many beaches there are Ticos who will try, sometimes extremely persistently, right in your face. They will tell you that for a fee, perhaps $4 (2000 colones) they will watch your car to make sure it doesn't get damaged. This may sound like extortion, quite simply because it is. Please do NOT feel sorry for them, do NOT pay them anything. They won't actually watch your car, and fortunately, I've never heard of any of them damaging your car if you don't pay the extortion (probably because it would get reported to the police and the police would come and chase them away - I've see a couple beaches where there are police in the parking lot, and their comment to me was - no you don't pay us, we are here to get rid of the people trying to get you to pay them.)

It is even worse when there are 2 competing extortionists, once you pay one, the other will see you as a hot commodity and tell you that they will protect your car from the guy that just ripped you off.

In 2024, Feb, the guy at Gionnes beach was reaching new heights in annoyance - blowing a shrill whistle for hours. I suspect to get people to leave the beach in annoyance - freeing up the parking lot for more people he can extort. There were 2 guys working a tag team (note that means that enough people pay them enough money to keep up the annoying business.) He ruins the experience when you are trying to enjoy the sound of the waves with his shirll whistle. If you pay him, he just is even more aggressive with others in your group. Just say "No plata" (no money) then avoid eye contact and refuse to look at him or respond to him. Hopefullly if enough people do this, he will go away.