Driving around Costa Rica is an experience. The terrain of the Central Valley, where we live, is mountainous with insanely steep slopes. Slopes that would never be approved for driving in the US, much less skiing.
The following are all things to be aware of while driving in Costa Rica:
This is an understatement. The roads here are narrow with no shoulders, just drop offs that are usually quite steep with huge drainage ditches on the side. It is laughable that these were built for 2 way traffic, especially considering that my driveway in Colorado was wider than most Costa Rican roads. Luckily most of the cars are narrow as well, but the western influence of having enormously large cars is growing here, making the roads seem even more narrow than before. Mountain roads in Costa Rica barely have any lane markings. If there are lane marking, they’ve usually faded into obscurity .
One lane bridges
The bridges, of which there are many in a country with mountains and rivers, are even narrower! Usually they are only wide enough for 1 car, so one direction will have a yield. Many bridges are also on tight turns that make it difficult to see if another car is approaching. Every time I pass a bridge I marvel at the stupidity of this because had the bridge been built a mere 2-3 feet wider, it would be the same width as the road and 2 cars could pass, barely. I realize a narrow bridge saves on construction costs, but it is quite a danger.
My favorite bridge crossing moment happened when we approached a bridge and saw a sign that said “Puente en mal estado” which means “The bridge is in bad shape”. Great! Unfortunately there is no choice but to hold your breath and drive over it.* We’ve experienced driving over bridges where part of the bridge had been washed out by the river – or worse yet – when you can look down and see ‘though’ the bridge. Yeah – no so great.
*It’s funny that the government would go through the trouble to put up a sign, but not to fix the bridge.
No Street Signs
There are virtually no addresses in Costa Rica and no Street Signs. Directions and addresses are given using landmarks, some of which do not exist anymore. Although we’ve managed to do well without a GPS, in order to avoid wondering if this is the right direction, a GPS would be recommended. There are many towns where the main road stops looking like a main road and has several left and right hand turns in it. In order to navigate through town and stay on the main road to get to your destination, it’s best to be very aware of every sign that you see pointing you to the destination. Often we have found that signs have been knocked over, have faded, or simply do not exist.
In a mountainous terrain in order to build roads part of the mountain is cut out. The new highway to the beach is an example of just how ugly the landscape becomes when you do that. In time plants will grow and cover up the raw dirt, but for now it is ugly and dangerous. In a large section of the highway, the cutouts are steep and lack the proper support to hold back falling rocks and dirt. Rock and land slides are common. In some sections they’ve used a construction grade chain link fence to contain slides, but that barely works. It’s also ugly for another reason – the drainage. The concrete work is in Costa Rica is really shoddy. The water drainage troughs are terribly ugly. Most of them wash away within a few months because the ground underneath washes away. In order to help the drainage, there are random PVC pipes that stick out into the roadway. It’s ugly but it seems to function, at least for now.
Although the roads in Costa Rica have improved greatly since we’ve been here last, nearly 6 years ago, there are still potholed- patched roads. Drivers are constantly swerving between lanes to avoid landing in one. This is especially true close to the beaches. Besides the new highway 27, there is not a continuous smooth road in Costa Rica. You can forget about having a cup of Costa Rican coffee while you drive because it WILL spill and splash all over. Potholes come in all shapes and sizes. For the bigger ones, the Ticos kindly put branches and tree trunks in them as a warning that “this is a big one”. It’s really a funny practice, but it works and is very helpful.
Dangerous Curves & Slopes
Most mountainous roads have lots of curves that switchback and forth to climb and descend. Costa Rica has a ton of hair pin turns with extreme slopes. I once stalled the car on one of these uphill hairpin turns, a huge bus was barreling down the road toward me. I held my breath as he passed and then managed to restart and peeled up the hill.
There are relatively few sidewalks in Costa Rica and the ones that do exist are usually in terrible shape. It is easier to walk on the road. The dodging of people is fun – they won’t move out of the way- so it’s the driver who needs to swerve around grandma, grandpa, mom, dad, baby and usually a dog. Also, the Ticos love to hang out by the road, just to sit and relax. I’m not sure why, considering that the nice view is usually behind them, but they like to sit by the road.
Dogs run wild here and there are many that like to patrol up and down the road. They are usually pretty agile and move out of the way, but there are a lot of limping dogs around Costa Rica.
Chickens – just like dogs, they run wild and love to cross the road, we don’t ask why.
Goats – Lots of goats tied up and grazing along side the road. Goats are not so much a threat, just a fun distraction and actually a pleasure to see.
Cows – yes, occasionally you’ll see a cow grazing near the road. Considering that most cows are bigger than the tiny cars here, it’s best to give the cow the right of way.
I almost forgot to mention the insane downpours in the rainy season. Be aware of landslides and flooding.
Expensive Speeding Tickets
Do not get caught speeding. Maintaining your speed in Costa Rica is difficult, with so many up and downhills, it is better to brake going downhill than get caught with a speeding ticket. Speeding tickets (as of this writing) are $380 US. That is a big chunk of change for going only 10-15 km (5-9 mph) over the speed limit. Some people have been able to get away with $80 bribes to the cops, but I don’t like this practice. I’d rather babble until the officer gets bored. I was able to talk out of ticket once, but it all depends on the officer.
Shoddy Road Repairs
Most of the main highways are well maintained. The smaller towns in Costa Rica is where the interesting repair work begins. It is nothing short of inventive at times.
In my opinion, most Costa Ricans are first generation drivers. Thus their inability to maintain speed and merge properly. Road rage, tailgating, and general traffic discourtesy are common in the city areas.
If you’re good at video games….
…you’ll be fine driving. Overall, driving in Costa Rica is an adventure in and of itself. It is equivalent to playing a video game where you are constantly swerving and dodging the random obstacles that are thrown in your way, but this is real life. This isn’t true of all the roads in Costa Rica. Most of the time, driving in Costa Rica is easy, but it is good to be aware of the obstacles that you will encounter. Even though we’ve been here for 1 1/2 years, we still get frustrated at times, but now we barely notice our car swerving to avoid the above. It’s become our normal.
The beautiful destinations and views on the way make driving in Costa Rica enjoyable.