Driving In Costa Rica

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Driving In Costa Rica

 With a car you will open up many places in Costa Rica that you would otherwise not be able to experience by using only public transportation. On the other hand, driving in a country where the laws, language and customs are different requires a greater awareness on the part of the driver. Until you are very familiar with the area we would recommend against driving at night. If you do, use extreme caution, as there will be motorcyclists dressed in dark cloths that have no tail light, plus other vehicles with no rear lights. It is difficult to see pot holes and other road obstructions, and cyclists can be a hazard. This guide will help understand some things that may be different.

Traffic Laws

When driving in Costa Rica, it is necessary that you carry three documents:

    1. Your passport or residency identification
    2. The ownership papers for the car
    3. Your drivers license.

Not having one of these documents could result in a fine. In some cases the police have   the right to impound the car.

Also, insure the car has two current valid stickers on the windshield – one for the current year marchamo (annual license fee), and the vehicle inspection sticker, which will show the month and year when it expires.

Right turns on red lights are permitted when there is no through traffic.

The usual highway speed limit in Costa Rica is 80 kpm, however on some of the autopistas (divided highways) in the Central Valley, the posted speed may be 90 kph. The speed in intersections is 60 kph, and school zones are 40 kph except when students are present, it is then 25 kph. Speeds are posted on signs – velocidad minima is the minium permitted speed, velocidad maxima is the maximum permitted speed.

Enforcement falls to the Policia Transito, or transit police. They usually drive dark blue vehicles, often pick up trucks, with a yellow strip down the side. The radar is hand-held and if you are pulled over for speeding the policeman is required to show you the speed on the radar gun. To pull you over they will hold up a hand, ask for your papers, and are usually very polite.

Traffic fines were raised to exorbitant levels some years ago, and also include points against a Costa Rica drivers license. If you are a tourist the policeman may only give you a warning. Police are not permitted to collect fines.

Seat belts are mandatory, and talking on a cell phone (other than hands free) is not permitted while driving.

Turn Signals

Turn signals are usually used for turns off the road you are travelling along. On divided highways they are supposed to be used for changing lanes, but often are not. Turn signals flashing on the vehicle ahead, particularly if it is a bus, should be regarded with great suspicion before making a move. It is said that the only thing one can be sure of when a bus turn signal is activated is that the light works.


During the day headlights are only used for signaling, although the odd driver may have them on. Trucks and buses often flash lights at each other to say hello, or someone may flash you if you have your headlights on. Generally headlights flashed are to warn you of either an obstruction or police ahead.

At dusk many drivers leave their light on until it is fully dark, making this a dangerous time to be on the road.

If passing a vehicle at night, use your turn signal first and then flash your lights so the driver you are passing doesn’t swerve into you while avoiding bikes. motor scooters or pot holes.

Road Conditions

Although the roads have improved in recent years pot holes are still common on secondary roads, so be alert as they can blow a tire. Rental car companies will expect you to pay for the tire. Back roads, or less used roads can be gravel or dirt. If you are planning to travel on some of these roads a 4 X 4 is recommended.

The Horn

You may encounter a situation where you cannot move forward due to traffic, yet the driver behind blows the horn. This may be at a red light when it is about to change, or in a traffic jam. This is not usually aimed at you, so don’t take it personally. It is assumed that because the horn there it can be used to express frustration.   If in a traffic jam feel free to join in. There is no point giving the honker the finger, that only makes something personal that was not intended to be.

During the day it is not a bad idea to use the horn when overtaking another vehicle so he doesn’t swerve into you accidentally.

Security and Parking

When you park, lock the car and do not leave valuables on the seat. Keep briefcases, suitcases and other valuables in the trunk. There are hundreds of cars broken into in San Jose each month, if you leave cameras, briefcases or computers on the seat it is very likely the window will be smashed and the contents stolen.

In San Jose there are many “parqueros”, or parking lots. They are guarded, and it is generally a safe place to park. Should you park on the street in a large city, there is often a car guard, who for a small tip will watch your car. He makes his living from the block he watches. If he points at his eye, and you nod, you have a deal. He will watch the car and you will tip him. For a short time 300 colons is enough, for a longer time 500 to 1,000.

If you are going to down town San Jose and are in or near the city, it is better to take a cab. Downtown parking is expensive and driving can be frustrating in traffic on narrow, one way streets. Taxis are red, and are plentiful. Just stand beside the road and wave to flag one down. It is compulsory for taxi drivers to use the meter.

Road Signs

Traffic lights are similar to other countries around the world. Often a green light will flash before changing to yellow and then to red. At some intersections, or on multi lane roads, you may see more than one traffic light. Be sure you are looking at the one for the direction you want to go. They are not necessarily over the correct lane, and often have no markings to show for which lane they are intended.

Many traffic signs have international symbols, however you may encounter these written signs:

Velocidad Restringa – restricted speed

No hay paso – do not enter
No virar a la derecha – no right turn No virar a la izquierda – no left turn
No virar – – no turns Se permite virar en U – U turn permitted
No camiones – No trucks No peatones – no pedestrians
No estacionar – No parking Estacionamiento una hora – 1 hour parking
Parada de autobuses – Bus stop Parada de taxis – Taxi stop
Altura maxima – Maximum height Ancho Maximo — Maximum width
Peso maximo per eje – maximum weight per axle Peso maximo por vehiculo – Maximum vehicle weight
No adelantar – no passing Silencio – silence, no horn
Aduana — customs Fin de velocidad restringa – end of restricted speed
Siga con precaucion – proceed with caution Con estudientes presente – When students are present.
Siga a al derecha – proceed to the right Siga a la isquierda – proceed to the left
Camino cerrada – road closed Mantenga su derecha – Keep right
Doble via adelante – two way road ahead Pintura fresca – fresh paint
Una via – one way Doble via – two way
Ceda el paso – yield Alto – stop
Ruta provisional – temporary route Carretera en construccion – road under construction
Final de construccion – End of construction Desvio – detour
Puente en reparacion adelante – bridge repair ahead Escuela – school