By Carter Maddox
Driving in Costa Rica is reasonably safe. Do realize, however that most Costa Ricans are “first generation drivers” meaning they did not grow up in the back seat of their parents cars since likely their parents or other family member didn’t have a car.
Therefore most have less experience driving and knowledge of cars in general, don’t follow the rules of the road as North Americans and Europeans, for example, this combined with the lack of driver education and culture in the country.
It wasn’t until recently that more than a few “bought” their drivers license, which is not to say they don’t know how to drive, rather learned all the “bad habits” of their mentors who for the most part are first time drivers, with no driver education and so on. This is combined that until a decade ago driving in Costa Rica was mainly rural, even in the large metropolitan centers.
Today, with an increased number vehicles and basically with the same road infrastructure, the culture of respect for other drivers and pedestrians – and the traffic police – is not there just yet. Transport authorities are working on this but there is still a fairs way to go.
Besides the bad or better yet inexperienced drivers, there is the problem of the roads.
We North Americans, for instance, are accustomed to proper road signs and markings, road shoulders, barriers, traffic signals and so on. In Costa Rica driving certain roads is a challenge in itself, made more challenging in the rainy season (May to December).
The autopista General Cañas (the Interamericana) is the busiest road in the country running between La Sabana and the international airport in Alajuela. This road is six lanes for the most part – three in each direction, but with two lane bridges,. I has no shoulder, there dips in the road, blind corners, no on ramps for vehicles coming onto the highway and bus stops that use the right lane. And this is a good road.
So, if you decide to drive in Costa Rica, here are some Qtips:
1. Make sure your vehicle is always in good maintenance, ie tires aren’t worn out, fluid levels are in nornal range, battery is in good condition, head and tail lights works and so on
2. Always have a full tank of gas. Having it on “E” (Echale in Spanish, meaning fill it) could leave you walking. A traffic jam, road block, an unexpected protest, a traffic accident, can all work against you if have little fuel in the tank.
3. Never leave home without the following in your trunk: water, battery cables, space belt, small tool kit that includes duct tape (woks wonder in all situations), jack and spare tire. And a pack of gum, the type with the foil wrapper. The gum itself can work as an adhesive, the foil wrapper great to make electrical connections, like in place of a fuse.
4. Have your ownership (title), Marchamo (circulation permit) and Riteve (inspection certificate) in the vehicle. The number of a two truck can come in handy.
5. Have your Costa Rican drivers license on you. There are different licenses for different classes of vehicles, have the correct one.
6. If you have foreign drivers license (from your home country) make sure your also have your passport and that your not driving past your visitor stay date. If you have permanent residency, you need to get a Costa Rican drivers license.
7. If you insure your vehicle with INS – the state insurer – know that they have roadside assistance like a tow truck, boost, fuel, etc. This service is free to all INS customers. Remember the vehicle is insured not the driver. The INS operator will ask for the license plate number and it doesn’t matter who is driving the vehicle. OR WHERE IT IS IN THE COUNTRY. INS will tow your vehicle from anywhere to wherever you tell them.
8. Keep in your vehicle loose change (for tolls, the wachimen – the guy/gal who looks after you car parked in the street), a flashlight and always carry a cellular phone.
9. Watch you speed (driving over 120 km/h will cost about US$600 and 6 points); don’t tailgate; don’t assume that the guy/gal in front will not stop for any reason; don’t expect, but give courtesy; horn honking is a national tradition; and, having the right of way is a matter of interpretation.
10. Don’t forget that the traffic police now use radar and are good at setting speed traps. It’s not unusual for the speed to change from 90 km/h to 40 km/h in a straight of way and for no reason whatsoever, always use your seatbelts, don’t talk on the cell phone OR TEXT MESSAGE while driving and for the love of family, DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE.
I have been driving in Costa Rica for more than 10 years, most of that time with a driver’s license. I have seen the changes in the traffic laws, the change in driver behavior – not!, and most the attitude of the traffic cops.
By and large today the traffic police is a professional police body with an enormous challenge. For the major part, the officials with their hands out especially to foreigners have been weeded out and paying of a traffic cop today is much harder and certainly more expensive.
In the days past, I used to have a ¢2.000 colones bill aside for the traffic police. That went to ¢5.000, then ¢10.000 and ¢20.000. Now, just give me the ticket.