Traveling Costa Rica can be fun in a car
If you want to see Costa Rica and control of your travel schedule, rent a car. Everything you’ve heard about the road conditions is true … but that’s what makes it an extra fun adventure. Here are our rules of the road.
You need a current driver’s license from your home country. Seat belts are required for the driver and front-seat passengers. Book before you arrive in Costa Rica, it will probably be cheaper and easier. Check the car thoroughly for ANY damage and have a company rep signs off on it. If you plan to visit remote areas, consider a 4-wheel drive, especially in the green season.
Somehow, locals can spot a rental at 500 yards. Never leave your car unattended, not even for 2 minutes; it’s worth $5 or $10 to the unofficial parking attendant. Most petty theft in CR is one of opportunity; NEVER leave anything in the car. Another ploy involves a sudden flat tire. When you pull over, the thieves stop to “help” and you’re relieved of the burden of your belongings.
Unleaded gas sells by the liter in two grades: regular and super (higher octane); diesel is almost everywhere. If there’s no gas station, ask around or look for a sign reading “gasolina,” chances are a local has gas to sell privately.
Speed limits are 50 km/hr city, 80 km/hr elsewhere and 90 km/hr highway. Fines are steep, $600 for a few km/hr over the limit. Travel guides say on-the-spot fines don’t exist; ex pats I know say keep a US$20 visible next to your license. Use good sense and don’t be obvious about the regalito (little gift) you’re offering to settle the matter now.
In case of an accident, call the National Insurance Institute (tel. 800/800-8000) or 911; the police may or may not come and might or might not be helpful. Having some working Spanish may smooth the path.
Most of the roads are paved; the real dangers are landslides, subsidence and potholes, usually just around a blind curve (another reason to keep the speed down). During the green season (May – Nov.), mountain roads are subject to landslides and subsidence and there are no warning signs, in any language.
Route numbers vary and street numbers are non-existent. It’s a good idea to know and look for billboards advertising hotels and tourist attractions near your destination. Estimated drive time is a rough guide, especially in the rainy season.
Tico drivers are about the same as drivers in LA, Boston, London or Paris; they don’t seem to recognize the “share the road” concept. The best driving advice I ever received (for Boston) applies in CR—never make eye contact—it’s a sign of vulnerability. Drive smart and drive defensively and you’ll have the time of your life.
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