Rough fun: driving in Costa Rica

Sharing the road in Costa Rica

The roads are riddled with pot holes (if they’re paved at all), signage is woefully inadequate, torrential rains can make some routes impassable, and all the aggression Costa Ricans repress in their daily lives comes out when they get behind the wheel.

And yet I love driving in Costa Rica! It’s an extreme sport, one that kills far more people than canyoneering or ziplining. But after a week or two on the Costa Rican road, negotiating corrugated dirt tracks and fording rivers, the highways back home will seem impossibly wimpy.

To be fair, things are getting better. In 2010 the 25-mile stretch between Quepos and Dominical, for instance, was much improved, so that now the trip takes about 40 minutes instead of a few hours. And even on the relatively remote Osa Peninsula, bridges are being replaced and highways repaved.

Do’s and Don’ts of Costa Rican Driving

Do try to avoid driving after dark–that’s when most accidents occur.

Do wear your seat belt–it’s the law. A selectively enforced law, but a law nonetheless.

Do wear a wear helmet if you’re on a motorcycle–if you don’t you might be ticketed.

Do make sure you have a valid license from your home country, along with a valid passport with an up-to-date entrance stamp.

Do consider renting a 4 x 4 with high clearance, unless you’re sure you’ll be on major roads for your entire trip.

Do, when driving outside of main cities, get gas as often as possible (gas station are known as bombas).

Although I have to admit I don’t always take my own advice, it’s not a great idea to try to bribe your way out of a traffic ticket. Take the ticket, smile, and pay it later (they’ll tell you where you can do that, or ask at your hotel).

Don’t leave the car if you have an accident or breakdown. Call the Transit Police (tel. 800-TRANSITO (800-8726-7486)). You can also call 911 and ask to be connected with whatever agency (including the Red Cross if there are injuries) you need. If you’re in a rental car, call the rental agency as well.

Don’t neglect insurance when you rent a car:
There is mandatory basic insurance, which doesn’t give very much coverage. Most renters opt to buy more insurance, while some let their credit card cover the high deductible (often from $750 – $1,500!) that goes along with basic insurance. Be sure to check that your card indeed offers this benefit.

Do be ready for surprises–-a friend thought American Express would cover him, but found that there was a clause that said the coverage didn’t hold if the driver went “off-road”— that is, on unpaved roads. Most of the roads in Costa Rica are unpaved! He ended up having to pay a few hundred dollars to repair a small scrape.

Rental car companies will charge for the most minute of scratches, so be sure to look the car over very carefully before driving off the lot. Things like rear view mirrors and tires are often not covered by insurance; you pay if they get ripped off. So Do park the car in a safe place, like a guarded lot at your hotel.