On the road in Costa Rica

On the Road in Costa Rica

Your regular driver's license is perfectly legal in Costa Rica for ninety days from the time you enter the country After that you need a Costa Rican license. For residents or for those awaiting residency status, a license is relatively easy to get: Simply apply at the local office of the Ministry of Public Works ("MOPT," for us gringos; ask a friend to help you find one locally) and present a certificate of health from one of the doctor offices nearby. The license is issued while you wait.

However, as a tourist you are not permitted to drive after ninety days on your home country's license. You'll have to leave the country long enough to get a fresh stamp on your passport. Take this warning seriously


The rules for foreigners applying for driver's licenses by presenting their passports change from time to time. For a while it was difficult, if not impossible, because of a ruling that only legal residents could get Costa Rican driver's licenses. How strict this ruling was observed is another question. Some MOPT offices issued driver's licenses to nonresidents; some would not do so. However, the advantages of having a driver's license are nebulous unless you are a resident or have made application for residency, since it's illegal to drive if your ninety day visa or extension has expired.

Always carry your passport when driving ' there's a fine for not having it. A photocopy of the passport is acceptable; provided you have a copy of the page showing the date you entered. The original passport is much preferred. Photocopies of your driver's license are not acceptable.

The first rule of driving in Costa Rica is one that should be followed in any country: Do not leave anything in the car, even out of sight. A favorite trick of thieves is to monitor the car rental desks at the airport and watch who rents a car and fills the trunk with interesting luggage. They then follow the car to the hotel, and while the passengers are inside at the registration desk, the thieves open the trunk and help themselves to the luggage, extra money, cameras, and so on this does not happen often, but why take chances? If possible, leave someone in the car during that crucial first stop. Once you are outside of San Jose, the chance of something like this happening is almost null.

Driving through the Costa Rican countryside isn't difficult; it's just slower. With all that gorgeous scenery, who wants to travel fast? Be especially careful when passing. Make sure you have time to get around safely and be cautious near hills and curves. Always drive as though you expect trouble, That's just common sense in any country but particularly in Costa Rican too many drivers have a daring, gambling attitude that urges them to pass on hills and curves. For this reason accident rates in Costa Rica are unusually high. Drive defensively and keep an eye on the speedometer Americans, used to high speed, paved highways, sometimes have difficulty keeping their speed under 65 miles per hour it doesn't seem normal to drive slower. But you must realize that 65 miles per hour is about 110 kilometers per hour, an illegal speed anywhere in the country Most highways have a 75-kilometer-per-hour limit, unless posted with an 80 or 90 or an occasional 100-kilometer-per-hour limit.

Watch for oncoming drivers who flash their headlights off and on. That means trouble ahead, usually a radar speed trap or perhaps an accident. Another sign of danger is a tree branch or piece of shrubbery lying across one lane of the pavement. That signifies that an accident, a washout, or some other nasty surprise could await you ahead.

Driving in city traffic anywhere around San Jose can be frustrating. As you get the knack of it and learn the system, it gets easier. Theoretically, finding your way around San Jose should be easy, because downtown city streets are logically organized on a ? north?south, cast?west grid. Calles, or streets, run north to south, and avenidas, or avenues, runs east to west.

However, nothing in Costa Rica is as simple as it sounds. For one thing, street signs are often missing. Sometimes they'll be posted on the corner of a building or perhaps on a signpost, but just when you need to know exactly where you are, you won't be able to find a clue. Furthermore, most downtown streets are one-way traffic, often without arrows to indicate which way! Perhaps you know that Avenida 9 is a one-way street going west, but how do you know the street you are looking at is Avenida 9 when there are neither street signs nor one-way signs- All you can do is wait to see which way traffic is flowing. If no cars are coming either way, you don't dare take a chance.

In the surrounding towns of the Meseta Central, traffic is lighter than in San Jose, but the problem of missing street signs becomes even worse. Some Streets are one?way and others two?way, but too often there aren't any signs to clue you in as to which is which. An arrow painted on the pavement should indicate which direction is permissible, but sometimes the arrow isn't there. It's especially disconcerting to be driving along what you believe to be a two?way Street and suddenly notice that all the cars parked on both sides of the street are pointing in your direction. Since parking on either side of the street is OK in Costa Rica, you have no way of knowing if they just happen to be facing your direction or if you are traveling the wrong way again. When in doubt, park and wait for a car to drive past, then follow suit.

Away from the cities and major highways, you find bumpy roads that demand slow driving. Going too fast over rocks can cut tires, marooning you several kilometers from a repair shop. You may have to change a tire yourself! When this last happened to me, I stood around looking perplexed until two young men stopped to change the spare for me. They refused to accept money, Next I drove to a sort of auto repair place where two kids fixed my tire in a jiffy using strips of an old inner tube, some kind of glue, and what appeared to be a steel crochet needle. They didn't even have to take the tire off the rim, as I expected. They charged the equivalent of S1.50; that included putting the repaired wheel on the car and stashing the spare in the trunk.

Writen by John Howels

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