Costa Rica Mountain Driving

We have driven the roads of Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, the USA, Australia, Indonesia and India. While driving in Indonesia was merely harrowing, the experience of driving in Indian traffic has left a permanent imprint on our nervous systems.

Well, driving in India pales in comparison to driving in this country.

Driving on the roads here is like playing Russian roulette. You never know what will suddenly come at you from around the next bend. You just don’t know what to expect: there is simply no driving culture here. No set of mutually understood rules on how to behave on the roads.

Once seated in a vehicle it seems the average driver somehow cuts off all contact with the outside world, remaining fully immersed in his own personal movie. This means he has virtually no awareness of what other vehicles are doing, and how they are moving. Consequently moves can be sudden and unpredictable - usually causing my adrenals to inject a massive jolt into the blood.

Classic maneuvers are indicating a right turn then turning left; stopping in the road to chat with someone while traffic backs up behind, oblivious to what’s going on behind; cutting corners when turning into road, seemingly unable to manage a clean 90 degree turn; or simply stopping directly in the driving lane with no prior indication at all. Another time-worn favourite is pulling out into the road without checking for oncoming traffic.

If the driver in front puts his emergency flashers on, watch out! This is the Tico way of communicating that they are about to do, well, anything at all, and you have been duly warned. They now fully expect anything bad which happens as a result of their action to be your fault, because they have done due diligence by putting the emergency lights on.

Recently while approaching an exit ramp from a three lane highway, the car in front put his flashers on and simply stopped. Since we were trying to exit, we had to slam on the brakes and sit there with cars approaching from behind at high speed. The driver appeared quite relaxed and comfortable with this driving behaviour, looking both puzzled and annoyed at our honking.

According to the Tico Times (July 20, 2007) an average of 600 deaths a year occur through traffic accidents.

The paper further mentions that in 2005 Costa Rica rated first in the Americas and fourth in the world in traffic injury per head of population.

Deaths are sometimes commemorated where they happened, painted on the road with a big yellow heart with halo above. There are often clusters of these on major 4 lane highways where pedestrians, lacking an overhead crossing, attempt to cross the road on a daily basis.

Most of the deaths on the road happen through drunk driving. We’ve seen unbelievable drunk driving behaviour coming back at night from San José. And not much by way of control from the traffic police (the ‘transito’). So we try to restrict our driving to daytime as much as possible, and avoid Friday and Saturday night driving altogether.

There are about one million cars in Costa Rica. Not all are insured or even registered. Many would simply not pass the annual car roadworthiness test, so the owners simply don’t bother with it.

There is effectively no generally applied driver education, roads are in poor condition, policing appears to be more about bribes than enforcement. On mountain roads there are no overtaking lanes, leading to long lines of assorted cars, trucks and motorcycles trailing slow moving buses.

Crossing double yellow lines to overtake is the norm, and you have to do it or suffer a tedious journey looking at the back of a bus encased in the permanent cloud of black billowing diesel exhaust which accompanies it. Many Tico drivers won't wait for a clear shot at this, but forge ahead into blind curves recklessly. We've witnessed many a hair-raising near miss.

Here's an update (December,2008) on traffic laws... the government recently passed in to law some new penalties for traffic violations. Now drunk driving is punishable by up to three years in prison and suspension of license from 4 up to 20 years.

Not wearing a seatlbelt is now punishable by a fine of $362. This was raised from $18. Talking on a cellular phone while driving now punishable by $317. Seems disproportionate in a country where the average wage is $350 a month.

Suggestions for Mountain Driving:

• Avoid driving at night. Potholes are effectively invisible, as are pedestrians, who wear no reflectors on themselves. Glare from the high-beam of oncoming traffic makes it difficult to see. People seldom dip their high-beam lights for oncoming traffic. You are also most likely to encounter the drunk drivers at night, especially Friday and Saturday nights.

• Drive defensively. This means at a speed appropriate to conditions, where you can brake effectively if suddenly needed. Never take your eyes off the road, not for a second. Mountain roads are very winding and you never know what can come around the bend at you.

• A comprehensive insurance (from INS, the only insurer in the country, with agents in every little town) which covers all damage to your own car is a good idea. That protects you against the damage caused by being hit by an uninsured car.

Oh, and if you do have an accident while driving, here's an important tip. Don't move the car. Yes, that's right; the cars must stay exactly as they are until the INS (state insurance) inspector and the traffic police arrive, take photos, make measurements and write their report. This causes enormous problems for the traffic flow, with backups extending for miles, but that's how it's done here.


Pedestrians are in great danger but also often don’t seem to acknowledge it. As well, drivers give them scant regard, even on marked pedestrian crossings.

The exception to this general rule sometimes occurs when a driver sees a pretty girl waiting to cross the road, suddenly and unexpectedly comes to a complete stop (causing a chain reaction of frantic braking and backing up traffic behind), and with a generous hand gesture waves the lucky recipient across the road. Such spontaneous manifestations of courtly mannered courtesy naturally cause accidents, but hey, the driver gets to feel like a true gentleman, and that’s what’s important.

In the mountains there are deep V-shaped gutters on either side of the road (to channel the torrential rains) and there is almost never a sidewalk for pedestrians, so they really have no choice but to walk on the road.

The strange thing is that the pedestrians themselves seem to have no concept of the danger they face. They are totally unfazed by the sight of heavy steel boxes traveling at 8 feet per second blasting by within inches of their bodies.

Pedestrians will often keep walking 3 and 4 abreast in seeming nonchalance at the sight of oncoming traffic: either nerves of steel or no imagination.

Women will sometimes walk with their young children on the traffic side of the road, contrary to the normal protective instinct to guard the child. This kind of thing strongly indicates to me that people must be taught safe road behaviour: it doesn’t appear to come naturally.

In Costa Rica’s criminal code there is apparently no such thing as vehicular manslaughter, but (incredibly), should such an event happen twice to a driver, his license may be taken away for 10 years!


These brightly coloured adventurers abound on mountain roads in Costa Rica. It is an enormously popular sport, and particularly on the weekends there are crowds of them on the roads, adding to the mix of mountain driving challenges needing attentive navigation. One can’t help but admire their level of fitness and stamina in taking on those grueling challenges, as well as the level of risk they take on in doing so.

Potholes and Road Hazards

Potholes are everywhere, some so deep they'll break your axle. They can pop up suddenly in the most unexpected places. There is only local help in marking these hazard sites. Some caring local person will stick a branch from a bush into the hole to mark it, sometimes draped with a plastic bag to catch your attention.

Costa rica mountain road hazards

In the mountain areas the other hazard to be aware of are the landslides ('derrumbes') which happen in the wet season after periods of heavy rain. These are usually cleaned up by backhoes fairly quickly after they occur. At the same time subsidence in the road can happen, called 'hundamiento'.

Costa rica mountain road hazards 2

Public Transport

Costa Rica has an excellent network of buses linking the entire country. They are cheap and comfortable too. You can get from anywhere to just about anywhere using the bus system. The buses travel deep into country areas oftentimes along rough collapsing roads, and do so daily. Using this way to get around is perfectly feasible, but you do have to have is plenty of time available. The down side is that very often there are no bus waiting shelters and during the wet season the afternoons can be drenching.

Getting Around

The larger town centers are marked by Avenidas and Calles (avenues and streets) with numbers. But there aren't any house numbers, and outside of the towns there aren't any street names either.

Directions are given from time-honoured landmarks, which may no longer exist, but everyones knows where they used to be (except you). But the Ticos are friendly and will always take time to help you out, so you'll get where you're going eventually.

The larger towns are set out in a grid of north-south and east-west roads, and the Catholic church faces west, so you have some kind of reference point. You'll generally be instructed to go say 100 meters west and 50 meters north. This isn't a literal 100 meters, but a block (or 'cuadra').

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