City Driving in Costa Rica
It doesn’t take long to realize that there is a different code of the road in Costa Rica (at least everyone who has survived to tell about it figured it out in a big hurry). The first clue will come when you notice the behavior of drivers at intersections. Check out a few cars at a few corners and you soon catch on that traffic controls carry one less level of authority here.
For example the octagonal red sign with “alto” printed on it translates as stop, and in some places that’s what drivers do when they encounter one. In Costa Rica however this sign means slow down, proceed with caution, in other words the same thing that a yield sign means in the rest of the world. In a similar fashion a red traffic light means pause then proceed if there is an opening. Sounds suspiciously like a response to a stop sign in the rest of the world.
According to recent newspaper interviews with the department of transit and the highway patrol it is also permissible to simply drive through red lights without even slowing down if it’s after 10:00 pm and the intersection appears to be clear.
Oddly the government seems to conspire in this behavior; they have even invented a new traffic control that is used all over the country. It is a traffic light with a stop sign on the same pole. The combination of devices seems to carry a higher level of authority. When the light is red, and there is a stop sign present, drivers stop and wait for it to turn green before proceeding.
In 2015 red lights were officially given the green light when it was reported that the director of highway safety announced that there would be no enforcement after ten pm and drivers should make their own decision about whether it is necessary to stop at all.
Parked cars are not necessarily a reliable clue to allowed directions of travel since you can be on a two-way street and still see all of the parked cars facing you. Parking is allowed on either side of the street.
Country Driving in Costa Rica
“Keep Right Except to Pass” and “Slower Traffic Keep Right” really mean the opposite.
The slower a vehicle is moving the more likely they are to stay in the left lane. If you want to get around that mango truck in the passing lane on the hill you better be ready to pass on the right.
Left and right may also be confused with straight ahead. In the U.S. and elsewhere an arrow pointing up is used to indicate straight ahead. This concept is foreign in Costa Rica where you’re more likely to see a left or right arrow indicating which direction you will turn after you’ve driven another 15 km straight ahead. It still confuses the crap out of me and I take the next left even though I know it’s wrong.
Double yellow lines mean nothing to many drivers. Expect oncoming traffic in your lane.
Many of the roads in Costa Rica are narrow and winding, and they can be quite dangerous. Buses in particular are notorious for passing on blind curves, and guardrails are few and far between. If you hear honking on a mountain road it may indicate that someone is coming at you, in your lane around the next curve. Fog and heavy rain frequently reduce visibility.
If oncoming traffic flashes their headlights it means there’s either and accident, landslide or speed trap coming up and you should slow down.
If you see a branch or pile of sticks laying in the road, slow down! This is the Tico version of a road flare and indicates danger ahead. Sometimes this danger can be as serious as a missing bridge over a 200-foot drop. Although a law was passed ten years ago setting a $500 fine for not carrying a reflective triangle in every vehicle you’re still likely to see a pile of sticks.
A branch or pole standing beside the road and topped with an old boot, pop bottle or rag is a semi-permanent warning that the pavement is eroded and part of the lane has fallen into the ravine. Slow down and be prepared to yield to oncoming traffic if necessary.
It’s been estimated that (especially in beach areas) at least 2 out of 10 drivers on the road on weekend evenings are legally drunk.
On gravel roads, speed is the essence. Shock absorber commercials show the magic of rhythm. The car and its passengers gliding smoothly down the road while the wheels pound up and down like a whack-a-mole on amphetamines. Driving fast to stay on top of the ridges only works on a perfectly spaced washboard at exactly the right speed, but it does work – until you terraplane (the dirt, gravel and dust equivalent of hydroplaning) into a tree…