It’s not common, but it does happen. In thousands of kilometers of driving I’ve been pulled over
twice… three… four times — once “legitimately” and three times fraudulently. I haven’t paid mordida (a bribe) or received a ticket in any of the stops.
The first stop was on the Pan American highway near Limonal. It was a pure shakedown. I saw the reading on the speed gun as the officer walked up and had apparently been going 63 kph in a 60 zone. As we chatted and he suggested maybe we could just take care of it he was subtly continuing to trigger the radar at oncoming traffic while holding the gun under his arm.
I insisted that I was only going about 60 and he swung the gun around to show me the reading of 79 that he’d just gotten off of a passing truck (everyone speeds up when they see the officer is busy). I said I didn’t think that was my speed, but he should write me a ticket.
With no bribe forthcoming he sent me on my way with a warning.
Ten minutes later after crossing the Tempisque bridge I was amazed when another officer stepped out from the shade of a tree and waved me over again. Of course having just been pulled over I was driving extremely cautiously, cars and trucks were backed up behind me and had been passing like crazy.
The officer informed me that even though the sign 50 meters back read “Velocidad Maxima 80 kph” I was approaching an intersection and the speed limit was 40. He never suggested a bribe and let me off with a warning.
Most recently I was waved over between Puntarenas and Caldera. Waze had alerted me to the “police presence” a kilometer in advance so I knew I was driving precisely the speed limit directly down the center of my lane.
We worked our way through the standard pleasantries and “Do you know how fast you were going?“…”of course,”… “Do you know why I pulled you over?“…”of course not.”
He worked through the registration, license and was working on my passport when he got a big grin on his face and said “Oh this is serious. This is a big problem. A very expensive problem.”
He was looking at a six month old entry stamp and thought he could threaten to call migracion for overstaying our tourist visa. We never got to the part where he told me how expensive it would be because I pointed out that he was looking at the wrong stamp and we’d only arrived for this trip five weeks earlier.
Not all traffic stops are congenial. The most frightening encounter we’ve had with the police was late at night on a dirt road as far out in the middle of nowhere as you can get on the Nicoya Peninsula.
It was unusual for a number of reasons. First, the police normally only work regular business hours, second they seemed like they might be drunk, third they swerved in front of us to block the road in a cloud of dust Starsky & Hutch style and finally they were downright belligerent.
They leaned in the two front windows and claimed to smell alcohol (I definitely smelled alcohol but it wasn’t from me…), said they knew we had drugs and that Sue’s glasses cleaner spray was some sort of THC nebulizer, gave us a lecture on how Americans were responsible for 90% of the drug traffic in Costa Rica and then got tired and left.
Use WAZE! The GPS navigation app is great for directions but also does a pretty good job of warning about speed traps. The very best way to avoid being asked for a bribe is to never get stopped.
Don’t speed. It’s difficult and can be dangerous to drive that slowly but strictly adhering to the law will help you avoid trafico encounters. Don’t drive first in line. Don’t drive a big SUV or sporty car.
If you do get pulled over it’s best to stay calm and politely request a citation stating that you’ll be happy to pay it at the end of your trip through your rental agency.
Do not offer a bribe or put money in your passport. The last thing you want to do is to escalate a minor traffic infraction (real or fabricated) into the serious crime of offering a bribe to an official.
Take a second to remember that it’s a crime and you’re not a criminal.
I have paid one bribe. To a meter maid in front of a pastry shop in Heredia. I was picking up some goodies to take to coffee at the Rodriguez’s house and there was a spot right in front of the bakery. It had a yellow number painted on it and I knew that meant I was supposed to walk around a few blocks searching for the parking attendant to pay the $0.25 fee for parking and get a little ticket to put in my dash. The attendant was nowhere in sight, so I just went inside.
I knew what I wanted and was in and out of the bakery in five minutes but that was long enough for the attendant to spot the car and bring over his partner in crime the parking enforcement officer. I knew what was coming next as well.
The ticket would have to be paid in person at a national bank, then the bank receipt delivered to the police office where I’d exchange it for a police receipt…and probably another parking ticket while waiting in line. Of course if I preferred “for a small ‘convenience fee’ the officer could drop off the payment for me…” It cost me $10 split between the cop and the attendant.
I was lucky. In 2020 police are extorting tourists for thousands of dollars using bogus parking tickets.
Because Costa Rica lacks an effective justice system violators used to simply ignore traffic and parking citations. Someone clever in the police department came up with a solution. When you commit a violation they remove your license plates. In order to retrieve them from the department of motor vehicles you have to appear in person and prove you paid the fine. If you’re caught driving without plates they take your car.
It’s much cheaper and simpler than immobilizers like the boot or the barnacle and works well as long as it’s not abused. Starting in 2019 we began to hear outrageous accounts of no parking “ghost zones” especially in and around the community of Uvita. There are no signs, no painted curbs (no curb at all in some spots) and no indication parking might not be allowed but victims return to a vehicle with a hefty fine and no license plate.
Tourists appear to be targeted probably because they are unlikely to have six or seven months to battle the ticket or even know where to begin to protest. Several complaints have been filed with the Instituto Costaricense de Tourismo but to no avail.
Here’s one account from a facebook group in February of 2020
“I just got back to the states from Costa Rica we had an amazing time, other than a issue I had with a car rental and parking ticket. So we were in Uvita, we planned on just hanging out on the beach for the day. We parked our car on the street, there were other cars even parked on the same street, we asked someone that worked at one of the restaurants if it was ok to park there. They said it was ok. We went to the beach and spent the day, when we got back to the car I had a ticket on my car and my licence [sic] plates were taken by the police. I never heard of this before, I had no idea I could not park there, there were no signs, I even asked a local they said it was ok. I rented the car from TRI-COLOR they told me I was allowed to drive the car for 24 hours after receiving the ticket and I had to drive the car back to their office by the SJO airport 3 hours away. They assured me they would have a new car for me when I got to the office. I woke up and left 5am the next day and drove to San Jose with no licence [sic] plates, I am still not sure if it was even legal or not to do that. Thankfully I made it ok. When I got to Tri-Color office they did not have a car for me like they said they did. I ended up having to take a taxi back to Uvita which was not cheap and was without a car the remainder of the trip. They also said they are going to charge me thousands of dollars for the car rental fees for getting the plates back on top of the 470 that i paid for the car. They already charged my card $1233 plus they are going to charge me for loss of use for the length the car will be without plates, they said it will be between 1 and 3 weeks before they retrieve the plates. This is ridiculous all over a parking ticket. I called my credit card company to dispute they said its a valid charge, I booked with a chase sapphire reserve card that has the best car insurance out there for a credit card, they said its not covered because its from a parking ticket. What can I do, is there any advise someone can give me? I really do not and can not pay this. This is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of for a parking violation.”
What to Do?
If you fall victim to this revenue generating scheme your best bet is to take a day out of your vacation (hope it’s not a weekend or you’ll have no car for a few days), go the the national bank where you fill out the paperwork and pay the fine, get a receipt then hunt down the local municipality office and present the receipt to have it validated, take it to the regional DMV or transit police office and retrieve the plates.
Please also file a complaint with the ICT so that eventually this practice might be eliminated.