Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What to Expect on a Road Trip Around Costa Rica


Driving in a foreign country can often make travelers a little nervous. There are unspoken rules to the road, local expectations, and unknown laws that drivers need to become aware of before getting behind the wheel, and that can be intimidating. Of course, you can always just wing it and get in the car and drive (what we usually do, to be honest), but it can be helpful to read tips and tricks about foreign driving from other travelers to help guide you. (Or learn from local drivers, like we did on our road trip through Iceland.)

So that's what I am doing - trying to make your cruising experience through Costa Rica a little easier. Here are some helpful tips and tricks on what to expect when undertaking a road trip around the land of "Pura Vida" (an endeavor my husband and I have accomplished twice now, so hopefully we can impart some wisdom your way).

Bridges


This is a big difference between 'North American' driving and driving in Costa Rica. In my experience, when crossing a bridge there are typically two lanes and, although the road might be a bit narrower along the bridge than along the rest of the highway, there is ample room for two vehicles to pass one another. Not so in about 90% of Costa Rican bridges.

Road sign indicating a narrow bridge is in your driving future

Bridges in Costa Rica are typically built to accommodate one vehicle at a time only. The road narrows and the bridge is shaped like a capital "I", widening again at the other end. It is fairly easy to figure out the issue of right of way when crossing bridges. As you are driving along the road, you might see a "Puente Angosto" sign depicting an oncoming bridge (which means "Narrow Bridge"). This tells you to slow down, because you might be coming to a complete stop soon.

At the actual bridge, lines on the road stating "Ceda" show you where to properly wait, and if you are to give right of way to the other vehicle, a sign saying "Ceda El Paso" will be posted at the mouth of the bridge. "Ceda" means "give way", while "Ceda El Paso" translates to "give way to pass".

"Ceda" means "Give Way" to oncoming traffic

You must wait while the oncoming vehicle crosses the bridge. If you do not see a "Ceda"sign on your side of the bridge, then you have right of way and can cross without having to yield first. (We always slow down regardless, just in case the person on the other end of the bridge isn't familiar with the "Ceda"rule or just doesn't care.)

Rules of the road make it easy to navigate Costa Rican bridges

I have never actually had a problem with anyone improperly crossing a bridge, so don't stress about this one! It gets smoother every time.

Road Conditions


One thing Costa Rican roads are notorious for are their gigantic potholes. We've swerved around ones that could quite literally swallow a goat. (Or other farmyard animal of such size.) (Certainly a good portion of the front end of your car.) On our road trip to the Arenal volcano, my hubby and I hit a fair-sized pothole and ended up rolling into Nicoya on a flat tire. Drivers, you must pay attention to the road conditions while driving due to this fact! Potholes in Costa Rica can destroy your vehicle.

My husband fixing our flat tire after hitting a pothole in Costa Rica

I would also like to point out that this is not due to neglect or shabby workmanship. It is a matter of weather and climate versus money and maintenance. The tropical weather and heavy rains make it very difficult to build a strong, lasting road, while the sheer number of quickly eroding potholes makes it a nightmare for infrastructure to keep up. What we have noticed, and I'm not sure this is actually the case, is that once a road gets so many potholes in it, the government sort of waits it out until it gets so bad they can be justified in replacing entire stretches, rather than play a never-ending patch job game. It makes sense to me. Even if this isn't actually the plan, the moral of the story is to watch the road carefully when driving.

Potholes are a major problem in Costa Rican roadways

Another aspect of road conditions that you have to be aware of are the lack of dividing lines on the highways, even the major ones. They seem to come and go sporadically.  Sometimes you have a clear indication of where the center line is, and then out of nowhere, where you drive seems entirely left up to you as the center line disappears. This one isn't really a big deal, because anyone worth their driving salt can figure out where the center line should be. I just wanted to make you aware.  This is especially important if you are a driver who tends to 'drift'.  There are no rumble strips, sometimes no center lines, and not much for shoulders.

Pedestrians


If potholes and no shoulders weren't enough to convince you to pay attention while on your road trip through Costa Rica, then the plethora of pedestrians strolling the sides of the roads and highways should be. Tiko towns are typically located quite close together, with many rural homes and small grocery stores dotted in-between.  People come and go all the time, using the barely-there shoulders of the road as sidewalks.

Cute Tiko home as seen from the road

Kids and animals are the ones that freak me out the most, because they can be so unpredictable. Always stick to the speed limit, no matter where you are, not because of the threat of a speeding ticket, but because so many people trust you to drive properly where they walk every day.

Signage


One big thing that might affect you as a foreigner or traveler in Costa Rica is the issue of navigation. Signage is not the greatest in Costa Rica. Major cities are advertised on highway signs with distances and the occasional directional arrow, but villages and road intersections are not usually clearly marked. My husband and I were looking for the turn-off for a major route, but could not find a sign anywhere that told us A) what road we were currently driving on, and B) what major roads were coming up. We basically just guessed and crossed our fingers that we were right. On the way to Monteverde, we guessed correctly and made it to our destination unscathed. On the way home from Monteverde, we guessed totally wrong and ended up in a town about two hours away from the highway intersection we'd originally been looking for.

My advice: rent or bring along a GPS device. It will help immensely, as the GPS system will tell you where to find major routes and highways, even if there are no signs anywhere along the road to guide you.

Speed Limits, Helmets, Seatbelts, and Fines 


Naturally, you will want to follow the driving laws of Costa Rica. Stick to the speed limits (found in kilometers per hour), which rarely go above 85.  Naturally, there are drivers that choose to go above the limit, but my advice is to NOT "just go with the flow". Roads are twisty, pedestrians plentiful, and potholes nasty. Speeding tickets are extremely expensive in Costa Rica (in excess of $600 we have been told), and police are more apt to target tourists as they typically have the cash to pay the fine. That being said, unless you are in the major metropolitan areas, you don't tend to see too many police patrolling the roads. We stick to the speed limit (despite getting passed by pretty much all the locals) mainly because we don't want to hit any pedestrians and be involved in an accident in a foreign country. So we get passed. It's not a big deal.

Good rule of thumb: ALWAYS slow down for a Costa Rican school zone

School zones come with their own set of rules too. Every settlement has its own school, by Costa Rican law, whether there are 150 students, 50 students, or 5 students. So you will encounter several school zones over a short drive. Slow down in school zones (photo radar is most likely to be found here) and don't even worry about what time of day it is. School zone speeds are in effect as long as students are found on the property, and this includes if they've come back to school later in the day to play soccer on the field.  If there are kids nearby, the school zone speed is in effect. To be safe, we always drive the school zone speed, even in the evening.  As you can tell, the goal in Costa Rica is not to see how fast you can go - it's about slowing down and enjoying the journey.

A couple of other rules: wear your seatbelt if in a car or truck, and your helmet if you are riding a motorcycle. Yes, wear them, even if you never see any other Tikos wearing theirs. If the police catch you riding a motorcyle with no helmet, it can be a hefty fine - although it seems like no locals ever wear them. You'll see entire families crammed onto one motorcyle (we saw a father, mother, and two little boys, with one boy carrying their dog, all on one motorcycle), and they rarely, rarely wear head gear. Doesn't matter. Like I stated earlier, as a foreigner you are more likely to be ticketed because you have the money to pay the fine, so practice prevention and follow the laws.

Stopping to Enjoy the Scenery


Rules, rules, rules and warnings - I'm sorry. I didn't mean for this post to be so 'doom and gloom'. The BIGGEST piece of advice I can give you regarding taking a road trip around Costa Rica: ENJOY IT! Stop to enjoy the majestic scenery, take photos, meet the people, grab a snack at a 'soda' (small restaurant), and get off the beaten path.

No matter your destination, never forget to enjoy the journey

The Tiko culture is super friendly and the people take immense pride in their villages and towns. Go explore. Take your time. And if you do get lost (due to signage?) just use it as an excuse to go explore some more.