Driving in Costa Rica can be much the same as in the U.S. Lets see…..both countries drive on the right. And I think that’s about it for the similarities. Driving here takes some getting used to. You need a whole new set of driving skills as well as a mindset revision and attitude reset.
First off, as I have mentioned before, in general the roads are not anything like the U.S. Rural roads are often unpaved. When you are lucky enough to happen upon one that is paved it is very likely to be full of potholes. Washouts and landslides are not uncommon. The first time I visited Costa Rica we rented a car with a GPS. The GPS would announce things like “washout ahead”. It occurred to me that the washout had been there so long (having not been repaired) that it had been incorporated into the GPS warnings! Wow.
Primary highways are mostly paved and usually in pretty good condition. When I speak of primary highways I am referring to a 2 lane road. There are no roads in Costa Rica that remotely resemble the U.S. interstate system. There is one new highway from San Jose to the Pacific coast that is 4 lanes in places. Other than that I am not aware of any 4 lane divided highways. These main arteries can be quite pleasing to drive depending on traffic and where it is. Highways in the lowlands are OK because they are mainly straight (see image below). However roads through the mountains, even though they are main highways, can be a nightmare. I once drove the highway from San Jose to San Isidro at night. This route is 2 lanes, crosses a mountain range, road markings are worn or non-existent, and it was rainy and foggy at the time. Now it just doesn’t get any better than that!
Larger town and city streets are generally paved and in pretty fair condition. The main issue with urban driving is the lack of signage and street markings. One way streets are very common but poorly marked. I have almost started down a one way street the wrong way a number of times. I say almost, but in fact, I have probably driven the wrong way more than once. I just didn’t know it. There are few traffic lights, even in lager cities. Cross streets and intersections usually rely on stop and yield signs for traffic control. But these signs are apparently only mere suggestions. Streets can be wide enough for 3 lanes yet have no lane markings. The sheer number of vehicles in San Isidro would be bad enough but the variety of vehicles adds to the confusion. Percentage wise there are many more buses and motorcycles than in the U.S. Buses bully their way through town and the 2 wheelers snake in and out of traffic apparently with little regard for their own safety. Add this to the lack of street markings and you have the makings of the perfect storm.
With the hectic city conditions and the trying rural roads people here must have a short fuse. But wait. Something really, really strange is obvious. There is no road rage. No fists waving in the air, no brandishing of middle fingers, no blasting of the horns. What is going on here? I’m not sure but I like it. The drivers here at first glance could be called aggressive. But they aren’t. Sure, they pass when they shouldn’t, they park wherever and whenever they like, even if it blocks part of the road. They will nose ahead of you in an attempt to gain position. They will challenge you, tailgate you, and drive slowly for no apparent reason other than to hold you up. But there is not a malicious content to any of it. If you dont want that guy to nose you out then stand your ground. He may push the issue and you have every right to resist. Sooner or later someone will give, but there is no attitude. No glares or horns. If you are driving too slow for someone they simply tap the horn to let you know they are coming (even if it is on a curve) and they zip around. They don’t blast the horn and flash sign language on the way by. If someone wants to stop along the road they just stop. Even if there is not room to pull off to the side. Even if it blocks one lane and requires traffic to take turns getting by. Something like this would invite a lynch mob in the U.S. But here no one gets upset. They simply wait their turn to get by. During all the driving I have done in Costa Rica I am certain I have committed numerous, egregious driving mistakes. Yet not once have I been yelled at, honked at, or shown the número uno. When I first noticed this phenomenon I wondered how a society could take this approach to driving. Then it dawned on me. It isn’t just driving. It is life in general. Costa Rica people do not like conflict or arguing. In fact, they will go out of their way to avoid it. Live and let live. I drive like I want, you drive like you want. I like it!