Driving in Costa Rica can be quite stressful and intimidating, especially if you have never driven in a foreign country, a big city, or over pothole ridden roads that sometimes wash away in rainstorms. Every country is unique in its obstacles and peculiar driving rules, so I’ve put together a list of tips for driving in Costa Rica based on over a year’s experience of driving daily in the Central Valley and all over the country.

1. Rent a 4WD

If you are vacationing in Costa Rica and plan on renting a car, make sure it’s a 4WD. It’s not necessary to get around most places in Costa Rica, but it sure will make life a lot easier and you will then have the option to drive down the roads less traveled. Bonus!

2. Use your horn and heed other’s horns

In the US, we are accustomed to only using the horn when we want to let someone know how pissed we are. In Costa Rica, the horn is used for a variety of reasons:

  • to say hello
  • to say thank you
  • to kindly let someone know you are passing them
  • to ask if it’s okay to pass
  • to encourage someone to go at a stop sign or when the light changes or is about to change from red to green
  • to protest idiocy or warn against impending danger

So basically, if you honk your horn all the time while you are driving, you will fit right in.

Honking my horn and hanging my hand out the window to wave myself in front of the 18 wheeler while driving in costa rica

3. Use your emergency flashers to communicate

Use them to say thank you or if you are driving on the highway and the traffic suddenly slows down.

4. Stoplights beat stop signs

There are quite a few stoplights that have been installed to replace stop signs. The only issue is that the stop signs were never removed. If you see one of these stop sign/stoplight combos, know that stoplight trumps stop sign; don’t stop if the light is green!

5. Be extra careful around buses, taxis, and 18-wheelers

They all believe that they own the roads and they are not afraid to shove someone out of the way to get to where they are going. Let them pass, do not play chicken.

driving in the central valley, costa rica, surrounded by buses

6. Watch out for motorcycles

They never stay in their lanes and speed up and down the roads in the tight spaces between cars. Also, car drivers in Costa Rica do not respect the motorcycles – when a motorcycle is in a lane and a car is approaching at a faster rate, the motorcycle is expected to move over.

7. Watch out for potholes

But don’t swerve into oncoming traffic in order to avoid them. Sure, that seems like common sense, but it is one of the most common causes of accidents in Costa Rica. Just drive slowly over them if you cannot avoid them.

8. Watch out for missing roads

Sometimes the heavy rains will wash parts of the road away and there is no warning — no big sign, no clearly marked warning tape or concrete barrier. You just have to keep an eye out for this type of thing yourself.

9. Watch out for animals crossing the roads

The dogs here are everywhere, but they are incredibly street smart. I see less dogs lying injured on the side of the road here than I did in the States. What you do need to watch out for are animals like sloths, iguanas, turtles and birds. They aren’t aware that they are crossing a road!
driving on a busy street in downtown san jose, costa rica: buses, cars, trucks, taxis, and motorcycles all fight to merge from 5 lanes into 1

10. Be aware of pedestrians and bicycles

They don’t have the right away in Costa Rica, but they’re everywhere, so try not to run them over. I say be aware as opposed to watch out because you can’t treat them with too much respect without causing trouble. I HATE that I’m saying this, but I’ve run into several instances of giving a wide berth or trying to be patient for a pedestrian or bicyclist with the result being the person I was trying to help getting incredibly pissed at me and yelling at me to move on because they have more than enough space. OK. Excuse me.

11. Keep your eyes open and look in all directions at once

That sounds crazy, but I’m serious. In the States, we are accustomed to driving in an almost autopilot fashion — watching the car in front of us and that is about it. In Costa Rica, it’s important to keep your eyes peeled for obstacles coming from any direction — potholes from below, bikes people and cars from in front behind and sideways. Just be more alert. And don’t always assume the other cars will obey the traffic rules, chances are they probably won’t.


Side note: If you are renting a car, you need to be aware of a common scam here in Costa Rica in which a thief will slit the tire(s) of a rental car in the parking lot of a restaurant or anywhere the car pulls over. Once you start driving and realize the issue, you pull over and this is when the thief, who has been following you, robs you of your passport, money and any other valuables you have. In order to avoid this, do not immediately pull over with a flat tire — drive to the nearest service station or well populated area. Change the tire yourself or call the rental car company for assistance. Keep your valuables out of sight and well hidden at all times.

What are your foreign driving experiences? Do you have any frightening or funny tales to share?

11 tips for driving in costa rica