Top Ten Driving Tips for Costa Rica
The following article is a primer, or introduction to safe and competent driving in Costa Rica. While this article is brief and does not necessarily cover all facets of driving in Costa Rica, it is an attempt to cover the most important aspects of vehicle safety here.
1.Maintain a high level of concentration while driving
It is easier to maintain a high level of concentration while driving during the daytime, therefore we recommend you to avoid nighttime driving. The paved and dirt roads of Costa Rica, while better than some roads around the world, have many dangerous challenges that are not easily foreseen.
•Large pot holes •Road side and road bed wash outs •Narrow bridges •Pedestrian, motorcycle traffic •Horses, cattle, dogs, and other animals on the roads •Other vehicles (at night, sometimes without lights) •Narrow roads and very little, if any, shoulder •If you get stuck at night, finding help is more difficult
All of these obstacles make driving challenging in Costa Rica. Therefore, driving when visibility is best, makes sense and raises your chances of successfully navigating the roads of Costa Rica. The pressure and attention needed to drive at night is often not worth whatever you would gain by nighttime driving. For ex., I recently almost hit a cow on the road while driving at night. The hides and eyes of cattle do not seem to reflect light. I was literally on top of the herd before I realized they were there! Who would have thought cattle would be in the middle of a road the night?
As you can see from the list of obstacles described above, a high level of concentration is needed at all times behind the wheel. Costa Rica highways are not like many highways in other parts of the world. On the highways of Costa Rica there are a lot of hills and most of the highways are single-lane, allowing for no relaxation. If you want to pass the numerous, slow trucks on highways, you will be passing vehicles constantly, and on hills and narrow roads, this is riskier than ever. Additionally, you drive faster on the highways and need more time to break suddenly - which you frequently have to do.
Off-road driving, or, driving any of the paved roads in poor condition (i.e., with lots of potholes), requires the driver to concentrate on the path and track of both sets of wheels, left and right. You should also watch others in front of you to see what they are swerving to avoid. Be sure and leave some space if you are following vehicles in front of you. You need to be able to see the road surface and their maneuvers. If you are to swerve, you need to be able to see if you have room on the shoulder and the oncoming traffic in view the other lane.
2.Adjusting tire pressure for on-road/off-road
We recommend for both paved roads in very poor condition and the unpaved roads of Costa Rica, that you lower your tire air pressure from the maximum tire pressure stated on the vehicle’s tires. You may need to try your vehicle with different tire pressures to find the best pressure for your vehicle, its weight, and the driving conditions. I have found that for passenger cars and trucks, running the tire pressure from 18-25 pounds gives the vehicle you are driving improved ride characteristics, traction, and smoothness to absorb potholes and the washboard effect of the unpaved roads. For paved roads in reliably good condition, use the tire pressure as recommended by your vehicle’s manufacturer. Deflating and re-inflating the tires requires access to compressed air of some sort. For our vehicle, I have purchased an on-board air compressor. I am able to re-inflate the tires at any point in our trip without having to locate a gas station. I also purchased a tire pressure gauge with a circular dial. I can now accurately measure our tires’ pressure. I recommend the circular dial gauge at minimum if you are not planning to purchase an air compressor. Knowing ahead of time where the gas stations are is also helpful.
3.Vehicle preparedness is essential.
The driving in Costa Rica is much more demanding of a vehicle. Therefore, preparedness is essential to driving with reduced risk of incidents. Due to the demands on our vehicle in Costa Rica, mechanical and electrical devices may fail frequently and without notice. Preparation is necessary before driving of any type, duration or distance. We highly recommend the following:
•Conduct a visual inspection of the tires and tire condition, including the spare. •Make sure that you have your spare changing tools and know how to use them. •Make sure your mirrors are able to be adjusted according to your needs and are well-secured. •Make sure all of your exterior and interior lights and signals work. •Make sure your vehicle’s head-lights are properly aimed. In addition, you may want to consider upgraded or auxiliary lighting. •Make sure all vehicle fluid levels: engine oil, coolant, windshield wiper fluid, brake fluid, transmission fluid and power steering fluid are at their proper levels. •Keep the interior and exterior glass clean for visibility. •Make sure your windshield wipers and washers are in excellent condition. •If you have a defroster or A/C, make sure it is capable of clearing steamed or foggy windows. •Make sure you have enough gasoline or diesel for your destination or a means to obtain it. You might consider carrying extra fuel for long or back country drives. 4.Driver preparedness is also important. •Know the laws related to driving here as they are enforced! •Know where you are going and how to get there (have your map). Searching for directions or counting on being able to call someone by cell phone is not wise while driving in Costa Rica. You may not have phone access on the road. •Know how to change a tire. The likelihood of getting a flat is higher her due to the road conditions. •If you are off-road, know how to operate your 4WD. •Be well-rested. Don’t drive fatigued! •Have working seat belts and use them. •Wear sunglasses during the day and don’t forget your prescription glasses if you need them. •Try not to drive alone if you can avoid it, it is better to have someone with you for moral support, navigating, making a call and spelling the driver. •Additional things to have on board: 3 reflective tri-angles in case of breakdown; gas can; circular dial tire gauge; jumper cables; tow rope; emergency flashlight; drinking water and cell phone. 5.Frequently asked for and necessary documents •You need a valid license to drive in Costa Rica. Costa Rica honors other countries’ valid driving licenses for 90 days. If you are here longer than 3 months, it will no longer be valid. After 90 days you should obtain the Costa Rican license. •Your passport or your cédula card if you are a resident. If you don’t want to carry your original passport in your vehicle, you will need a photocopy of both the passport picture page and the page with the most recent entry stamp into Costa Rica. •The vehicle papers: copy or original title/registration, RTV and marchambo to date •Front and rear plates (or your temporary paper plates) •If driving outside of Costa Rica, there are additional documents required. Consult your attorney. 6.Be aware of the dry vs. wet season differences
During the dry season (November - April), visibility can be impeded due to the high level of dust on the dirt roads. People often are not prepared for this. In these low visibility conditions, we recommend leaving an extra amount of space between you and the vehicle ahead, for the dust to settle or blow aside off the road. The dirt roads become wash-boarded and rocky this time of year (please refer to tip about tire pressure, as this is applicable for dirt road driving).
During the wet season (May - November), there are many additional challenges which have been alluded to under the other tips. The roads are in worse condition, paved and unpaved. There is water in the potholes which prevents you from seeing the depth of the hole. We advise you to slow down! If you can’t find a path around all of the potholes, adjust your speed and drive slowly enough so that you do not hammer on your suspension system as you pass through them. More things on your vehicle will fail or break down in the wet season than during any other time! The rain, humidity and poorer quality of the roads, all take their toll on your vehicle. The rainy season is also the time when you need certain aspects of your vehicle to work properly more than ever. In particular, your wipers, defroster, and lights need to be operational at all times. Don’t put off vehicle repairs during the wet season!
A few words about river crossings: the rivers are deeper and moving faster during the rainy season. If you come to a river and it is “running bank to bank” (you don’t see the slope of the bank on either side of the river) then it is highly likely that the river is too deep for you to cross. Most vehicles have the ability to ford a depth up to the center of their wheels (some a little more, some a little less). When in doubt, watch other vehicles cross to see the depth, or, walk into and across the river yourself to measure its depth. Oftentimes, there is a build up of rock and sand slightly downstream of the crossing point. This provides you with a circular or off-center route around the deepest spot of the river - that way across is safer. Lastly, when encountering a river, and you are in doubt about crossing, don’t do it! If it is too deep, you’ll be lucky to get towed out by a tractor or larger vehicle and sustain minimal damage to the vehicle. However, if you are unlucky, you could lose your vehicle altogether!
7.Air conditioning adds safety to your driving
Air conditioning enhances driving safety. During the wet season, it may be difficult to get your car aired out and dried out using windows alone. Older vehicles may not have an A/C. If you prefer an older vehicle, you might consider adding an air conditioner for both comfort and safety. Air conditioners also function as defrosters, which can be very important for visibility when it is rainy or humid.
8.Taller vehicles with better ground clearance improve visibility and safety
In Costa Rica, any advantage you can add to your visibility is worth considering. Being able to see further down the road allows you to judge the depth of potential potholes and the presence of other obstacles. This added visibility also gives the driver more time to assess and maneuver around those obstacles. In addition, most vehicles that are taller and have better ground clearance will likely have 4WD. If you are driving off-road, we highly recommend having and knowing how to use 4WD.
9.Newer, sophisticated vehicles aren’t necessarily better vehicles for Costa Rica
In our experience of having our vehicles repaired, we have found there are fewer breakdowns with older and less sophisticated machines. Also there is a greater number of mechanics able to assist you and a higher possibility of effective repairs if you have an older or simpler vehicle. Mechanics are more likely to be familiar with an older vehicle and its less sophisticated mechanical parts. With an older vehicle, there are fewer parts that can fail, the parts are cheaper, and you are more likely to find multiple sources for the parts you need.
Diesel powered vehicles tend to be simpler and are therefore easier to maintain and repair. Diesels have the additional qualities of burning less fuel and have better more mileage. We recommend diesel vehicles for their economy and for driving in CostaRica.
Electrical and electronic components raise the performance, comfort and reliability of vehicles in general. However, the opposite applies in Costa Rica! Due to the climate and road conditions here, these enhancements are prone to failure. The dust of the dry season, humidity of the wet season, and jarring quality to the roads in general, take a toll. Small, delicate parts are at greater risk. The downside of relying upon sophisticated electronics and electrical parts is not just the greater possibility of failure, but the time and energy it takes to repair or replace the part. In Costa Rica, small, specialized & expensive parts are often not in stock. These parts need to be paid for in advance, and are usually ordered from the country which produced the vehicle.
We experienced an electrical failure when we had the motor on one of our power windows break. Ordering the part from Japan took a month on the fast plane. Meanwhile, we were not able to raise or lower a window. We could not secure the vehicle or protect it from rain or dust.
We recommend obeying all of the traffic laws of Costa Rica. First, remember that it’s kilometers not miles! The posted speed limits are lower here than in North America or Europe for good reason. The speed limit is not always posted on a road sign. Frequently, speed changes are indicated by painted numbers on the road itself. It is not uncommon while driving in Costa Rica to be stopped by police. Be prepared by having your papers in order and obeying all of the laws. If you were not following the laws, or do not have the proper documents, expect a ticket.
Unattended vehicles should be locked. And never, ever, leave belongings unattended in a vehicle, locked or otherwise - this is an invitation to thieves! One last thing, people routinely get around the back country of Costa Rica by hitch-hiking. We are not recommending you pick up hitch hikers, although we frequently do. We are letting you know it is common practice in a country where not everyone owns a vehicle. We have never had, nor heard of, any problems encountered with hitch hikers. You will need to use your own judgment on this one.
Rick Chalmers, President of Adventure Motors: “Bigger Than Yours!” S.A.,
has over 30 years experience in automotive repair. He is a licensed mechanic and emissions technician. Rick owned and operated an automotive repair business in San Diego, CA for 13 years. He currently lives in Costa Rica and specializes in the importation and modification of specialty off-road vehicles. He and his wife own Nosara Travel & Rentals, in case the name sounds familiar!
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