Driving here not for the faint of heart
In 2006, I lived in a small town in Costa Rica called Buena Vista de Rivas. This little mountain town of about 250 people was so remote that my only access to the closest “big city” was a very old public school bus that transported residents down the mountain on either Wednesday or Saturday for a four-hour stint in the town. The ride itself was about an hour and a half.
I can still remember the first time I took this ride up to my new home for the year: steep, winding, and narrow with a sharp-cliff-into-the-abyss-of-a-mountain-valley on one side and a high-wall-of-land-ripe-for-a-landslide-during-the-rainy-season on the other. The bus would lurch every time the driver switched gears and more than once, we’d roll back a healthy couple meters into what I was sure was going to be the end of my life when we made a stop to drop someone off at a lower town. It was not an experience for the faint of heart, that’s for sure and many times during those first few rides, I found myself clinging to the seat in front of me and counting the minutes til we made it to my stop.
Well, here we are, 15 years later, getting some real exposure to the joys of Costa Rican road trips (written dripping with sarcasm). One only needs to log their route into Waze (the GPS app of choice here) to bring up the comically windy route, surely to lead you up and over mountains, winding along cliff edges, and passing over narrow bridges, all while passing semis, double-decker buses or dump trucks to truly begin to appreciate those nice, wide, straight roads back in the U.S. I will never again crack the common joke of Wisconsin having two seasons “Winter and Road Construction”. Quite frankly, we could use a bit of both of those seasons down here right about now….
Given we own a tourism business, I thought it would only be appropriate to write a blog entry as a bit of a “Roads 101” crash course for anyone thinking to rent a car and head out on your own in Costa Rica.
Basic Rules of Costa Rican Road Trips:
Fill up with gas when you can, gas stations can be few and far between
Rent a high SUV when you can (potholes & rocky roads + low automobiles = very, very bad idea)
Bring a barf bag (and wipes or paper towels for clean up)
Bring snacks (to hopefully prevent #3 - everyone I know swears curvy roads on a empty stomach is a very bad idea, confusingly)
Plan on adding at least an hour to any trip over 3 hours (and then plan on arriving even later than that).
Avoid driving at night when at all possible: seriously, roads are windy, often foggy, and narrow as can be. Nights make all of this exponentially more difficult to manage in a car on unknown roads, no matter how “major” of a road it is.
Road Aware #1: The Reductor
Costa Rica loves speed bumps (“reductor” in Spanish). Unmarked speed bumps. Marked speed bumps. Speed bumps in logical places (by a school) and speed bumps in not-such-logical places, like on the highway or directly before or after a random bridge. Lucky for us drivers, many tend to have a road sign alerting you to the upcoming car-destroyer but just be prepared. They can be high and come on fast, and man is it a nasty clunk when you accidentally go flying over one if you happened to blink and miss the warning.
Road Aware #2: The Puente Angosto
This is, by far, our family’s favorite (and most perplexing) aspect of Costa Rican roads: the
narrow bridge. (Seriously, whose idea was this?!?) Outside of a major metropolis like San Jose or Alajuela, my best-guess estimate is 90% of Costa Rican bridges are one lane. And there are lots of them, thanks to all the rivers running throughout the country. What this means for you as a driver is that you are often driving right along at a nice pace when you suddenly have to come to an often screeching halt if you are on the Ceda (see #3) side of the bridge while you wait for oncoming traffic to pass over. And these bridges, on top of being narrow enough to accommodate only one car, are sometimes comically (and actually dangerously) narrow and without much of a barrier on either side. One particularly notable bridge is en route to Volcán Tenorio National Park, with absolutely no rail or curb, and I’m pretty sure the white lane lines are so narrow, they pass underneath our car as we drive over. Yikes!
Road Aware #3: The Ceda
Next comes the Ceda (“Yield” in English), partner to the “Puente Angosto”. Each Puente
Angosto has a Ceda on one side, requiring that direction of traffic to wait while any oncoming traffic passes over. We often wonder how much money the country truly saved with these narrow bridges, considering that they had to install a “Puente Angosto” and “Ceda” sign at each one to make sure drivers didn’t engage in a healthy game of chicken as they each passed over the river below….
Road Aware #4: The Lane Line-less Road
Ah, the Lane Line-less Road...particularly exciting when you are driving:
At night (and through a construction area where the shoulders blend into the road thanks to the road work and gravel...a bit of a dicey situation when said shoulder also happens to be a solid foot or so lower than the actual road…)
With a lot of oncoming traffic that involves trucks and semis (try heading to Puerto Viejo de Limon on the Caribbean at night in a rainstorm. It’s near a major port for the country and has semis galore...definitely not my favorite driving experience thus far!)
Many of these line-less roads also happen to be extremely narrow and/or with major drop offs with no shoulder. Definitely not roads where you need to be scolding arguing children in the back seat or sneezing and blinking as you drive. One millisecond of not paying attention could be very bad news. The only benefit to these roads being in Costa Rica is that when you get stretches of road without oncoming traffic, it’s not unheard of to simply drive right down the middle of the street to make sure you aren’t risking driving off the cliff that lies 12” to the right of your tires.
Road Aware #5: The Windy Road
Here are a few snapshots of roads we take regularly enough on road trips. Add this to the fact that these curves are often on mountain roads shared with hog trucks or semis, motorcycles and fog, and it makes for quite an adventure. Particularly exciting when you are following one of those larger vehicles up a windy mountain road and they have to switch gears on every curve and roll back a bit (right toward you - yikes!) before jerking forward again.
Road Aware #6: The Narrow Road
Honestly, I have yet to come across a road I wouldn’t label as narrow. I often find myself holding my breath while zooming on a highway (or any road) past large trucks or even small cars, just bracing for the scrape of a side mirror or something worse. I’m regularly amazed at how we don’t actually side-swipe every vehicle we pass. This, coupled with #8, makes for some serious road trip adventures.
Road Aware #7: The Pot-holey or rocky Road
Pot holes. They are serious in Costa Rica. Newer roads typically don’t have them, but many small town roads do, and they are definitely meant to be taken seriously. Just on the street
that gets into La Flor, there are multiple spots where the water has washed out the road so much so that our Honda Pilot can barely maneuver across what’s left of the road without totally bottoming out. Several months ago, I had the joy of (kind of) racing to a vet appointment only to hit a rock or a pot hole just right to smash a crack right in our oil tank. I pulled into the vet oozing oil all over the place, threw our poor Pipa to the assistant, and raced off to find a mechanic. An important side-note here is that small-town (read: 95% of Costa Rica) mechanics don’t have parts you need lying around. Our oil-tank problem was so hard to fix from the standpoint of no one, not even in San Jose, had the part that we had to have someone extract the damaged oil tank altogether to do a repair. This actually involved removing the tank - and who knows what else first to get it out-, us picking it up from this small-town mechanic, driving it to another city where they could melt it down and remold it and then bringing it back to be reinstalled. Ah, joy. It was literally an entire 1.5 days worth of time with all the running around. Lesson learned, that’s for sure: Beware of potholes and rocks in the road. And if filled with water, always, always assume the pothole is twice as deep as you would think it to be.
Road Aware #8: The 12” + drop off
This may be the scariest of them all: the fact that, really, most roads we have driven on have almost zero shoulder and then often have a significant drop off. Whether it’s for a water drainage ditch or road construction or who knows what else, the edges of the road can be a serious hazard. This, coupled with roads being narrow and/or unmarked, really requires serious focus. I mean it: Don’t glance at your phone. Or mess with the radio. Or sneeze. Or blink. It could get ugly.
Road Aware #9: Pedestrians and Bikers and Saguates, oh my!
For those who don’t know, a “Saguate” is a mutt. As in mutt dog. They are all over the place in smaller towns and often seem pretty oblivious to cars whooshing by. Just the other day, our cousin’s chihuahua (not a saguate, for the record) was run over by a passing car as she, presumably, lounged in the sun in the road. These dogs, plus pedestrians (often families with kids) or people biking on these narrow, shoulder-less roads, can present quite a hazard when you are thinking to pass when it’s windy, foggy or narrow. Be ready to drive with a whole lot of patience as you wait (and wait and wait….) to get to a point where it’s (probably not, but good enough) safe to pass them by.
So there you have it: “Costa Rican Roads 101”. By now, I’m sure you’re probably thinking (as I was while I was writing this): “Why on earth would I travel to Costa Rica and rent a car after reading this?!” I’ll tell you why:
Driving here is an adventure: really, the view is typically incredible and that, plus the craziness of the roads, usually makes for a good story after a long outing.
As long as you’re patient, you’ll be fine. That’s really all there is to it: patience. If you recognize before you set out that your trip will take way longer than you planned due to the above conditions and you can therefore make a day of it (stop at a roadside fruit stand, get out and snap pictures of the view, feed a pizote begging on the side of the road - this last choice is actually probably not a good idea….), it can actually be kind of fun.
Most importantly, remember this: as I always tell my kids when they sob and gripe as we hike up a mountain: “There is no easy road to any place worth going.”