Driving in Costa Rica: not for the faint of heart

There is consensus on the internet that driving in Costa Rica is unpleasant, to say the least, and should be avoided at all costs. I did my research. I read that. But to live in San Jose means to drive in San Jose. So, you adapt.

One thing to know about Roberica: when it comes to driving anywhere, Erica does the driving and Rob does the navigating and podcast selecting. Unfortunately for Rob, at least before the pandemic, he had to drive to work every day. But luckily, we live fairly close to his office and he carpools with a colleague so the driving is shared.

What we’ve learned so far is that driving in Costa Rica is a bit of an art and science that requires drivers to be ‘cautiously aggressive’.

So, what’s so challenging about driving in Costa Rica? Well, a few things:


It seems as if this was not a priority when planning for driving in Costa Rica. Several elements of infrastructure that create challenges:

  • On-ramps are quite inadequate, so you may need to try to merge onto a highway (think 401) from a complete stop.
  • There is one toll station where 7 lanes immediately go down to 1 lane…on the only highway from San Jose to the Pacific coast.
  • At a two-way stop sign, the buildings are so close to the corners that you can’t see if cars are coming until you are in the middle of the road.
  • Roundabouts – enough said.
  • More times than not, there are no painted lines to know where the lanes are or how many lanes there are. Is it two lanes or is it 4 lanes, who knows?
  • There is no such thing as straight roads (an issue when a city is built between mountains) so a GPS is a must.
  • Lanes end without warning. Poof, no more road for you.
  • Roads so steep curving through mountains that our car has barely had the power to make it to the top.


I’d say in general, city planning wasn’t much of a thing in Costa Rica leading to mucho traffico. What should take 25 minutes, often takes an hour and a half. So you need to plan accordingly.

An excellent example of this:

We dropped people off at the airport which is on the other side of San José from where we live. The people we dropped off were taking a flight to another part of Costa Rica. They got through security, boarded their flight and landed in their new destination before Rob and I made it home. Moral of the story: flying cars are needed in San José.

rough costa rican dirt roads

Other Drivers

This may be the Canadian coming out, but drivers here can be rude and inconsiderate. I say that fully knowing that I have become one of those drivers. Coming from Toronto, we’ve seen our fair share of bad drivers…but this is a whole other category. It’s more organized chaos that is rarely organized. It’s mostly chaos for several reasons:

  • Want to let someone merge? Honk! Want to merge into a lane? Honk! Want to tell someone there is a good light? Honk!
  • Turning signals mean so much more than turning. It could mean, ‘you can pass me now’ or ‘that’s the way I’m driving now’ or sometimes it just doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s mostly a guessing game and therefore turning signals are not to be trusted.
  • Running red lights – If it’s a red light, but no one is around to see it, is it really a red light?
  • Motorbikes – equally efficient and unsafe.

Overall, we’ve managed. Not without a few scares that make your heart pump at the speed of sound. But we are forever grateful for the freedom having a car has given us.

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