Costa Rica's Code of the Road

San Jos&eacue; Costa Rica Street Corner

San José Costa Rica Street Corner (More Photos)

In the City

It doesn't take long to realize that there is a different code of the road in Costa Rica.

The first clue will come when you notice the behavior of drivers at intersections. Check out a few cars at a few corners and you soon catch on that traffic signs carry one less level of authority here.

For example the octagonal red sign with "alto" printed on it translates as stop, and in some places that's what drivers do when they encounter one. In Costa Rica however this sign means slow down, proceed with caution, in other words the same thing that a yield sign means in the rest of the world. In a similar fashion a red traffic light means pause then proceed if there is an opening. Sounds suspiciously like a response to a stop sign in the rest of the world.

Oddly the government seems to conspire in this behavior; they have even invented a new traffic control that is used all over the country. It is a traffic light with a stop sign on the same pole. The combination of devices seems to carry a higher level of authority. When the light is red, and there is a stop sign present, drivers stop and wait for it to turn green before proceeding.

There are some very helpful signs as well. Nearly every town no matter how small has a few one way streets. The allowed directions of travel are usually posted on white signs with black arrows or large arrows painted on the pavement.

Watch for the signs or painted arrows; parked cars are not necessarily a reliable clue to allowed directions of travel since you can be on a two-way street and still see all of the parked cars facing you. Parking is allowed on either side of the street.
Zona de Neblina - fog, clouds and rain can easily reduce visibility to zero on Costa Rica's mountanin roads

Zona de Neblina - fog, clouds and rain can easily reduce visibility to zero on Costa Rica's mountanin roads.(More Photos)

In the Countryside

Many of the roads in Costa Rica are narrow and winding, and they can be quite dangerous. Buses in particular are notorious for passing on blind curves, and guardrails are few and far between. If you hear honking on a mountain road it may indicate that someone is coming at you, in your lane around the next curve. Fog and heavy rain frequently reduce visibility.

If you see a branch or pile of sticks in the road, slow down! This is the Tico version of a road flare and indicates danger ahead. Sometimes this danger can be as serious as a missing bridge over a 200-foot drop.

A branch or pole standing beside the road and topped with an old boot, pop bottle or rag is a warning that the pavement is eroded and part of the lane has fallen into the ravine. Slow down and be prepared to yield to oncoming traffic if necessary.


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