How do you throw one million dollars out of the window in Costa Rica in just thirty seconds? Rent a Ferrari, reverse gear in the parking lot, push the accelerator, and start your expensive vacation on the roads of Costa Rica – no, it’s not a TV series. Soon enough, you will find a pothole – don’t worry, if you cannot find it will find you - and by the time you steer the gear, it will be too late. Hasta la vista Ferrari. Welcome to driving in Costa Rica: the land of Pura Vida and lack of asphalt. I can say without a doubt that the conditions of most Costa Rican roads are some of the worst I have ever encountered in my travels.
Driving in Costa Rica: The Land of Pura Vida and Lack of Asphalt
If you happen to drive behind an ambulance, let the rescue team stay in the lead. It’s more than a recommendation; it’s the advice meant to keep you alive. When driving in Costa Rica, in addition to the poor condition of the roads, you will have to deal with several idiotas who think they are Formula One racers. Yet, they do have an advantage over any driving tourist: they travel back and forth on their shattered roads every day and have a mental map of each pothole, the one they pass speeding over the limit because, for them, speed limits are optional guidelines.
Surviving the Roads of Costa Rica: A Guide to Driving
If driving during the daylight is a hazard … well … you know where I am going with this. One night, in La Fortuna, I had to drive 15 minutes across town to participate in a frog night tour in the forest. Was I willing to put my life in danger for some silly frogs? Amigo, don’t even think about insulting frogs. Costa Rica has some fantastic wildlife, and frogs are no exception. I love animals; that is why I was in Costa Rica in the first place. Call me insane, crazy, or suicidal, but at 8:00 pm, I hopped into my SUV and drove on the mysterious roads of La Fortuna.
Why mysterious? Because they lack street illumination, striping divider, guard rail, and stretch on the verge of cultivated fields. Meanwhile, bikers ride without lights, and groups of people interact in the middle of the road, having a philosophical conversation about eternal life. Better yet, about how to become pure spirit after being grounded by a bus, and why not, my SUV – what could have been a Ferrari.
Driving in Costa Rica is a headache when actively steering the wheel and even when the car rental is parked. Rentals in Costa Rica are often stolen. No joke, it happens. Rentals are marked as such by the serial number on the license plate, a warm invitation for those malicious people looking to make a quick buck with the luggage you left in your trunk. I asked the concierge at the resort in La Fortuna where the safest place to park the car was. He suggested parking around the church. How didn’t I think about that? It makes perfect sense.
Jesus Patrols the Parking Lots: Staying Safe while Driving in Costa Rica
The parking around the church of downtown La Fortuna is patrolled by Jesus, who is very strong in catholic Costa Rica. Try to rob a car in Jesus’ territory and see what happens. Jesus himself will fly out of the church entrance and smash the poor bastard against the ground; in addition, he will mark the misfortunate with an X on his back. Why? It’s a reminder for Jesus when, one day, the robber will try to sneak into heaven: “Ah, you are the one that tried to steal Sam’s car in La Fortuna? Go to El Diablo and see if he will find that to be funny.”
Costa Rican Road Signs: Understanding "No Hay Paso"
When driving in Costa Rica, I had to take my grain of responsibility if things went wrong from time to time. I was driving on the main road in downtown La Fortuna when I saw a small sign on the ground, which I mistook for the name of the restaurant next to it: No Hay Paso. The sign contained not the name of the restaurant but a No Entry road sign. Suddenly, pedestrians, bikers, and floating-in-the-air hands began yelling at me. Luckily for us (Viktoria was with me all along), Jesus was out of the church doing his afternoon surveillance tour and, from above, made us turn right on a side street, breathless but safe. Of course, I learned my lesson, and I memorized the No Hay Paso road sign. I don’t expect Jesus to be around the block to save me every 15 minutes. Instead, it seems that the people hanging out on the streets at night in La Fortuna may have that entitled expectation: that Jesus will always be there to swirl them from a passing car. But even Jesus gets tired after a long day patrolling the parking lot around the church.
Let’s go back to the potholes. Sometimes, when driving in Costa Rica, you are already doing 20 km/h when you encounter one of those guys: speed bumps that are barely recognizable from far away. They are seldom painted in yellow. They are called reductores, which to me is a pure mockery: reduction of what? I am already driving slowly, zigzagging among holes on the road, twisting and turning on a golf course rather than driving in the traffic.
Somebody may rebuke my over criticization and remind me that the national highway is not that bad after all. Yes, I must admit that the national highway, which is still a 2-way road most of the time, is decently maintained – in between when it’s not. However, even here, one may wonder about the contradictory signage that in a few blocks can have a speed sign for 40, 50, 60, or 80 km/h, and it’s hard to understand what the logic is other than confusing any tourists. Then, when you would least expect it, here would be the 90 km/h, and for a moment, you could fly like an eagle on the highway of Costa Rica, still hoping for the best.
A Tourist's Experience of Driving in Costa Rica: A Love-Hate Relationship.
Always be especially careful when driving in Costa Rica. Being cautious also means avoiding killing a family of raccoons, monkeys, or any creatures crossing the street. In some remote areas, encounters with animals while driving are quite common. On our way to Monteverde, we came across cows. They would be hanging out on their own, munching on the side road tuft. Or maybe waiting for that guy, driving his Ferrari, 20 km/h, in Costa Rica, the land of potholes, which may be a problem but then, who cares … Pura Vida ... ce la vie, don’t worry, and don’t sweat the big and small potholes, there is probably nothing one can do about them anyway. Adiós and good luck. God may be with you while driving in Costa Rica.
~ Written by: Viktoria Rusnakova & Samuele Bagnai, authors of Enthusiastic All the Way & Tuscan Who Sold His Fiat to the Pope, respectively.
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