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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

How to Avoid Traffic when Birding in Costa Rica

Costa Rica= 100% Natural! Costa Rica, land of endless forests! Costa Rica, a natural paradise! Anyone who has planned a trip to Costa Rica has probably seen these and other slogans designed to market the country to visitors from abroad. Once you get here, if you keep an open mind, you will note that while those marketing banners do have a fair grain of truth, they also omit a good degree of reality.

Beautiful scenery but pastures aren't a natural part of the Costa Rican landscape. Just about every pasture in Costa Rica used to host far more diverse tropical forests.
Pocosol is a good place to experience nearly "endless" forests (and high quality birding).

Just as with nearly every other country on this planet, Costa Rica has seen its fair share of human-made changes, many of them not being very conducive to the continued existence of biodiverse ecosystems. Yes, the country has preserved quite a bit of its already limited territory and laws are on the books to try and protect biodiversity but the forests are far from endless, wetlands have been drained, and too many crops are doused with chemicals (challenges to sustainable living commonly shared by many countries on Earth in this over-populated, naturally disconnected segment of human history). Another sign of the times is traffic.

Waiting in a long line of cars during road work in Guanacaste.

Unfortunately, Costa Rica has reached the point where the number of cars, buses, trucks, and motorcycles overwhelm the roads of some parts of the country on a daily basis. Long gone are the days of the pleasant morning drive to work. As with other densely populated places, the norm nowadays involves sharing the byways with a massive train of vehicles that clogs the arteries in both directions like amalgamations of steel, plastic, and vulcanized rubber cholesterol. Throw in a fender bender, a washed-out bridge, or a small landslide now and then and you go from gridlock to gridsuper-glued. Ok, so before you cancel that car rental, don’t panic! There are ways to avoid the traffic on a birdwatching trip to Costa Rica and here are some suggestions:

  • Leave early (as in pre-dawn early): Even if you happen to be staying in the heart of San Jose (which is of course also the center of car chaos), you will be out of town in a jiffy if you leave the hotel by 5 or 5:30 AM. Depart before then and it’s even nicer but wait until 6 and it will take a while to get out of town.

    Leaving early will also help you see more birds like this Prevost's Ground Sparrow.
  • Come back late: If you are coming back to the San Jose area, you might want to consider doing a bit of owling and having dinner outside of the city. That way, in addition to hopefully seeing an owl or two, you can head back to the hotel around 8 without having to deal with the afternoon rush hour.

    You might see a Bare-shanked Screech Owl- a fairly common regional endemic.
  • Rush hour: Of course, knowing when most people are migrating to and from home is key to avoiding traffic. The morning rush hour goes from around 6 to 8 and the worst of the afternoon madness happens between 4 and 6.
  • Routes and places to avoid: Fortunately, daily problems with traffic are mostly restricted to the Central Valley. You can expect unpleasant issues if driving during rush hour anywhere from San Ramon on east to Cartago. Other routes that have their fair share of slow-going vehicles and traffic are the highway between San Jose and Limon (at least you can watch for birds as you Sunday drive through Braulio Carrillo National Park), the Pan-American highway between Puntarenas and Liberia (due to road work and when collisions shut down the road), and the new Caldera-San Jose highway on Sundays (on Sundays, take the old road up to San Ramon instead).
  • Bird areas with little traffic: Since more birds live where there are less people, most good birding sites are naturally bereft of bottlenecks and heavy traffic. One of several wonderful birding routes that comes to mind is the road between San Ramon and La Fortuna. The low level of traffic and fantastic birding at places like Lands in Love, the Manuel Brenes Road, Finca Luna Nueva, the Cocora Hummingbird Garden, and the San Luis Canopy make this area one of my favorite places to bird in the country.

    You might see a Three-wattled Bellbird around there.

Follow these suggestions to save time and sanity when birding in Costa Rica!

You might also want to check out some driving tips for Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Some Tips for Driving when Birding in Costa Rica

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to drive in Costa Rica? What it looks like to drive along mountain roads on your way to seriously exciting birding sites like Cerro de la Muerte, Irazu Volcano, and Braulio Carrillo National Park? Well, if you live and drive in North America or Europe, it’s not going to be like home. It’s different but if you know how to drive defensively or in heavy, urban traffic it’s not so different that you can’t do it.

Renting a vehicle in Costa Rica has its ups and downs. The obvious benefit is that you can go birding in a lot more places at optimal times. Want to leave San Jose at 3 am to look for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl on Irazu? Want to survey the high elevations of the entire Providencia Road? How about exploring unbirded foothill forests near Dominical or checking out Palo Verde? You can do all of this and more with a rental car. It brings you a certain degree of freedom and comfort that public transportation will never provide.

This all comes at a cost though and it’s not just money that I’m referring to. Much of the driving isn’t quite so relaxing as cruising around Main Street back at home or calmly speeding down a well-lit four lane highway with wide shoulders. To give you an idea of what to expect when driving in Costa Rica, read and heed the following tips and advice:

  • Central Valley traffic: You may have noticed that I often refer to this part of Costa Rica as being “over-urbanized”. I say this so frequently to give visitors a heads up about the greater San Jose area. Costa Rica’s small size and mountainous topography don’t allow for much elbow room in the Central Valley. This is where at least half of everyone in Costa Rica resides and the result is a veritable labyrinth of asphalt and concrete. If you need to drive through the San Jose area, Heredia, or Alajuela, do so before 5 am or get ready to spend a lot of your precious birding time in traffic. You might see some flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets fly over or perched on the buildings but won’t see much more than common, widespread species.
  • Navigation: Forget about a map, rent that GPS. You can eventually find your way with a street map but since signs are commonly absent or misleading, it’s easiest to just follow what the GPS device says. Outside of urban areas, it’s pretty easy to get to your destination but if you need to drive through any cities in the Central Valley, a GPS is invaluable.
  • Signs (or the absence of): Don’t expect to see big signs like home. There are some, but it’s pretty common to see one sign with an arrow pointing to your destination and then nothing further at forks in the road. There are also signs that are downright misleading (like some entrance and exit signs for highways) so once again, rent that GPS and do what it says. On a side note, the brown signs that point to national parks are pretty accurate.
  • Potholes: Costa Rica has seen dramatic improvements in terms of pothole frequency but the heavy rains always give birth to more. They can turn up just about anywhere so your best bet is to always watch out for them. This is what us locals do and we just swerve to avoid them or slow down to carefully cross any craters we are confronted with.
  • Pedestrians: Sidewalks are an anomaly in much of Costa Rica but this doesn’t keep people at home. No, they just walk on the roadway. This leaves little room for cars and people so don’t be surprised to see everyone from kids to the elderly just walking along the road as if cars didn’t exist.
  • Night driving: If you thought you had to be alert during the day, driving at night is a whole other story! People still walk along the side of the road (even on some highways) and they won’t be wearing anything reflective so watch out for them! Many of the roads also lack lighting so get ready to use your brights and be very, very alert.
  • Shoulders: Almost none on most roads means that you can hardly pull off to the side. This seriously limits roadside birding but the birding is usually better in protected areas in any case. On the rare roads that see very few vehicles, you could get away with birding from the car.
  • Ditches and drainage: It rains a lot in Costa Rica and we get rid of that excess water by channeling it away with ditches and drainage canals on both sides of the road. Some of these are covered but most aren’t so be careful that you don’t drive into them.
  • Road width: 4-lane highways are extremely rare. In most places, roads have the same dimensions as alleyways back at home. This results in some tight squeezes in urban areas but we manage.
  • Speed bumps: Common in urban areas and near schools. Sometimes there are signs that provide a warning but for the most part, you need to watch out for them just as you look out for potholes (and some look just like the road!).
  • Speed cameras: Costa Rica now has cameras that take pictures of cars going 20 ks over the speed limit. Although there are just a few in the country, they have generated so much income for the government that you can expect to see a lot more. Don’t speed because the fines are outrageous ($600 if going 20ks over the limit)!
  • Speed limits: There are signs for these but they aren’t obvious. In many cases, the speed limit is painted on the road so watch for that. In general, it’s 40kph in towns and some intersections, and 80kph on some sections of highways. 60kph is probably the most common speed limit and happens along highways when passing under bridges, on some curves, and in other circumstances. Heed those 60kph zones because this is where traffic cops love to catch you going over the limit.
  • Other drivers: Drive defensively because a lot of people are just bad drivers. Many drivers are quite considerate but don’t be surprised to see some people passing 2 or 3 cars where they shouldn’t, or honking at you because you won’t drive through a red light or speed out into traffic and crash. Be very careful and slow down at curves on highways in case another car is using your lane for passing or if a truck just happens to be using both lanes. If you have the right of way and the other car is stopped and flashes their lights, they want you to go ahead. As with other places, other drivers also warn you of speed traps by flashing their lights.
  • Bridges: Many bridges are one-lane affairs. If you see a red yield sign, that means that the cars coming from the other direction have the right of way. If you don’t see the yield sign, you have the right of way.
  • 4 wheel drive or not?: A lot of people wonder if they need 4 wheel drive and the answer is yes and no. Nowadays, you can get to almost anywhere with a 2-wheel drive so unless you plan on driving up to Volcan Barva, Pocosol, or El Copal, you don’t need a 4-wheel drive.

Although driving in Costa Rica may sound daunting from the information above, much of the challenge is related to driving in the Central Valley. Once you get away from the city, it’s actually quite easy going so if you know how to drive defensively, you should have no problem with driving in Costa Rica.