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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.

4 replies on “Some Tips for Driving when Birding in Costa Rica”

I just drive like I do here in the U.S. or as those with me say I fit in with the crazy drivers in C.R., I don’t get fazed and drive with a good offense is the best defense mind set…. The worst driving is downtown San Jose since staying in lanes is optional and the lack of signs but I’ve never used a GPS and only got slightly lost, the adventure is fun! It is sort of like driving in NYC only more rural!

@Mark- Thanks for reminding readers to ALWAYS do this! Even in lots with attendants, I still park where I can see the car and never leave anything of any value inside. I will probably do a separate post on staying safe when birding and driving in Costa Rica.

@Gallus- Yes, it’s a lot like driving in NYC although it’s not so bad away from urban areas.

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