Costa Rican roads — Are the potholes myth or reality?

Driving in Costa Rica

Much like any other city driving in the world, Costa Rica’s cities are busy and traffic holdups are frequent with impatient drivers honking their horns at a millisecond’s delay at the lights. However, most visitors don’t spend their vacation fighting peak hour traffic and leave the relatively small cities of Liberia and San Jose to head out to the mountains, beaches and volcanoes that have brought them to Costa Rica. Road conditions vary across the country but are constantly improving – although the nation retains its poor reputation for infrastructure.

Extreme weather conditions from drought to flooding, mean that road surface wear and tear is considerable and so repairs are frequent, but not always adequate. Major routes are generally well maintained but less travelled roads may be unpaved, one lane and/or potholed.

Mountain driving

Driving over mountains is necessary to get just about anywhere outside of the Central Valley, where the capital city is located, and while the views are spectacular, caution is advised. Route 32 and the southern Pan-American Highway are characterized by frequent bends, occasional torrential downpours and mist, and large trucks. Here are a few tips to driving the mountains:

• Don’t ride the brakes. Overheating the brake pads can lessen brake efficiency.
• Stay patient. Being stuck behind a large truck can be tedious but overtaking on mountainous bends is ill-advised.
• Use low beams on headlights if road is foggy. Pull over and wait if fog or rain makes visibility difficult.

Rural driving

Once out of the city or the Central Valley region, main highways across the country are generally in good condition and easily navigable. Smaller roads may be slower to drive. Points for driving in the countryside:

• Bridges are often one lane and signposting will indicate which side has priority for crossing.
• Sticks in the middle of the road are used to show where large holes are located. Drive around these with care.
• Stay alert for animals, cyclists and pedestrians as few rural roads have sidewalk.

Driving through rivers or onto beaches

Don’t. Despite the temptation of driving through the river in the middle of the road you’re driving on, resist and find another dry road with which to reach your destination. Driving into rivers, estuaries or other water will void car rental insurance. Driving onto the beach is equally a reason for insurance voiding, and despite the local vehicles that may be on the beaches; it is against the law.

Driving at night

Don’t. Long journeys that begin or will involve ending the journey after dusk are not recommended. Roads are not always well-lit and are used by both pedestrians and cyclists, which can be concerning in the dark. Sunset is between 5:30 and 6:00 nightly. Visitors arriving on late flights should stay overnight in a hotel near the airport and either collect the rental vehicle in the morning or have it delivered to the hotel.

Obviously, driving from your vacation rental or hotel to a nearby restaurant and back is completely different and not advised against at all.

Finding your way around

Costa Rica has no formal address system and signage is often absent from roads, which can make finding places a challenge for the visitor. There are very few ‘normal’ addresses. Your hotel may be located ‘500 meters south of Super Mas o Menos, 200 meters west and has a wooden gate to enter’, for example. If you are lucky, the landmark that is used as the starting point for directions still exist! Many directions in the San Pedro neighbourhood of San Jose were given from a mango tree long after it had been cut down!

In San Jose, the city is carefully mapped out in a grid system with ‘calles’ (roads) running north-south, and ‘avenidas’ (avenues) running from east-west.

The easiest way to ensure that you’re on the right road is to rent a GPS system with your rental vehicle. Simply program the GPS coordinates of your destinations into the system and follow the directions given.

A paper map is useful for journey planning and to see the route ahead. Ask your car rental agency if they provide a free map for your use.

Some visitors use smartphones for online maps. These devices can be very helpful but do bear in mind that in the most rural and isolated places, the internet signal may be very weak or non-existent just as you need a map most!

Waze is quickly growing in popularity, especially in the cities. Google maps have many details but journey times tend to be underestimated. is a useful tool for driving times and Costa Rican style directions.

Helpful hints for directions:

• Use landmarks. Even if roads are numbered, locals will generally use nearby landmarks rather than road numbers to give directions.
• One hundred meters is equal to a block. If you’re told to drive three hundred meters before turning left, just count the blocks.
• Most towns are built around the Catholic church and square. The church entrance almost always faces west.

Road conditions in Green season

From May to December, Costa Rica is in green season. Steady afternoon showers affect road conditions all over the country, and drivers need to adapt to these:

• Plan journeys for the morning to avoid driving in the rain.
• Be prepared to pull over if visibility is impaired due to rain.
• Keep updated with road conditions. Heavy rains can cause routes to be closed or traffic regulated if landslides occur.
• Watch out for puddles which may hide a large hole.
• Be advised that in heavy rains, drain covers can be pushed up into the road by the force of water.

Roads to Watch

The roads listed below are those most widely travelled by visitors to Costa Rica and not a comprehensive list of routes that may challenge the new driver in the country. It is safe to assume that the further off the beaten track driven, the less developed the road will be!

Route 27 aka Autopista Del Sol was welcomed as a fast, modern road joining the capital city to the Central Pacific coast. Journey time is substantially less than on the old route, but there have been issues with the standard of construction and some lane closures for periods of time due to landslides. National holidays and peak vacation times see heavy traffic on this route and the administrators often enforce lane reversibility to cope with the traffic returning to the Central Valley from the coast. Those traveling to the Pacific during these scheduled one way routings, should take the old road via Atenas and Orotina.

Route 32 is the highway between San Jose and the port city of Limon on the Caribbean coast. During heavy rain, the mountainous first leg of this road may be closed due to landslides or as a precautionary measure if authorities are concerned that landslides could occur imminently. An alternate route is available via Cartago and Turrialba if the road is closed.

Route 606 to Monteverde is one of the most well-known roads in the country for all the wrong reasons. Rugged and on a steep incline, it is best tackled in an SUV for the higher clearance offered. The views are spectacular and as the journey is sloooow; there is plenty of time to admire them. Improvements are promised on this fairly busy route, although locals are nervous that easier accessibility may lead to too many visitors entering the very delicate cloud forest environment.

Route 142 around Lake Arenal is a scenic drive but has had issues in recent years with flooding during and after heavy rainfall. Use caution.

Pan-American Highway south from the capital, San Jose down to the south Pacific and Panamanian border has a mountainous stretch which needs to be driven with care. This region is a birdspotter’s paradise as the habitat of the shy Quetzal, but the driver will need full attention on the road.

Guanacaste and Nicoya coastal area has some of the country’s most beautiful beaches, but part of their charm is that they are relatively undiscovered due to the poor condition of the roads leading to them. During green season especially, much of the region is only accessible by SUV and some routes may require a 4×4. A number of roads are best avoided altogether once the rains begin as the rivers crossing them will fill.