140. Getting Around Costa Rica 🚗🚌

Depending on where you live, people have very different ideas of what their day-to-day transportation looks like. Having grown up in small, rural towns, everyone pretty much had to have a vehicle to get around and do things. When we moved to the suburbs it was pretty much the same, but we did have some options for public transportation (like the express bus that I took from Oakdale to downtown St. Paul for work every day) and easier access to things like Uber. If you live and spend most of your time in “downtown” areas or big cities where most of the things you need are close together you might rely more on buses or get around on foot or by bike. Today’s blog post is about transportation that we’ve observed here in Costa Rica.

Cars and everything related to cars are expensive here. When we were buying our truck we were shocked at how much vehicles cost, and then when we started looking at replacement parts we were shocked once again. Gas is expensive and always seems to be about $2 more per gallon than it is in MN. With all of this being said, a lot of Ticos don’t have cars and rely on other modes of transportation. Motorcycles (small motorcycles, not the big touring motorcycles) are very popular here for people that have to travel distances farther than they can easily walk. You will often see several people on the motorcycle together, sometimes with pets or carrying items that you wouldn’t think would be easily transportable by motorcycle, but Ticos are great at making things work! Here in Uvita (and as far as I am aware, other places throughout the country as well) there are motorcycle delivery services that will go grocery shopping for you or pick up take-out from local restaurants and deliver. There are no handy-dandy apps like Uber Eats or Instacart, and we aren’t exactly sure how it works, but I think you just call in your order over the phone, have them pick it up for you, and then pay in cash when they deliver it. We haven’t tried it yet, maybe someday! Oh, and the motorcycle drivers, they are pretty hard core, they even drive in the torrential downpours that would have car drivers in the US pulling over to wait until it slows down (that’s not a thing here in Costa Rica, because the rain honestly might not slow down any time soon, so just keep driving!!)

In town you see a lot of people walking and some occasionally biking to work, to the grocery store, to anywhere they need to go. “Within walking distance” has a different meaning here than we were used to and is quite a bit further than you may expect. It doesn’t matter the weather, pouring rain, 100* and sunny, whatever the season, you see people walking. I really don’t know how they do it! If it’s raining on the way to work, could you imagine being soaked and having to work the rest of the day? Rain or shine you will see a lot of people carrying umbrellas. We all know why they would be carrying them when it's raining of course, but you might be asking why they use them when it's sunny. With long walks and high temps it's a very welcome portable piece of shade for them. Here near the equator the sun tries to kill you!

Public transportation is essential down here. There are local buses, regional buses, and cross-country buses. You see bus stops in the towns, frequently all along the highway, and many mid-sized towns and larger have a bus station. You can (and many people do) take the bus across the country, there are buses that go from the San Jose airport all the way here to Uvita (that’s a 3.5 - 4 hour drive by car, but approaches about 5-6 hours if you take the bus because of all of the stops). 

Typical bus stops that you may see along the highway
A lot of tourists who don’t want to rent a car rely on private shuttles for the long-haul routes. We, and many people that we know, have taken private shuttles from San Jose to Uvita when going to or from the airport. These are great because the drivers often know a lot about the areas that they drive including “back routes” if there’s heavy traffic, the best restaurants to stop at if you want to, and the best bathrooms to stop at along the way (because, to be honest, many that we’ve found are terrible… bring your own toilet paper for sure, and in some cases, you don’t even get a toilet seat! There are no Kwik Trips in Costa Rica!).

The last mode of transportation I’ll mention that we have seen, but not as often, are horses. If a Tico lives far from town, in a remote village that is not easily accessible or maybe if they don't make a lot of money and can't afford even a small motorcycle, they often have horses (they are multi-purpose if you live on a farm!) It's not out of the ordinary to see a person on a horse going through town to do their shopping.

Ok, now that we have modes of transportation covered, let’s talk about the roads. We often talk about the main highway. The one that we are referring to is the Constenera, the main coastal road that runs North-South along the Pacific coast. About 2.5 hours of our drive from San Jose to Uvita is along this highway, and this same highway continues to run South of Uvita for about 2 hours to the Panama border. Now, although this is like the “freeway” in that it is the main and fastest route, that is truly the only part that it is comparable to a freeway like you might be thinking. For the most part, other than a few short sections, this main route is 1 lane in each direction, is very curvy, hilly, and has an average speed of 60kph (37mph) with some sections up to 80kph (50mph), and slowing down to about 30kph (20 mph) though the towns… yeah, it goes right through many of the small towns. 

A typical road though the small towns. Yes, it always seems to be on a curve!

The Constenera runs right behind our house (we can see it and hear it from our backyard) and then on through the middle of the town of Uvita. Yes, this is the main and fastest route running North/South on the Pacific side of the country- not at all like you’d imagine! If there is a bad accident or big mudslide there aren’t really any detours available in most places, so you could truly be stuck sitting on the highway until it’s cleared. And now you get a better understanding of why the 130 mile trip from the airport to Uvita takes 4 hours and why we usually try to build in extra time in addition to those 4 hours!

Ok, so if the main road is more like a county road that you’re used to in the US, what are the “city” roads “town” roads & mountain roads like? The highways and main thoroughfares that run through San Jose are a mess to put it lightly. They are busy, crowded, fluctuate widths, and have toll booths. 

We go through 3 toll booths each way when we go to the airport, each one costs a different amount and they periodically change. Each one is typically about $1.50-2.50 equivalent.

In several stretches of about a mile each on our way to the airport the road will go from 3 lanes of traffic, down to one lane and then back up to 2 or 3 causing huge bottlenecks where the traffic gets choked. From what we can tell, the reason that it goes down to 1 lane in one particular place very close to our exit to the airport is because there was a hole about 100 feet across that was “in the way” when they built the road and instead of filling it in or rerouting anything, they just made it only 1 lane in order to fit through that narrow section. There are frontage roads all over the place too, but you never quite know where they will go, and we try to never take them. We know our route through the city to the airport, and that’s about all we want to explore! If we have to go somewhere else in the city we rely heavily on Google Maps and it does a pretty decent job of getting us to the right place. Oh, and yes, there are roundabouts here too! 

 In San Isidro, the next largest city that we drive in, the central area is a mess of one-way roads that have lanes that disappear too. We try to stay away from that area of the city as much as possible and instead stay around the perimeter (most of the stores that we go to are around the perimeter) where it’s a bit easier to navigate. 

This is our exit to the airport. The one lane that you see on the left is the one that was 3 lanes less than a mile ago, merged down to one which is always very backed-up and very slow!
Town roads can vary greatly, they might be paved, they might not be, they are narrow and just wide enough for 2 cars to pass. Mountain roads are most comparable to what Ramie refers to as the old logging roads in Northern Minnesota. Minimum maintenance, rough gravel, very narrow (you might be able to get 2 vehicles to pass but often one has to pull way over to let the other go by), very curvy, can be very steep (a steeper grade than would ever be allowed in the US), typically require 4 wheel drive (actual 4WD, not all-wheel drive!) Some of these roads we would not recommend even a 4WD truck to drive on, but are perfect to take Dusti for a ride! On those types of roads you often see horses and motorcycles as well. There go those motorcycle drivers again- hardcore down here!! Now, another thing to note with all roads here you will find two things in common:

1) Very deep drainage ditches or steep drop offs on the side. With the amount of fast, heavy rain they get here they have to get it off the road as quickly as possible so this is a very effective way to do that. Always watch the fog line (if there is one) because it's rare to have a shoulder (since that is where the very steep, deep ditch will be).

2) No matter whether you are on a main highway, city, town, or mountain road, one thing that you can count on are potholes. They are everywhere! Some are large enough that they might swallow your car!

Yes, this really was in Costa Rica  (pic courtesy of https://www.usexpatcostarica.com)

Bridges, there are a LOT of them. Because of all of the rivers and creeks that run down the mountains and all of the rain that the country receives, there are bridges everywhere and they range from the long bridge across the huge expanse of valley as you get close to San Jose to small slabs of concrete just barely passing over the top of the water on a mountain road, and literally everything in between. They are often narrow, often placed around a curve in the road, and may or may not even have sides that keep you from driving too close to the edge.

What will be a new improvement to the main road from the South to the City that is constantly collapsing  down the mountain.


Some bridges, even on some very significantly traveled roads, are only wide enough for 1 car. This means that traffic will have to take turns crossing.

Well, what about street signs? First things first, unless you are in the big city, people don't really use street names (remember the conversation about no addresses here in Costa Rica?) but even when a street does have a name, there is very rarely a street sign telling you the name of the street you are on. When you need to tell someone where you live or where to go, you just use landmarks (buildings, trees, a colored house, etc) and the distance (in meters) from one turn to the next. As far as other types of road signs, when there are any (which in many places there are not) they can be similar to what we are used to in the US, but obviously they are in Spanish.

School Crossing
Up?  No wait this one means, Stop

Typical distance (in Km) to the next town
There are 🚦as well as many yellow diamond picture signs that are the same as those in the US like 🚸 , the curve in the road “s” and < < < signs, , but there are some more unique signs that we’ve come across. I’ve tried to snap pictures as best I can as we are driving past (typically at around 60kph) so I apologize for the exceptionally poor quality. With that said, let's play a game, are you ready? The name of the game is..
What the hell does that sign mean?

Well, we will play on your behalf but feel free to leave a comment with your own interpretation. Here are the rules we will play by. With each picture we’ll tell you what we would like to think the sign means, and then we will tell you what it actually means. (I've also thrown in some other street signs we see along with pictures showing why they are needed and a couple of signs I wish they would use it the US!)
We will start off with an easy one..
I believe this one is a lower case letter i, with a hat, driving a tractor
Obviously a tractor crossing
Near the palm plantations you see tractors like the one in the picture below is hauling palm kernals for processing to make palm oil.
What think this sign means..
The farmer is mad that his cow isn't giving him a ride in the wagon and he wants to go home.
It actually means that you may see a farmer with an ox and a cart also working in the fields hauling palm  but what this sign actually says is to also watch out for these on the road as they want to make it home at the end of the day too.

What does this sign mean....
Bulls on parade of course...
work-animal crossing
What about this sign??
Car jump ahead.. Kind of like Dukes of Hazzard!
Some of the bridges, have rough transitions and slow down..
Here is an odd one you will see a lot of..
Connect the dots? Stop light colors don't work?
We've read that Costa Rica is the only place in the world that uses this sign and there is some confusion over what it actually means and when it is used. What we have found is that it typically is places where a culvert is under the road or a stream passes through and means that there is water under the road.
 The road doesn't go through here, the animals took their space back.
Clearly an area that animals cross the road

 New Olympic sport: Pole vaulting from a bicycle
It's actually an agricultural workers crossing sign
Watch out for Cavemen with spears
Actually means road workers ahead
There is a reason they say the roads here are dangerous!
We think this sign means that darts will be thrown at your tires.
From what I gather this one means there's loose gravel on the paved road
We didn't know Snoop Dogg had an impact on the road signs...Desnivel my nizzle.
Un-even  road
Ohhh, this is for a rest stop for food ahead.. Only serving Iguana by the looks of it.
Prohibited from taking plants or animals
We think this sign means that we need to put the puzzle pieces in the proper spots
Of course it means watch for falling rocks and/or potential landslides
The reason Costa Rica needs signs like this are because of hills like the ones shown below that are at the very edge of the road. A lot of the times you cant see the top of the hill when looking out your window, they are that steep and tall.
Below you'll see that they cut a portion of the hill back to help with the issues of the landslides that fall onto the road.
Another solution sometimes used is covering an entire hillside in concrete reinforced with mesh and drain pipes to let the water out.
You can see the roads are very twisty and built on the side of the mountains. This is the main highway from the southern zone into the metro area and its only 1 lane in each direction. This is why it takes so long to get anywhere here. The country is very mountainous.

Ok, back to the game...

This sign means were are supposed to do the Macarena.

Machinery working ahead- this stretch of road from the coast to the city has been under construction ever since we first started vacationing in Costa Rica
You know we really don't have a good one for this sign..
Detour ahead- here it's not really a detour, just a lane adjustment that you'll see in the pics below

This sign means prepare to drag race a box truck
Essentially:  Trucks going uphill use the right lane.  If they don't use these in the US, they should!
I think this is instructions for a pasta dish.
Slow traffic use the right lane- people in the US should also follow this advice!
I think this river is where babies are made.
The Conception River.  Nothing special here but it reminds me that there is also Rio Jesus Maria that we crossed on our first trip to Costa Rica. "Jesus Maria!!" is an exclamation that we now often use when driving and another driver does something particularly frustrating which is a lot because the drivers down here are... well, a little bit crazy.  I guess it's an inside joke, you had to be there!

No parking your car and looking at the beach.

It means that you cannot drive your car on the beach. Its to protect the wildlife, like turtles that may be on the beaches.

Well, that's all for our version of "what the the hell do these signs mean". We hope you got a chuckle out of it. As you can probably see, driving is quite the adventure down here!! I hope this post gives you just a bit more insight into the day-to-day of what we’re working with!

Pura Vida!



  1. when I was in Costa Rica we used all public transportation. We were on a bus that was following another that broke down. all of those people came on our bus we were packed like sardines. quite the ride.


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