Driving in Costa Rica is a wild ting, mon. Not for the faint of heart. I didn’t drive here for the first six weeks. Scareless me was too terrified to take the wheel.
First off, it’s all so confusing. Too many intersections have one too many choices: either 2 lights, or a light and a stop sign. I couldn’t figure out if I should be
stopping or going. Fortunately, cars here have horns. If I made the wrong choice, I heard about it immediately.
Driving can be noisy in Costa Rica. Horns are avenues for emotional expression here: no matter how you are feeling or what you want, you express it in the universal language of Honk.
Drivers blow their horns if they are passing you, if they want you to speed up, if they want you to slow down, if they want you to let them turn in front of you, if you didn’t take off fast enough from the light, if they are saying hi to the guy coming from the opposite direction, if they think some guy 3 lanes over did a dumb thing, if a person on the street looks like they said something ugly to someone else, if a pedestrian is crossing in front of them. A particularly stunning tica gets more than one honk. From more than one driver.
Fortunately, it’s just a beep. A quick "pay attention" beep. Unless traffic is stalled so far ahead you can’t see the problem… then it’s appropriate to just lay on your horn like they did in Manhattan before it got to be against the law to blow your horn.
And drivers don’t usually signal when turning. When they do, they are just as likely to turn on their left signal when they are turning right, or just pulling over. Or just stopping in front of you. If the driver in front of you flicks on a signal, you learn to stay well back until you see exactly what, if anything, s/he does. Don’t even try to guess.
BTW, this is not because ticos are not smart enough to know which signal to use. It’s simply a detail not worth one’s time and attention. They are signalling so you know they are doing something… probably. Unless there is a last second change of plans. Signaling is a courtesy to you, not an obligation for them.
Now add terrifying to the adjectives. The roads are narrow. Dotted with unbelievable potholes. The edges are sheer dropoffs into deep ditches. The corners… if you cut a corner too sharply, the whole back end of your car will be swallowed into the void.
On these narrow roads with not quite enough room for two cars to pass, pedestrians push their baby carriages (I kid you not), kids walk to school (including mine), Tour de France wannabes practice their art and citizens walk to work. On the street. There is no sidewalk – the street is it. Teenagers walk two abreast. Now, in the rainy season, add rivers of pouring, blinding rain to the mix. Then add a little darkness.
Trying to avoid a ditch and a pedestrian and the oncoming bus while skirting the pothole knowing the guy behind you is so anxious to pass, he’s likely to do it on the blind curve up ahead while the guy behind him is blowing his horn, when the motorcycle from three cars back whizzes in and out and around ALL of us just missing a head-on with the bus… This was all too much for me.
A little chaos, a touch ‘o drama, stirring the pot – fine. But actual life-threatening danger every second behind the wheel? Not my idea of fun.
Driving is actually dangerous here. Fifty percent of all deaths in Costa Rica are automobile related. That’s a sobering statistic. The phrase "Drive carefully" takes on actual significance here. Being a little terrified behind the wheel is not a bad thing anywhere. In Costa Rica, it’s essential to staying alert and alive. Pura vida!