When you make your plane reservations, try to time your arrival so you have plenty of daylight left, particularly if you are renting a car and driving off somewhere your first day. You want to do your driving the first few times (months?) before dark, no later than 6:30pm. Figure two hours for customs (just to be on the safe side, it’s usually about an hour), an hour to get the car, and an hour minimum of driving time (even if your hotel is "15 minutes from the airport"). This adds up to a landing time of 2:30pm latest.
For some of you, arriving in daylight is only possible if you leave your house in Timbuktu at 3:30am. So, if you are renting a car and can only arrive after dark, take a taxi from the airport the first night. Pick up your car first thing in the morning.
For one thing, you want to inspect the car.
For another thing, unless you know your way around, you’ll never easily find what you are looking for in the dark. We did end up driving at night when we first arrived for lack of planning ahead (clearly not our forté.) Utter madness. We had no idea and, unless you’ve driven in a developing nation, neither do you.
First, you have the basics which I have mentioned and linked to ad nauseum: potholes, ditches, pedestrians, motorscooters, buses, and drivers ala Mr. Hyde are but a few of the daily treacheries.
Then you have your navigational challenges. No matter how great your map is, remember the roads, even the highways, are unmarked by road signs and street numbers, and are mostly unpainted. Sadly but not surprisingly, pedestrian deaths have reached an astonishing number and even the locals are appalled. This has led to a recent mad dash to repaint/paint all the roads. We even see cat’s eyes appearing between the edge of the road and the 3′ ditch. Hallelujah!
Costa Rica’s highways have road signs… some. Signage is casual and sparse. Most of the exits aren’t marked, unless you have several exits all happening at once. Many are marked using, shall we say, a different system ’cause I can’t make heads or tails out of where they lead. And they are all in Spanish. Nothing like a highway marker anywhere; I’ve never seen one. We simply deduce which highway we are on. Sometimes correctly. You get used to that.
A "San Jose 29 km" is rare to none. When the kids ask "How much farther?", you can honestly answer "I have no idea." The only exception to this rule I’ve seen is on the road to Manuel Antonio. At first there are no signs and you are pretty much guessing and following hunches. But at some point, the signs are ridiculously prolific… couldn’t they be spread out a little?
Once you are off in the villages, you have to figure out what town you are in. Often there is a lifelike statue of the Virgin Mary or Jesus on the cross welcoming you to the town. Rarely a sign. More often than not, you look for a puperia [little store], farmacia [pharmacy] or a ferreteria [hardware store] called Farmacia San Rafael or Ferrerteria Los Angeles. Hopefully, you’ll see several stores all named after the town. You become a location detective in no time flat.
At first, the lack of road signs and directional information is totally frustrating and maddening. HOW DO THESE PEOPLE GET AROUND??? Or, more to the point: HOW DO THESE PEOPLE EXPECT ME TO GET AROUND? It definitely feels unwelcoming. But it’s not. It’s simply that everyone who lives here knows how to get from point A to point B. Or at least how to figure out how to get there!
Once you accept the challenge, it gets fun and way interesting. And the lack of roadside handholding is refreshing. Nothing blocking the extraordinary view. In the states, we are inundated with signs telling us what to do, what not to do, how much farther, which direction we are going, what road we are on (over and over again, talk about ad nauseum)… THAT’s maddening. I fervently hope Costa Rica never litters its landscape with signs. Now that I know my way around.
And the last tiny little point: tourists driving out of the airport in the dark are an easy mark for robbers. Of course we have robbers. We have gringos. And poverty. And little in the way of consequence (another post in the making). There is heightened airport security these days and incidents are down, at last report. But why tempt fate?