How To / Travel

Driving in Costa Rica and what to do if you get a ticket.

On our route from the Carribean to San Jose, in an effort to make it around the mountain before total darkness (and unanticipated fog) I follow suit of fellow drivers and pass a slow truck–over a faded, double yellow line. A policeman uphill stands in the road to wave me off. “Una problemo?” I inquire in likely poor Español. “Si!” he responds, “muy.”

He proceeds to ask me for my license and papers and writes me a ticket. When he first shows me his handheld ticket machine, I see what I estimate to be a $550 fine. But he’s not done. “Is this bad for you?” he asks in his limited English. “Si” I responded. “Muy.” In what poquito Español I can slap together, I explain I have no dinero, o muy poquito dinero. He frowns and runs between his car and mine a few times, each time inquiring more about us and our trip: how long are we renting the car? when do we leave? He’s not happy that we’re leaving mañana. “Ohhhh” lingers as he finds the way to explain in better English than before that we must pay the fine to leave the country. El banco is the best because the rental company will charge us an extra 15% tax. The next time he shows me his handheld ticket machine, the fine reads closer to $650 — the fine went up! He finally prints it and lets us go. As soon as I’m back on the road, 2 cars pass me on the double yellow and my passenger waves her fist out the window at the cop who is sadly unaware of the salute being given to him.

At this point, we’re 1/2 hour behind schedule and hit Guapiles after sunset. That’s when the roads start to bend frequently, we begin the real ascent when the fog descends … and I look for the white lines to guide me only to find that the blacktop road blends into a black jungle. Why is white paint a scarcity here? White-knuckled and determined, I fixate on my guide vehicles. When I lose one, I speed up or slow down to get another. Luckily, I’m only without one for an anxious cinco minutos … and they are the longest minutes of my trip and my life, which I’m incredibly aware can end at any moment. And no, I cannot pull over. I see no place to pull off the road where we won’t sink into or be swallowed by jungle or fall off a cliff.

After getting caught misbehaving, I’m more paranoid than ever about making any traffic violations, so I avoid u-turns and speeding and drive straight to our AirBnB, skipping all sodas and pulparias. I’m looking forward to meeting our host and getting his advice on my infraction. I’ve exhausted all options for how I can possibly round up $650 overnight on credit and get it transferred to a debit/credit card I have on my possession to pay the fine should I have to leave Costa Rica. Sadly, I’m not sure if any of what I’ve thought through is possible, so I’m hoping to hear that I can leave and deal with it later. After I’m safely out of paradise.

I’m ready to trust our AirBnB host because he’s from the US and has written a guidebook for Costa Rica, after having lived here for 20 years. Or so that’s what he says on the internet. He chuckles. “He was trying to get a bribe. You’ll be fine.” We decide it’s worth trying to leave without paying the ticket and to follow up on it later — at an indefinite time in the future when I have access to such money and want to return to Costa Rica.

We of course can’t go to bed without doing more research, research I wish I’d done before renting a car.

Lessons learned about driving in Costa Rica

  1. Use Waze (more above)
  2. Don’t attempt to drive through or over the mountains after night fall (more above)
  3. Fines are set by the policemen, vary widely, and make up the policemen’s monthly salaries
  4. Costa Rica traffic fines are the highest in the world (We suspect this is one reason so many Ticos ride bikes, walk and go without cars — as there’s little way they’d be able to afford the fines.)
  5. It’s cheaper to get a DUI than a speeding ticket
  6. Costa Rican police look for and pull over gringos, suspecting big pockets and ability to bribe with big $ bills

I suspect that the reason the policeman asked me when we were leaving Costa Rica was that it would take time for the ticket to be processed in their national system, thus alerting the car rental agency and the airport. He impressed upon me the urgency in having to deal w/the ticket since I couldn’t leave the country without paying. Seeing as how I got the ticket on our last full day in the country, I can neither confirm nor deny his allegations. What I can confirm is that I was able to leave without settling the bill in Costa Rica.

As we were sitting on our plane, taxiing on the runway waiting for takeoff, we spotted an iguana. He was enjoying the heat of the concrete and did several, rapid “perk ups” when he saw us, clearly celebrating our adventures and escape.

the iguana bidding us farewell in Costa Rica

an iguana bids us farewell in Costa Rica

Pura vida!


  • Natalie
    March 23, 2018 at 8:33 am

    Same thing happened to me on our last day there. We returned the rental without incident, got our rental deposit back and left the country without a problem. Did anything come of it? I’m worried about it showing up on my US passport or my state drivers’ license.

    • Jewel
      September 6, 2018 at 10:21 pm

      Wow — last day too. Glad you got out safely.

      It’s been 2 years and I haven’t heard anything … I’ve only left the country a few times and most recently on a new, renewed passport. I’ve also rented in other countries no problem. I don’t know if I’ll go back to Costa Rica but at least so far (knock on wood) nothing has followed me home.

  • Juan
    March 24, 2016 at 11:07 pm

    Yep, they give the most rediculous fines to tourist. I almost got a $1, 200 ticket plus 30% they are now adding to tickets. $600 for crossing double yellow line and $600 because my passing included part of a bridge. So I had to settle for 1/4 the amount in cash to the policeman.

  • Cathy Forsythe
    January 25, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Enjoyed reading this Jewel!

    • Jewel
      January 25, 2015 at 12:48 pm

      Thanks Cathy! I hope it comes in handy when you visit Costa Rica 🙂


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