Driving In CR - A True Adventure...


Driving a motorized vehicle in Costa Rica can be a very intimidating endeavor for both experienced drivers all the way down to the neophyte. 

Aside from crazy drivers who don't seem to care about the rules of the road, there are the ever present Transitos or special traffic police, who are determined to ruin the lives of vacationers and resident gringos - like me.

Returning from a recent trip down to Jacó (12/18/2011), I was just beginning to merge into traffic onto the Pan American Highway, just outside Puntarenas.  About 200 meters in front of me, I saw a local Transito cop apparently writing a ticket to the driver of a small white truck.  As I increased my speed to merge in to traffic, he immediately pointed to my vehicle, made eye contact with me, and signaled me to pull my car off the road.  OH SHIT... WHAT DID I DO NOW?

Getting stopped by a cop in Costa Rica is not new to me.  By all accounts, this may be my 11th or even 12th encounter I have had in the last three years but fortunately escaped the inevitable every time but once.  But what really pissed me off today was, I was absolutely doing NOTHING wrong!

The cop immediately walked over to my car and I handed him my CR drivers license and cedula (Costa Rican Residency Card).  He told me to wait in my car (in Spanish of course) while he finished up with the other driver.  As soon as he finished he walked over and began asking me all sorts of questions such as... "Where was I going?"  "Where was I coming from?"  "What was my business on the road?" 


Understand this... you are NOT in the United States anymore and these questions are perfectly legal (and expected).

There is no such thing as "probable cause."  If a cop asks, you answer.  Its as simple as that. 

I then tried to find out what I did wrong - "¿Qué hice mal?"  His response did me no good because it was in Spanish and spoken at a speed which could not be assimilated by my gringo brain.   I kept telling the cop that my Spanish skills were limited and I asked him to speak slower.  He then tried to diagram my infraction on a scrap piece of paper.  The best I was able to determine was that he stopped me for FAILURE TO YIELD WHEN ENTERING A HIGHWAY.  Apparently, according to Costa Rican Law, I should have come to a complete stop, let any and all cars pass instead of increasing my speed to match that of the existing traffic. 

The cop then proceeded to enter my information into an electronic ticket book.  That was actually pretty cool.  When he was done, the hand held device spit out a paper receipt which I assumed was my ticket.  The cop indicated the place I needed to sign.  My only problem, I had no idea what I was signing, what my presumed transgression was, and most importantly, how much was the fine?  On the same piece of paper he diagramed my offense, he wrote down the cost of this fine... 357,000 colones... that was $710!   I almost went ape shit!  For the first time in my almost three years living in Costa Rica, I felt like a true victim and I had no where to turn. 

Its bad enough arguing with a traffic cop back in the States, but here I was facing a language barrier and a legal system that was completely opposite of my homeland.  Innocence is NOT PRESUMED in Costa Rica... GUILT IS.


For over twenty minutes, I argued with this diminutive cretin to the best of my limited ability.  We were both growing frustrated.  He then instructed me to get out of my car and follow him back to his vehicle.  Thoughts of pending doom were running through my head.  It was then his English began to improve... dramatically. 

He informed me that I could save a lot of hassle and receive no points on my license if I just paid a smaller fine right there on the spot.  I asked the magic words... "CUANTO CUESTA... How much?"  He wanted $100.  I told him that that was too much, I told him $25.  After a little negotiation we agreed on $50.  Bienvenidos A Costa Rica!

I know what you are thinking and I know what you are going to say.  Paying bribes to cops is wrong and it is tantamount to feeding the beast.  I should have looked this little shit right in the eye and said... "just give the damn ticket" and be done with it.  Well that's easier said than done.  You weren't staring at a $710 fine and potential loss of your drivers license for a year.

Root Cause Analysis...

But now let's get to the real root of this problem.  Last year, Costa Rica's legislature passed a new set of national traffic laws.  To say they were Draconian in nature would have been an understatement.  A simple infraction like going 20 kmh over the speed limit, the automatic fine would be $600.  Think about it this way... let's say I'm doing 80 kmh in a 60 kmh zone (that's 48 mph in a 36 back in the States), I would be subject to a $700 fine!  That's friggin insane!  Now, beginning Jan 1, the legislature has decided to increase the fines by a factor of 14%.

Just take a look at this:

Passing on a curve: $936
Driving While Intoxicated: $936
Driving Without a License: $936
Speeding: $702
Running a Red Light/Stop Sign: $702
Riding a Motorcycle without a Helmet: $702
Illegal Use of a Cell Phone: $702
Excessive Window Polarization: $374
Parking Violation: $374
Vehicle Restriction: $92
Not wearing a seatbelt: $30
No Vehicle Inspection: $20

Most of these fines are outrageous and outside the paying capability of most residents, especially when you consider the average monthly income here is around $400-500. The Legislature, in the infinite inability to think in terms of "reality" have opened Pandora's Box.  The Legislature has created an environment that encourages (less than stellar) cops to line their pockets with some quick cash.

Please Be Cautious...

Costa Rica is a wonderful place to live but it is not without it's pitfalls.  If you live here, contemplate living here or are just visiting, you must do so with your eyes wide open.  This sort of thing is likely to happen during your stay.  Unfortunately, these sleaze balls prey on gringos and tourists.  I can't tell you what to do because each situation is different. 

However, you should also know that the Costa Rican government is trying to clean up this mess.  Just the two days after my incident, six of these scum bags were arrested.  SEE RELATED NEWS ARTICLE.  I even think they may have gotten the guy who tagged me.

Pura Vida.


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