Why You Shouldn’t Walk on Costa Rican Shoulders

by Rachel Gertz

Pedestrians walk on shoulder

If you dug one tip out of me about getting around Costa Rica, it would NOT be:

Walk on the shoulder of the road.

Now you might think this is a tip I would NOT give you re: anywhere, let alone in Costa Rica. However, I would most definitely tell you to walk on the shoulder of the roads in Canada, America, most of Europe and maybe even India (if I didn’t like your mug). They’re wide, absent of four foot potholes, and luxurious. Except them rural Indian roads —just yanking your gold chain; they can be a little narrow.

Gravel Roads in Portrero

We take the marble-smooth pitch of black tar and crisp white & yellow lines of our developed nations’ roads for granted. In Canada, we spend billions on road maintenance & construction every year. You’d be hard pressed to find cabbies in Canada blocking streets to demonstrate against miserable road conditions. Yet, they were out today, in Puerto Viejo. Practically shut the city down to demonstrate the importance of being able to drive three feet without a giant mud hole swallowing them up. Don’t go whining the next time your street isn’t sanded, Canucks. Costa Rica’s got real road woes.

Broken Bridge

Still, the kill is also the thrill of visiting Costa Rica. This ain’t no granny tour bus adventure. Roads like these play for keeps. Roads like these are gauntlets of death. Walk wisely or die. And enjoy the rush, you crazy monkey.

Beware! Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in Costa Rica, especially for those aged 5-29. Before the former president Oscar Arias passed new road & driving legislation in 2001, one pedestrian death a day was nothing to gape at open-mouthed. In fact, in 2002 alone, there were over 673 casualties in Costa Rica. Our parent’s maid’s mother was struck and killed by a bus just last year. The case is still tied up in the court system and probably will be for years.

Bicycles on gravel

A few reasons have been gussied up to try to explain the inordinate number of traffic deaths that are taking Ticos out at the knees. 

Reasons For Death

1. Roads here have no shoulders to speak of. Virtually every road is a single or double lane highway (or dirt road or mud track depending on how deep into the mountains you wish to venture). The white lines ends. There is approximately two inches of pavement, and then a deep or shallow ditch follows.

Pedestrians are forced to push strollers, wagons, bicycles, and their mother-in-laws on the shoulder while balancing precariously on the edge of doom. Not that they look alarmed. And not that this is just a Costa Rican phenomen. What with the rugged terrain and all, countless highways around Central, South, and even North America are considered death traps for pedestrians. They just happen to stop you in your tracks here. Literally.

And so far, although I probably couldn’t find a statistic to prove this, it would appear that Gringos (primarily the old, white denomination that is currently colonizing Costa Rica) tend to be the assholes that are driving these pedestrians off the road (not necessarily killing them, just being well, themselves). The Ticos generally seem to go slower and pass less often. Just an observation. Draw your own conclusions.

Then again, locals make up for their caution by doing other things like stopping in the middle of the road, backing up and pulling uturns so they can buy some chickens from the local tienda. Now you understand why it’s better to drive during the day.

The lesson? Walk against traffic. 

2. Pedestrians make bad choices. They cross heavy traffic. They skip overpasses to make shortcuts, and don’t look when crossing the road. I’ve also witnessed the following phenomena: folks will stand a fingers width from a passing side mirror, waiting for a bus or ride without flinching as the ensuing dust slaps their faces. It’s startling, yet they still manage to catch their rides in one piece. 

3. People drive drunk. When the average speed limit is 60 km/hr, and the roads bear the intense role of keeping you from plummeting to your death over neighbouring cliffs, it is no wonder that people are dying a result of a few too many cervecas. It doesn’t take much to plow into a pedestrian, cactus, or other slow moving object. There’s no reason to be driving drunk. You’re probably better off walking on the shoulder.

Concrete step in Portrero

Sad Facts About Driving in Costa Rica

  • Speedbumps are called “son muertos” or dead persons
  • Of the Top 40 worst roads in the world, the Costa Rican Pan Am Highway is listed as number 16. It has potholes the size of five-year-old children
  • Broken yellow hearts (with a crack or halo) painted on the road mean someone died close by
  • Rainy season here means you should expect to drive through rivers or rent a helicopter to cross them. Your choice.

That said, if you decide you don’t want to be a traffic casualty, there’s tons of travel alternatives. 

Stop sign

Other Ways To Get Around Costa Rica 

  • Take a red cab. Red coloured cabs mean they’re official. The price starts at something like 405 Colones, less than a dollar American. PS —the meter in a taxi cab is called a ‘maria’. Make sure it’s turned on.
  • Chase the city bus and then find a seat. Remember to hug your carry on. There’s some neat tricks out there that result in you getting off the bus sans aware of sans luggage.
  • Jump on a charter and then cross your legs. You’re not peeing for three to four hours.
  • Catch a flight from your local destination to San Jose. There are a ton of little mini airplanes that’ll fly you right into paradise. 
  • Rent a scooter. Don’t drive at night.
  • Rent a car and only drive at night if you like playing tic-tac-toe with pedestrians and cows.
Motorcycle with three people


More resources to help you get your ass around Tico town.

Now that you know how to get around and you how you ought notta, perhaps you oughta put that knowledge to good use and do some heart attack style adventuring.

Costa Rica is the mothership of adventure.

Dying Flowers, A Road in Portrero

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