Roads are different everywhere, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when Lifehacker’s Costa Rica contingent nominated me to drive the rental car. Our roads turned out to be dusty and bumpy, but not hard to drive on if you’re used to this kind of thing. (I found the most stressful part to be parallel parking in a crowded street; they called me a hero for getting our Corolla through a small river.) Here’s what you need to know about driving on rough roads.
Talk to the locals
Before you do anything — and ideally before you choose your rental car — find out what the roads are like and what you’ll need to be prepared. Make sure to clarify details, too. Our Costa Rican production crew let us know that the roads were “pretty flat,” which does not mean paved (sorry Joel), it meant that we would not be driving on too many actual mountains.
Our first night there, we heard that a bridge was out along our planned route for the next day. Some people said it would be impossible to drive where we wanted, but Waze data suggested that people were crossing that river just fine. For a final verdict, we asked the desk clerk at our hotel. She knew the exact spot we meant, and had up-to-date information: If it were the wet season, we’d have to take a two-hour detour, but currently the river is dry enough that even a Corolla can drive right on through.
Don’t forget to read up on road signs and any recommended travel safety tips for the area you’re travelling to. If you can’t find the information you need with a quick google search, your car rental place should be able to give you some tips.
Unpaved roads can be bumpy, dusty, and full of potholes, but all you have to do to traverse them is really just to slow down. Neither your car’s suspension nor your passengers will appreciate it if you try to speed over the bumps. Also, be aware that dust and mud can each be slippery in their own way. For the most part, if you take things slow, you’ll be OK.
Avoid some of the potholes. If you can swerve to put the hole between your wheels, that’s great. But stay aware of whether that puts you in the path of oncoming traffic, and whether said traffic can see you. You probably won’t be able to avoid every pothole, so aim for the shallower ones.
Cross water safely
Many of the bridges we encountered in Costa Rica were one lane, meaning that you might have to wait for oncoming cars before you’d have a turn to cross. (If the car in front of you is going, though, follow it.) Pay attention to signs, and watch what other cars are doing.
When we got to the river crossing, it was clear that cars had been through recently, and there were tire tracks making a curving path around the edge of the river/puddle. I stopped to take in the scene, because I wasn’t sure how deep the water was — those probably weren’t Corolla tracks.
While I was waiting, a taller car drove past us, straight through the river, and a motorcyclist skirted the edge. He stopped to point out the best path for us, and indicated that we’d be fine if we went there. If I had just encountered this water without all those clues, I’m not sure that I would have risked it. Gather information, and remember that it’s always better safe than sorry.
Standing water can be especially dangerous, because it’s often deeper than you realise. I wouldn’t recommend testing your car’s abilities, but people who are used to driving through water will know how deep their car can go.
As a rule of thumb, you need to keep the water below your exhaust pipe, or at least keep the engine pushing exhaust out. If you fail and water enters the exhaust system, leave the car where it is and get it towed and pumped out; don’t try to start it.
What to do if animals are in the road
When I rented a car in Iceland years ago, the government had printed brochures with driving tips for tourists. One of the main concerns, it seemed, was that people were speeding down country roads not realising that they could encounter a sheep at any moment.
Animals in the road aren’t a big deal if you know how they behave. There are exceptions, but a general rule:
Birds will fly away. Drive like they’re not there.
Cows, bison, and similar livestock are large and slow moving. Slow your car down, and now you too are large and slow moving. They will walk around you.
Small fast creatures (bunnies, monkeys, etc) are unpredictable; if you can slow down, try not to hit them, but don’t get into an accident swerving to avoid them.
Deer and other animals that travel in groups: stop, let them pass, and watch for their straggler friends.
As always, ask people who live in the area what to watch out for. They can tell you which animals to stop for, and give you other safety tips specific to your region.