San José, Costa Rica, Thursday 11  February  2010

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Inside Tips on Driving The New Highway

Driving the new San José - Caldera highway can be a pleasure. It is pothole free, is well marked, has slow vehicle ramps on hills and takes your from Chepe (San José) to the Puerto (Caldera/Puntarenas) in less than an hour.

But, there are some things you have to be aware of before you set off on the new highway.

1. Tolls. In total there are four toll booths from San José to Caldera: Ezcazú (¢320_, Guacima (¢480), Atenas (¢640) and Pozón (¢490) for a total of ¢1.930, each way. Not having enough money on hand can leave you stranded on the highway.

2. Slow drivers. The highway seems to be filled with slow drivers, drivers who insist on going 40 km/h where the maximum speed posted is 70, 80 and 100 km/h. These slow drivers create major traffic congestion in areas where there is no passing or slow traffic ramps. See
Mystery of Slow Drivers On San José - Caldera Highway Solved

3. Drivers do not move over. Costa Ricans are known for their "king of the road" attitude. They will not pull over, use the slow traffic lane where available or allow passing in spite. So, always be wary of slow moving traffic. Always assume that around the corner is a yatzu waiting for you to rear end him or her.

4. No service stations. Before setting off on the new highway, make sure, and I can't stress this more, that you have a full tank of gas. There are no gasoline service stations on the highway and the nearby ones are in towns like Atenas, Orotina and Guacima. Walking to get gas from those points is an adventure in itself.

5. It's dark at night. In sections between La Sabana and Piedades, at the toll booth centres and some sections between Pozón (Orotina) and Caldera are illuminated, but the rest of the highway is not. It gets dark out there and there are populated areas to fill the night sky. Make sure you carry a flashlight in case you get stuck. And with that thought in mind, make sure you have reflective clothing, tape, etc in the trunk to let other drivers see you in the pitch dark of night.

6. Watch your speed. Although the highway has posted speed limits, the road is conducive to speeding. There are some sections of the highway that you can easily top 120, 140 even 150 km/h. But, guess what? The traffic cops have figured that out also. And have posted themselves in unlikely places, with radar in hand, waiting for you. For the now the fine can be around ¢20.000 colones or the cost of a lunch, depending on the traffic cop, but come March 1, if the new Ley deTránsito goes in effect, that fine could be ¢200.000 and points or dinner out with the whole family, if you know what I mean.

7. Toll booth operators. By and large the majority of the toll booth operators on the new highway are courteous, greet you with a good day or evening and bid you a "buen viaje" (good trip), just like the electronic sign in says. But some, well, don't even look at you, continue their shouting conversations with other attendants and make you feel that you are bothering their life, even after spending endless minutes in traffic waiting to pay the toll. And if you are one of those driving a van, be prepared to pay more at some toll centres, as they hit you with a "big vehicle" story.

8. And on tolls. I am not sure who is the genius behind the toll fares. Why not just make it ¢300 at Escazú, ¢500 at Guacima, ¢600 or ¢650 at Atenas and ¢500 at Pozón. No, sir. It has to be ¢320, ¢490, ¢640 and ¢480 (respectively), which means having to fumble for those pesky ¢5 and ¢10 coins, then have to wait while the toll operator counts out each coin or wait to get change back from a ¢1.000, ¢2.000, ¢5.000 or ¢10.000 note. (Can't wait until the ¢20.000 and ¢50.000 notes come out, to pay for a ¢320 toll). For the sake of Pura Vida, just round out the tolls to the nearest '100', it will work out in the end.

9. On Quick Pass. The Quick Pass is the smart way to cross the tolls. Of course not is you are in Guacima, Atenas or Pozón, since the Quick Pass lanes are also being used for manual payment due to the high volume of traffic. The idea behind the Quick Pass is exactly that "a quick pass". The electronic sensor reads your approach, takes out the toll from your account, opens the gate and lets you by. But not on the aforementioned three toll stations, where you get in line like the rest of us. I am sure you are wondering what did you ever spend the us$30 bucks for the contraption.

10. More on Quick Pass. If you decide to splurge on the Quick Pass take note. For one, it can only be obtained from your nearest HSBC branch, where you will be asked to sign up for an account that requires your cedula or passport. Then the cost is us$30 if you are not a HSBC customer (us$15 is a customer). To open an account to save the us$15 be prepared for a banking bureaucracy second to none. I won't go into that here, want to be fair to the other banks who have been shun out from this lucrative market.

All in all, barring the whining and complaining, the new San José - Caldera highway, some call it a road, is the next best thing to sliced bread when it comes to travelling to and from the Pacific coast.

A trip from San José La Sabana to the Puerto Caldera is 52 minutes, traveling to and Jacó is 70 minutes or less (without speeding and normal traffic).To and from Tamarindo, Flamingo, etc is now under 4 hours. San José to Liberia under 3 hours, Playas del Coco 14 minutes more. The southern zone is now more closer than ever, especially with the near completion of the Costanera Sur.

So, fill up your tank, pocket full of colones and go cruising in Pura Vida Land!

Enrico Cacciatore








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