Mordida in Costa Rica

Driving Miss Sarah~

I wrote to family and friends recently about a hair-raising trip I took from the capital, San Jose, to my home in Talamanca. So I thought I’d attend to the blog and write a bit about driving in Costa Rica. 

Ticos are not the worst drivers in the world (regardless of what you’ve heard or believe); a couple of years ago that honor went to Italy, but it’s hard not to imagine, what with all the Italian immigrants here now, that Costa Rica hasn’t passed on a blind curve—one of the favorite driving maneuvers here—and pulled ahead for that coveted status. In all fairness, though,  I believe the statistics for Asia were left out of the equation. My guess is that many countries could vie for first place. I’ve heard driving in Thailand is a bit like WalMart the day after Thanksgiving. 

The statistics for Costa Rica are pretty dismal though. According to a Tico Times article, “Some 340 people died in traffic accidents last year [2007], and about 530 were seriously injured, according to the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT). Nearly 40 percent of the victims were between 20 and 35 years old.” 

I think one of the issues here is an attitude shared by all the Ticos I know. It is best summed up by a small story. Many years ago Alan and I heard a nightmare tale from a friend whose husband died suddenly. That was bad enough, but it soon became apparent to his widow—our friend—that she was about to loose their property because there was no will. We decided to see a lawyer and ask about the issue. After relating the problem, I asked whether we could be assured if, God forbid, something should happen to Alan that I would be protected by the current paperwork we held on our property. The lawyer smiled and said she thought so. I pressed her further asking, “If he dies will I have ownership of the land?” 

To which she replied, “I think so. I don’t think you have to worry. Something would have to happen.” There it is in a nutshell. Costa Ricans live by this motto. They drive by this motto, and that is why they pass on blind curves: something would have to happen. 

But, the Costa Rica legislature wants to do something about the spine-chilling ordeal of getting out on the road. In December of last year—yes, that would be close to ten months ago, now––the legislature proposed a whole host of fines for dangerous driving. They slammed their foot down on the break pedal and swore to punish those offenders. 

Bad Drivers Have It Coming screamed the headlines in the Tico Times (/Dec 12-18 2008)  and to be sure many of them are stiff. Here is a brief rundown:

I particularly like the “driving while tipsy” category. I’d bet that on any given weekend six out of ten drivers on this coastline violate this law. And that’s a conservative estimate.

I would be worried about the speeding fines (and/or jail terms) but it’s hard to get up to the speeds they speak about here. For instance, what is this a picture of?

Is it: (a) the moon, or (b) a stretch of road outside Puerto Viejo?

The road is so bad in our little community that it often takes us thirty minutes to pick our way over the four kilometers into Puerto Viejo. Some stretches are so bad the truck has one foot or another in a hole and resembles a lunar lander clambering up and wallowing down into holes. There are faster drivers than us, for sure, but their cars aren’t on the road for long. Alan’s 1987 Jeep pickup is now the oldest running vehicle in this area. No small feat.  

Most speed limits in Costa Rica range from 60-90 kilometers and hour (about 35-55 miles an hour). The most likely offense listed would be 20 kilometers above the speed limit, and the cops do love to nab you on this one while you are trying to overtake a slow car. We carry a radar detector. 

But I digress. The legislation. What about the legislation?

According to the Tico Times: The bulk of the new law was supposed to go into effect Sept. 23. But lawmakers have found flaws as well as a political concern. The flaws involved misnumbered paragraphs that would void some penalties. Lawmakers also consider some of the fines disproportionate, they said.

But what about the political concerns?

Again, The Tico Times: The March 1 date would have the law going into effect after the Feb. 7 presidential and legislative elections. [However] One aspect of the law is the obligatory vehicle insurance that would have a heavy financial impact on Costa Ricans when they sought to pay their road tax before the first of the year.

Oops! Don’t want to piss off those voters. 

Yesterday’s news:  the legislature voted last Thursday night to delay for six months the effective date of higher fines found in the new traffic law. (Until after the election!) That vote was the first. A second and final vote is planned for this coming Monday.

They also seek to correct misnumbered sections of the traffic law passed in December, and to eliminate an increase the cost of obligatory insurance of vehicles.

The vote last Thursday was 37 to 4.  I bet next Monday’s won’t be much closer. 

The good news here is that the laws for drunken and reckless driving have already gone into effect. 

But what does all this really mean for us drivers?

When I was in San Jose a couple of weeks ago, I saw big reader-boards on the main drag in San Jose extolling the new law and the fines. I said to my taxi driver: “Boy, looks like Costa Rica has some tough new laws.” 

He grunted.

“Or,” I said, “this is just an alert to all drivers, that the mordida for the cops has just gone up.” 

To this he laughed out loud, shook his head, and said: “You must have lived here a long time. You know us too well!” 

A Little Bite, Please~


The puffed up cop leaned against our pickup holding the expired registration and Alan’s driver’s license.

Casting his eyes toward heaven he said, “Huy, putchica.”

I guess the best translation for this is, “Ouch, life sucks.” Literally it’s more like “Ouch, little whore,” and they use it for all sorts of occasions the way we use, son of a bitch.

But I knew exactly what he was telling me.

It was a first for me. Almost twenty years living here and I’ve never paid what they call chorizo— sometimes called mordida, which I think says it better– for anything.

Mordida, the little bite. It says it all.

In a communally idiotic decision, the Costa Rican government decided that all license plate stickers, or marchamos, would be due in December of every year. I’m sure this was decided back at the turn of the twentieth century when there were all of 500 cars in the entire country. This means that a person must pay for their stickers in December or they will be faced with fines, or worse, removal of their license plates until the fees are paid.

This necessitated all of us stand in line at a local and, I might add, rare government office where these stickers were available. Last year, miracle of miracles, the Internet made its appearance in the country as a viable tool for a bureaucratically bogged down system. I paid for my marchamos online and they were sent to our post office box. ¡Que facile!

I paid for ours online again this year on the fifteenth of December and haven’t seen our stickers yet.

We had to go to the capital, San Jose, to buy tires for the car. A slow leak in the right rear tire has made it plain that it was time. We waited until after the New Year, checked the Post office–no hay marchamos. We drove to Limon and stopped off at the local Institute de Nacional Seguros office (INS).

There, I was just able to wedge my way in, pressed against the wall by a horde of dejected marchamo seekers and asked the guard about getting a verification of payment for my Internet receipt, which I waved in his face. He managed to risk life and limb and asked the clerk about my request, returning with the sad news that I would need to take a fecha and wait my turn.

We decided to take the risk and made it as far as Siquirres, where we met our chesty little cop. I showed him our receipt, proving we had paid for the marchamos and I explained about how it wasn’t our fault they had not arrived yet. He was unimpressed. According to him unless a lawyer notarized the receipt, it was no good. I suggested that he let us go and we would find a lawyer in Siguirres to notarize the paper.

“But they will charge you 12,000 Colones for that,” He said.

“That’s fine,” I countered.

“If I give you a ticket, it will cost you 16,000 Colones and you’ll have to come to court here in Siquirres on January 14th.”

“Then, let me go and we’ll go get the notary.”

This is when he rolled his eyes toward heaven and uttered the comment about little whores or how tough life can be. At this point I opened my wallet where he could see a 5000 Colone bill- about ten dollars.

He threw the receipt through the window onto my lap, but retained the registration and Alan’s license as collateral, and said, “Go get it attended to.”

I handed the five thousand to him and he handed the documents back to me.

Just a little bite.

We finally found an INS office in San Jose this afternoon that wasn’t too crowded. It was also one hour before their closing time and they were processing paperwork like bookies. I was in and out in fifteen minutes with our new registration and window sticker for 2008.

Huy, putchica, another year done. We have to have the car’s annual mechanical check in March…