Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Costa Rican Spanish Word of the Day: Alto

OK, so alto isn't exactly a Costa Rican word, but I have had some very serious run-ins with Costa Rican stop signs as of late, so I thought I'd expound a bit...

First of all, just to get the language straight, ALTO--in all caps--is what you'll find on stop signs in Costa Rica. (Some countries use 'PARE'.) Alto is also a noun used to mean 'stop sign'. So, you might hear someone say: "en el próximo alto, a la derecha", which means "at the next stop sign, to the right".

Stop signs are all over the place in Costa Rican cities, but they're not always obeyed. First of all, most people don't come to a complete stop. To those who would point out that many people in the US execute a "rolling stop", let me just submit that a Costa Rican rolling stop is more roll than it is stop.

Also, even when cars are indeed forced to stop, they will only stop after having crept far beyond the stop sign to ensure visibility around the corner of adjacent buildings and parked cars. Often this is necessary for visibility, but for the most part it's out of habit. When driving in Costa Rica, you must be aware of this, so as not to be alarmed, while also being defensive of people who indeed are encroaching on you at an intersection. Easier said than done.

The most difficult part about stop signs in Costa Rica is that they are often accompanied by stop lights or "semáforos". This, digo yo, seems like a very deadly combination. First of all, if you obey the stop sign (which I assume most foreigners do out of habit) while you have a green light, you could get rear-ended by someone who obeys the green light. If you're a pedestrian, you could assume that a car with a stop sign is going to stop while you cross the street, but if that car also has a green light, it will likely keep on going. The picture featured above shows an intersection where I tried to cross in front of a stop sign without knowing there was a green light for crossing traffic. Luckily I noticed what was going on, narrowly avoiding a rough encounter with a moving automobile.

Aside from the contradiction of having both signs and lights, another problem is that the street lights are largely invisible to pedestrians. Imagine a street light that hangs down into the middle of a very small, crammed intersection. You can only see one of the four sides of the street light, and you can only see that one side if you're looking almost directly overhead.

As I was driving around Heredia with a Costa Rican friend, I had a hard time running through the stop signs, even after she assured me that it's the street light you must obey. I was finally able to get rid of that silly impulse to actually stop at stop signs, but I couldn't help but wonder why on earth there are still stop signs where stop lights are implemented.

I'm open to explanations (but I have to admit that I'm erring on the skeptical side).


Anonymous said...

Costa Rican law says that lights supersede stop signs.

You should look at the light, not at the stop sign ;0

Thomas Carmona said...

Yes, you're right about the law, but by telling me to simply ignore the stop sign you're conceding that you haven't answered the question.

Why is the stop sign there in the first place when the presence of a stop light supersedes it?

Is it there in case of temporary power outages?

Thomas Carmona said...

I guess it would make more sense if they shut the street lights off in the wee hours of the morning. Can anyone help verify this?

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