- Centrocoasting is a free and invaluable resource for navigating the country (and rest of Central America) by bus, and offers bus schedules and prices for most of the major routes in the region.
Most major tourist destinations in Costa Rica are served by at least two daily buses from and to San José. The advantages of public transportation in Costa Rica are that tickets are cheap (rarely more than US$7 per person) and they cover most towns around the country. San José serves as a national hub, and there are smaller regional hubs in the terminal de autobuses of larger cities in each province. The buses are also not booked with an early reservation system so it is possible to not have a seat on popular routes, however they typically do allow extra passengers in standing room. However, many do have assigned seats once you buy a ticket at the station and so get there early to be sure you get your bus. Depending on the company and stop, you will either buy a ticket at the bus terminal or pay the driver directly.
In San José there is no single central bus station, but several different ones, with each station roughly serving a different area of the country, with some exceptions. For example, most of the service to the Caribbean side of the country leaves from the Terminal Gran Caribe. Direct service to the far south Caribbean coast is provided from the Puntarenas bus station, which mostly serves the west side of the country. Still, you can still get to the Caribe side by taking a bus (on the Autotransportes Caribeños line) from the Terminal Gran Caribe to Limón, and then transferring there to another bus south (the Mepe line). In short, do some research beforehand so you don’t get lost looking for your bus. Often you can just call or e-mail your final destination (e.g. your hotel) and they will tell you what bus to take, where to catch it and how often it runs.
Note, buses can be infrequent and unreliable. Instead of waiting for hours for the bus at the highway, you are better off trying to hitch-hike, which is often faster, more economical and more successful. If the bus does come eventually, you can always still take them.
Unfortunately, many bus drivers will try to rip off innocent tourists. Always pretend like you are waiting for change after having given the money. Often they will give you parts of the change searching for the rest. The unsuspected tourist will assume that’s it. But often just waiting does the trick, and you will get the rest. Note, prices between the most important places are always put up above the driver where you can verify them. Rounded ticket prices like ₡1,000 or ₡2,000 should always raise your suspicions. Do not let them fool you, that just worsens the situation for other tourists and the locals. If you simply do not want to put up with that, then just hitch-hike.
BY RENTAL CAR:
One great advantage of renting a car is that you can visit many of the secluded beaches and mountain areas. And with the power of the internet, you can now rent just about any vehicle online and have it waiting for you when you arrive.
For US$350-700 a week you can rent an econocar/mid size four-wheel drive. Insurance is the majority of this cost and it is not optional. Four-wheel-drive is good for extensive traveling outside the Central Valley, especially in the wet season. In the dry season going from La Fortuna to Monteverde via a direct route was over a boulder-strewn 25-50 km/h (15-30 mph) road. Four-wheel-drive was also useful on the Nicoya coast. (Above based on 2001 roads.) It’s often possible to rent a car with a local driver from the various tour companies, if driving yourself seems a bit daunting.
Due to the condition of most roads outside San José, car insurance, even with a zero-deductible option, generally does not cover tires and rims. Car rental companies require a guaranty deposit from US$750 during the rental period and a credit card is necessary for this process. Using an insurance program provided by some types of gold or platinum credit cards is a good advantage, since these credit cards would cover small scratches, small dents as well as the entire rented vehicle in case of collision or theft.
You have to exercise caution when renting a car in Costa Rica; where it is not uncommon for rental companies to claim “damage” they insist you inflicted on the vehicle. It is by far the best policy to rent a car through a Costa Rican travel agent. If you are traveling on a package, your agent will sort this out. Otherwise, go into an ICT-accredited travel agent in San José and ask them to arrange rental for you. This should be no more expensive than renting on your own and will help guard against false claims of damage and other accusations; rental companies will be less willing to make trouble with an agent who regularly sends them clients than with individual customers who they may not see again.
Make sure to check the car carefully before you sign off on the damage sheet. Check the oil, brake fluid, fuel gauge (to make sure it’s full) and that there is a spare tire with a good air pressure and a jack. Look up the Spanish word for “scratches” (rayas) and other relevant terminology first, so you can at least scrutinize the rental company’s assessment. Ask them to write down all the minor damages, not just check on the drawing, and keep a copy of this document with you.
Take the maximum insurance (around US$15–20 per day); because of the country’s high accident rate, you need to be covered for damage to the vehicle, yourself, any third party and public property.
BY RENTAL MOTORCYCLE:
For about US$420 a week, depending on the bike and the season, you can rent a dual sport bike or a chopper. A motorcycle rental company requires a guaranty deposit from US$600 during the rental period.
Another easy way to get around Costa Rica is to use the services of mini-vans. At most of the hotels, the receptionist is able to assist travelers who want to travel across the country by arranging for the services of a driver. Rates are reasonable (US$29 per person, for example, to get from San José to Tamarindo in April 2007) The drivers know the roads well; the vans are clean and comfortable; and they take you from door to door.
Taxis are available in most large cities. They are usually inexpensive, charging only a few dollars to get most anywhere within the city. The meter is called “la maria”; ask the driver to turn it on immediately upon getting in the car, or he may leave it off and make up his own, more expensive, price when you get to your destination. Also try checking it wasn’t running before you got in, the initial fare shouldn’t be higher than ₡600. Most drivers know familiar routes such as San José to Santa Ana and you can find the rate by asking “Cuanto para ir a _____” and he will tell you the flat rate. This can keep you from paying too much because the driver will not make unnecessary detours. Official taxis are red with a yellow triangle on the side. They also have yellow triangles on the side of the car which will have a number in it. If the number matches the number listed on the license plate, it is an official taxi. Do not get in if the numbers do not match. “Pirate Taxis”, though sometimes cheaper, are not safe. Do not risk it. If you are alone, especially. If you are female, ride in the back seat, as riding in the front with the driver can be seen as suggestive. Caution should be exercised when using this service, extra caution. It’s not recommended to ride non-red cabs.
There are two main internal airlines that connect the major tourist towns, Aerobell Airlines and Sansa. You are limited to 11-14 kg (25-30 pounds) of carry-on luggage per person, depending on the airline. Nature Air allows more luggage per person, as their planes are larger and are also twin-engine.
In 2017 Nature Air had a serious accident with all aboard the aircraft dying as a consequence and the loss of the airplane meaning a reduction of their fleet size by 50%. Nature Air has subsequently had all their flights canceled in 2018 and while they claim to be planning to get permission from regulatory authorities, it remains doubtful whether they’ll ever be airborne again. The crash, which also killed American citizens, has led the US to issue a warning against privately chartered airplanes in the region, but as many airlines – including both Nature Air and Sansa – fly broadly similar single engine propeller aircraft seating a dozen or so, the safety concerns seem to apply more broadly, if they apply.
Neither of them will carry a longboard and both limit the number of short surboards they will carry. Be sure to check with airline for current limits on length of boards allowed.
While the train service was closed in 1995, the Incofer (Costa Rican Railway Institute) remained operational and is putting the abandoned rails to use again in the San José metropolitan area. Train service still suffers from decades of neglect and only rarely is a train faster or cheaper than a bus, but new lines and improvements to existing lines (mostly for commuters in and around San José) are planned for the near future. Schedules still mostly show a commuter layout with trains being plentiful in the morning and evening and scant or missing in the middle of the day or at night.
Tickets cost around ₡500 one way with discounts for the elderly.
- Alajuela – Heredia – San José Service
- Belén – Pavas – San José – Curridabat Service
- Cartago (Costa Rica) – San José service