The population of Costa Rica dictates how its public transport works. Roughly one quarter of the country's inhabitants live in greater San José area, and roughly two thirds live in the Central Valley, one of the most densely populated regions in Central America.. This means that there are a lot of roads and buses in the centre of the country. As you go farther a field, there are generally fewer roads, particularly paved ones, and less public transport.
To get to most regions, you have to start from San José, which is the main centre for public transport. It is often easier to go to one region and then return to San José to find transport to another area.
The majority of Costa Ricans do not own cars. Therefore public transportation is quite well developed and you can get buses to almost any part of the country. Remote or small towns may be served by only one bus a day, but you can get there.
Costa Rica's two domestic airlines are SANSA (Servicios Aéreos Nacionales, S.A.) and Nature Air. Sansa is linked with the Grupo TACA, and you can buy tickets for both through our web-site. Demands for seats are high and the planes are small. Baggage allowance is limited. Oversized items like surf-boards have an extra charge if they are not rejected. SANSA flights start at the International airport Juan Santamaría and NatureAir flights at the Tobias Bolaños airport in Pavas. Fairs might be different during high and low season. Since sometimes flight are delayed or cancelled, we recommend not to book the same day for a connecting International flight but one day in advance.
Tobias Bolaños Airport also caters to small single- and twin-engine aircraft that can be chartered to just about anywhere in the country where there is an airport. Fares are charged by the hour and it take 40 to 90 minutes to fly to most destinations. You also have to pay for the return flight unless you can coordinate with the company to fly you out one day when they are picking up somebody else. Many towns that have an airport will have light aircraft available for charter.
San José is the centre of the country's bus network, and buses depart from the capital for just about anywhere in the country. There are few central bus terminals. In San José, some bus companies leave from what used to be the old Coca-Cola bottling plant in San José - the area is still known as 'La Coca-Cola'. A few blocks north, the Atlántico Norte terminal serves some northern destinations, and the Caribbean area is served by the Caribe terminal, in another location.
Other companies leave from their own offices elsewhere in the city. Still others leave from bus stops on the street, and some leave from a street corner without even a bus stop to mark there departure point.
The larger companies with offices and buses serving mayor destinations sell tickets in advance. The smaller companies with just a bus stop expect you to wait in line for the next bus, but normally there is room for everyone. If you don't have a ticket, buy one when you board; the fares should be clearly posted inside the bus.
The exceptions are the days before and after a major holiday, especially Easter, when buses are ridiculously full. Note that there are no buses at all from Thursday morning to the Saturday afternoon before Easter. Friday night and Saturday morning trips out of San José can be very crowded, as can Sunday afternoon and evening return trips; try to avoid those if possible.
If this all seems chaotic, take heart. Costa Ricans are used to the system and know where buses depart - just ask. Alternatively take a tourist bus. Fares are generally cheap, with even the longest and most expensive runs out of San José.
Long distance buses are of two types, direct (directo) and normal (or corriente). The direct buses are a little faster and more expensive. Travellers on a budget can save as much as a quarter of the direct bus fare by taking a normal bus, which stops on demand at various intermediate points and usually takes an hour or two longer.
Roads are narrow and winding and sometimes unpaved; normal buses are rather old, so comfort is not one of the things that bus journeys are known for, particularly those to smaller and more remote destinations served by battered old Bluebird school buses. But they get you there. Trips longer than four hours have a rest stop, and no trips are scheduled to take longer than about 9 hours. If you want reasonable comfort, take the more expensive direct buses.
Luggage space is limited, so you could brake your Costa Rica stay into sections and leave what you don't need for a certain section in San José. A small bag is certainly much easier to travel with and easier to keep an eye on, as you can take it aboard with you. There have been reports of checked luggage on buses getting 'lost', particularly on the route from San José to Puntarenas.
If your bag is too big to take aboard the bus with you, watch it getting loaded and keep your eyes open during any stops the bus makes to ensure that it isn't 'accidentally' given to the wrong passenger. Another suggestion is to put your backpack in a large burlap sack, thus making it less conspicious.
These small, air-conditioned buses serve all the main tourist destinations and provide service between many destinations without having to change companies in San José. they are efficient, punctual, convenient, and often provide service to your hotel at your destination. Drivers speak some Engñlish, and many tourists prefer this simpler but more expensive way of getting around.
The railway lines were severely damaged in the 1991 earthquake and have been closed since then. they were running at a financial deficit before the closure, so despite occasional talk of privatising the system with foreign money, it is unlikely that the system will be repaired or reopened. this is a shame, because the run from San José to the Caribbean coast was a famous and well-loved ride. There is a train running on Sundays from San José to the Pacific Port of Caldera, with is a typical adventure tour many Ticos and also tourist enjoy.
Few people drive to Costa Rica with their own vehicle, though it is certainly possible. renting a car after arrival, on the other hand, is something many travellers do for part of their trip. some rent motorcycles, though this is not such a popular option and is expensive.
It may come as a surprise to most people that taxis are considered a form of public transportation outside urban areas. Taxis can be hired by the hour, the half day or the day. Meters are not used on long trips, so arrange the fare with the driver beforehand.
There are various occasions when you may want to consider using a taxi. Visiting some of the National Parks by public transportation is not possible. Your alternatives are to take a tour, rent a car, hitch a ride walk, cycle or catch a taxi. Prices depend on the distance and your bargaining abilities.
When you are out in the country, you may need to take a taxi to a remote destination on a bad road. During the rainy season, 4WD may be required. Many taxis are 4WD Jeeps and can get you just about anywhere.
All the warning under the section driving hazards apply here - but even more so. There are no bike lanes and traffic an be hazardous on the narrow, steep, winding roads. Cycling is a possibility, however, and long-distance cyclists report that locals tend to be very friendly towards them. It is possible to cycle all the way from the USA, or you can fly your bike down as luggage. Check with airlines for regulations - on some a bicycle may be carried free of charge if it is properly packed and doesn't exceed luggage size and weight requirements. A few companies and hotels rent bikes and / or arrange for escorted tours.
Hitchhiking is never entirely safe in any country, and we don't recommend it. Travellers who hitchhike should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do hitchhike will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
On the main roads the frequency of inexpensive buses makes hitchhiking unusual, except during the holiday periods when buses may be full. If you do get a ride, offer to pay for it when you arrive:'¿Cuánto le debo?' (How much do I owe you?) is the standard way of doing this. Often your offer will be waved aside; sometimes you will be asked to help with gas costs. If you are driving, picking up hitchhikers in the countryside is normally no problem and often gets you into som interesting conversations.
Tico hitchhikers are more often seen on minor rural roads. If you hitch, imitate the locals. they don't simply stand there with their thumbs out. Vehicle may pass only a few times per hour and Ticos try to wave them down in a friendly fashion, then chat with the driver about where they are going and how lousy the bus service is. (This gives you a chance to size up the driver and car occupants; if you don't feel comfortable, don't take the ride.)
There are various passenger and car ferries in operation. Three cheap ferries operate out of Puntarenas across the Gulf of Nicoya. One is the car ferry that leaves several times a day to Playa Naranjo ( a 1½ hour trip). The others are a car ferry and a small passenger-only ferry that crosses to Paquera two or three times a day taking about 1½ hours. Buses meet the ferries at Paquera to transport you onward into the Peninsula of Nicoya.
A daily passenger ferry links Golfito with Puerto Jiménez on the Peninsula Osa; the trip takes about 1½ hours. This ferry is subject to occasional cancellation. Puerto Jiménez is the nearest town of any size to the National Park of Corcovado.
A small ferry carrying three vehicles crosses the Río Coco Colorado on demand on the Golfito - Playa Zancudo road. It runs during the daylight hours and may stop at the lowest tides.
Motorized dugout canoes ply the Río Sarapiquí once a day on a scheduled basis and more frequently on demand. Other boat trips can be made, but these are tours rather than rides on scheduled ferries. People staying in the Bahía Drake area often arrive or leave via an exciting boat trip on the Río Sierpe.
Over 200 tour operators are recognized by the Costa Rican Tourist Board, with the majority in San José.
Many companies specialize in nature Tours with visits to the nationl parks and wilderness lodges. They can provide entire guided iterinaries (with English-speaking guides) and private transport to any part of the country, especially the nature destinations. Many of these nature-tour companies also specialize in adventure tourism, such as river running or mountain biking. Almost all agencies also provide services such as day trips around the Central Valley, San José city tours, hotel reservations and airport transfers. See tours
Pictures by Jörn Malek. The team of 1-CostaRicaLink and Costa-Rica-Information-Mobile wishes you the best of times in our little paradise called Costa Rica.
Text by Lonely Planet.
This Web-Site is designed, owned, and managed by Jörn Wolfgang Malek, Ciudad Colón, P.O. Box 322-6100 Ciudad Colón, province of San José, CR-10701 Costa Rica, Central America.