Transportation in Costa Rica

The best way for you to get around Costa Rica depends on a lot of things. Some of them are listed below, and you can keep them in mind while you read through what to expect while traveling by each conveyance.

  1. The length of time you have to travel
    Shorter visits might benefit from the convenience of domestic air travel and rental cars. If you are staying longer, you can afford to trade time for cheaper and usually more interesting modes of transport. We have some suggested itineraries that can be tailored to most modes of transportation if you are flexible in the time department.
  2. The number of people you are traveling with
    The more people you are traveling with, the more ways you can split the cost of a rental car or chartering a small plane.
  3. The amount of money you have to spend
    Even if money is no object, you should ride the bus at least once for the experience.
  4. How attached you are to convenience
    If you think getting there is half the fun (or 80% of the fun like we do when we are on our bikes), then try every form of transportation you see. Hitch a ride on a farm cart. If you want to leave when you want, make restroom stops when you want and pull of the road to take pictures then consider a rental car or a bicycle.
  5. How dispersed the places you absolutely must see are
    As small as Costa Rica is, you might think you could see the whole country in one afternoon. Au contraire, mon chere. There are no freeways, most roads are one lane each way, and the few four lane highways are concentrated in the central valley and often clogged with traffic. For some estimates of driving times from San Jose you can click on locations on this map of Costa Rica.


Descriptions of what to expect when traveling by each method are listed below








 

The following travel options are described in order of most expensive transportation to least expensive transportation.

Rental cars, like all other modes of transportation in Costa Rica have distinct advantages and disadvantages

Advantages of a rental car

  1. Convenience: Outside of San Jose a private vehicle can be very convenient. In San Jose, you may find that parking and traffic jams make having a car more of a headache than it is worth.
  2. Versatility: If the bed and breakfast you were planning on staying in gives away your reservation, you can hop in your car and go few miles down the road, confident that in a short time you will run across another place to stay. If you are traveling by bus, then once you get to your destination you will probably be on foot, and a few miles down the road is a long way to hoof it.
  3. Speed and efficiency: When traffic is light and the roads are good, a car can be a quick way to get around, but don't think you are going to average 60 MPH. The roads are narrow and many wind steeply through volcanic valleys. At times you will end up stuck behind a cattle truck going five miles an hour down the center line for an hour or more. The rain is tough on the roads and you will also often be delayed by construction and repair. On a few occasions, we passed long lines of cars on our bicycles, much to the frustration of the drivers.

Disadvantages of a rental car

  1. Cost: If you are on a budget, then a rental car can take a big chunk out of it. A four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle isn't absolutely necessary, but there are many places you can't get without one, and they survive the battering of the huge potholes on the paved roads much better. A small SUV costs around $US 70 per day, plus gas (US$2 - 3 per gallon), parking, and insurance. Don't forget that you will be paying for the car every day, so three days of hanging out on a beach will cost you at least $US 210 for your parked car. There are no one way rentals in Costa Rica that we are aware of.
  2. Insulation: A car insulates you from the people, culture and wilderness. You won't meet people along the way, and it's unlikely that you'll notice the column of leaf cutter ants marching alongside the road.

Special Considerations for cars

  1. Driving at night is not recommended. It is dangerous because of the high percentage of other drivers who have been drinking, the inability to see potholes in the dark and because you will miss all of the scenery.
  2. Do not leave anything of value in your car anywhere. Not only is it likely that it will be stolen, but you will be responsible for the damage the thieves do getting it out.
  3. Rental Agreements: Rental car companies require a credit card to cover any damages to the vehicle while it is in your care, and they won't be shy about using it. When you pick up the vehicle, CAREFULLY note ALL damage on the rental contract. If you don't, you will probably be paying for it when you drop the car off. Don't forget to make sure that the tires are in good shape. You are responsible for damage to them, and good tires, properly inflated, will go a long way towards saving the suspension and axles from snapping when you inevitably smack into an unseen crater at high speed.
  4. City driving: It doesn't take long to realize that there is a different code of the road in Costa Rica (at least everyone who has survived to tell about it figured it out in a big hurry). The first clue will come when you notice the behavior of drivers at intersections. Check out a few cars at a few corners and you soon catch on that traffic signs carry one less level of authority here. For example the octagonal red sign with "alto" printed on it translates as stop, and in some places that's what drivers do when they encounter one. In Costa Rica however this sign means slow down, proceed with caution, in other words the same thing that a yield sign means in the rest of the world. In a similar fashion a red traffic light means pause then proceed if there is an opening. Sound suspiciously like a response to a stop sign in the rest of the world. Oddly the government seems to conspire in this behavior, they have even invented a new traffic control that is used all over the country. It is a traffic light with a stop sign on the same pole. The combination of devices seems to carry a higher level of authority. When the light is red, and there is a stop sign present, drivers stop and wait for it to turn green before proceeding.
  5. Country driving: Many of the roads in Costa Rica are narrow and winding, and they can be quite dangerous. Buses in particular are notorious for passing on blind curves.





Small single and twin engine planes are operated daily out of San Jose by two Tico airlines; SANSA and Travelair.

Most flights are under an hour and cost under US$100 each way. The round trip fare is generally about double the one way fare. For more detailed information on rates and flight schedules you can check out the airlines websites linked below. The schedules are constantly in flux, so check locally to make sure the flight you are planning on taking hasn't changed. You should also be aware that these are small planes and if you are hoping to load your bicycle or surf board into the luggage compartment, you will need to check ahead to be sure it will fit.

  • SANSA- the original Tico airline where you will find slightly lower rates
  • Travelair- a relative newcomer with slightly newer equipment and higher rates



Taxis are a viable method of transportation in the countryside as well as in the cities and towns of Costa Rica. They are a particular bargain if you are traveling with two or more people.

Most of the taxis outside of San Jose are large, 4WD Landrovers and Rangerovers. The drivers know how to get everywhere, and often near national parks and biological reserves you will find that they are informative guides.

One of the best travel tips we can give is: no matter what your budget is, stash away US$50 or so for a long taxi ride or two, and USE it. Grab a cab when the bus or plane is late, or breaks down, when your hike dumps you out on a highway 12 miles from the ranger station you thought you were going to end up on, or when it's raining at the beach and you would really rather be at the disco 20 miles up the coast. You will have the power to convert a disappointment into a good time.

 




The bus service in Costa Rica is excellent. There are four basic types of buses (city, local, express, and minibuses) and you can get almost anywhere there is a road on one of them. Sometimes, because of their high clearance and the expertise of their drivers, the buses can go where the SUVs won't dare.

Exintur has schedules for most of the main bus routes

Advantages of traveling by bus

  1. Cost: Even the longest ride out of San Jose only costs around US$9. Especially on the longer express routes the buses are new, clean and comfortable. At the price you can't beat it.
  2. Convenience: Sometimes the bus is more convenient than having a car. You don't have to worry about where to park it or whether it will get broken into, and the driver will probably never get lost.
  3. Culture: Many Ticos use the bus as their main mode of transportation and you will almost certainly make friends on the bus. This can lead to adventures!

Disadvantages of traveling by bus

  1. Scheduling: You may find that you have to leave somewhere a little before you want to or stay a little longer than you would like in order to catch the bus.
  2. Convenience: If your Spanish or your map and schedule reading ability is reasonably good, you can usually find a bus that will take you pretty close to anywhere you want to go. However, it's not as easy or convenient as just hopping in your rental car, and sometimes you will end up walking a few miles with your luggage from the bus station to your chosen accommodations. You can avoid this by taking a taxi, which is relatively cheap in Costa Rica (you could probably go just about anywhere in a taxi for the same price as a rental car)

Besides the regular city, local and express buses, there are minibuses which seat 8-15 and cater to businessmen and tourists. They are more expensive than the standard buses by about 1.5x. For the extra cost you get, less stops, more speed, air-conditioning, and sometimes door-to-door service.





If you have spent much time at this website, you know that we are quite biased in favor of travel by bicycle. It combines many of the advantages of other modes of transportation and has some unique ones of its own.

Advantages of travel by bicycle

  1. Convenience: You can leave when you want, make restaurant and restroom stops when you want, and pull off the road to take pictures. When you are in town (other than San Jose where it can be dangerous to bike) or at a park, a bicycle is also a great way to get a few miles down the road to a particular restaurant, shop or trail head without having to worry about parking or traffic.
  2. Culture: If you want to meet people you have to eliminate the insulation provided by a tour company or a rental car and risk adventure on your own in Costa Rica. Getting on a bicycle is a great way to meet people and experience the culture of Costa Rica. Many Tacos use bicycles to get around, and many more are fans of their countries excellent cycle racing teams. You will receive a warm welcome many places simply because you are on your bike.
  3. Wildlife: Bicycles are very quiet relative to cars and buses, and you can sneak up on incredible numbers of the birds and animals that many people travel to Costa Rica to see if you are riding. You are also much more likely to notice birds, insects, plants and animals on a bicycle. Your vision is unrestricted and things are usually passing slowly enough that you can notice colors and movement. Calls and noises like rustling in the underbrush can catch your attention and make you take a second look. I have even found spectacular orchids after catching a whiff of their odor then scanning the surrounding tree trunks.
  4. Exercise: Even the worst day on a bike is better than the best day in a car or bus seat. I always feel better when I get out and move around.
  5. Flexibility: You can change your plans on a whim (or by accident at a wrong turn) and if you get tired you can always throw your bike in a bus or a taxi.
  6. Adventure: I have included adventure as an advantage, although some people might disagree (if you disagree, perhaps you should consider a tour to Costa Rica. One of the main jobs of tour companies is to smooth everything over and eliminate the possibility of unexpected adventures). I reserve the term adventure to refer to travel experiences forced by circumstances. This is not the same as bungee jumping, whitewater rafting or any of the other "adventure tourism" standard fare. If the tour operator can get liability insurance, then the term adventure is being applied pretty loosely. Independent travelers experience adventures that you'll never find at Disneyland. Adventure here might be falling short of your destination and spending the night in the jungle or ending up in a hotel so roach infested that you wish you were in the forest, missing a turn and ending up on a beach that is truly deserted, or falling into a paceline with a cycling team out for a practice ride and getting invited out to dinner with them. Adventures aren't always pleasant, but they are inevitable when bicycling on your own in Costa Rica.
  7. Sense of accomplishment: It can be very gratifying to cross the continental divide under your own power or ride all the way across the continent (pretty easy where the continent is so narrow).

Disadvantages of bicycle touring

  1. Depending on what you enjoy many of the things I have listed above as advantages could be considered disadvantages
  2. Limited range: The main disadvantage of bicycling is that you move relatively slowly. This should only be considered a problem if you have a very limited amount of time and want to see things that are far apart. Costa Rica offers a solution to this problem however. Even if you only have a week, it is possible to see cloudforest, rainforest, volcanoes, beaches and rivers all from the saddle of a bicycle. Costa Rica is very compact, and you can see dramatic changes in environment in very short distances.






It was quite easy to get a ride as a couple, and hitchhiking is a reasonable way to get around Costa Rica if you have the time. The signal for wanting a ride in Costa Rica is either the thumbs up sign with an up and down wave or jerk of your arm, or sort of an up and down waving motion from the five o'clock to the two o'clock position with your arm outstretched and your open palm facing downward.

Advantages of hitchhiking

  1. Cost: If you like, you can give the driver a few colones for gas but otherwise hitching is free.
  2. Culture: You will certainly meet a wide range of people
  3. Adventure: You will almost certainly get stuck at some point, and that sounds like the starting point of an adventure.

Disadvantages of hitchhiking

  1. Convenience: You never know when rides will be few and far between, and you will often have to patch several short rides together to cover long distances. Most people aren't going far but they will take you as far as they can.
  2. Safety? We have never heard of any problems in this department but you obviously want to use common sense. Don't hitch after dark, women shouldn't hitch alone, refuse a ride if you are uncomfortable etc.







Most of the walking we have done has been on trails through the National Parks. On foot or horseback is the only way to experience most of the outdoor destinations that people travel to Costa Rica for.

There is no reason you couldn't use walking as your main mode of transportation in Costa Rica. The small pueblos, sodas and cabinas are generally only a few miles apart, and as long as you were flexible you should always be able to find a place to eat and sleep. If you are adventurous enough to try it, let us know what the advantages and disadvantages are and we will publish them here.

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