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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Descriptions of what to expect when traveling by each method
are listed below
following travel options are described in order of most expensive transportation
to least expensive transportation.
cars, like all other modes of transportation in Costa Rica have distinct
advantages and disadvantages
Advantages of a
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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
you at least $US 210 for your parked car. There are no one way rentals
in Costa Rica that we are aware of.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- City driving:
It doesn't take long to realize that there is a different code of
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
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
when they encounter one. In Costa Rica however this sign means slow
down, proceed with caution, in other words the same thing that a
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
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
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
sign present, drivers stop and wait for it to turn green before proceeding.
- 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.
the original Tico airline where you will find slightly lower rates
a relative newcomer with slightly newer equipment and higher rates
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.
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
has schedules for most of the main bus routes
Advantages of traveling by bus
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Disadvantages of traveling by bus
- 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.
- 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.
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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
term adventure to refer to travel experiences forced by circumstances.
This is not the same as bungee jumping, whitewater rafting or any
the other "adventure tourism" standard fare. If the tour
operator can get liability insurance, then the term adventure is being
pretty loosely. Independent travelers experience adventures that you'll
never find at Disneyland. Adventure here might be falling short of
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
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
to dinner with them. Adventures aren't always pleasant, but they are
inevitable when bicycling on your own in Costa Rica.
- 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).
- Depending on what
you enjoy many of the things I have listed above as advantages could
be considered disadvantages
- 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.
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
- Cost: If you like,
you can give the driver a few colones for gas but otherwise hitching
- Culture: You will
certainly meet a wide range of people
- Adventure: You
will almost certainly get stuck at some point, and that sounds like
the starting point of an adventure.
- 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.
- 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.
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