Shortcuts – boating across may be much faster than driving around a body of water in Costa Rica. For example the boat ride across the Gulf of Nicoya from Jacó on the mainland to Montezuma on the peninsula takes about an hour while driving around takes at least four hours.
Lanchas, pangas and ferries can also add a legitimate element of adventure to your vacation and the scenery is inevitably more interesting than the view out a bus window.
This directory and map of commercial boat routes in Costa Rica also includes destinations that can only be reached by water, especially in the rainy season when roads or river fords may be inundated.
Small boats are part of everyday life and you can usually find one for “charter” if your explorations lead you to the water’s edge – we once hired a fishing boat to rescue us when we got lost on our bicycles.
The collectivo “taxi” boat runs between Sierpe and Drake Bay but lodges and travel services package together private boats with vans to provide seamless door to door service from Uvita (~$55 per person, 2.5 hours), Manuel Antonio (~$85 per person, 4 hours), and as far away as San José (~$120 per person, 6.5 hours).
On your own you can arrive in Sierpe by public bus from Palmar (45 minutes departing ~ every 2.5 hours fro 4:00 a.m.) or drive on the paved road to where it dead ends into the river at Restaurante La Perla. There is “secure” parking adjacent to the restaurant for $5 per day.
Donde Jorge located on the dock in back of La Perla operates the public boat and charges $15 each way in the morning and $20 in the afternoon (if you solve that pricing mystery let us know!). Departures from Sierpe at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and from the beach at Drake at 7:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Advance reservations e.g. internet/phone are not available – either arrive early or use one of the private services.
There is a dock in Sierpe but the public boat makes a beach/wet landing in Drake. Some of the high end lodges (Aguila, Jinetes, Copa de Arboles) in Drake Bay also have docks so if you’re taking a private boat check ahead if you’re worried about getting your feet wet.
Smaller boats based out of Drake service the local lodges and offer daily tours to La Leona and Sirena Stations in Corcovado National Park. Kiosks near the beach and staff at local lodges can help you make arrangements if you haven’t used a travel planner.
NOTE: from September through November severe storms and large swells in the Pacific can make this boat ride extremely rough, dangerous and even potentially life threatening. Many lodges are closed due to inclement weather and heavy rains.
In addition to the passenger speedboat from Jacó, car ferries also cross the mouth of the Golfo de Nicoya to and from the peninsula.
Two larger ferries (about 80 cars) ply the route from Puntarenas on the mainland to Paquera on the Nicoya Peninsula which is the gateway to the southern and eastern beaches – Tambor, Montezuma, Cabuya, Malpais, Santa Teresa, and Hermosa.
Departing Puntarenas to Paquera – 5:00, 9:00, 11:00, 14:00, 17:00, 20:00
Departing Paquera to Puntarenas – 5:30, 9:00, 11:00, 14:00, 17:00, 20:00
A smaller boat (about 40 cars) serves the northern dock at Playa Naranjo which is closer for playas Coyote, San Miguel, Samara, Nosara and the town of Nicoya.
Departing Puntarenas to Naranjo – 6:30, 10:00, 14:30, 19:00
Departing Naranjo to Puntarenas – 8:00, 12:30, 16:30, 20:30
Both trips take about one hour and fifteen minutes and loading/unloading will eat up another half hour. Plan on getting there at least half an hour early (1-2 hours on peak hours weekends and holidays) and the whole trip is 2-3 hours. The schedule frequency may be reduced without notice in the rainy season or when one or more of the boats is out of commission for maintenance or repairs.
It beggars belief in this digital age but reservations are not available for either car ferry service. You must go in person to the office adjacent to the dock and purchase tickets for the next sailing (if you’re driving park your car in the loading lineup first). Especially on the Puntarenas side you should pay close attention to your vehicle, the contents and your pockets – it’s not a very secure neighborhood.
A car with driver costs about $25 and passengers are ~$2 each. Credit and Debit cards as well as Colones or U.S. dollars are accepted
Bus travelers to the southern beaches are in luck. Transportes Cóbano Bus company picks up at the new 7-10 terminal in San Jose or Puente Villa Bonita (a short taxi ride from SJO airport) and is one of the only bus lines in Costa Rica to offer online ticketing! The cost for the direct service is ~$15 to Tambor, Montezuma or Santa Teresa including the ferry ride.
It’s a LONG drive around Lake Arenal from the volcano to Monteverde Cloud Forest so over the past 30 years there have been innumerable variations on the original “jeep/boat/jeep” shortcut across the lake. The roads are much improved (although still pretty abominable) so the “jeeps” have been replaced by vans but there are still options that include hiking, horseback, and mountain bikes on some segments.
The unifying theme is that it’s 5-15 km across (depending on launch and landing locations) from the north shore to the south by boat and almost 100 km around the lake.
There’s no fixed schedule and many of the boats are operated by tour companies or individual lodges for the sole benefit of their patrons.
In person booking for freelance travelers is readily available from any hotel tour desk, the travel kiosks around La Fortuna and Santa Elena (Monteverde), most ice cream shops, and probably the local hairdresser. There are a dozen different boats and companies go out of business on a weekly basis. It’s the wild west and if you don’t mind rolling the dice you can probably negotiate down into the $25-$35 per person range.
Reliable advance reservations including door-to-door service to your hotel or lodge are available from most travel services including our recommendation Pacific Trade Winds (4.98/5 on TripAdvisor).
The availability of docking varies depending on the water level of the lake and the company providing your transportation. Plan on getting your feet wet.
The 40 minute boat ride between Puerto Jiménez and Golfito costs about five dollars and runs about every three hours starting at around dawn.
There’s no ticket office or advance reservations – a ticket seller arrives with the boat and starts collecting money about 15 minutes prior to departure.
The schedule is a bit schizophrenic, unstable and unpredictable with variations for weekdays, each weekend day, high and low seasons, and holidays. We considered reproducing it here and making daily phone calls to try to keep it updated but decided if you’ve made it this far south you’ve learned Pura Vida! and will just hang out in the excellent little marisquerias (fresh caught seafood) near each dock until the next boat leaves.
If you insist on rigid scheduling you can try contacting Transportes Acuaticos Tijerino Cortes by phone at 8632-8672.
There are docks on both ends of this passenger service so you can walk-on and walk-off with dry feet.
There are no roads to Tortuguero but depending on river levels there are at least three ways to get there by boat. Since there are so many option the details are in a separate article.
There’s a dock in Tortuguero and usually a dry landing in La Pavona but occasionally in the dry season the water levels are so low that the boats cannot make it all the way upstream and the passengers are required to disembark and hike. Similarly sometimes sediment accumulates at the mouth of the Parismina river and passengers on the boat to or from Moín climb out and walk in the shallows or even push the boat.
The Pacuare river is not only one of the top ten rafting rivers in the world (according to National Geographic), one of the last authentic experiences in the world, and a whole lot of fun, but it’s a transportation alternative as well.
We’ve been down the Pacuare many times. We’ve taken my parents and dozens of friends and consider it one of the best things we can show anyone on a trip to Costa Rica. It’s really quite amazing that something this exclusive is actually available to the general public. About 70,000 people attend the superbowl each year. About 7,900 raft the Pacuare.
It’s definitely not the cheapest ($125-$1,775 per person 1-3 days) way to get from the central valley to the Caribbean coast and admittedly you don’t really make good time floating down a river (even in the fast class III and IV sections) but there’s no question it’s the best way to go.
Remote raft in “camps” half way down the river range from rustic to eco-luxury and trips range from 1 to 3 days but any of them can begin with a pickup from San Jose and deposit you in Cahuita, Puerto Viejo or other southern Caribbean beach locations at the end. Request reservations with preferred providers.
This is a one way option (you can’t raft uphill) and you should plan on getting very wet.
This one is pretty straightforward. It’s a no-brainer if you’re in Jaco, don’t have a rental car and want to visit the remote beaches of the southern Nicoya peninsula Zuma tours operates daily boats across the Gulf of Nicoya with coordinated shuttles on both ends that pick up and drop off at regional hotels. Prices start at $40 per person for Jacó/Herradura to Montezuma and increase to $95 per person as the length of the van ride increases (e.g. Santa Teresa, Dominical etc.).
Reservations highly recommended and available online direct from the operators – Zuma Tours Water Taxi
One boat a day departs Trinidad at 5:00 a.m. and arrives in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui about 5 hours later. It returns to Trinidad from the public dock in Puerto Viejo at 12:30 p.m. arriving just before sunset.
Schedules and information, especially for small companies, are changeable. We’ve made a sincere effort to provide accurate information and are quite confident that what we’ve published here is generally current and reliable BUT if you find something has changed we’d be delighted to be informed and unlike most sites we do actually update the Costa Rica Guide webpages. Please contact us.
Private unscheduled boats are available up the Rios Coen, Lari, Telire, Uren and down the Rio Sixaola from south west of Bri Bri at the end of the road at Suretka. There are usually a few for hire waiting for the public bus from the coast.
Private unscheduled boats are available for hire at the Tortuguero dock to travel north to Barra del Colorado.
Be sure you’re carrying your original passport and not a copy when traveling on small boats near either border. We’ve been stopped by armed patrols near Trinidad, Colorado and along the Panama border on the Sixaola river.
In nearly any coastal fishing village you can find a panga willing to take you out locally whether near shore fishing, exploring the mangroves, catching an offshore reef break or visiting the next beach down the coast where no roads go. Prices will vary immensely depending on where you’re starting out, your Spanish Language skills and your negotiating ability.
For example a couple of hours from the Riu Palace all inclusive resort will probably cost around $250-$350 but in a remote area like playa Coyote you might get half a day for $50.
There are a couple of other small boats in Costa Rica that we have never ridden on. The horariodeferry website lists destinations and departures for passenger only boats between Golifito and Zancudo as well as an open jaw route for Puntarenas to Isla Chira and Puerto Morales. There’s no other information provided on the horario website. If we wanted to do it we’d probably just ask around town where the boat departed from and check it out in person – buenas fuerte!