NOTE: June 1, 2019 – the taxi drivers union announced a plan to “get in the face” of Uber users and explain that it is illegal and convince them to cancel. They state they will mainly target transportation hubs (air, bus, train) and shopping/restaurant areas. Although the taxi drivers claim no violent intent these confrontational tactics have led to bloodshed in the past. Please use caution and discretion.
Unlicensed private taxi services are not legal in Costa Rica. Despite this Uber invoked some technicalities and loopholes to initiate weirdly convoluted and limited operations in August of 2015.
As of mid 2019 legalization of Uber, Lyft and other ride shares has failed. However the government announced it will begin taxation in July rendering the legislature and legal system superfluous and making the ride shares de facto legal – see updates.
Even with new status it will take time before Uber is convenient for most tourists.
Uber is Lacking in Costa Rica
In the most popular travel destinations drivers are few and far between – frequently there are none. Although expanded coverage was announced in April 2019 over 3/4 of the country remains outside the official operating zone.
90% or more of the drivers are concentrated in the megalopolis surrounding the capital San José but most tourists leave the city as quickly as possible. It might seem that an Uber from the airport would be a cheap and convenient way to escape the urban sprawl but even that isn’t as straightforward as it seems (see details).
Not Available in Most Vacation Destinations
Ride shares (as well as signal to hail one) are uncommon/non-existent around national parks, ziplines, ecolodges, beaches or vacation rental homes.
We did a random sampling in 7 popular tourist spots including Jacó, Manuel Antonio and Arenal/La Fortuna found precisely 1 (one) ride available in 41 attempts at various times of day over five weeks. There was a half hour wait for that one car and there was never an Uber X or Uber Black available.
Other travelers have told us that sometimes rides are available from towns like La Fortuna to the hanging bridges or other popular attractions. You must make round trip arrangements ahead of time or risk being stuck because there’s no cell signal and/or no rides available.
In cities around the world ride sharing is increasing pollution (studies show Uber has increased total urban miles driven by 25% or more) and serving as fiendishly clever mechanism for funneling money to the wealthy but it is safe, convenient and cheap temporarily – investment capital is hemorrhaging a billion a year and IPOs mean stockholders who demand returns so prices may rise quickly in the coming years after the competition (taxis and buses) has been squeezed out.
In Costa Rica Uber and other alternative taxi services are still searching for a way to fit in and recently risks to Uber and Lyft riders in paradise have escalated.
Most travelers try to avoid the city only visiting if they have a flight at Juan Santamaría (SJO) airport. Ubers may be available near the airport but drivers are harassed or occasionally attacked by taxistas if they approach the arrival terminal. Ride hailers are directed to haul their luggage across to the parking garage, a couple of blocks to the bus stop, or more often few blocks further to a shopping and restaurant complex for pickup.
As ridiculous as it seems one regular user recommended getting an airport taxi for a ride to the shopping center parking lot (Denny’s Restaurant is the most commonly used landmark) then switching to an Uber…
In late August of 2018 the directors of the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes (transportation ministry) and Policia de Transito (traffic police) held a press conference to announce that the courts confirmed that ride sharing in general and Uber specifically are definitely illegal under current laws.
Uber declined to suspend operations, instead informing users that service would continue as normal and extending an invitation to the government to discuss changing the laws. The transit police were reported to be hassling but not ticketing or detaining Uber drivers.
Most of the time the police ignore Ubers but political pressure from the taxi driver’s union prompts occasional enforcement surges. The police either request fake rides (entrapment is perfectly acceptable) or identify Ubers by watching for pick ups and then impound the car by confiscating the license plates.
Normally the passengers are told they are “free to go” – in other words left stranded on the side of the road sitting on their suitcases – however, in one recent case two Dutch tourist’s passports were taken and they were questioned and informally “detained” for more than an hour causing them to miss their flight.
Attacks on Cars and Drivers
The main opponents to ride sharing in Costa Rica are taxi drivers. Several times they’ve set up road blocks or organized hundreds of cabs to slow drive or stop blocking highways and main thoroughfares. Confrontations and even violence has accompanied some of the protests.
Other times taxistas have identified Ubers in traffic and forced them to the curb. Ride share drivers (and in one case of mistaken identification a completely innocent commuter) have suffered injuries and cars have been totaled by angry taxi drivers wielding rocks and tire irons. We are not aware of any passengers being present when Ubers or other ride shares have been attacked.
Problems with Long Range Ubers in Costa Rica
There’s a third complication for visitors considering an Uber for transportation.
One of the few situations where a ride share might make sense is getting from the greater metropolitan area (where cars are plentiful) out to the countryside or vice versa (if you can catch a driver deadheading back to the city).
Apparently there’s a common problem with this sort of long ride – it takes so long to get places in Costa Rica that Uber flags the ride as fraudulent and cancels payment.
We have not experienced this but a recent post on Facebook received a bunch of “same thing” and “happened to me too” comments. The image above is from the driver’s app but it was the rider complaining that since Uber clawed back the payment (this happened the day after the ride) they had to find another way to pay the driver. Uber has no comment on the practice.
Starting in mid November 2018 the Autoridad Reguladora de los Servicios Públicos (ARESEP) announced that a new ride service called Taxi Shake is available for Android and i-phone operating systems. It’s the “Uber for red cabs”.
Vehicles, drivers and prices are the same as hailing a cab on the street but the app offers convenience and a chance to win “discounts, raffles, and prizes.”
Red Taxi prices (about $1.05 per km) are roughly twice as much as the cheapest Uber or Lyft fares (starting at $0.56 per km) to the same destination. However the ride shares have variable and surge pricing so a cab may be cheaper at times.
Update June 8, 2019 – a mother attempting to pick up her daughter at SJO airport filed a complaint against the police because she was detained and accused of being an Uber driver.
Ongoing 2019 – since early 2019 we have been receiving reports of Uber drivers showing up, cancelling the ride then demanding off the book cash payments higher than the quoted price. This is against the terms of service, could be dangerous, and should be reported.
Update June 1, 2019 – the taxi drivers union announced an initiative to “get in the face” of Uber users and explain that it is illegal. They intend to mainly target transportation hubs (air, bus, train) and shopping. Although they claim non-violent intent, confrontational tactics led to bloodshed in the past. Please use caution and discretion.
Update May 21, 2019 – A bill introduced in January 2019 by the Costa Rican government to legalize ride sharing if Uber pays a $14 million fine/bribe to mitigate previous illegal operation is has been shelved but the Ministerio de Hacinenda (taxes and treasury) announce that beginning in July 2019 the service would be taxed at 13%.
The Cámara de Consumidores de Costa Rica (Chamber of Commerce) declared that by taxing the activity it automatically becomes legal.
Each time a legalization hurdle falls the taxi drivers union announces strikes and road blockades snarling traffic. The drive from the airport to downtown took 3 hours on May 22nd.
Update May 15, 2019 – In a ridiculous experiment designed to thwart surreptitious Uber operators in mid May 2019 the airport announced that “passenger drop-off and pick-up by the public is officially prohibited at SJO. Only registered airport taxis and tourist transportation companies are permitted.”
Of course the result was utter chaos and the plan was dropped after a single day of enforcement. However the authorities are still encouraging the public to use the parking lot instead of the pick-up and drop-off lanes.
Update April 10, 2019 – Uber announced in an e-mail to users that official service would be expanded beyond San José to include Liberia, Nicoya, Manuel Antonio and Jacó.
Update August 30, 2018 – the directors of the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes (transportation ministry) and Policia de Transito (traffic police) held a press conference to announce that the courts confirmed that ride sharing in general and Uber specifically are definitely still illegal under current laws.
Update August 25, 2018 – Police impounding Uber vehicles normally tell passengers they are “free to go.” That may mean they are stranded on the roadside unless they can flag a taxi.
In a recent escalation two Dutch tourists reported the police took their passports and they were questioned and informally “detained” for more than an hour causing them to miss their flight.