Unlicensed private taxi services are not legal in Costa Rica. Uber has never formally legalized but the government began taxation in July 2019 using the treasury to circumvent the need for legislation and making the ride shares de facto legal – the logic being it can’t possibly be illegal activity if you’re taxing it…
Uber has been operating in San Jose since August of 2015 and expanded the service area for 2020. Uber will eventually be a standard method of transportation for tourists but for the moment it’s limited and can be inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst.
It’s worth a try but tourists will usually need other transportation options.
Uber Coverage is Spotty in Costa Rica
In the most popular tourist destinations drivers are few and far between – frequently there are none. Expanded coverage was announced in April 2019 but as of the 2020 high travel season 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 the number of drivers at the beaches, rain forests and national parks is growing.
Since they are common around San José it might seem like an Uber from the airport would be a good option but it can be complicated by police and belligerent taxi drivers (see details).
“No Cars Available”
Ride shares (as well as cell signal to request one) are uncommon/non-existent around many national parks, adventure tour locations (zip-lines, rafting, hanging bridges, waterfall rappelling etc.), ecolodges, beaches or vacation rental homes.
In August 2019 we did a totally random and arbitrary sampling in 7 popular tourist spots including Manuel Antonio, and Arenal/La Fortuna found 6 rides available in 33 attempts at various times of day over five weeks. There was never an Uber Black available.
Other travelers have told us that when rides are available from towns like La Fortuna to the hanging bridges or other popular attractions you must be certain to make round trip arrangements ahead of time or risk being stuck because there’s no cell signal and/or no return rides available.
Using the “schedule ride” feature is not advisable since it’s only a soft schedule and Uber warns that your ride will be cancelled if no driver is found within ten minutes of your requested time. Then you’re stuck at the [insert name of attraction] with no ride and no cell signal…
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.
Uber X – Four Passengers?
Don’t be surprised if the four passenger Uber that shows up at the airport turns out to be a 1985 Toyota Corolla. The only luggage accounted for in the Uber calculation is a wallet or purse. The Uber rules about the size and quality of the vehicle are also commonly creatively circumvented in Costa Rica so you never know what your ride will be.
I had half an hour to kill this morning in Cuidad Cariari so I checked on a few Uber prices. These are approximately the prices from SJO airport or any of the “airport” hotels within about 10 km to some of the popular tourist destinations. For UberX (cheapest option) non-rush hour and theoretically up to 4 passengers but I wouldn’t count on getting 4 adults with luggage into an UberX… you’ll probably need an UberXL which is approximately 50% higher price
- Arenal/La Fortuna 122km – Uber ¢63,694 = $111 (taxi ¢81,740 = $142, private transfer = $100)
- Jaco Beach 90km – ¢58,520 = $102
- Poas Volcano – ¢17,748 = $31
- Puerto Viejo (Caribbean) – ¢115,978 = $208
- Uvita – ¢90,339 = $157
These prices are 10-15% less than a taxi cab but higher than most transfer services by 10-15%
Ubers may be available near the airport but drivers are harassed or occasionally attacked by taxistas if they attempt to pick up passengers at arrivals. The transit police also impounded several Uber vehicles for operating on airport property.
The free wi-fi network in the terminal blocks the Uber app and website so it can only be accessed using cell phone data or a cell phone hotspot.
Ride hailers that manage to arrange a pickup are directed to haul their luggage around the parking garage to a bus stop, or to a Denny’s in the adjacent shopping and restaurant complex for pickup.
As ridiculous as it seems you have to take an airport taxi to Denny’s and then when the taxi leaves your Uber will appear…
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.
NOTE – 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.
NOTE – we have also heard of Uber drivers insisting that there is some problem with the road when there really isn’t in order to run up the fare by going the long way around. We always pull up our destination and route on Waze before getting in a cab or Uber to prevent any “confusion.” Waze shows traffic conditions and road closures.
NOTE – in 2020 we verified a report of riders being verbally assaulted and forced out of the vehicle by an Uber driver because they would not pay extra.
June 28, 2019 a taxi driver in San José forced an UberEats (an Uber food delivery service) motorcyclist off the road then proceeded to beat the crap out of his motorcycle with a tire iron. This and other incidents are caught on traffic cameras on a weekly basis.
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 but it seems inevitable eventually.
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 nearly 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 and most rides we’ve taken have actually been around $0.90 per km.
Uber expanded coverage in Costa Rica with great local fanfare in mid 2019 and the official map where service is supposed to be available in 2020 is shown below.
Unfortunately Uber’s version of their official area of service is so inaccurate it’s more or less useless. For example, it explicitly includes two offshore islands where there aren’t even any roads. One, Isla del Coco is 500 km offshore and only accessible by boat. Huge swaths of the area they indicate on the mainland are also roadless and there’s no indication of the contortions that are required at the international airport.
A more realistic picture of Uber service is Costa Rica is shown on the map below.
There are a few small zones shown on the map above in green where Uber is more or less automatic. Click the app, add a destination and within a few minutes you’ll probably have a ride. In an extended area shown in yellow you may be able to hail a ride but you may wait an hour or two especially late or at rush hour.
The red dot is San José international airport, ground zero for the battle between taxis and Uber drivers. It’s relatively easy to get a ride to the airport (although the driver may ask you to hug them and pretend you’re a relative if there are any transit police around at passenger drop off) but from the airport may be impossible.
A Chinese ride share company “DiDi” chose Costa Rica as the Central American country to launch their alternative Uber. The company is operating on a limited basis in the Central Valley and mainly San José in 2020 but has plans to expand. The same restrictions apply to DiDi at the airport. Friends have told us it’s about the same or 10-20% cheaper than Uber but there are many fewer drivers.
InDriver is yet another application trying to cash in on the ride sharing gold rush. It has the twist that allows users to “make their own fare offer” Most riders look up the fare on Uber then discount it by 25-50% and hope for the best. InDriver has even more limited availability than Didi or Uber but some locals swear by it.
Lyft does not currently operate in Costa Rica.
Update Feb 5, 2020 – No news is good news. Uber continues to operate “normally” in Costa Rica.
Update Jan 1, 2020 – The uneasy status quo is being maintained headed into the high tourist season. Occasional taxi blockades and attacks on Ubers are still in the news but it’s been mostly quiet.
Update Nov 11, 2019 – DiDi began operations as an alternative to Uber.
Update Oct 7, 2019 – Uber drivers we spoke with stated that even though the service has been legitimized by the government they are still prohibited from picking up at the airport and facing harassment from taxi drivers.
Update July 17, 2019 – Taxi drivers announced they will begin blocking the entrance to SJO International Airport for several hours at random times every day in protest of Uber. Also, one half of the taxis with concessions to operate at the airport are claiming that the other half of the taxis are operating illegally using expired permits.
Update July 1, 2019 – Taxi drivers plan to block traffic in protest of the new tax on Ubers. They are concerned that if Uber begins paying tax it will be legitimized.
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 25, 2019 – The transit police confiscated 20 vehicles at Juan Santamaría airport that responded to Uber requests.
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 22, 2019 – InDriver announced that it will start a “name your own price” PriceLine like version of Uber in Costa Rica.
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.