Costa Rica is a small country that punches above its weight. Despite its slender proportions, the country has more than its fair share of national parks and wildlife reserves, sandy beaches, volcanoes, cities and towns. Luckily, getting around Costa Rica is relatively quick and easy, whether by car, bus or plane.
This guide will look at how to travel around Costa Rica, and the pros and cons of each mode of transport.
Though some people travel to Costa Rica by bus, the majority arrive via one of two international airports, either near San José or the northern city of Liberia.
Buses are the most common way of getting around Costa Rica, and the public bus system is excellent, inexpensive and relatively frequent, even in remote areas. Privately run shuttle buses offer quicker but pricier transfers, while taxis are decent value for groups. Car rental can be quite expensive, and driving can be a hair-raising experience, with precipitous drops in the highlands and potholed roads just about everywhere else.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the difficult terrain makes driving distances longer than they appear on the map. Domestic flights are one of the quickest ways of travelling around Costa Rica, with the two main domestic airlines offering economical flights.
Bus services connect San José with neighbouring countries, including Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala. While some travel to Costa Rica overland, most visitors arrive by plane.
Costa Rica has two international airports. Juan Santamaría (SJO), just outside San José, receives the majority of flights, though Daniel Oduber Quiros (LIR), near the northern city of Liberia, handles an increasing range from the US, Canada and the UK.
Airfares always depend on the season, with the highest being around July, August and December to mid-January. You’ll get the best prices during the wet summer (May to November). Note that flying at weekends is usually more expensive than during the week. Fares on all routes fluctuate significantly: compare prices here before booking.
Getting to Costa Rica from the UK got a lot easier since the introduction of direct flights: British Airways flies to San José and Thomson flies to Liberia. Fares can be as low as £430 for either route, though generally hover around £500–650. You can sometimes find cheaper fares by flying via Madrid (with Iberia), Paris (Air France), the US or Canada (Air Canada), though this will obviously extend your journey time.
There are no direct flights from Ireland to Costa Rica, so you have to travel via the UK, the US or mainland Europe; expect to pay €600–750.
Flying to Costa Rica from North America is relatively cheap and easy.
Daily direct flights depart for San José from numerous cities in the US, including Miami (around 2hr 45min), Orlando (around 3hr), Houston (around 3hr 40min), Dallas (around 4hr), Denver (around 5hr 15min), New York (around 5hr 30min) and Los Angeles (around 6hr).
American Airlines usually offers the cheapest fares from Miami and Dallas (starting at US$400 in high season), while United’s flights from Houston start at around US$450. JetBlue and Spirit Airlines run services from Florida, with fares around US$375 for a flight from Orlando but as low as US$200 on one of Spirit’s early morning departures from Fort Lauderdale.
JetBlue also flies from New York to Liberia (5hr 15min), from around US$380, while Avianca offers good-value fares from New York to San José (via San Salvador; around US$450). From LA, the best deals are generally with Avianca (again via San Salvador); flights start at around US$600.
Air Canada has a few direct flights between San José and Canada, with fares from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal starting at around Can$650. The airline also has a number of flights via the US, as do American Airlines and Delta, among others.
There are no direct flights from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa to Costa Rica – the quickest and easiest option is to fly via the US or Canada. Note that it’s best to book several weeks (or months) ahead.
From Australia, the cheapest fares to San José from Sydney tend to be via Los Angeles with Delta (from Aus$2000 in high season). American Airlines’ fares to San José via LA are usually slightly higher. Fares from all eastern Australian cities are typically the same – those from Perth and Darwin are a little more.
From New Zealand, the best through-tickets to San José are with Delta, departing from either Auckland or Christchurch and travelling via Sydney or Brisbane and Los Angeles (from around NZ$2500 in high season).
From South Africa, the least convoluted route to San José is with Delta from Johannesburg via Atlanta (around ZAR15,000).
Costa Rican airlines Sansa and Nature Air have regular flights from San José to Nicaragua (Managua) and Panama (Bocas del Toro). Expect to pay from around US$120 one way.
Travelling to Costa Rica by bus is fairly easy. Costa Rica’s national bus company, Tica Bus runs daily services between San José and destinations across the Americas. Travel to or from Managua (from US$28.75; 11hr), Guatemala City (from US$86.50; 60hr, with overnights in Managua and El Salvador at your own expense) and Panama City (from US$42; 16hr). Be sure to reserve your tickets up to a month in advance in high season (and up to three months in December).
Alternatively, TransNica runs buses (from US$28; 11hr) between San José and Managua, while Central Line runs services via Granada (US$29; 11hr). Expreso Panamá has a daily service to Panama City, departing at 11pm (US$40).
In this section of the guide, we’ll look at how to travel around Costa Rica – by bus, plane or car.
Getting around Costa Rica by bus is by far the cheapest option – the most expensive journey in the country (from San José to Paso Canoas on the Panamanian border) costs just US$14. San José is the hub for virtually all bus services in the country; indeed, it’s often impossible to travel from one place to another without backtracking to the capital.
It’s best to book tickets for popular routes in advance, though you may be lucky enough to get on without a reservation. Tickets on most mid- to long-distance and popular routes are issued with a date and a seat number; make sure the date is correct, as you cannot normally change your ticket or get a refund. Bus schedules change with impressive frequency, so be sure to check in advance. You can download a timetable from the ICT website or check here.
The local buses that make short hops between towns and nearby villages and attractions, such as the services that run from Heredia to Santa Bárbara, are less comfortable and more crowded, though they can be convenient to use.
A network of air-conditioned shuttle buses connects most of Costa Rica’s main tourist destinations. While these often cost over five times as much as the public buses, they are significantly faster and more comfortable, and will pick up and drop off at hotels. Try Interbus or the slightly more expensive Gray Line.
If you’re short on time, the best way to travel Costa Rica is by plane. The two main domestic carriers, Sansa and NatureAir, offer reasonably economical flights between San José and many beach destinations and provincial towns. They can be particularly handy for accessing the more remote corners of the country – the flight from San José to Puerto Jiménez on the Osa Peninsula, for example, takes just 50 minutes compared to four and a half hours on the bus.
NatureAir, which flies from Tobías Bolaños Airport in Pavas, 7km west of San José, generally has bigger planes and more frequent services. Sansa flies from Juan Santamaría airport, 17km northwest of San José. Rates start around US$60 for the shortest hops on both airlines, and last-minute deals are sometimes available on flights that aren’t fully booked.
If you’re travelling in a large group, air-charter taxis can prove a reasonably cheap way to get to the country’s more remote areas. NatureAir and Alfa Romeo Air both run charters, on five- to 18-seater planes; Alfa Romeo’s flight from San José to Tortuguero, for example, costs US$550.
Although there’s little traffic outside San José and the Valle Central, the common perception of driving in Costa Rica is of endless dodging around cows and potholes, while big trucks nudge your rear bumper in an effort to get you to go faster around the next blind bend. The reality is somewhat different. While many minor roads are indeed badly potholed and unsurfaced, travelling around Costa Rica by car is relatively easy. Plus with your own vehicle you can see the country at your own pace without having to adhere to bus or plane schedules.
Expect to pay from about US$40 per day for a regular vehicle, and up to US$80 for an intermediate 4WD (both including full insurance). It’s well worth hiring a Sat Nav, as road signs in Costa Rica are few and far between.
Most car-rental companies are located in San José and at or around the international airports near Alajuela and Liberia, though you can also rent cars in various towns around the country. Local agencies invariably provide a much better deal than the major overseas operators (Vamos and Adobe are particularly recommended), although renting outside San José is usually a bit more expensive. During peak season (December to March), it’s wise to reserve a car before you arrive.
Buying basic insurance is mandatory, even if you have your own. “Basic” insurance in Costa Rica tends to only cover damage by you to other people’s vehicles, not your own. Given the rudimentary state of some of the roads and the aggressive driving of some of the people on them, it is worth paying extra for full insurance. This will add to your car-rental costs considerably, however, with full insurance starting at around US$30 per day.
If you’re planning to visit the Nicoya Peninsula, Santa Elena and Monteverde or remote parts of the Zona Sur, it’s definitely worth paying the extra money for a 4WD. Indeed, in some areas of the country during the rainy season (May to November), it’s a necessity for rough roads and river crossings.
Note that you have to exercise caution when renting a car in Costa Rica. It is not uncommon for rental companies to claim for “damage” they insist you inflicted on the vehicle. Be sure to check the car carefully before you sign off the damage sheet.
Although the majority of the country’s roads are fairly light on traffic, the road accident rate is phenomenal. While most Ticos blame bad road conditions, the real cause is more often poor driving. Sections of washed out, unmarked or unlit road add to the hazards, as do big trans-isthmus trucks. Another hazard is car crime. Break-ins are an unfortunately regular occurrence, as are scams such as thieves puncturing your tyres and then robbing you after stopping to “help”. Most people have a memorable, and uneventful, time travelling around Costa Rica by car, but it will help if you consider the following:
Taxis regularly do long- as well as short-distance trips, and are decent value if you’re travelling in a group.
For riders with a decent amount of experience, a motorcycle is one of the best ways to travel Costa Rica. You will need a valid licence or endorsement in order to rent a bike. Smaller motorcycles for day-trips (125–155cc) can be rented in some beach towns (ie Jacó and Tamarindo), with daily rates from around US$40.
Those who want to tour the country can rent larger motorcycles (250cc and above) or book guided tours out of San José. Once outside the metropolitan area, an endless number of curvy back-roads and scenic gravel trails awaits. While the notorious road conditions of Costa Rica can be tiring in a car, they are usually great fun on a dual-sport motorcycle (Enduro motorcycle), with its good suspension.
Try Costa Rica Motorcycle Tours for rental (from US$150/day) and tours on new BMWs (650–1200cc), or Wild Rider Motorcycles for motorcycle rental (from US$70/day for three days) and tours, using Honda and 250–650cc Suzuki bikes.