How to get around in Costa Rica?

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. In this guide, we'll tell you all about how to get around in Costa Rica. 

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How to get to Costa Rica?

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.

It's also possible to cross the border by bus. 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.

Rough Guides tip: book your flight to Costa Rica here

Flying to Costa Rica

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.

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.

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. 

From the US and Canada

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).

From Australia, New Zealand and South Africa

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.

Overland to Costa Rica

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 (11hr), Guatemala City (60hr, with overnights in Managua and El Salvador at your own expense) and Panama City (16hr). Be sure to reserve your tickets up to a month in advance in high season (and up to three months in December).

espadilla beach and Coastline near the Manuel Antonio national park, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

Espadilla beach near Manuel Antonio national park, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

How to get around in Costa Rica?

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.

What better way to plan a trip than to rely on personalized experiences? Our content manager has traveled to Costa Rica and shares with you what to consider when planning your trip.

Getting around in Costa Rica by bus

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.

Shuttle buses

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.

Arenal volcano in Costa Rica ©Shutterstock

Arenal volcano in Costa Rica ©Shutterstock

Getting around in Costa Rica by domestic flights

If you’re short on time, the best way to travel Costa Rica is by plane. The two main domestic carriers are: 

Although, you are better off booking your flight(s) through more trustworthy websites like Kayak. Domestic flights 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.

Getting around in Costa Rica by rental car

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), which might be helpful at Arenal and Monteverde area. 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 the best option is to rent your car online before arrival

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.

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.

Car safety in Costa Rica

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:

  • Drive defensively.
  • Keep your doors locked and windows shut, especially in San José.
  • Keep valuables in the boot or out of sight.
  • Avoid driving at night, when wild animals are more active.
  • If someone suspicious approaches your vehicle at a red light or stop sign, sound your horn.
  • Do not pull over for flashing headlights – note that an emergency or police vehicle has red or blue flashing lights.
  • If you get lost, find a public place, like a service station, to consult your map or ask for directions.
  • If someone tells you something is wrong with your vehicle, do not stop immediately. Drive to the nearest service station or other well-lit public area.
  • Do not park at remote trailheads – leave your car at the nearest manned ranger station.
  • Be aware of steep roadside gullies, used to channel rainwater runoff, when turning or reversing.
  • Do not pick up hitchhikers.
  • In case of emergency, call T: 911.
Bridge in Rainforest - Costa Rica - Monteverde  © Shutterstock

The famous hanging bridge in Monteverde Cloud Forest ©Shutterstock

Getting around in Costa Rica via taxi 

Taxis regularly do long- as well as short-distance trips, and are decent value if you’re travelling in a group.

Motorbikes and scooters in Costa Rica

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.

Interested in a motorbike tour? Talk to our local experts to craft the best trips!

Sun rising over the Playa Blanca beach in Peninsula Papagayo in Guanacaste, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

Sun rising over the Playa Blanca beach in Peninsula Papagayo in Guanacaste, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

Tips for getting around by Marcos, our travel expert

Hola! I'm Marcos, your travel expert in Costa Rica, and I'm thrilled to help you navigate the best ways to get around this beautiful country!

Costa Rica may be small, but it's packed with diverse landscapes, from lush rainforests to stunning beaches. The transportation options you choose can greatly impact your experience, so let's explore the best ways to get around:

Rental car

For flexibility and convenience, renting a car is often the best choice, especially if you're planning to explore off-the-beaten-path destinations. Costa Rica's main roads are generally in good condition, but be prepared for less maintained roads in rural areas. A 4x4 is recommended if you're venturing into the mountains or to remote beaches.

Domestic flights

If you're short on time and looking to cover large distances, like from San José to the Nicoya Peninsula or the Caribbean coast, domestic flights are a quick and efficient option. Costa Rica has several small domestic airlines that connect major tourist destinations.

Public buses

For those on a budget, public buses are the most economical way to travel. They cover most of the country and are generally reliable. However, bus travel can be time-consuming, especially to remote areas, and schedules can sometimes be irregular.

Shuttle services

Shared or private shuttles are a convenient and comfortable way to travel between popular tourist destinations. They're more expensive than buses but less hassle than renting a car, and they often provide door-to-door service from hotels.

Taxis and ride-sharing apps

In cities and towns, taxis are readily available and can be a convenient way to get around for short distances. Ride-sharing apps like Uber are also available in some urban areas and can be a reliable and safe option.

Ties Lagraauw

written by
Ties Lagraauw

updated 31.05.2024

Ties is a true world explorer - whether it be for work or leisure! As Content Manager at RoughGuides, and the owner of Dutch travel platform, Ties is constantly on the move, always looking for new destinations to discover.

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