Costa Rica’s public bus system is excellent, cheap and quite frequent, even in remote areas. Taxis regularly do long- as well as short-distance trips and are a fairly inexpensive alternative to the bus, at least if you’re travelling in a group. Car rental is more common here than in the rest of Central America, but is fairly expensive and driving can be quite a hair-raising experience, with precipitous drops in the highlands and potholed roads just about everywhere else.
Domestic airlines are reasonably economical and can be quite a time-saver, especially since Costa Rica’s difficult terrain makes driving distances longer than they appear on the map. A number of tour operators in San José organize individual itineraries and packages with transport included, well worth checking out before making any decisions about heading out on your own.
Travelling by bus is by far the cheapest way to get around Costa Rica. 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. Some popular buses, like the service to Golfito, ought to be booked 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; you are expected to sit in the seat indicated. Make sure the date is correct; even if the mistake isn’t yours, you cannot normally change your ticket or get a refund. Neither can you buy return bus tickets on Costa Rican buses, which can be quite inconvenient if you’re heading to very popular destinations like Monteverde, Jacó or Manuel Antonio at busy times – you’ll need to buy your return ticket as soon as you arrive to assure yourself a seat.
Bus schedules change with impressive frequency, so be sure to check in advance; you can download a comprehensive timetable here.
The majority of the country’s buses are in fairly good shape, although most lack air conditioning and there’s very little room for luggage, or long legs. Most comfortable are the Ticabuses – modern air-conditioned vehicles with good seats, adequate baggage space and very courteous drivers – that run from San José to Panamá and Managua, and on to Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, Guatemala City and Tapachula in Mexico (see Overland to Costa Rica). Most buses in Costa Rica have buzzers or bells to signal to the driver that you want to get off, though you may still find a few people using the old system of whistling, or shouting “¡parada!” (“stop!”) – despite signs requesting otherwise. The atmosphere in Costa Rican buses is generally friendly, and if the driver starts to drive away while you’re halfway out the back door trying to get off, your fellow passengers will erupt in spontaneous help. Though there are no toilets on the buses, drivers make (admittedly infrequent) stops on longer runs. Often, there’ll be a lunch or dinner stop at a roadside restaurant or service station; failing that, there is always a bevy of hardy food and drinks sellers who leap onto the bus proffering their wares.
In recent years, travellers have begun to make much more use of the network of air-conditioned minibuses that connect most of Costa Rica’s main tourist destinations. While these cost more than five times as much as the public buses, they are significantly faster, more comfortable and will pick up and drop off at hotels. The main operator is Interbus, with comprehensive routes across the country. The similar but slightly more expensive Gray Line runs direct services between many tourist spots.
Although there’s little traffic outside 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 that next blind bend. The reality is somewhat different. While many minor roads are indeed badly potholed and unsurfaced, driving is relatively easy, and with your own vehicle you can see the country at your own pace without having to adhere to bus or plane schedules – road signage, however, is poor, particularly in the Valle Central, so a good map is essential.
Citizens of the US, Canada and the UK need only a valid driver’s licence to drive a car in Costa Rica (for up to three months). Technically, residents of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa should get an international drivers licence (available from the relevant national automobile associations), although in practice both police and rental agencies readily accept domestic licences from these countries.
Laws introduced in March 2010 clamped down on motoring offences, with greatly increased fines (multas) for jumping a red light, talking on a mobile phone and driving without a seatbelt – all of which can incur fines into the hundreds. Reckless driving and speeding are the worst offences; speed traps are fairly common, and if you’re caught speeding you may have to pay a hefty fine. If a motorist – especially a trucker – in the oncoming direction flashes his headlights at you, you can be almost certain that traffic cops with speed-trapping radar are up ahead. Although traffic cops routinely accept bribes to tear up tickets, it’s a very serious offence and should not be attempted under any circumstances.
Petrol is positively cheap by European standards: fuel prices are regulated by the government, so you’ll pay the same at all petrol stations. Most cars take regular; all petrol stations (bomboneras or gasolineras) are serviced.
Parking is relatively easy given the lack of traffic, though in most towns in the Valle Central you’ll need to either use a parqueo, a secure car park lot, or, if parking on the street during the day, buy a dated permit, available at local shops.
If you’re unlucky enough to have an accident in Costa Rica, don’t attempt to move the car until the traffic police arrive: call the National Insurance Institute, who will send an inspector to check the vehicles involved to assess who caused the accident – vital if you’re using a rental car.
Car rental in Costa Rica is expensive. Extras such as additional driver, child seats, mobile phone and cool box will push the price up further. Rental days are calculated on a 24-hour basis: thus, if you pick up your car on a Tuesday at 3pm for a week, you have to return it before that time the following Tuesday.
The minimum age for rental is usually 25, and you’ll need a credit card, either Mastercard or Visa, which has sufficient credit for the entire cost of the rental. There are rental offices in all the major tourist spots, and you can arrange to pick up your car in another part of Costa Rica and drop it off at the airport when you leave – this normally entails a charge of $30 or more, though it may be waived if you’re taking the vehicle for more than a few days. It’s worth knowing that most tour operators in Costa Rica can arrange car hire more cheaply than the major overseas operators; local rental companies also provide a better deal.
If you’re planning to visit the Nicoya Peninsula, Santa Elena and Monteverde or other remote spots, it’s definitely worth paying the extra money for a 4WD; indeed, in some areas of the country during the rainy season (May–Nov), it’s a necessity. Whilst a 4WD doesn’t grant you immunity to the laws of physics, it does provide greater traction in the wet and higher clearance for rough roads and river crossings. Furthermore, in smaller vehicles, punctures are a depressingly regular experience, and although getting them repaired is a matter of a couple of minutes’ hammering at the rim at the local garage, it’s not the best way to spend a holiday.
Most car rental companies in Costa Rica are located in San José and at or around the international airports near Alajuela and Liberia (note that airport rentals incur an additional twelve percent charge); you can also rent cars in various towns around the country. Prices vary considerably from agency to agency (Vamos and Adobe are particularly recommended), but renting outside San José is generally a bit more expensive. During peak season (especially Christmas, but any time from December to March), it’s wise to reserve a car before you arrive.
A motorcycle is one of the best ways to discover the diversity of Costa Rica. However, one should have a decent amount of biking experience and will need a valid motorcycle licence or endorsement, in order to rent a bike. Smaller motorcycles for day-trips (125–155cc) can be rented in some beach towns (i.e. Jaco and Tamarindo).
Those who want to tour the country can rent larger motorcycles or book guided tours out of San José. Once outside the metropolitan area, an endless number of curvy back-roads and scenic gravel trails await. 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 large suspension.
Costa Rica’s terrain makes for easy cycling compared with neighbouring countries and, as there’s a good range of places to stay and eat, you don’t need to carry the extra weight of a tent, sleeping bag and stove. Always bring warm clothes and a cycling jacket, however, wherever you are. As for equipment, rear panniers and a small handlebar bag (for maps and camera) should be enough. Bring a puncture repair kit, even if your tyres are supposedly unbustable. You’ll need a bike with a triple front gear – this gives you 15 to 21 gears, and you will really need the low ones. Make sure, too, that you carry and drink lots of water – five to eight litres a day in the lowlands.
There is very little traffic outside the Valle Central, and despite their tactics with other cars (and pedestrians), Costa Rican drivers are some of the most courteous in Central America to cyclists. That said, however, bus and truck drivers do tend to forget about you as soon as they pass, sometimes forcing you off the road. Roads are generally good for cyclists, who can dodge the potholes and wandering cattle more easily than drivers. Bear in mind that if you cycle up to Monteverde, one of the most popular routes in the country, you’re in for a slow trip: besides being steep, there’s not much traction on the loose gravel roads. Although road signs will tell you that cycling on the Interamericana (Panamerican Highway, or Hwy-1) is not permitted, you will quickly see that people do so anyway.
San José’s best cycle shop is Ciclo Los Ases. They have all the parts you might need, can fix your bike and may even be able to give you a bicycle carton for the plane.
Costa Rica’s two domestic air carriers, Sansa and NatureAir, offer reasonably economical flights between San José and many beach destinations and provincial towns. Both fly small twin-propeller aircraft, and service more or less the same destinations. These flights can be very handy, saving many hours of bus travel better spent on the beach.
Of the two, NatureAir, which flies from Tobías Bolaños Airport in Pavas, 7km northwest of San José, is generally more reliable and has more frequent services on some runs. Sansa flies from Juan Santamaría airport, 17km northwest of San José, and is cheaper but less dependable. On both airlines, make your reservations as far as possible in advance, and even then be advised that a booking means almost nothing until the seat is actually paid for. Reconfirm your flight in advance of the day of departure and again on the day of travel, if possible, as schedules can change at short notice. Note that the airports at Quepos, Tambor and Arenal charge departure/arrival taxes.
If you’re planning to cover a lot of ground in a limited amount of time, the Nature Air Pass gives you unrestricted use of all their services bar the route to Bocas del Toro (available for an additional fee).
While fares will be at least double that of Sansa and NatureAir, air-charter taxis can prove a reasonably cheap way to get to the beaches and more remote areas if several people split the expense. Most charter planes operate from Tobías Bolaños Airport.