There are several different options when it comes to transportation in Costa Rica. We’ve tried out most of them and along the way, we’ve learned that sometimes you just really need to rent a car and other times it’s completely possible to take the public bus. Here are the best options for transportation in Costa Rica and when you should use each one.
Costa Rica has a surprisingly good public bus system throughout the country. Taking the public bus is incredibly cheap, but it is not always the most comfortable. On some of the bus trips you will get an assigned seat number, but from our experience, we’ve only had that when taking the bus from San Jose to the Panama border. On other bus trips, it’s a first come first serve basis for seats. If you are one of the last people to get on the bus you may be left standing for the whole ride. This could be 5 or more hours depending on where you are going.
Another thing to consider is most of the buses are not the most comfortable. The seats are hard, sometimes the windows won’t open etc.
You also need to consider that from the airport you will have to get downtown to the main bus terminal for most of the buses. Downtown can be a bit crazy to navigate if it is your first time in the country.
When should I take the bus?
-We recommend taking the bus if you are going to only one destination and don’t plan on doing much traveling within that location.
– We also recommend taking the bus from San Jose if you plan on going to Nicaragua or Panama. You can not cross the border with a rental car. We have not taken the bus to Nicaragua yet, but the public bus we took to Panama was really modern and comfortable.
if you plan to go to Jaco and do not need a car for day trips from there (most day tours will provide transportation which your hotel can arrange), you should consider taking the bus from San Jose. The trip only takes about two hours, costs about $5 one-way and runs frequently throughout the day.
If you plan on traveling anywhere else (let’s just say La Fortuna) you would then have to take the bus all the way back to San Jose and then up to La Fortuna because there isn’t a bus between La Fortuna and Jaco. What would be a four-hour drive would turn into a full day trip.
If you would like to see the public bus schedule and departure/arrival locations just download the app Off The Grid. It’s free and in my opinion, it is a must have as far as apps go for Costa Rica traveling.
Private Shuttle/ Private Shared Shuttle
If you would like a little more comfort in your life and don’t want to drive in Costa Rica, you can opt to take a private shuttle. These shuttles do not run cheap, but it will be a whole lot more comfortable than taking the public bus.
When should I take a private shuttle?
We suggest taking a private shuttle if you do not feel comfortable driving, are going to one destination (for example a resort), don’t mind spending a bit more money, and want a little comfort. Also, if you are traveling with a large group you can rent a private shuttle just for your group.
To take a shared shuttle (which will pick you up at the airport) to Jaco it will cost you about $50 one-way per person.
If you plan on renting a whole shuttle this rate will likely come out to a bit cheaper per person.
When should I fly?
We suggest flying if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of taking a long drive to your destination and plan on staying in one spot. Also, Nature Air charges you based on your baggage weight, so if you have a lot of luggage it could be expensive. I don’t suggest flying if you have a major fear of flying. These planes tend to be pretty small and can be a bit scary if you are an anxious flyer.
I just checked flight prices to Manuel Antonio from San Jose. If you only have 15 pounds of luggage it will cost you about $60 one-way. It is definitely convenient and at this price I would say it is a better option than taking a private shuttle (unless you have a large group and can rent out a whole shuttle).
Renting a Car:
Costa Rica can be a bit crazy to drive in, but I think any experienced driver can handle the roads. I would always suggest avoiding San Jose (it is absolute insanity). The roads to the beaches on the Pacific coast from the airport are well-maintained highways that you should be fine on.
I do suggest getting a vehicle with 4×4 if possible. If you plan on going only to the beaches you will probably be fine without it, but if you plan on exploring the middle of the country there are a lot of unpaved roads and very steep routes going up mountains.
Also, it is probably better to get an automatic. There are a lot of hilly roads and it is not unusual to get stuck in traffic while going uphill.
Renting a car is not cheap in Costa Rica. The price you are quoted online from most companies does not include the mandatory by law insurance. Even if you have your own car rental insurance, you will still need to pay this mandatory insurance. We always use the company Adobe for renting a car. We like them because the price they quote you is the final price which includes the mandatory insurance. They are also just a generally good company and the most honest we have found in Costa Rica. They will pick you up from the airport and take you on a shuttle to their business location (5 minutes from the airport) where you can retrieve your rental car.
Because we love Adobe so much we have partnered with them to give Costa Rica Vibes readers a 10% discount on car rentals! You can find out more about this awesome deal here.
When should you rent a car?
I suggest renting a car if you want the flexibility of really exploring the country in depth. If you are planning on doing a resort/ relax type of vacation, it is not necessary to rent a car. You should also only rent a car if you feel comfortable with the thought of driving in a foreign country.
When we first moved down here we had no experience renting a car and I booked one online at what I thought was a really good rate. When we arrived to pick up our rental car we were told that it would actually cost several hundred dollars more because of the required liability insurance. We really had no choice and had to pay it or we would have had to cancel our trip. It was ridiculous. All the tourists in the rental car shop were yelling at the employees because nobody knew that they would have to pay for this extra insurance. I actually felt bad for the employees. Can you imagine dealing with outraged customers all day every day?
The second time we rented a car we went through Adobe. The experience was smooth and perfect.
Note: All rental car companies here will charge a security deposit of a thousand dollars or more on your credit card. This is normal and will be completely reimbursed to you with a few days if you return the car in good perfect condition.
There are not a lot of taxis in smaller areas of the country. In these areas you will need a rental car to get around. We only use taxis around the San Jose area, and even then we actually only use Uber. Uber is legal here (for now) and it is always at least half the price it would cost with a taxi.
If you need a ride to your hotel from the airport, I would only use a taxi if it is a really short distance. Instead what I tell people to do is take advantage of the free wifi in the airport and order an Uber before stepping out of the airport.
When you step out of the airport you will be bombarded by taxi drivers asking if you need a ride. You will need to arrange a meeting spot with your Uber driver, or state what you are wearing or something so you can easily find them.
Let us know if you have any questions about transportation in Costa Rica. We are in the process of partnering with various transportation companies and will hopefully be able to bring you some good discounts in the near future.
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