Thursday, August 11, 2022

How To Travel Around Costa Rica

North AmericaCosta RicaHow To Travel Around Costa Rica

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Note that while Costa Rica has adopted official street names for government purposes in most towns, most of the population is unaware of these names, and if they are known, most streets do not have signs indicating these names. Asking a local for directions can be a lengthy and difficult conversation as directions are given to a common or familiar building, shop, office or other landmark to find what you are looking for. So you need to know the important landmarks and their locations to find your way more easily.

Note that “cien metros” or 100 metres usually refers to a “block”, which is usually 100 metres long but can sometimes be longer or shorter. Regardless of the exact distance, many locals tend to use 100 metres or a block when giving directions.

GPS maps

  • OpenStreetMap contributors create Garmin-compatible maps that are open source and constantly updated. If possible, contribute to the project by sending back your tracks.
  • Free GPS maps from the Cenrut project. The Cenrut maps can be downloaded to Garmin devices, iPhones and Android phones.
  • The smartphone app Waze is a favourite among Costa Ricans because it offers GPS with real-time traffic information.
  • Google Maps on a mobile phone or tablet can be a useful tool for finding points of interest (POIs) or designing a route to a destination, but does not yet provide turn-by-turn driving directions in the area.

Road conditions

Most of Costa Rica’s roads are paved, but maintenance is minimal. In addition, there are many narrow bridges scattered throughout the country. Be careful when travelling during the rainy season, as some roads in low-lying areas may be washed out or flooded. If you plan to travel to mountainous areas such as Monteverde, four-wheel drive vehicles are strongly recommended. These roads are NOT paved and can be slippery due to the constant rain. Rock falls and landslides are common and guard rails are rare. In addition, visibility can be poor in cloudy forest areas, so caution is advised.

Public buses

Most major tourist destinations in Costa Rica are served by at least two daily buses to and from San José. The advantages of public transport in Costa Rica are that tickets are cheap (rarely more than US$7 per person) and cover most cities in the country. However, almost the entire bus network is based on routes in and out of San José, which can add significantly to travel time. The buses also do not have a reservation system, so it is possible not to get a seat on the most popular routes. However, most buses have assigned seats once you have bought a ticket at the bus stop, so arrive early to make sure you get your bus.

In San José, there is not one central bus station, but several different stations, each serving roughly a different region of the country, with a few exceptions. For example, most flights to the Caribbean part of the country depart from the Gran Caribe terminal. Direct connections to the southernmost part of the Caribbean coast are available from the bus station in Puntarenas, which mainly serves the western side of the country. However, you can get to the Caribbean side by taking a bus (on the Autotransportes Caribeños line) from the Gran Caribe terminal to Limón and then changing to the southbound bus (Mepe line). In short, do your research in advance so that you don’t get lost trying to find your bus. Often a phone call or email to your final destination (e.g. your hotel) is enough to tell you which bus to take, where to take it and how often it runs.

Car rental

One of the great advantages of renting a car is that you can visit many remote beaches and mountainous regions. And thanks to the power of the internet, you can now rent any vehicle online and have it waiting for you when you arrive.

For US$350-700 per week you can rent a medium-sized Ecocar/ 4×4. Insurance makes up most of this cost and is not optional. It is good to have a 4×4 vehicle for travel outside the Central Valley, especially during the rainy season. During the dry season, the direct route from La Fortuna to Monteverde required a 15-30 km/h road covered with boulders. Four-wheel drive was also useful on the Nicoya coast. (The above figures are based on 2001 roads.) It is often possible to hire a car with a local driver from the various tour operators if driving yourself seems a little daunting.

Due to the condition of most roads outside San Jose, car insurance, even with a zero excess, does not usually cover tyres and rims. Car rental companies require a $750 USD deposit during the rental period, which requires a credit card. Using an insurance programme offered by certain types of gold or platinum credit cards is a good advantage, as these credit cards cover minor scratches, dents and the entire rented vehicle in the event of a collision or theft.

You should be careful when renting a car in Costa Rica, as it is not uncommon for rental companies to claim “damage” allegedly done to the vehicle. It is much better to rent a car through a Costa Rican travel agency. If you are travelling with a package deal, your agent will take care of the issue. Otherwise, go to an ICT-accredited travel agency in San Jose and ask them to take care of the rental for you. This should be no more expensive than renting yourself and will protect you from false claims for damages and other fees; rental companies will make less fuss with an agent who regularly sends them clients than with individual clients they may never see again.

Check the vehicle thoroughly before signing the damage sheet. Check the oil, brake fluid, fuel gauge (to make sure it is full) and that there is a spare tyre with good air pressure and a jack. First find out the Spanish word for “scratch” (rayas) and other relevant terms so you can at least question the landlord’s assessment. Ask them to note any minor damage, not just check the drawing, and keep a copy of this document with you.

Take the maximum insurance (approx. US$15-20 per day); due to the country’s high accident rate, you should be insured for damage to the vehicle, yourself, third parties and public property.

Motorbike rental

For about US$420 per week, depending on the motorbike and season, you can rent a dual-sport motorbike or a chopper. One motorbike rental requires a US$600 deposit during the rental period.


Another easy way to get around Costa Rica is to use the services of minivans. In most hotels, the reception is able to help arrange a driver for travellers who want to move around the country. Prices are reasonable (e.g. US$29 per person from San José to Tamarindo in April 2007). The drivers know the roads well, the vans are clean and comfortable, and they take you from door to door.

Taxis are available in most major cities. They are usually cheap and only require a few dollars to get almost anywhere in the city. The meter is called “la maria“; ask the driver to turn it on as soon as you get in the car, otherwise he may not turn it on and set his own, more expensive fare once you arrive at your destination. Also try to check that it was not switched on before you got in. The initial fare should not be more than ₡600. Most drivers know familiar routes like San Jose to Santa Ana and you can find out the fare by typing “Cuanto para ir _____a . Pirate taxis” are sometimes cheaper but not safe. Don’t risk it. Especially if you are alone. If you are a woman, get in the back as riding in the front can be considered lewd by the driver. You must be careful when using this service, very careful. It is not recommended to take non-red taxis.


Hitchhiking is much more common in rural areas than in urban areas. If you decide to hitchhike, Costa Ricans are generally very friendly and helpful, especially in rural areas where traffic can be light on dirt roads. As always, be friendly and offer some money, which will probably be refused because of the friendliness.

By air

There are two major domestic airlines connecting the main tourist cities, NatureAir and Sansa. They are limited to 25 or 30 pounds of hand luggage per person, depending on the airline. Nature Air allows more luggage per person because their planes are larger and also twin-engine. Neither of these airlines will carry a longboard, and both limit the number of shortboards they can carry. Check with the airline for the current limits on the length of boards allowed.

By train

Although rail service ceased in 1995, Incofer (the Costa Rican Railway Institute) continues to operate and reactivate disused tracks in the greater San Jose area. Rail transport still suffers from decades of neglect and rarely is a train faster or cheaper than a bus, but new lines and improvements to existing lines (mainly for commuters in and around San Jose) are planned for the near future.

There are two services, the price is about ₡500€.

  • Heredia – San Jose Service
  • Pavas – San Jose Service

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