Juan Santamaría Airport (IATA: SJO) is located near the towns of Alajuela (3 km), Heredia and the capital San José (25 km).
SJO is currently being redeveloped and in July 2009 operations were taken over by the same organisation that manages the airports in Houston, Texas. This otherwise pleasant airport has the usual assortment of duty-free shops, interesting souvenir and book shops, but an inadequate selection of restaurants (Church’s Chicken, Burger King, Poás Deli Cafe and Papa John’s Pizza). SJO is served daily by Air Transat (seasonal) American Airlines, Canjet (seasonal), Condor, Delta, Frontier Airlines, Iberia, Interjet, JetBlue Airways, Thomas Cook, Spirit Airlines, United, Air Canada, Avianca, Copa Airlines and AirPanama. The airport is connected to cities such as: Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix, Orlando, Chicago, Newark, Toronto, Montreal, Madrid, Frankfurt, Mexico City, Bogotá, Medellín, Caracas, Lima, Guayaquil, Quito and all Central American capitals.
An exit fee of 32 USD is charged at Juan Santamaría Airport. This fee must be paid in cash or with Visa (in which case it is treated as a cash advance). This fee can also be paid in advance at some hotels or banks (Banco Crédito Agrícola de Cártago and Banco de Costa Rica).
Departure fees are gradually added to the ticket price by many airlines. According to the table below, the fees are already included when the tickets are sent to :
- Juin 2015 : American Airlines, Avianca, Copa, Delta, Jet Blue, United.
- 1 November 2015: Air Panamá
- 1 December 2015: Aeromexico
- 15 December 2015: Air Canada
- No dates specified: Air Alaska, Air Costa Rica, Condor, Cubana, Iberia, Southwest, Spirit, Veca, Volaris
Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (IATA: LIR) is located near Liberia, in the province of Guanacaste. This airport is the closest to the Pacific Northwest coast. Liberia receives flights from Delta, American, United, JetBlue, Air Canada, CanJet (charter), Sun Wing (charter) and First Choice (charter). The airport is connected to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Newark, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, London, etc. The new terminal has opened and is a wonderful addition to this airport.
Tobías Bolaños International Airport (Spanish: Aeropuerto Internacional Tobías Bolaños) (IATA: SYQ) is located in the Pavas district of San José, about a 10-15 minute drive from the city centre. This airport primarily serves as a gateway to local Costa Rican domestic flights or to nearby international destinations Nicaragua and Panama. This airport is the hub of Nature Air. The terminal building is neat and clean, albeit small. There is a reasonably priced cafeteria-style food service on the second floor of the terminal. The terminal is not open around the clock. So if you have an early flight, find out when it opens before taking a taxi. There is no comfortable place to wait near the terminal if you arrive early.
The Interamericana (Panamericana Highway) runs through Costa Rica and is the main point of entry by car. The border crossing in the north (towards Nicaragua) is called Peñas Blancas and in the south (towards Panama) Paso Canoas (closes at 10 pm Costa Rican time or 11 pm Panamanian time). Virtually all travel outside the capital (except to the Caribbean) is via this route. The locals call this road the “Via Muerta“, and after driving it for a while, you can see why: near San José and other major cities, the road is paved and has excellent signage; outside the major cities, however, the road is gravelled in places, with some fairly sharp curves and significant elevation changes. You will see more large truck traffic on this road than in any other part of Costa Rica. There are many speed traps along this main artery, as well as random police checks for seat belt use and, especially near the border, for valid travel documents.
The speed limit on the highway is 80 km/h, but since the Interamericana (aka Highway 1) passes through countless small towns, the speed often drops to 50 or even 30 km/h if you suddenly find yourself in a school zone. Most of the highway is undivided. A common indication of a police checkpoint is the flashing of oncoming traffic. New laws that came into effect in 2010 have dramatically increased the amount of fines; previously the maximum was about $20 USD; now there are tickets of over $400 USD for attempting to bribe an officer, and more substantial tickets for drunk driving, speeding and other illegal acts, such as talking on a mobile phone and not wearing a seat belt. Be nice to the police when you are pulled over, because due to the new laws, they may “read you the riot act”, even though they normally don’t do that. This could mean that you are cited for minor offences that the new laws have introduced, such as the requirement that every car must have an emergency kit. The new laws also provide for a 3-year jail sentence for driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.8 and a $480 fine. Speeding over 20 miles per hour carries a $310 fine and the loss of 20 points. The police now tend to target tourists because they think Costa Ricans don’t have the money to pay the big fines, and they are right. The police officers themselves earn about $500 a month, which is the average monthly salary in Costa Rica.
The good news is that there is a new highway, known as the Autopista Del Sol (Highway of the Sun), which runs from the beaches around Orotina to San Jose. This highway is smooth like the American or European highways. It was built by a company based in Spain. There are tolls along this highway, but if you drive the entire highway, it will only cost you a few dollars in total. In 2011 there were problems on this highway and parts of it are sometimes closed for repairs.
Many roads in Costa Rica are in poor condition and short distances can take a very long time. Even the only roads in and out of popular tourist destinations are riddled with large potholes. To avoid potholes, drivers often weave back and forth between the left and right lanes, usually switching to the right lane when an oncoming vehicle approaches. This behaviour may seem unpredictable, but you can quickly get used to it. If you see a branch or a pole sticking out of the middle of the road, this is a “sign” that there is a deep well, a pothole or an uncovered gully. Do not approach it.
Driving at night is strongly discouraged due to unpredictable road conditions and the lack of safety features such as guardrails at the many hairpin turns in the hills. To put safety in perspective, Costa Rica’s per capita traffic fatality rate is comparable to that of the United States, but there are undeniably many dangers, and they are likely to be unfamiliar.
Many roads are unpaved, and even paved roads have many unpaved sections and dilapidated or unfinished bridges. Bridges are often only wide enough for one vehicle, and one direction usually has priority. Don’t expect to get anywhere quickly; supposed three-hour journeys can easily turn into five hours or more: There are always slow cars/buses/trucks on the road. There are always slow cars/buses/trucks on the road, resulting in crazy driving that you start to emulate if you stay in the country for more than a day. The government doesn’t seem to do a good job (or any job at all!) of fixing the infrastructure; 50 km/h is enough on dirt roads. Some hotels in the mountains require a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach the destination. Call ahead. This has more to do with ground clearance than road quality. Four-wheel drive vehicles are widely available from car rental agencies near the airport, but be sure to call ahead.
Navigation can be difficult. There are relatively few road signs and those that do exist can be inaccurate. It is advisable to have a good road map with small towns on it, as road signs often only point to the nearest town, not the direction of the next large town. Towns usually do not have town entrance signs; it is best to look at the names of grocery shops and restaurants on the side of the road to determine where you are passing. Stop and ask, practise your Spanish. The centre of town is usually a public park with a Catholic church across the street.
In Costa Rica there are no official addresses, but two informal systems. The first (often used in tourist information) indicates the street where the establishment is located (e.g. “6th Avenue”) and the distance of the intersection (e.g. “between 21st and 23rd Street”). In practice, there are practically no street signs and residents do not even know the name of the street they are on. The second system, which is much more reliable and understood by residents, is known as the “Tico address”, which usually implies an oriented distance (e.g. “100 metres south, 50 metres east”) from a landmark (e.g. “the cathedral”).
It is worth mentioning the special naming system of the streets in San Jose. Avenues run in an east-west direction and streets in a north-south direction. The numbering is less direct. Starting from Central Avenue and going south, one finds 2nd, 4th, 6th Avenue, etc., while going north, one finds 1st, 3rd, 5th, etc. The streets are numbered with even numbers to the west and odd numbers to the east. This means that if you are at the intersection of 7th Avenue and 4th Street and are looking for 6th Avenue and 5th Street, you are on the wrong side of town.
The petrol stations are full-service and the clerks are happy to accept dollars or colónes. The interesting thing is that Costa Rica is small and you don’t use a lot of petrol to get around, even if it seems like an eternity. Costa Rica is also a country of roundabouts, so Europeans won’t have a problem, but North Americans need to make sure they know how they work. The gas stations are really full service and you can have your oil checked, water filled and tyre pressure checked. The government owns an oil company and the private companies raise their prices to the level of the government price. It is recommended that you always use premium petrol and not regular petrol; regular petrol is contaminated. If you use “regular petrol”, you must change the fuel filter and clean the injectors after 5000 miles.
There are bus connections from neighbouring countries: Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala.
There is an extensive network of bus routes within the country, with reasonable fares. Departures are very punctual, but journeys often take longer than expected. Stop at the tourist office in the city centre (under the Gold Museum in the Plaza – ask anyone and they can help you). The bus system is a safe and even fun way to see much of the country for little money and not have to worry about hiring a car. Finding your way around without knowing Spanish is no problem.
San José has a remarkably large number of bus terminals for a city of its size; bus departure locations change occasionally. Find out the location of the terminal of the bus you want to take.
With the boat
There is a twice-daily boat service between Los Chiles (in north-eastern Costa Rica), the former home of the Contras, and San Carlos, Nicaragua. The cost is about US$9 (payable in dollars, colones or Nicaraguan cordobas), plus a US$1 tax. The boats usually leave San Carlos at 10:30 am and 4 pm.
Small boat tours with less than 100 passengers start in Panama and end in Costa Rica or vice versa. On these cruises you can visit popular national parks like Manuel Antonio, but also remote beaches and stretches of coastline that are inaccessible by land. Prices range from $2,000 to $6,000 per person for tours of 7 to 10 days.
Large cruise ships sometimes dock or anchor in Puerto Caldera and Puntarenas for a day or two, usually to begin, end or continue cruises through the Panama Canal to or from the Caribbean or the United States.