Getting Around Costa Rica

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There are many ways to get around Costa Rica- which is good because despite being a small country, Costa Rica has big distances.

For example, you may want to go from San Jose to La Fortuna. Put it in Google Maps and it’s only about 80 miles. But what you don’t see are all the curvy two-lane roads, stops, and other road conditions that might arise while taking what turns out to be an almost 3-hour drive. Driving in Costa Rica can be its own beast.

That’s one reason why it is so essential to pick the right way to get around Costa Rica when you are visiting- especially if you are visiting Costa Rica with kids as we do.

In this post, I’ll walk you through all the different ways you can get around Costa Rica. My vote? If you are exploring Costa Rica with kids and need both flexibility and a good bang for your buck, I recommend car rental. If you have a larger budget or a large group, then definitely opt for a private shuttle with a tour guide.

Arriving in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is well connected both through its international airports and international bus systems from Nicaragua and Panama.

When you arrive at either the San Jose Airport or the Liberia International Airport, you’ll find flights coming in from around the world- just like you would at any major international airport. If you need to know which airport to fly in to, it depends on where you are going after you arrive.

Land crossing in Central America between Costa Rica and either Panama or Nicaragua is also common.

You’ll need a valid passport to enter the country, and tourists from most countries are allowed a 90-day tourist visa automatically upon entry.

The issue is- how do you get around once you arrive?

Domestic Flights

If you are heading to some of the more remote areas of Costa Rica, and have the budget, then taking a domestic flight is a great option. I usually recommend these flights for people going to popular destinations such as the Osa Peninsula (Corcovado National Park), Puerto Viejo or the Caribbean coast, or remote areas like Tortuguero National Park.

You can also consider a domestic flight from San Jose to Guanacaste, although do keep in mind there is now a bustling international airport in Liberia. The domestic flights are done with a pretty small plane, so if you are a nervous flyer these are probably not the best option.

Have a big group or a big budget? Consider chartering a private plane to your destination. You can also do private helicopters. I have to say I have never done these, so am not a good resource on how to do them or the costs. It is an option, though.

costa rician beach next to rental car .

Renting A Car

Renting a car in Costa Rica is the best option in my opinion, and we recommend renting from Adobe Rental Car. This is because you’ll pay less overall, support a local company, and they have the best customer service of any rental car company around. (And after 20 years of renting cars in Costa Rica, I’ve tried them all!) You can also get a 10-20% discount on your rental car through Pura Vida Moms.

You have to keep in mind a few things when renting a car, however:

  • Your credit card insurance won’t cover the mandatory insurance in Costa Rica, so make sure to get a quote that includes insurance
  • The car seats provided are not great as they are old and only 3 point harnesses so I take our own
  • Gas in Costa Rica is more expensive than in the States and is sold by the liter. The good thing is that gas prices are fixed across the country, so you don’t need to play the gas game as you do in the US.
  • You’ll need a navigation app for Costa Rica- whether you purchase a GPS with your rental car or use your cell phone, it’s a must.

I’ve written extensively about driving in Costa Rica and renting cars in Costa Rica, so please refer to those posts for more info.

Direct Transfers

You can hire a direct transfer (Adobe Rental Cars even does them) from point A to Point B. There are two types of direct transfers, private and shared.

Shared Shuttle

A shared shuttle means that you and a few other people (usually no more than 15 total) will share a bus that goes from one place to another. The advantages are that these are much faster than a public bus, and worth the money especially if you are a solo traveler who wants to get somewhere quickly, safely, and without hassles.

Another advantage is if you are doing what is called a tour connection where you are rafting from Point A to Point B, for example. This is common for those who choose to take a boat across Arenal Lake from Monteverde to La Fortuna to drastically cut down on travel time.

The disadvantage to a shared shuttle lies in the advantage- you will go from Point A to Point B and that’s it. Comfort stops for the bathroom and snacks are kept to a minimum, and you are in the shuttle with people you don’t know.

We use shared shuttle buses when we are going ot a walkable destination where we won’t need to get around much farther than the town center. A great example of those would be in Tamarindo, San Ramon, and Grecia. La Fortuna would not be a great example as everything is spread out.

Some people who hire shared shuttles will then use Uber or taxis when they arrive at their destination. Of course, this does add cost to the overall trip, which is why many times renting a car is cheaper for small groups.

Join the Costa Rica With Kids Facebook Group. Ask all the Costa Rica Travel questions you want- we will answer them!

Private Shuttle

This is essentially where you hire a private driver to take you exactly where you want ot go when you want to go there. You have shuttle services on demand for your whole trip. You can also hire a private guide in this instance as well, and the guide and driver work together.

A private shuttle is the more expensive option of the two, but for large groups, the cost per person can actually be less when you add up all the transportation costs.

If I had an unlimited budget and could hire a private shuttle and guide for every trip I went on to Costa Rica, it’s definitely the option I would pick. It’s not always feasible, however.

Costa Rica By Bus

Many many travelers want to see Costa Rica by public transportation, and public buses are definitely the absolute cheapest option (other than hitchhiking which I don’t recommend!).

There are two different types of buses that interconnect Costa Rica: direct buses (bus directo) and indirect buses, or colectivos. Here’s a bit on each:

Direct Buses

You can get on a bus that will go directly to your destination with very few stops. These buses will generally make one restroom stop at a public place where food and drink are sold. They will generally do this every 4 hours. A great example of this is the bus from San Jose to Liberia that stops in Esparza.

Direct buses adhere to a strict schedule and are not late. If you miss the bus- you missed the bus.

These buses tend to get crowded as there are both seats and people who are able to stand in the aisles while the bus is in motion. When the bus stops people generally get off and come back to their same seat. You need to watch your hand luggage in this case, as thieves know to target these bus stops.

For families with kids, direct buses are the best way to get around if you absolutely want or need to ride the bus. Keep in mind there are no toilets or food on board, and there isn’t entertainment.

Colectivos

The colectivo busses generally go shorter distances. They stop at each bus stop and pick up or let off passengers as needed. You can just ring a bell and the bus will stop. If the bus driver sees people flagging him down on the side of the road to stop, he will do so.

It’s a very slow way to travel- it’s also cheap. It can be fun for a while to meet new people on the bus and see the types of people that come and go, but honestly, if you don’t have much time, this can be a real test of patience.

For example, the local buses that go between San Ramon and Palmares (a distance of 5 km) can take up to an hour.

If you are looking to plan a Costa Rica trip via bus, I highly recommend the Costa Rica by Bus Facebook group.

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA – JUNE 18, 2012: Red taxi cabs wait in line at the Central Park on June, 18, 2012 in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Taxis

Taxis are everywhere in Costa Rica as there are so many people without cars who live there. There are several types of taxis you can take, and note that it can be nearly impossible to get a local taxi when it’s pouring rain.

Note that the airports have official taxis that are to take people to and from the airport- these taxis are orange.

Local Taxi

There are red taxis all over town in Costa Rica. The red taxis mean that the government has insured and licensed the taxi drivers and that they have a set fee for transport between destinations.

These taxis are metered (by what we call la maría). You simply ask the driver to start the meter, and when you arrive the fee for the ride is displayed. Most local taxis take a credit card, but not all so it can be good to have some cash on hand when traveling via taxi.

Taxi Pirata

These “pirate taxis” are not officially bonded and insured by the government. Therefore, you must agree on a price for your destination before you enter the vehicle. When you take a pirate taxi, you will generally pay less than you will for a red official taxi.

You also run a bigger safety risk with these taxis as they are not overseen by a dispatch. Some are, and you will find collective taxis that are “pirate” but run by a dispatch.

these taxis can be hired out for a half day or a day, and this can be an economical way to get around a destination if you don’t rent a car.

Uber

In large metropolitan cities and urban areas in the Central Valley (think San José, Heredia, Cartago Grecia, San Ramon, Palmares) you can find an Uber pretty easily. uber is generally cheaper than taxis, and you have the advantage of not having to exchange money because you pay in the app.

I think some beach destinations like Jaco may also have Uber, but it’s definitely not something that you have everywhere in the country so if you take an Uber to a destination, make sure you can also get home via Uber from that dentitions. For example, when I was at the Starbucks Hacienda Alsacia recently a couple was dropped off by Uber with their luggage so they could take the tour. At the end of the tour, they tried to get an Uber and couldn’t, and it was a huge mess to get a taxi out there to them.

Boats and Ferries

Water transportation is of course popular in Costa Rica, and can be an economical way to get to some remote destinations.

Boats

There are boat rides that will take you to remote areas not widely accessible by car. Two examples of those would be to arrive at Drake Bay or at Tortuguero.

There is also a nice boat transfer between La Fortuna and Monteverde.

You’ll also find boats that take you to Isla del Coso for extremely diving, and boats that will take out offshore for fishing, snorkeling and diving expeditions.

Ferries

Ferries leaving from Puntarenas can be a great way to get your car onto the Nicoya Peninsula without taking a circuitous route. this can connect you with destinations such as the Bioluminescent Bay, Montezuma, Santa Teresa, and more.

The ferry has a really fun atmosphere too- they sell ice cream and beer and some have fun music. You can enjoy a shortcut while you relax and have fun. I think the ferry is a really fun experience for families.

Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into getting around Costa Rica. If you would like to talk to me about a customized itinerary or specific Costa Rica travel advice for your family’s next Costa Rica vacation, (zero sales- just advice!) check out my “Ask Christa” page for more information on custom Costa Rica trip planning geared towards family

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Christa Jimenez

Welcome! I’m Christa, a former high school teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. I love all things Spanish and bi-cultural, (especially travel and food!) and you’ll find my observations on life here. Thanks for stopping by

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4 Comments

  1. We are traveling to Costa Rica in March. We have a book flight in and out of SJO but our airline changed the flight out of Costa Rica from leaving at 9:30 to leaving at 1:30 am. There are flights leaving from Liberia airport at noon. We will be traveling with my 9 year old daughter. I am unsure about flying during the middle of the night. Would it make more sense to drive to LIberia to get a better flight time or is the drive from Manuel Antonio to LIberia too long?

    1. I totally get where you are coming from about flying so late at night. The drive time between MA and Liberia is about 5 hours- if everything goes according to plan. If it were me, I’d probably keep the later flight in SJO because there is a lot less that can go wrong with transportation between MA and SJO. Let me know if you need anything else! ~Christa

  2. Hi Christa! Is it likely that taxis in Manuel Antonio would have a carseat option? We are travelling with our two year old but weren’t planning on bringing our own carseat….