Ferries cross the Golfo de Nicoya connecting the central Pacific coast with the southern tip of Península de Nicoya. The Countermark ferry (661 1069; passenger/car US$2/ 9) links the port of Puntarenas with Playa Naranjo four times daily. The Ferry Peninsular (641 0515; passenger/car US$2/9) travels between Puntarenas and Vaquero every two hours, for a bus connection to Montezuma.
On the Golfo Dulce, a daily passenger ferry links Golfito with Puerto Jiménez on the Península de Osa and a weekday water taxi travels to and from Playa Zancudo. On the other side of the Península de Osa, water taxis connect Bahía Drake with Sierpe.
On the Caribbean coast, there is a bus and boat service which runs several times a day, linking Cariari and Tortuguero, while another links Parismina and Siquirres. Boats also ply the canals that run along the coast from Moín to Tortuguero, although no regular service exists. A daily water taxi connects Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí with Trinidad on the Río San Juan. (The San Juan is Nicaraguan territory, so take your passport.) You can try to arrange boat transport in any of these towns for Barra del Colorado.
Hitchhiking is never entirely safe in any country, and Lonely Planet doesn’t recommend it. Travelers who hitchhike should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do hitchhike will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go. Single women should use even greater discretion.
Hitching in Costa Rica is not common on main roads that have frequent buses. On minor rural roads, hitching is easier. To get picked up, most locals wave to cars in a friendly manner. If you get a ride, offer to pay when you arrive: ¿Cuanto le debo? (How much do I owe you?) Your offer may be waved aside, or you may be asked to help with money for gas.
Local buses are the best (if rather slow) way of getting around Costa Rica. You can take one just about everywhere, and they’re frequent and cheap, with the longest domestic journey out of San José costing less than US$10.
San José is the transportation center for the country, but there is no central terminal. Bus offices are scattered around the city: some large bus companies have big terminals that sell tickets in advance, while others have little more than a stop – sometimes unmarked. (One local bus ‘station’ in San José consists of a guy with a clipboard sitting on a lawn chair.)
Normally there’s room for everyone on a bus, and if there isn’t, someone will squeeze you on anyhow. The exceptions are days before and after a major holiday, especially Easter, when buses are ridiculously full. (Note that there are no buses on the Thursday to Saturday before Easter Sunday.) There are two types of bus: directo and colectivo. The directo buses presumably go from one destination to the next with few stops. If only this were so! It is against the instinctual nature of Costa Rican bus drivers not to pick up every single roadside passenger. (Directo buses charge more for this largely nonexistent nonstop service.) As for the colectivo, you know you’re on one when the kids outside are outrunning your bus.
Trips longer than four hours usually include a rest stop (buses do not have bathrooms). Space is limited on board, so if you have to check luggage watch that it gets loaded and that it isn’t ‘accidentally’ given to someone else at intermediate stops. Keep your day pack with important documents on you at all times. Thefts from overhead racks are rampant.
Bus schedules may fluctuate, so always confirm the time when you buy your ticket. If you are catching a bus that picks up somewhere along a road, get to the roadside early. Departure times are estimated and if the bus comes early, it will leave early.
For information on departures from San José, pay a visit to the ICT office to pick up the sort of up-to-date copy of the master schedule, which is also on-line at www.visitcostarica.com. Another more thorough but less reliable source of bus schedules and fares is Costa Rica by Bus, a self-published e-book that is available at www.costaricabybus.com.
Local buses operate chiefly in San José, Puntarenas, San Isidro, Golfito and Puerto Limón, connecting urban and suburban areas. Most local buses pick up passengers on the street and on main roads. The vehicles in service are usually converted school buses imported from the USA, and they are often packed.
If you plan to drive in Costa Rica, your driver’s license from home is normally accepted for up to 90 days. Many places will also accept an International Driving Permit (IDP), issued by the automobile association in your country of origin. After 90 days, you will need to get a Costa Rican driver’s license. Most travelers fly into Costa Rica and then rent a car or motorcycle.
Gasoline (petrol) and diesel are widely available and 24-hour service stations dot the entire stretch of the Interamericana. The price of gas is about US$0.65 per liter, although it can fluctuate up to US$1 per liter. In more remote areas, fuel will likely be more expensive and might be sold from a drum at the neighborhood pulpería (corner grocery store); look for signs that say ‘Se vende gasolina.’ Spare parts may be hard to find, especially for vehicles with sophisticated electronics and emissions-control systems.
Most car-rental agencies can be found in San José and in popular tourist destinations on the Pacific coast (Tamarindo, Jacó, Quepos and Puerto Jiménez). Car rental is not cheap, and if you are going to be doing even a small amount of driving, invest in a 4WD. Many agencies will insist on 4WD for extended travel, especially in the rainy season, when driving through rivers is a matter of course. Ordinary cars are pointless as soon as you leave the Interamericana. Most rental vehicles are manual shift.
To rent a car you need a valid driver’s license, a major credit card and a passport. The minimum age for car rental is 21. When reserving a car, ask for written confirmation. Carefully inspect rented cars for minor damage, and make sure that any damage is noted on the rental agreement. If your car breaks down, call the rental company. Don’t attempt to get the car fixed yourself; most companies won’t reimburse expenses without prior authorization.
Prices start at US$450 per week for a 4WD, including kilometraje libre (unlimited mileage). Basic insurance will cost an additional US$12 to US$20 per day and rental companies won’t rent you a car without it. The roads in Costa Rica are rough and rugged, meaning that minor accidents or damage to the car is not uncommon. You can pay an extra fee (about US$10 per day) for a Collision Damage Waiver, or CDW, which covers the driver and a third party with a US$750 deductible. Above and beyond this, you can purchase full insurance, which is expensive, but it’s worth it. Note that if you pay with a gold or platinum credit card, the company will usually take responsibility for damages to the car, in which case you can forego the cost of the full insurance. Make sure you verify this with your credit card company ahead of time. Finally, note that most insurance policies do not cover damages caused by flooding or driving through a river (even though this is sometimes necessary in Costa Rica!), so be aware of the extent of your policy.
Rental rates fluctuate wildly, so make sure you shop around before you commit to anything. Some agencies offer discounts if you reserve online or if you rent for long periods of time. Note that rental offices at the airport charge a 12% fee in addition to regular rates.
Thieves can easily recognize rental cars, and many thefts have occurred from them. Never leave anything in sight in a parked car – nothing! – and remove all luggage from the trunk overnight. Park the car in a guarded parking lot rather than on the street.
All of the major international rental agencies have outlets in Costa Rica, but you can usually get a better deal from a local company:
More than 200 tour operators are recognized by the Costa Rican tourist board (ICT), with the majority based in San José. Scores of tour operators in North America and Europe also run tours to Costa Rica. Many outfits will arrange customized itineraries.
There are tour companies that cater for gays and lesbians and disabled people. Many companies also offer natural-history tours or multiactivity tours.
Ecole Travel (223 2240; www.ecoletravel.com)
Green Tropical Tours (229 4192, 380 1536; www.greentropical.com)
Swiss Travel Service (282 4898; www.swisstravelcr.com)
Condor Journeys & Adventures (in the UK 01700-841 318; www.condorjourneys-adventures.com)
Journey Latin America (JLA; in the UK 020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk)
Last Frontiers (in the UK01296-653 000; www.lastfrontiers.co.uk)
International Adventures, Ltd (800-990 9738; www.intladventures.com)
Nature Expeditions (800-869 0639; www.naturexp.com)
Pure Trek (866 569 5723; www.puretrekcostarica.com)
Taxis are considered a form of public transport in remote areas that lack good public-transportation networks. They can be hired by the hour, the half-day or full day, or you can arrange a flat fee for a trip.
Meters are not used on long trips, so arrange the fare ahead of time. Fares can fluctuate due to worse-than-expected road conditions and bad weather in tough-to-reach places. The condition of cabs varies wildly, from basic sedans held together by rust to fully equipped 4WDs with air-con. In some cases, taxis are pickup trucks with seats built into the back. Most towns will have at least one licensed taxi, but in some remote villages you may have to get rides from whoever is offering. (Ask at pulperías.)
Hiring a car with a driver can cost the same or less than renting a car for the day, and it allows someone else (who knows the roads) to do the driving while you enjoy the scenery.
In San José taxis have meters, called marías, but many drivers try to get out of using them, particularly if you don’t speak Spanish. (It is illegal not to use the meter.) Outside of San José most taxis don’t have meters, and fares tend to be agreed upon in advance; some bargaining is quite acceptable.
In some towns, there are colectivo taxis that several passengers are able to share. Manuel Antonio and Golfito have a collective system in which drivers charge passengers a flat fee of about US$0.50 to take them from one end of town to the other. This service is getting more difficult to find in Manuel Antonio, where foreign travelers seem reticent to share transportation. (Come on folks, loosen up a bit!)
In rural areas, 4WD jeeps are often used as taxis. A 10-minute ride in one will usually cost about US$2. Taxi drivers are not normally tipped unless they assist with your luggage or have provided an above-average service.
Both airlines fly small passenger planes, and you’re allocated a baggage allowance of no more than 12kg. If the flight is full, your surfboard or golf clubs might not make it on; even if they do, you’ll likely be paying extra for excess weight. NatureAir flies from Tobías Bolaños airport, 8km west of the center of San José in the suburb of Pavas. Sansa operates out of the blue building to the right of the international terminal at Juan Santamaría airport. Both airlines fly 14- and 19-passenger aircraft and offer a bumpy ride. These services aren’t for people who have phobias about flying. Space is limited and demand is high in the dry season, so reserve and pay for tickets in advance.
Schedules change constantly and delays are frequent because of inclement weather. Be patient: Costa Rica has small planes and big storms; you don’t want to be in them at the same time. You should not arrange a domestic flight that makes a tight connection with an international flight back home.
All domestic flights originate and terminate at San José. High-season fares are listed throughout this book. Destinations reached from San José include Bahía Drake, Barra del Colorado, Golfito, Liberia, Coto 47/Neily, Palmar Sur, Playa Nosara, Playa Sámara/Carrillo, Playa Tamarindo, Puerto Jiménez, Quepos, Tambor and Tortuguero.
Tobías Bolaños airport in Pavas caters to small aircraft that can be chartered to fly just about anywhere in the country. Fares start at about US$300 per hour for three- or four-seat planes, and it takes 40 to 90 minutes to fly to most destinations. You also have to pay for the return flight. You should be aware that luggage space is extremely limited.
Many tour agencies can book charters, but you can book directly as well.
Mountain bikes and beach cruisers can be rented in towns with a significant tourist presence at US$8 to US$15 per day. A few companies organize bike tours around Costa Rica.