Air

In Costa Rica, flight schedules change constantly and delays are frequent because of inclement weather. You should not arrange a domestic flight that makes a tight connection with an international flight. Domestic flights (excepting charter flights) originate and terminate in San José.

Airlines in Costa Rica

  • Costa Rica’s domestic airlines are Nature Air and Sansa. Sansa is linked with the Grupo TACA consortium.
  • Both airlines fly small passenger planes; check your allowance, as some allow no more than 12kg.
  • Space is limited and demand is high in the dry season, so reserve and pay for tickets in advance.

San José

Destination city

Arenal

Airline

Nature Air

San José

Destination city

Bocas del Toro

Airline

Nature Air

San José

Destination city

Bahía Drake

Airline

Nature Air, Sansa

San José

Destination city

Golfito

Airline

Nature Air, Sansa

San José

Destination city

Liberia

Airline

Nature Air, Sansa

San José

Destination city

Limón

Airline

Sansa

San José

Destination city

Palmar Sur

Airline

Sansa

San José

Destination city

Playa Nosara

Airline

Nature Air

San José

Destination city

Puerto Jiménez

Airline

Nature Air, Sansa

San José

Destination city

Quepos

Airline

Nature Air, Sansa

San José

Destination city

San Isidro

Airline

Sansa

San José

Destination city

Tamarindo

Airline

Nature Air, Sansa

San José

Destination city

Tambor

Airline

Sansa

San José

Destination city

Tortuguero

Airline

Nature Air, Sansa

Charters

  • Travelers on a larger budget or in a larger party should consider chartering a private plane, which is by far the quickest way to travel around the country.
  • It takes under 90 minutes to fly to most destinations, though weather conditions can significantly speed up or extend travel time.
  • The two main charter companies in the country are Nature Air and Alfa Romeo Aero Taxi. Both can be booked directly through the company, a tour agency or some high-end accommodation.
  • Luggage space on charters is extremely limited.

Bicycle

With an increasingly large network of paved secondary roads and heightened awareness of cyclists, Costa Rica is emerging as one of Central America’s most comfortable cycle-touring destinations. That said, many roads are narrow, potholed and winding and there are no designated cycle lanes, so there’s an element of risk involved.

Mountain bikes and beach cruisers can be rented in towns with a significant tourist presence for US$10 to US$20 per day. A few companies organize bike tours around Costa Rica.

Boat

  • In Costa Rica there are some regular coastal services, and safety standards are generally good.
  • Ferries cross the Golfo de Nicoya, connecting the central Pacific coast with the southern tip of the Península de Nicoya.
  • The Coonatramar ferry links the port of Puntarenas with Playa Naranjo five times daily. The ferry Naviera Tambor travels between Puntarenas and Paquera six times a day, for a bus connection to Montezuma.
  • On the Golfo Dulce a daily passenger ferry links Golfito with Puerto Jiménez on the Península de Osa. On the other side of the Península de Osa, water taxis connect Bahía Drake with Sierpe.
  • On the Caribbean coast there are various bus and boat services that run several times a day, linking Cariari and Tortuguero via La Pavona, while another links Parismina and Siquirres (transfer in Caño Blanco).
  • Boats ply the canals that run along the coast from Moín to Tortuguero; although no regular service exists, tourists can prebook water taxis to transport them around these waterways. Costa Rica and Nicaragua have disputed the San Juan as territory, so take your passport if you want to explore these waters. You can try to arrange boat transportation for Barra del Colorado from Tortuguero.

Bus

Local Buses

  • Local buses are a cheap and reliable way of getting around Costa Rica. Fares range from less than US$1 to around US$20.
  • San José is the transportation center for the country, though 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.
  • Buses can be very crowded but don’t usually pass up passengers on account of being too full. Note that there are usually no buses from Thursday to Saturday before Easter Sunday.
  • There are two types of bus: directo and colectivo. The directo buses should go from one destination to the next with few stops; the colectivos make more stops and are very slow going.
  • Trips longer than four hours usually include a rest stop as buses do not have toilets.
  • Space is limited on board, so if you have to check luggage be watchful. Theft from overhead racks is rampant, though it’s much less common than in other Central American countries.
  • Bus schedules fluctuate wildly, so always confirm the time when you buy your ticket. If you are catching a bus that picks you up somewhere along a road, get to the roadside early.
  • For information on departures from San José, see www.visitcostarica.com/en/costa-rica/bus-itinerary for a reasonably up-to-date copy of the master schedule, or check www.thebusschedule.com/cr for route planning. Another useful site for planning point-to-point bus trips is www.yoviajocr.com, which has a phone app as well.

Shuttle Buses

The tourist-van shuttle services (aka gringo buses) are a pricier alternative to the standard intercity buses. Shuttles are provided by Gray Line, Easy Ride, Monkey Ride, Tropical Tours and Interbus.

  • All five companies run overland transportation from San José to the most popular destinations, as well as directly between other destinations (see the websites for the comprehensive list).
  • These services will pick you up at your hotel, and reservations can be made online or through local travel agencies and hotel owners.
  • Popular destinations include Quepos, Monteverde/Santa Elena, Manuel Antonio, Jacó, Dominical, Uvita, Puerto Jiménez, Arenal, Montezuma and Mal País.
  • Easy Ride offers international services directly from Jacó, Tamarindo and Liberia to Granada and Managua in Nicaragua and from Monteverde to Managua.

Car & Motorcycle

  • Foreign drivers in Costa Rica are required to have a valid driver’s license from their home country. Many places will also accept an International Driving Permit (IDP), issued by the automobile association in your country of origin. After 90 days, however, you will need to get a Costa Rican driver’s license.
  • Gasoline (petrol) and diesel are widely available, and 24-hour service stations are along the Interamericana. At the time of research, fuel prices averaged just over US$1 per liter.
  • In more remote areas, fuel will be more expensive and might be sold at the neighborhood pulpería (corner store).
  • Spare parts may be hard to find, especially for vehicles with sophisticated electronics and emissions-control systems.

Rental & Insurance

  • There are car-rental agencies in San José and in popular tourist destinations on the Pacific coast.
  • All of the major international car-rental agencies have outlets in Costa Rica, though you can sometimes get better deals from local companies.
  • Due to road conditions, it's necessary to invest in a 4WD unless travel is limited to the Interamericana.
  • Many agencies will insist on 4WD in the rainy season, when driving through rivers is a matter of course.
  • To rent a car you'll need a valid driver’s license, a major credit card and a passport. The minimum age for car rental is 21 years. It’s possible to rent with a debit card, but only if you agree to pay full insurance and leave a deposit for traffic violations.
  • 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 vary considerably; on average you can expect to pay more than US$200 per week for a standard SUV, including kilometraje libre (unlimited mileage). Economy cars are much cheaper: as little as US$80 a week.
  • Costa Rican insurance is mandatory, even if you have insurance at home. Expect to pay about US$10 to US$30 per day. Many rental companies won’t rent you a car without it. The basic insurance that all drivers must buy is from a government monopoly, the Instituto Nacional de Seguros. This insurance does not cover your rental car at all, only damages to other people and their car or property. It is legal to drive with this insurance only, but it can be difficult to negotiate with a rental agency to allow you to drive away with just this minimum standard. Full insurance through the rental agency can be up to US$50 a day.
  • Some roads in Costa Rica are rough and rugged, meaning that minor accidents or car damage are common.
  • Note that if you pay basic insurance with a gold or platinum credit card, the card company may take responsibility for damage to the car, in which case you can forgo the cost of the full insurance. Make sure you verify this with your credit-card company ahead of time.
  • Most insurance policies do not cover damage caused by flooding or driving through a river, so be aware of the extent of your policy.
  • Rental rates fluctuate wildly, so shop around. Some agencies offer discounts for extended rentals. Note that rental offices at the airport charge a 12% fee in addition to regular rates.
  • Thieves can easily recognize rental cars. Never leave anything in sight in a parked car – nothing! – and remove all luggage from the trunk overnight. If possible, park the car in a guarded parking lot rather than on the street.
  • Motorcycles (including Harley-Davidsons) can be rented in San José and Escazú, but considering the condition of the roads it's not recommended.

Road Conditions & Hazards

  • The quality of roads varies, from the quite smoothly paved Interamericana to the barely passable, bumpy, potholed, rural back roads. Any can suffer from landslides, sudden flooding and fog.
  • Many roads are single lane and winding; mountain roads have huge gutters at the sides and lack hard shoulders; other roads are rock-strewn, dirt-and-mud affairs that traverse rivers.
  • Drive defensively and expect a variety of obstructions, from cyclists and pedestrians to broken-down cars and cattle. Unsigned speed bumps are placed on some stretches of road.
  • Roads around major tourist areas are adequately marked; all others are not.
  • Always ask about road conditions before setting out, especially in the rainy season, when a number of roads become impassable.

Road Rules

  • There are speed limits of 100km/h to 120km/h or less on highways; limits will be posted. The minimum driving speed on highways is 40km/h. The speed limit is 60km/h or less on secondary roads.
  • Traffic police use radar, and speed limits are sometimes enforced with speeding tickets.
  • Tickets are issued to drivers operating vehicles without a seat belt.
  • It’s illegal to stop in an intersection or make a right turn on a red.
  • At unmarked intersections, yield to the car on your right.
  • Drive on the right. Passing is allowed only on the left.
  • If you are issued with a ticket, you have to pay the fine at a bank; instructions are given on the ticket. If you are driving a rental car, the rental company may be able to arrange your payment for you – the amount of the fine should be on the ticket. A portion of the money from these fines goes to a children’s charity.
  • Police have no right to ask for money, and they shouldn’t confiscate a car unless the driver cannot produce a license and ownership papers, the car lacks license plates, the driver is drunk or the driver has been involved in an accident causing serious injury.
  • If you are driving and see oncoming cars with headlights flashing, it often means that there is a road problem or a radar speed trap ahead. Slow down immediately.

Driving Through Rivers

Driving in Costa Rica will likely necessitate a river crossing at some point. Unfortunately, too many travelers have picked up their off-road skills from watching TV, and every season Ticos get a good chuckle out of the number of dead vehicles they help wayward travelers fish out of waterways.

If you’re driving through water, follow the rules below:

Only do this in a 4WD, with 4WD turned on Don’t drive through a river in a car. (It may seem ridiculous to have to say this, but it’s attempted all the time.) Getting out of a steep, gravel riverbed requires a 4WD. Besides, car engines flood very easily.

Check the depth of the water before driving through To accommodate an average rental 4WD, the water should be no deeper than above the knee. In a sturdier vehicle (Toyota 4Runner or equivalent), water can be waist deep. If you’re nervous, wait for a local car to come along, and follow their lead.

The water should be calm If the river is gushing so that there are white crests on the water, do not try to cross. The force of the water will not only flood the engine but could also sweep the car away.

Drive very, very slowly The pressure of driving through a river too quickly will send the water right into the engine and will impair the electrical system. Keep steady pressure on the accelerator so that the tailpipe doesn’t fill with water, but go slowly; if driving a stick shift, go in first gear.

Err on the side of caution Car-rental agencies in Costa Rica do not insure for water damage, so ruining a car in a river can come at an extremely high cost.

Flat-Tire Scam

For years Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría has suffered from a scam involving sudden flat tires on rental cars. Though it's commonly reported, it continues to happen.

It goes like this: after you pick up a rental car and drive out of the city, the car gets a flat; as you pull over to fix it, the disabled vehicle is approached by a group of locals, ostensibly to help. There is inevitably some confusion with the changing of the tire, and in the commotion you are relieved of your wallet, luggage or other valuables.

This incident has happened enough times to suggest that you should be very wary if somebody pulls over to help after you get a flat on a recently rented car. Keep your wallet and passport on your person whenever you get out of a car.

Hitchhiking

Hitchhiking is never entirely safe, and we don’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. Solo women should use even greater caution.

Hitchhiking in Costa Rica is unusual on main roads that have frequent buses. On minor rural roads, hitchhiking is more common. To get picked up, most locals wave down passing cars. If you get a ride, offer to pay when you arrive by saying '¿Cuánto 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 Transportation

Bus

Local buses operate chiefly in San José, Puntarenas, San Isidro de El General, Golfito and Puerto Limón, connecting urban and suburban areas. Most local buses pick up passengers on the street and on main roads. For years these buses were converted school buses imported from the US, but they have slowly been upgraded and are now mainly coaches.

Taxi

In San José, taxis have marías (meters) and it is illegal for drivers not to use them. Outside San José, however, most taxis don’t have meters and fares tend to be agreed upon in advance. Bargaining is quite acceptable.

In some towns there are colectivos (taxis that several passengers are able to share). Although colectivos are becoming increasingly difficult to find, the basic principle is that the driver charges a flat fee (usually about US$1) to take passengers from one end of town to the other.

In rural areas, 4WDs are often used as taxis and are a popular means for surfers (and their boards) to travel from their accommodations to the break. Prices vary wildly depending on how touristy the area is, though generally speaking a 10-minute ride costs between US$5 and US$20.

Taxi drivers are not normally tipped unless they assist with your luggage or have provided an above-average service.

Using Taxis In Remote Areas

Taxis are considered a form of public transportation in remote areas. They can be hired by the hour, 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 taxis varies from basic sedans held together by rust to fully equipped 4WDs with air-con. In some cases, taxis are pick-up 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 whomever is offering – ask at pulperías (corner stores).