When traveling to Costa Rica one of the main questions we get asked is “What are the roads like?”  While we have no subways or trains in Costa Rica we do have many other options for getting around.  Road conditions can vary depending on the location, weather, and time of year.   Many people think that it’s easy to rent a car and drive.  With that being said, sounds easy enough.  Not so.  In the main capital San Jose for instance you can only drive on certain days that correspond with your license plate unless you are providing a service  like taxi or private transportation with special permits.  You will also need to consider the time of year as road conditions can change especially during rainy season.  Roads can easily be closed due to mud slides.  Another factor is the traffic.  During special days or certain times of the day the roads are one way only.  This helps the flow of traffic especially during holiday events, but can also hinder you if you wanted to use that route which is now closed in that direction.  Alternatives are available but will take longer in travel time.

In our post will provide you various ways to get around the country and driving tips so you can better decide which option of transportation works best for you.

Tambor ferry in Puntarenas

Tambor Ferry in Puntarenas

6 Transportation Tips for Driving in Costa Rica

Flying

In Costa Rica we have 2 international airports, one in the north end Liberia which is Guanacaste, and one more centrally located in Alajuela close to San Jose.  We also have 2 domestic carriers Nature’s Air & Sansa Air.  These smaller planes can be a great alternative in saving time getting from one end of the country to the other but not always the cheapest option.  For example, if you are staying in La Fortuna and then plan to go to the Osa Peninsula area in the south end of the country.  What could take 6-8 hours of driving time might be only a 50-minute flight to Puerto Jiménez.

Many people I find make the mistake of booking their vacation based on the airline package.  Sometimes flying into Liberia and then taking a long winding bus ride through the countryside for more than 3 hours one way depending on your final destination makes no sense at all.  This would depend on the cost & of course if you don’t mind spending a lot of time riding on a bus.  High season in costa Rica is from Dec 1 – April 30.

Nature’s Air

Domestic flights can sure be a time saver especially if you are traveling from one end of the country to the other.    Keep in mind the season you are travel (high or low) will affect the cost.  Another thing to consider if the weight restriction.  Some of the accessible locations via Nature’s Air are Tortuguero, Limon, Tamarindo, Drakes Bay to name a few.  Check out the map here Natures Air to see more places.  It will give you a good indication from flying to driving times.

Sansa Air

Some of the benefits of taking a domestic fly are time saver, check in time is less, and you can usually get an amazing view of the country from the air.  You can also use Sansa for shipping cargo like boxes, golf equipment or bicycles.

Both domestic airlines are great to use, easy to access, and make travel time more enjoyable.

 

 

[photo Nature’s Air]

Private Transportation or Shuttle

Private or shared shuttle service is best if you pre-arranged transportation prior to your vacation.  Depending on your needs both are good options.  While private transportation in Costa Rica will deliver you door to door a probably stop for a few essential things if you make arrangements prior, a shared shuttle service is more on schedule making a few stops for passengers and don’t actually allow quick stops for groceries.   Think about the group you are traveling with.   Would you like to be all together or share a large bus with strangers waiting for everybody to board?  The difference between the two basically comes down to price & flexibility.  Vans usually hold between 10-16 passengers with comfortable seating and air conditioning.  If you’re traveling with lots of luggage be sure to let your driver know as they may need to store some luggage on the roof racks.

There are many tour operators in Costa Rica that provide transportation services as well as Interbus which is a shared shuttle company.

private shuttle van

Ferry

You can pick up the Ferry at end of the point in Puntarenas.  This is a great option for heading across the Nicoya Gulf to places like Tambor, Santa Teresa, Nosara, and other locations on the Pacific coast of the country.  Tickets can be purchased across the road from the ferry boats.  The prices are really quite reasonable.  Click here for schedule & prices.  If you like to take your car across you can pay extra and wait in a line along the boulevard.  Keep in mind on busy days you will probably need to get there early and cannot make reservations.  If you decide to drive around the gulf instead of taking the ferry to cross the roads are not the greatest which will result in longer times getting to your destination as well as cost more in gas.

ferry schedule

Rental Car

Should I rent a car in Costa Rica?  To maximize your time in Costa Rica renting a car seems like the obvious choice.  Check with your insurance company to see if you are covered driving in another country.  Before agreeing to signing that rental contract make sure it included insurance.  The prices can often be more if they require additional coverage.  If you haven’t checked this out prior to booking on line the end result when you pick up your car on vacation can be a lot more than expected.  Another thing to consider when renting a car in Costa Rica is most companies on have vehicles with manual transmission.  If you’ve never driven a stick before you might reconsider.  Costa Rica has many mountains in fact 60% of the country is mountainous making it difficult stopping on hills.

Rental companies will suggest you purchase a GPS to help guide you to your destinations.  We actually suggest you use an app called “WAZE”.  You can use this app walking or driving.  Plug in your location and the destination which you are traveling to.  The app will even have voice commands making things easier to follow.  Roads signs in Costa Rica are all in Spanish.  Brush up on your Spanish so you know the basics.  With that being said you have to watch out for obstacles such as horses or cows, motorcycles who drive anywhere, winding roads with no curb protection, and then there is the mud slides during rainy season along with thick fog in some locations.

Rental Companies

Below is a small list of some of the car rental companies in Costa Rica.

  • Vamos Rent A Car (Alajuela, Guanacaste)
  • Budget Car Rental Costa Rica (Quepos, Puntarenas)
  • Adobe Rent A Car (Puerto Viejo)
  • Avis Rent A Car (Heredia)
  • National Car Rental (Guanacaste)
driving hwy 27 in Costa Rica

driving on the Pan America Highway

Taxi

There are taxis at each airport with the official color of orange or red.  The orange vehicles are designated for the airport transportation only and red taxis you’ll find in each province of the country.  Each province has their own taxi which has a yellow triage on the door with a number & the province which it serves.  These are the official taxis so please keep in mind there are pirate taxis (or people telling you they are a taxi service).  For tourist’s safety only use an official taxi company.   If you choose this option for transportation make sure to discuss price prior to getting in and the meter should be turned on.  If you are traveling far distances, you may be better off hiring private or shuttle service.  The orange taxi for the airport usually charge more for their services.  Both you will find located once you pass through the exit in the airport to the outside.  Reasons not to use a pirate taxi are insurance, safety, and car may not be in good condition.  Another tip is to make sure whatever province you are in you use their taxi cab.

orange airport taxis at San Jose

San Jose Airport

Local Bus

While Costa Rica has local buses going to lots of destinations this may take you a few hours or pretty much all of your day depending how far you are traveling.  The cost is reactively inexpensive way to get around.  You will find a lot of locals use this means of transportation.  This is also a great way to meet people and learn some Spanish along the drive.  A few tips to note about taking the bus are you need local currency which is colones, the driver dose have change on board, and the bus may not keep to the exact schedule or keep the website up to date so make sure to arrive early.

Enjoyed reading this post?  Share your driving experiences with us in the comments below.