Flying is one of the best ways to get around Costa Rica. Because the country is quite small, flights are short and not too expensive. Sansa and Nature Air are the country’s domestic airlines. In the high season (late Nov to late Apr), be sure to book reservations well in advance. Both companies have online booking systems (see websites, below).
Sansa (877/767-2672 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2290-4100 in Costa Rica) operates from a private terminal at San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport.
Nature Air (800/235-9272 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2299-6000 in Costa Rica) operates from the main terminal at San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport (see p. ###), as well as the smaller Pavas International Airport. However, after a deadly crash in late 2017, the airline has had issues insuring its planes and, at press time, its operations had been grounded. Check Nature Air’s website on the current situation.
Renting a car is perhaps the best way to see Costa Rica on your own terms, so long as you’re prepared for narrow roads riddled with potholes, one-lane bridges, muddy backroads, and sometimes frustrating behavior by other drivers. Be advised that driving in the Central Valley urban area can be a white-knuckle experience, with baffling street layouts, lanes that end without warning, two-way streets that become one-way, harrowing roundabouts, and lots of tight squeezes between cars jostling for position. But once you get out of the big city, you’ll find that driving is much easier.
Be forewarned, however: Although rental cars no longer bear special license plates, they are still readily identifiable to thieves and are frequently targeted. (Nothing is ever safe in a car in Costa Rica, although parking in guarded lots helps.) Transit Police also sometimes target tourists; never pay money directly to an officer who stops you for any traffic violation.
Before driving off with a rental car, be sure that you inspect the exterior and point out to the rental company representative every scratch, dent, tear, or any other damage. It’s a common practice with many Costa Rican car-rental companies to claim that you owe payment for minor dings and dents that the company finds when you return the car. Also, if you get into an accident, be sure that the rental company doesn’t try to bill you for a higher amount than the deductible on your rental contract.
These caveats aren’t meant to scare you off from driving in Costa Rica. Thousands of tourists rent cars here every year, and the large majority of them encounter no problems. Just keep your wits about you and guard against car break-ins. Also, keep in mind that four-wheel-drive vehicles are particularly useful in the rainy season (May to mid-Nov) and for navigating the bumpy, poorly paved roads year-round.
Among the major international agencies operating in Costa Rica are Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, National, Payless, and Thrifty. For a complete list of car-rental agencies and their contact information, see the “Getting Around” sections of major tourist destinations in this book.
Gasoline (Petrol) — Gasoline is sold as “regular” and “super.” Both are unleaded; super is higher octane. Diesel is available at almost every gas station as well. Most rental cars run on super, but always ask your rental agent what type of gas your car takes. When going off to remote places, try to leave with a full tank of gas, because gas stations can be hard to find. If you need to gas up in a small town, you can sometimes get gasoline from enterprising families who sell it by the liter from their houses.
Road Conditions — The awful road conditions throughout Costa Rica are legendary. The hot sun and hard rain take a hard toll on the condition of the roads. Even paved roads are often badly potholed, so stay alert. Conditions get especially tricky during the rainy season, when heavy rains and runoff can quickly destroy a stretch of pavement.
Note: Estimated driving times are listed throughout this book, but bear in mind that it might take longer than estimated to reach your destination during the rainy season, if roads have deteriorated or are being repaired, or when there is a sudden surge of traffic, which seems to happen often.
Route numbers are somewhat sporadically and arbitrarily used. You’ll also find frequent signs listing the number of kilometers to various towns or cities, but turnoffs are not always marked. The Waze app is incredibly useful for finding your way around, provided you have a data plan on your phone that you can use outside your home country.
Most car rental agencies offer the opportunity to rent out GPS units along with your car rental. Rates run between $8 and $15 per day. If you have your own GPS unit, several maps of Costa Rica are available. Although you still can’t simply enter a street address, most commercial GPS maps of Costa Rica feature hundreds of prominent points of interest (POI), and you should be able to plug in a POI close to your destination.
Renter’s Insurance — Third Party Waiver, or Supplemental Liability Insurance (SLI) is mandatory in Costa Rica, regardless of your home policy or credit card coverage.
Important note: Even if you hold your own car-insurance policy at home or use a credit card that provides coverage, this coverage doesn’t always extend abroad. Be sure to find out whether you’ll be covered in Costa Rica, whether your policy extends to all persons who will be driving the rental car, how much liability is covered in case an outside party is injured in an accident, and whether the type of vehicle you are renting is included under your contract.
Driving Rules — To drive in Costa Rica, you must carry a valid driver’s license from your home country, and you must have your passport. Seat belts are required for the driver and front-seat passengers. Motorcyclists must wear helmets. Police sometimes turn on their emergency lights for no apparent reason, so if there’s a police car behind you with its lights on, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being pulled over. Speed enforcement is lax, but sometimes police pull over every vehicle on a highway to check their papers. If you do get a speeding ticket, it can be charged to your credit card up to a year later if you leave the country without paying it.
Note: To reduce congestion and fuel consumption, a rotating ban on traffic takes place in the central core of San José Monday through Friday from 6am to 7pm. The ban affects cars with licenses ending in the digits 1 or 2 on Monday; 3 or 4 on Tuesday; 5 or 6 on Wednesday; 7 or 8 on Thursday; and 9 or 0 on Friday. If you are caught driving a car with the banned license plate during these hours on a specified day, you will be ticketed.
Breakdowns — Be warned that emergency services, both vehicular and medical, are extremely limited outside San José, and their availability is directly related to the remoteness of your location at the time of breakdown. You’ll find service stations spread over the entire length of the Inter-American Highway, and most of these have tow trucks and mechanics. The major towns of Puntarenas, Liberia, Quepos, San Isidro, Palmar, and Golfito all have hospitals, and most moderately sized cities and tourist destinations have some sort of clinic or healthcare provider.
If you’re involved in an accident, contact the National Insurance Institute (INS) at 800/800-8000, and the Transit Police (2222-9330). You can also call 911, where operators should be able to redirect your call to the appropriate agency.
Note that if you’re involved in a collision, drivers are not supposed to move their vehicles, even if they’re drivable and blocking the road, until Transit Police arrive to examine the scene. This rule was recently changed to make an exception for minor fender-benders where the two drivers agree to a resolution.
If you don’t speak Spanish, expect added difficulty in any emergency or stressful situation. Don’t expect that police officers, hospital personnel, service station personnel, or mechanics will speak English.
If your car breaks down and you’re unable to get well off the road, check your trunk for reflecting triangles. If you find some, place them as a warning for approaching traffic, arranged in a wedge that starts at the shoulder about 30m (98 ft.) back and nudges gradually toward your car.
People have been robbed by seemingly friendly Ticos who stop to give assistance, and there are reports of organized gangs who puncture tires of rental cars at rest stops or busy intersections, only to follow them, offer assistance, and make off with valuables. If you find yourself with a flat tire, try to ride it to a safe place. If that's not possible, try to pull over into a well-lit public spot. Keep the doors of the car locked and an eye on your belongings while changing the tire.
This is by far the most economical way to get around Costa Rica. Buses are inexpensive and relatively well maintained, and they go nearly everywhere. Local buses, the cheapest and slowest, stop frequently and are generally a bit dilapidated. Express buses run between San José and most beach towns and major cities; these tend to be newer units and more comfortable, although very few are so new or modern as to have restroom facilities, and they sometimes operate only on weekends and holidays.
Two companies run regular, fixed-schedule departures in passenger vans and small buses to most of the major tourist destinations in the country. Gray Line (800/719-3105 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2220-2126 in Costa Rica) has about 10 departures leaving San José each morning and heading or connecting to Jacó, Manuel Antonio, Liberia, Playa Hermosa, La Fortuna, Tamarindo, and playas Conchal and Flamingo. Return trips to San José are daily from these destinations and a variety of interconnecting routes. Interbus (4100-0888) has a similar route map and connections. Fares run between $44 and $84, depending on the destination.
Beware: Both of these companies offer pickup and drop-off at a long list of hotels. This means that if you are the first picked up or last dropped off, you might have to sit through a long period of subsequent stops before finally hitting the road or reaching your destination. For details on how to get to various destinations from San José, see the “Getting There” sections in the preceding chapters.
Taxis are readily available in San José and most popular destinations. In San José, your best bet is usually to hail one in the street. However, during rush hour and rainstorms, and in more remote destinations, it is probably best to call a cab. Throughout this book, numbers for local taxi companies are listed in the "Getting Around" sections. If no number is listed, ask at your hotel, or, if you're out and about, at the nearest restaurant or shop.
All city taxis, and even some rural cabs, have meters (marías), although drivers sometimes refuse to use them, particularly with foreigners. If this is the case, be sure to negotiate the price up front. Always try to get drivers to use the meter first (say, “Ponga la maría, por favor”). The official rate at this writing is C660 per kilometer ([bf]1/2 mile). If you have a rough idea of how far it is to your destination, you can estimate how much it should cost from these figures, or you can ask at your hotel how much your ride should cost. After 10pm, taxis are legally allowed to add a 20% surcharge. Some of the meters are programmed to include the extra charge, but be careful: Some drivers will use the evening setting during the daytime or (at night) to charge an extra 20% on top of the higher meter setting. The Uber smartphone app, while still in a legal gray area, tends to be significantly cheaper.
Although buses serve most towns in Costa Rica, service can be infrequent in the remote regions, so local people often hitchhike to get to their destinations sooner. If you’re driving a car, people will frequently ask you for a ride. Hitchhiking is not recommended on major roadways or in urban areas. In rural areas, it’s usually pretty safe. (However, women should be extremely cautious about hitchhiking anywhere in Costa Rica.) If you choose to thumb it, keep in mind that if a bus doesn’t go to your destination, there probably aren’t too many cars going there, either. Good luck.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.