Juan Santamaría International Airport ((tel) 2437-2626 for 24-hr. airport information; www.fly2sanjose.com; airport code SJO) is near the city of Alajuela, about 20 minutes from downtown San José. A taxi or Uber into town costs between C10,000 and C25,000, and a bus is only C540. The Alajuela–San José buses run frequently and will drop you off anywhere along Paseo Colón or at a station near the Parque de la Merced (downtown, btw. calles 12 and 14 and avs. 2 and 4). There are two lines: Tuasa ((tel) 2442-6900) buses are red; Station Wagon ((tel) 2442-3226) buses are yellow/orange. At the airport, the bus stop is directly in front of the main terminal, beyond the parking structure. Be sure to ask whether the bus is going to San José, or you’ll end up in Alajuela. If you have a lot of luggage, you probably should take a cab.
Most car-rental agencies have desks and offices at the airport, but if you’re planning to spend a few days in San José itself, I think a car is a liability. (If you’re heading off immediately to the beach, though, it’s much easier to pick up your car here than at a downtown office.)
Tip: Chaos and confusion greet arriving passengers the second they step out of the terminal. You face a gauntlet of aggressive taxi drivers, shuttle drivers waving signs, and people offering to carry your bags. Fortunately, the official airport taxi service (see below) has a booth inside the calm area just before the terminal exit. Keep a very watchful eye on your bags: Thieves have historically preyed on newly arrived passengers and their luggage. You should tip porters about C200 to C300 per bag.
In terms of taxis, you should stick with the official airport taxi service, Taxis Unidos Aeropuerto ((tel) 2221-6865; www.taxiaeropuerto.com), which operates a fleet of orange vans and sedans. This service has a kiosk in the no man’s land just outside the exit door for arriving passengers. Here they will assign you a cab. These taxis use meters, and fares to most downtown hotels should run between C15,000 and C30,000. Despite the fact that Taxis Unidos has an official monopoly at the airport, you will usually find a handful of regular cabs (in traditional red sedans) and “pirate” cabs, driven by freelancers using their own vehicles. You certainly could use either of these latter options (“pirate” cabs tend to charge a dollar or two less), but I highly recommend using the official service for safety and standardized prices. Ordering a car with the smart phone app Uber is another option, and rates are often significantly less than official taxis.
You have several options for exchanging money when you arrive at the airport—but you’ll get the best rate if you exchange your money at a bank, and until then you’ll find that almost all businesses accept dollars. An ATM in the baggage claim area is connected to both the PLUS and Cirrus networks. A Global Exchange ((tel) 2431-0686; www.globalexchange.co.cr) money exchange booth is just as you clear Customs and Immigration. It’s open whenever flights arrive; however, it exchanges at more than 10% below the official rate. A branch of Banco de San José is inside the main terminal, on the second floor across from the airline check-in counters, as well as a couple more ATMs up there. Most taxis and all rental-car agencies accept U.S. dollars.
Tip: There’s really no pressing need to exchange money the minute you arrive. Taxis Unidos accepts dollars. You can wait until after you settle into your hotel, and see if the hotel will give you a good rate of exchange, or use one of the many downtown banks or ATMs.
If you arrive in San José via small commuter or charter airline, you might find yourself at the Tobías Bolaños International Airport in Pavas ((tel) 2232-2820; airport code SYQ). This small airport is on the western side of downtown San José, about 10 minutes by car from the center. The airport has no car-rental desks, so unless you have a car or a driver waiting for you here, you will have to take a cab into town, which should cost between C10,000 and C20,000.
Additionally, many long-distance buses heading to Guanacaste, the Pacific Coast, and Nicaragua depart from the Terminal 7-10 ((tel) 2519-9740; www.terminal7-10.com) at Ave. 7 and Calle 10 in Barrio Mexico, across from the old Líbano movie theater.
If arriving by car, you’ll probably enter San José via the Inter-American Highway. If you arrive from Nicaragua and the north, the highway brings you first past the airport and the city of Alajuela, to the western edge of downtown, right at the end of Paseo Colón, where it hits Parque La Sabana. The area is well marked with large road signs that direct you either to downtown (CENTRO) or to the western suburbs of Rohrmoser, Pavas, and Escazú. If you’re heading toward downtown, follow the flow of traffic and turn left on Paseo Colón.
If entering from Panama and the south, things get a little more complicated. The Inter-American Highway first passes through the city of Cartago and then through the San José suburbs of Curridabat and San Pedro before reaching downtown. This route is relatively well marked, and if you stick with the major flow of traffic, you should find San José without any problem.
The Costa Rican National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR; (tel) 2234-6222; www.canatur.org) has a desk at the Juan Santamaría International Airport, in the baggage claims area, just before Customs. You can pick up maps and brochures, and they might even lend you a phone to make or confirm a reservation. It’s usually open for all arriving flights.
Searching for Addresses
This is one of the most confusing aspects of visiting Costa Rica in general, and San José in particular. Although downtown San José often has street addresses and building numbers for locations, they are almost never used. Addresses are given as a set of coordinates such as “Calle 3 between avenidas Central and 1.” It’s then up to you to locate the building within that block, keeping in mind that the building could be on either side of the street. Many addresses include additional information, such as the number of meters from a specified intersection or some other well-known landmark. (These “meter measurements” are not precise but are a good way to give directions to a taxi driver. In basic terms, 100m=1 block, 200m=2 blocks, and so on.) These landmarks are what become truly confusing for visitors to the city because they are often simply restaurants, bars, and shops that would be familiar only to locals.
Things get even more confusing when the landmark in question no longer exists. The classic example of this is “the Coca-Cola,” one of the most common landmarks used in addresses in the blocks surrounding San José’s main market. The trouble is, the Coca-Cola bottling plant that it refers to is no longer there; the edifice is long gone, and one of the principal downtown bus depots stands in its place. Old habits die hard, though, and the address description remains. You might also try to find someplace near the antiguo higuerón (“old fig tree”) in San Pedro. This tree was felled over a decade ago. In outlying neighborhoods, addresses can become long directions, such as “50m ([bf]1/2 block) south of the old church, then 100m (1 block) east, then 20m (two buildings) south.” Luckily for visitors, most downtown addresses are more straightforward.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how letter carriers manage, well, welcome to the club. Some folks actually get their mail delivered this way, but most people and businesses in San José use a post office box. This is called an apartado and is abbreviated “Apdo.” or “A.P.” in mailing addresses.