A small country like Costa Rica appears easy to traverse -- until you toss in a few mountain ranges, volcanoes and pothole-scarred roads. Then what seemed so small can feel like it goes on forever.
Costa Rica is slightly smaller than West Virginia in square miles, and its primary transportation options are flights, buses and rental cars. Taxis and ferries can provide limited service too.
Flying to and Around Costa Rica
Travelers flying to Costa Rica will arrive at the international airports in San Jose or Liberia. Many major U.S. airlines fly to Costa Rica, including United, American and Delta. U.S. discounters also serve the country, including JetBlue and Spirit. International airlines include Air Canada, TACA, Avianca and Aeromexico.Domestic flights are on two airlines: Nature Air and Sansa. Domestic flights take you to Liberia and about a dozen Costa Rican airports, including those at Arenal, Tortuguero, Tamarindo and Golfito; Nature Air also flies to neighboring Panama and Nicaragua. Depending on where you go, domestic flights take between 25 and 60 minutes.
If you plan to fly domestically in Costa Rica, keep these tips in mind:
- You'll be flying on small planes, and luggage weight limits are strictly enforced -- usually between 15 and 30 pounds per person for a checked bag and 10 pounds for a carry-on. You can purchase a pricier ticket to grant yourself a heavier weight limit; otherwise, you'll pay per-pound overage fees.
- Expect bumpy flights and schedule changes because of frequent storms, which are common in tropical countries. (Rains that are a breeze for a large aircraft to handle can often ground a small plane.) Make sure you leave ample time between domestic and international flights.
- Reserve flights well in advance. Planes have a limited number of seats -- 14 to 19, on average -- and sell out quickly during the most popular seasons.
Sansa Regional and Aerotec offer charter service for groups. Aerotec has helicopter charters too.
Costa Rica Air Travel Resources:
Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Renting a vehicle gives you the freedom to explore Costa Rica on your own schedule, but it's not always an easy ride. Roads -- especially but not exclusively in the mountains -- can be gravelly, curvy, pothole-pocked and narrow. Rentals are expensive, but investing in an even pricier four-wheel-drive vehicle is well worth the additional cost, especially during the rainy season of May to November (the wettest months are September and October), when you might be crossing streams or muddy pits.
Rental car agencies are at the airport (where you may pay surcharges) and in the most popular tourist towns, such as Tamarindo and Quepos. International agencies like Dollar, Budget and Avis and local agencies like Poas and Mapache are equally omnipresent, though the local outlets may be cheaper.
Some additional tips:
- Foreigners must be 21 years old to drive in Costa Rica.
- Your regular driver's license is all you'll need to rent a vehicle.
- Most rental vehicles have manual transmissions; automatic vehicles are available at additional cost.
- Purchasing rental car insurance is also often mandatory. Given how rough the roads are, also consider buying a collision damage waiver.
- A GPS unit can be very helpful.
- Fuel is widely available at 24-hour gas stations along major roads. Don't be alarmed if you're in a rural region and the only gas available is out of a drum at a local grocery store; it's legit.
Costa Rica Car Rental Resources:
Costa Rica by Bus
Local buses may not be the most efficient mode of transport in Costa Rica, but they are cheap and reliable, and cover the country extensively. Buses are marked "directo" (direct service, with fewer stops) and "collectivo" (more frequent stops, and slightly cheaper); always try to take a directo but don't be too hopeful about it actually providing direct service.
San Jose is the hub for Costa Rica's buses. There is no one central station; buses depart from various terminals or roadside stops around the city. Download a bus schedule from the Costa Rica Tourist Board website.
Arrive at your stop early -- especially if you're picking up a bus along a rural road. Schedules tend to be approximate.
- If you're taking a bus on a Friday through Monday or around a holiday, get to the stop extra-early; buses can fill to standing room only during these peak times.
- Buses generally do not have bathrooms; trips of under four hours don't usually make a stop.
- Costa Rica is a relatively safe country, but theft is not uncommon on buses. Keep your most important documents with you, and if you check luggage, watch to ensure it's not taken by someone else.
Shuttle vans such as Easy Ride not only can transport you from airport to hotel (and vice versa) but also between major tourist sites. You can reserve vans for private charters or tag along on shared departures.
Costa Rica Bus Travel Resources:
Costa Rica by Taxi
Taxis can be hired for short trips, by the hour, or for a half or full day. In fact, many locals consider taxis to be a form of public transportation, and sharing taxis is common. In the cities, legit cabs have meters and are painted red with a yellow triangle on the side.
- Negotiate a flat fee, especially for longer trips; meters are often just used during short hops.
- If you're going to rent a taxi for a half or full day, consider hiring a private driver. The rate is usually comparable, and you often get a nicer vehicle and more of a guided trip.
- Tips are only expected if the driver handles luggage or provides better-than-usual service.
Costa Rica by Ferry or Water Taxi
Ferry service along the central Pacific coast connects a limited number of cities -- Puntarenas with Playa Naranjo or Vaquero, and Golfito with Puerto Jimenez and Playa Zancudo on the Peninsula de Osa. Countermark and Ferry Peninsular provide service.On the Caribbean coast, combo boat/bus service connects such spots as Cariari and Tortuguero and Parismina and Siquirres. You can also arrange for private boat service between different cities, including those on canals along the coast from Moin to Tortuguero.
Costa Rica Ferry Resources:
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--written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma