Costa Rica has fewer than 5 million people, yet has a surprisingly reliable transportation system. Expats shouldn't have any difficulty traveling around the country.
However, some transportation options make more sense than others. Stay flexible with your travel plans, and anticipate a tradeoff between cost and convenience.
Here are seven important things to know about transportation in Costa Rica. Just remember that the best transportation options for people moving to San Jose may not be ideal for people in other parts of the country.
Most Americans will notice that there are far fewer cars on the roads in Costa Rica than in the United States. According to the World Bank, there are four times more cars per capita in the United States than in Costa Rica.
Fewer Costa Ricans own cars primarily due to steep excise taxes on imported vehicles. The import tax for cars less than three years old is 52.29%, which significantly drives up the costs.
Most Costa Ricans rely on the public bus and railroad systems to get around. Roads aren't well-maintained for passenger vehicles, and car ownership rates remain low. Large buses can usually travel without many issues, but the potholes can destroy a regular passenger vehicle if drivers aren’t careful.
This doesn't mean that you can't own your own car. In fact, a car can be very handy in more secluded parts of the country. Just be sure to take these two factors into consideration:
Familiarize yourself with the roads in any areas that you plan to drive in.
Locals and tourists alike depend on taxis. Fortunately, there are over 14,000 taxis in Costa Rica.
But while there are great taxi drivers in almost every city, they don't all follow the same protocols.
Here are some issues to be aware of:
Taxis are cost-efficient and reliable, but you should understand how they work before using one.
Costa Rica has an extensive public bus system that goes throughout the country for as little as a dollar or two.
However, taking the public bus also has its drawbacks:
There are also nicer bus services with more comfortable seating and air conditioning, such as Gray Line Costa Rica, but they are more expensive than public buses. You can usually travel from San José to the Northwest beaches of Guanacaste for a little over $25 per person.
You can also rent a private van with driver if you are travelling with a group.
You’ll need to decide whether the inexpensive fare is worth the hassle of traveling by public bus. It’s often a reasonable tradeoff if you are short on funds, or need to travel long distances on a regular basis.
Flying is also a viable option for travelling within Costa Rica. There are 18 domestic airports with regular flights to other parts of the country. The airlines connect most major cities, so flying is always an option to consider.
Airline costs in Costa Rica are pretty reasonable. A flight to Quepos will cost between $43 and $83 per person. Most airports also provide free shuttle service to and from the airport.
It’s often cheaper to fly long distances than drive. However, it can also be cheaper to drive shorter distances. Compare the costs of renting a car and flying while planning your trip.
Even if flying is slightly more expensive than driving, there are other reasons to consider it. Flying is generally much quicker than taking a long bus ride, and you don't need to deal with the stress of driving.
For the past century, Costa Rica has relied heavily on its rail system. While other forms of transportation have become popular in recent years, many people still rely on trains.
There are currently two major railways in Costa Rica: The San Jose Light Railway and the Tico Train Tour.
The San Jose Light Railway operates Monday-Friday, while the Tico Train Tour operates on weekends. They both have different routes, which you'll need to learn before planning your trip. The San Jose Light Railway is based in San Jose and has connections to the Pacific Coast and Heredia.
The railways are very cost effective if you're traveling within the Central Valley. Unfortunately, they still don't operate in most other parts of the country. As an alternative, you can always take a train to a major city and then take a taxi to your final destination.
You may never have considered horseback riding as a form of travel in the United States. However, it can be a very pleasant way to get around Costa Rica.
There are several major farms that offer horseback tours. El Pinto Expeditions and Centaura Farm are two of the most popular. They hold regular tours from San Jose to popular tourist destinations across the country.
Karen Eaton and David Rigsby shared the great experience they had with the Equators, a horseback tourist group from San Jose. Here is their testimonial:
"We rode through rivers and up steep rocky slopes, down slippery hills, and across grassland cleared for cattle. We galloped on the black sand beaches, pausing to watch scarlet macaws play along the shore. Our guide was also fantastic. He pointed out all the wildlife and would call for the birds to appear. It was a great vacation, and was made so by our intelligent, strong, and responsive horses and our capable guides."
While horseback riding is generally reserved for tourist activities, it can be a cheap and fun way to travel anywhere in the country.
Hitchhiking is less common in Costa Rica than in other countries. It can still be a reliable way to travel, but you should consider all the facts first.
Hitchhiking is Technically Illegal
Believe it or not, it's actually illegal to hitchhike in Costa Rica. However, many communities don't enforce the laws, so it’s still a fairly common way to travel.
Police rarely hassle hitchhikers along the coasts or near major tourist areas. However, it's still important to check with the locals first, because some communities are more stringent than others.
Hitchhiking Is Not Practical for Long Trips
In the United States, it's possible to hitchhike across the entire country. It's not practical to do so in Costa Rica, because drivers simply aren't accustomed to picking up strangers for long trips. In general, Costa Ricans are very hospitable people, but tend to err on the side of caution regarding hitchhikers.
Safety Can Be a Serious Concern
Some parts of Costa Rica aren't very safe. Hitchhiking should be avoided in these areas. Crime rates are particularly high in San Jose and Central Limón, and hitchhiking should be avoided in these areas. Fortunately, these cities have plenty of other transportation options available.
There are many different ways to travel in Costa Rica. Consider your options carefully before planning your trip and weigh cost effectiveness against convenience and safety.
How do you plan to travel in Costa Rica? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below: