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7 Facts About Transportation in Costa Rica That May Surprise Expats

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.

1. Roads Aren't Ideal for Passenger Vehicles

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:

  1. It takes time to get accustomed to driving in Costa Rica. Tourists are usually advised to hire a personal driver.

  1. Roads aren't as well-maintained in less-populated parts of Costa Rica. They are often made from dirt and tend to erode during the rainy season. Exercise caution when driving in these areas, especially during bad weather and the rainy season.

Familiarize yourself with the roads in any areas that you plan to drive in.

2. You Must Understand the Taxi System

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:

  • Pricing regulations are different, and their structures vary throughout Costa Rica. For example, in San Jose, taxis are required by law to use a metering system. In most other parts of the country, they negotiate prices with their customers in advance. The average 30-minute taxi ride costs about $30, but you can usually negotiate a lower rate.

  • Beware of pirate taxis. Only ride with legitimate taxi drivers. Licensed taxi drivers have red cars with yellow signs on top – other taxis are not licensed or insured, and can rip off or even outright rob their patrons. These are known as "pirate taxis" and should be avoided at all costs.

  • Tipping isn't required. Unlike in the United States, customers aren't expected to tip for service. It's still an option, but not mandatory.

Taxis are cost-efficient and reliable, but you should understand how they work before using one.

3. Buses Are Cheap, But Often Inconvenient

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:

  • Buses don't operate in every city. If you're traveling to or from a remote community, you'll need to get a ride to a neighboring bus station.

  • Buses tend to be cramped, with small seats and no air conditioning.

  • It takes more time to get to other parts of Costa Rica by bus. Expect slow driving and frequent stops. Prepare for a longer trip than you would by taxi. For example, it will take approximately nine hours to get from San Jose to Osa Peninsula.

  • Schedules can change frequently, and require close monitoring. It's best to check the schedule a couple of days before a major trip and plan accordingly. The buses travel to most hotels and tourist destinations.

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.

4. There Are Plenty of Great Domestic Flights

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.

5. Trains Are Still a Popular Form of Travel

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.

6. Horseback Riding is a Good Option

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.

7. Be Very Cautious About Hitchhiking

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.

Weigh Your Travel Options Carefully

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: