The roads in Costa Rica are mostly paved and form an extensive network that provides access to most parts of the country. Keep in mind that Costa Rica uses the metric system; all road signs present distances in kilometers. (1.6 kilometers = 1 mile).
Renting a car gives you the freedom to go wherever you want, when you want. You are not restricted by the schedule and the limited list of destinations offered by the local bus service.
On the other hand, driving in Costa Rica is not for everyone, especially in the the major towns. San José's midtown traffic is often heavy, parking can be very limited, and most drivers neglect the rules of the road. Many tourists will opt for using the taxi service when exploring larger towns, and rent a car when heading out to the countryside.
See our section on Car Rental for more information on where to rent a car, car insurance, and driving safety.
Gas stations with 24-hour service, tire repair and snacks for the road can be readily found in and around most urban areas. There are several fuel stations in downtown San José, so fill up while in the city. Going east from downtown, there are stations along Avenida Central, but there are no stations on the highway from San José to the airport. Service stations can be found in most rural areas, though most do not offer 24-hour service. Gas costs about $2 per gallon, but is actually sold buy the liter. Be aware that "Normal" gasoline is leaded. Unleaded gas is called "Super". There are no self-service stations in Costa Rica.
The national bus system is a fast, comfortable and economical way to travel within Costa Rica. Most Costa Ricans do not have a car, so the popular bus system provides service to most parts of the country. City buses are usually well furnished with padded seats and shaded windows. Provincial buses are less so, but still provide relatively clean and comfortable rides.
Buses from San José to other provinces are crowded on Fridays, Saturdays, and any day preceding a holiday. The same might be true for Sundays, Mondays and the day after a holiday. The crowded condition is intensified on buses going to and from tourist destinations.
Since some buses do not have a method of requesting a stop to the driver, you'll need to whistle loudly or shout "la parada!". If you are not familiar with your intended stop, ask the driver to let you know when he reaches that destination. Most bus drivers are willing to help.
When traveling by bus, it is a good idea to pack light. You don't want to have to worry about large luggage and the possibility of theft.
San José and Suburban Buses:
The area between downtown San José and the Sabana is serviced by the Sabana-Cementerio buses. The area on the east side of the city, from Los Yoses to San Pedro, is serviced by San Pedro buses. Most urban buses cost about 20 cents. Suburban buses run from 5 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m., and usually cost between 20 and 60 cents.
Buses to Nicaragua and Panama:
Before heading over to Nicaragua or Panama, check into the current political conditions of these countries. There is a good possibility that conditions are too unstable for tourism. Talk to people who have been there recently.
Various taxi services provide modern, efficient and safe transportation to different points in the country. When traveling long distances, however, it is advisable that you acquire the services of a reputable taxi company. Taxi drivers are familiar with the country and may be able to deliver you to your destination faster than you could on your own. Addresses aren't always clearly marked, and towns can have more than one name.
Taxi drivers are required to use the meter when in the San José metro area and when traveling 12 kilometers or less. Sometimes, the driver will insist on not using the meter. Ask how much the driver will be charging you, and make sure you come to an agreement before taking off. Check current average rates before using a taxi to be sure you are being charged fairly. There are honest and dishonest drivers alike, so arm yourself with knowledge.
Rates for taxis are relatively inexpensive compared to U.S. standards. Ask your hotel what the usual cost of reaching your destination is. If using a taxi that is called by the hotel, the rates may be higher because the taxi is on-call to that hotel. One benefit of this can be that the driver will probably speak English. Taxis can be a cost-efficient way to travel with others. Instead of paying a bus $40 or $50 per person, you can pay the taxi about the same amount (depending on distance, of course) to deliver a car load of people. Investigate your options.
In most tourist towns, hired drivers are available to chauffeur you around. A flat rate is charged by the day.