Public transportation in Costa Rica is only possible by bus. There are several independent bus companies across the country; you could literally get anywhere by bus. There are no other options, no public railways. Local airlines do exist, but that’s only for the wealthy tourists so if you want to travel as the locals do, and save some colones, then vamos!
Getting around by bus is actually really cheap, a few dollars would get you from one town to another, or approximately 20 dollars to get from one edge of the country to the other.
But I’m telling you; there are some quite nasty roads out there! The main highways are usually kept in a good condition, but it’s still a hell of a ride! Winding narrow roads leading through high mountains covered with clouds, with a disturbing amount of lorries and massive American trucks and gas-guzzlers usually moving at the upper end of the speed limit or probably faster, from which the much-respected bus drivers aren’t an exception either!
It is adventurous, you will witness spectacular views of mountain scenery and stunning vegetation and cloud forests along the road, but you would definitely thank the almighty if you manage to get out in one piece after certain rides around the country.
One such road – a part of the Pan-American Highway – is between San Jose and San Isidro del General (CR-2), which takes you to some altitude above 3,000 meters, no guard rails, and usually, it’s not possible to see what is coming around the next curve. Sometimes one, sometimes both sides of the road have a drop off side where there is no side of the road at all…just the canyon way down. The visibility is usually reduced to a few meters due to being in cloud level and thick fog, the surface of the road is mostly wet and slippery, sometimes even with some massive rain. I’m telling you these are not for the faint-hearted travelers!
The bus drivers are not one of those, so you could get an experience at least as intense as in a wild roller coaster, except that you put your life in the bus driver’s hand – and the Virgin Madonna, whose portrait is hanging in front of the driver.
Another road to get a similar but less intense experience would be the highway number 32, going from San Jose to Limon, and probably there are a lot more even wilder ones around, please share your experiences if you have any in the comments below!
The bus schedule is quite chaotic, there are some online sources – as of 2016, this was 60% reliable: Bus Schedule Costa Rica – which can give you an idea of when and from where the buses depart, but these often change, and are not official. The internet thing didn’t happen here as much as you are probably used to it, so the best way to inform yourself is asking the locals. Usually the hostels and hotels are up to date with this information too. Always be at the bus station in at least 30 minutes in advance, because some drivers tend to leave earlier, and buses can also get full quickly, probably you don’t want to be standing for a couple of hours! Sometimes you can buy the tickets at busier bus stations from the company’s ticket vendor, but often you will directly buy it from the driver. If there’s a chance, try to buy them in advance!
Some companies are quite well organized, but not all of them.
One of my weird experiences at a bus station was when a bunch of desperate tourists from the US who could not speak Spanish were in a hurry to catch their flight, and after a bit of running around at the station – trying desperately to find out from the ticket vendor to the old lottery seller lady about which bus goes to San Jose – the last minute they hopped on a ‘collectivo‘ bus which was almost full, so some of them probably had to stand – ‘collectivo‘ means that it stops everywhere to pick up and drop locals and is much slower than the ‘directo‘ buses which obviously goes directly to the destination. I bought the ticket for the ‘directo‘ from the ticket vendor before (this is where my Spanish knowledge ends by the way), which left at the same time as the collectivo -I was a bit surprised as this directo charter was not mentioned in the bus schedule hanged on the wall in the hostel – and was probably not well advertised because I was the only single person on the huge modern 80 person tourist bus, going directly to San Jose, while the ‘collectivo‘ was full of desperate tourists some of them close to crying that they will miss their plane… And it was literally the bus driver and me for 3.5 hours, we also stopped for a break to have a snack half way. Thats what I call an economic ride!
Probably now you ask why I didn’t help the other tourists.. well, I myself didn’t believe the whole situation until I was actually sitting on the bus and the driver was laughing and telling one of his colleague through the window: ‘uno persona directo!‘
So be sharp and be prepared, if you can, speak Spanish, as locals speaking English here are not too frequent – even if they do, they won’t bother switching to English, until they see the first few teardrops in your eyes. They will be happy to hold a 10-minute Spanish lesson even if your bus is just leaving!
I’ve made this little video on highway number 32, on the way back from Limon to San Jose. It’s mainly interesting because of the lush vegetation along the road; it’s not one of those scary parts.