Costa Rica is a relatively small country in Central America, encompassing 19,700 square miles (51,100 square kilometers) of land between Nicaragua and Panama. There are seven provinces and multiple different climate zones and ecosystems. You can drive from north to south or east to west in one very long day, should you wish to. There are heaps of national parks and reserves, beach and rural mountain towns, and cultural and natural landmarks to explore.
There are loads of different ways to navigate this pint-sized beauty-packed country, but the best option or combination of options will depend on your travel itinerary, sightseeing and activity goals, and personal comfort requirements. You have the choice of traveling around via rental car, private shuttle, shared shuttle, public bus, or small plane.
With the exception of San Jose and some of the bigger cities such as Limon, Costa Rica is a relatively easy country to travel around. Directions are typically given using landmarks. For example, drive 100 meters north and take a left at the yellow house on the corner. Most rental car companies, such as National or Avis, will also give you the option of renting a GPS, which is a good idea, especially if you have never driven around Costa Rica. Waze and Google Maps work well, and are great options if you have 3G on your smart phone.
The freedom of having your own car is awesome. However, there are some important things that you must take into consideration if you feel confident enough to drive here. Costa Rica is not known for its good drivers. In fact, it’s infamous for its bad drivers. It is important that you are always alert and practice defensive driving. There are a number of unusual hazards that you might encounter, such as cow crossings, iguanas sunning in the road, stray dogs and cats popping out of nowhere, massive potholes, river crossings, fallen trees, cargo trucks, sudden fog, landslides, and curvy mountain passes. You are advised to avoid driving at night, if possible. While all of this might sound terrifying, it’s actually not that bad, as long as you are prepared and aware at all times. If adventure driving isn’t your thing, there are a lot of other stress-free and affordable transportation options to help you make the most of your Costa Rica vacation.
Hiring a private shuttle is probably one of the best transportation options if you are in need of daily transportation to and from your adventure activities and sightseeing tours, and don’t want to be bothered with renting a car and navigating a new country. This is especially affordable if you are traveling with a group. Oftentimes, you can hire a driver who is also an experienced guide in Costa Rica. If you know that you want a professional driver and guide for your adventure, you can hire one for the duration of your trip. Companies such as Anywhere Costa Rica, Grayline Shuttles, Morpho Vans, Tropical Tours, and Tours by Locals are all excellent choices. What better way to travel around Costa Rica than with your own personal driver and tour guide?
Shared shuttles are a cost-effective way to get from one place to another, such as to and from the airport or to a particular destination. For example, Grayline and Interbus offer shared shuttles from San Jose Airport to Tamarindo for around $50.
If you are taking the more backpacker approach to traveling, the public bus system in Costa Rica is quite reliable, runs frequently throughout the day (even in remote places), and is very affordable. Taking the public bus also adds a cultural authenticity to your adventure. You will have the opportunity to interact with locals and see some towns and areas along the way that you might miss otherwise. Here’s a comprehensive bus travel guide and schedule. Make sure that you bring water and snacks with you if you are planning a long day of bus travel.
There are two small aircraft companies in Costa Rica that offer daily flights all around the country: Nature Air and Sansa. This is one of the most time-effective ways to travel around the country, if your travel itinerary takes you to multiple locations. Nature Air fly to 14 destinations and Sansa to 13. If you’re planning to travel around via small plane, it is a good idea to pack light and book in advance to get the cheapest rates.