Traveling in Costa Rica – Rent a Car or Take a Bus?

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Planning a trip in Costa Rica can be like pulling teeth. Costa Rica has good bus connections, but it doesn’t matter how many hours you spend researching online, you will not be able to find any reliable information on bus schedules or ticket prices. We can recall getting extremely frustrated when trying to plan our trip because there isn’t a single official website that lists schedules and prices. How can that be? Ultimately, we flew to Costa Rica with the hope that we could just figure things out as we go and that’s exactly what we did.

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If you’ve done any research on transportation, you’ve no doubt come across multiple companies offering private shuttle services to all of the destinations you want to visit. That sounds pretty convenient, considering you can book online and have a guaranteed ride to the places you need to go. The problem, however, is that private shuttles are extremely expensive. If you’re on a tight budget, then you really can’t afford this transportation option.

Assuming this isn’t the first article you’ve read, then you’re likely already at the third stage of this journey. You’re probably considering just renting a car. A rental car is always appealing, since it gives you the freedom to move as you please and you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to get from one place or another. But is a rental car really the best option for traveling in Costa Rica? In our opinion, no.

Why you shouldn’t rent a car in Costa Rica

There are a few reasons why you shouldn’t rent a car in Costa Rica. One of the biggest reasons why you shouldn’t rent a car is because automobile theft and break-ins are among the highest frequency crimes in Costa Rica. Even if you have rental car insurance and aren’t in the vehicle when it happens, it’s not a situation you want to be in; especially if you have belongings in the car.

Another reason why we suggest avoiding rental cars is because the Costa Ricans tend to drive however they want without any regard for traffic laws. You would be okay on many of the main highways outside of towns, but anything goes on the city streets. Frankly, the risk of an accident is just too high, especially since you’re driving in unfamiliar territory. No amount of rental car insurance can guarantee you won’t be seriously injured by a collision.

The last reason why you shouldn’t bother with a rental car is because the bus connections are too good and too cheap. Before you scroll up and double check our opening paragraph, we’ll save you the trouble. Yes, we did say that there is no reliable information on bus schedules and pricing online. That is still true. Allow us to explain in the upcoming section.

Why you should take the bus in Costa Rica

Don’t let the lack of online bus schedules and pricing information scare you away from taking public buses and long distance buses in Costa Rica. The reason there is no information online is because the schedule is constantly changing and so are the prices. You can’t book tickets online because of this. In fact, you can usually only book your bus ticket on the same day you want to travel. That being said, public buses and long distance buses are very cheap! The shuttle services are sometimes 10x more expensive than the bus. There is also a high likelihood that the bus you want will run at least once on the day you need it.

So how do you find out the bus times and prices? Honestly, the best way is to just ask your hostel or hotel. They are usually up to date on all of the current bus schedules, prices and departure points. While some online websites can be useful in giving you a general idea of the schedules, the most reliable information will come from your accommodation or, of course, the actual bus station.

Even though this may all seem like a hassle, it is so worthwhile to take the bus in Costa Rica. You save tons of money and you get to travel like locals. Although, there are always plenty of other backpackers in the buses as well.

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Bus Stations in San José

No matter where you’re going in Costa Rica, you will most likely pass through San José first. Instead of a central hub, San José has multiple bus stations that service trips to various destinations around the country and unfortunately, there is no particular sense to the system. The good news, however, is that the departure stations do not change like the schedule does. Otherwise, nobody would ever be able to find the right bus. We don’t have all the answers on bus stations, but we’ll tell you what we know from our own experience.

Important Information about Bus Stations in San José

San José bus stations are sketchy. In fact, we were quite shocked by the condition of the city as a whole and generally felt very uncomfortable walking around there. The bus stations are no exception. The high concentration of tourists make them ideal locations for scammers and pickpockets and don’t think a surveillance camera is going to keep you safe from these types of crimes. Do not spend the night in a bus station. Most stations are open air, not really secured by anything or anyone and are not located in the best neighborhoods. This isn’t us being overly cautious, the locals will tell you the same thing.

Where to Get the Bus to La Fortuna

One of the places we visited while in Costa Rica is La Fortuna. If you decide to go to this popular destination as well, then you should know that the bus departs San José from Terminal 7-10 (shown on the map below). When we went in October of 2019, we paid 12,000 CRC per person round trip.

Apparently, this particular trip is well known for people snatching your bags or slipping their hand into your belongings and grabbing something important without you even knowing it. We didn’t have any problems, but we received countless warnings from our hostel and from the bus driver.

If you don’t get robbed on the bus, then you’ll definitely feel ripped off when you reach La Fortuna because all of the activities there are WAY overpriced. That’s why we wrote an article on 5 free things to do in La Fortuna.

5 Free Things to Do in La Fortuna by hesaidorshesaid

Where to Get the Bus to Puerto Viejo

Another place we visited in Costa Rica is Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. If you decide to go here, and we definitely recommend it, then you’ll need to get the bus from Terminal Atlántico Norte. We paid approx. 10,000 CRC per person round trip when we went in October 2019.

This bus will take you up the cool rainforest covered mountains and back down to the hot and dry Caribbean coast. Puerto Viejo is more tourist friendly in terms of prices, but some of the best things to do there are still free, which is why we also wrote an article on 6 free things to do in Puerto Viejo.

6 Free things to do in Puerto Viejo by hesaidorshesaid

We hope this article has covered all of your questions about renting cars or taking the bus in Costa Rica. In our opinion, the bus is just too convenient and too affordable not to use, whereas a rental car presents more risks than benefits. When you do find yourself in San Jose, then you should definitely stay at the Stray Cat Hostel. We loved it so much that we stayed there 3 times while in Costa Rica. It’s hard to explain why this hostel is so great, but you’ll understand once you’re there.

San José Bus Station Map

San Jose Bus Station Map with Directions

Please feel free to ask us any questions or share your own experiences of bus or rental car travel in Costa Rica in the comment section!

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About the Authors

Authors Ryne Cook and Denise Braun from He Said or She Said

Denise Braun and Ryne Cook spent two weeks in Costa Rica getting to know the people, the culture and the nature. Their time there has given them insights into the country that one can only gain from actually exploring the country itself and talking to locals.

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