Thinking about living car-free and fancy-free? Then you’re likely learning all you can about Costa Rica public transportation. And that means you’re in the right place.
We’ll start off by saying that, depending on where you choose to call home, said home may be walkable. For example, in our area of Guanacaste, most beach towns are walkable. The community of Las Catalinas (pictured above) is completely car-free. Tamarindo and Playas del Coco, our beach “cities,” are supremely walkable. If you live within walking distance of downtown, then you’re within walking distance of almost every daily need.
Go a little further afield, and you’re within biking distance of everything you’d need. Point being, at the beach, you can go car-free, if that’s your goal. And for all those times when your own two feet or wheels can’t get you where you’re going, then Costa Rica public transportation is there for you.
And this is exactly what many car-free residents do: They walk and bike when they can, and then they handle the balance of their transportation needs with a combination of taxis/Ubers and public buses. Here’s how:
Taxis, Ubers & Colectivos in Costa Rica
Taxis, Ubers, and colectivos are a way of life in Costa Rica: they’re convenient, they’re relatively affordable, and they’re prevalent in most major cities, towns, and communities.
That said, there are a few things you should know about each, before you ride:
Taxis in Costa Rica
Official taxis are easy to spot: They’re red – hence their local name, rojos – and they have a yellow triangle on their doors, indicating the taxi company and taxi number.
Whenever possible, we recommend choosing official, authorized, and licensed taxis. There are a few good reasons for this, among them:
Metered Rides: Official taxis are all outfitted with a meter, known locally as the maría. Whenever you enter a taxi, be sure that the driver has reset the meter; if not, ask, ¿Puede poner la maría, por favor? (Can you put the meter on, please?) A meter helps ensure that you don’t get overcharged or “gringo priced” on your ride. (Note that, by law, rates are now negotiable, especially for longer journeys!)
Safe Vehicles: By law, official taxis are required to receive vehicle inspections twice yearly – that’s double the standard for passenger vehicles. The taxi driver’s credentials should also be displayed on the dash, somewhere near the meter.
Easy to Call: If you’re home – or anywhere nearby, really – it’s easy to call your local taxi company and request pickup. (Basic Spanish required.) You can even request your preferred drivers!
Wheelchair & 4WD Taxis Available: Official taxi companies all have at least one handicap-accessible taxi, and in more rural or beach areas, they’ll have 4×4 taxis, too.
Note that red cabs cannot pick you up at the airport; there are official airport taxis, which are orange in color, that are the only authorized airport taxi!
Uber in Costa Rica
First things first: As far as Costa Rica public transportation goes, Uber operates in a gray area – neither legal nor illegal, unauthorized but not penalized, either.
Using Uber in Costa Rica is a personal decision. If you choose to use the app, then know that all the standard benefits apply: You’ll be able to map your route in advance; you can pay with a credit or debit card (only some official red taxis are equipped to accept cards); you’ll have a record of your trips (in case you leave something behind, for example); and the final rate is set, before you even click Confirm.
That said, Uber is not present throughout the country. You’ll find drivers in bigger towns and cities, like Playas del Coco and Tamarindo, but you might have trouble snagging a ride further out. You can’t choose your car type, either, so if you absolutely need a 4×4 or a large trunk on shopping day, then you’ll probably want to call an official cab.
Colectivos & Piratas in Costa Rica
Ah yes, speaking of gray areas… welcome to an almost bygone area of Costa Rica public transportation: the famous colectivo (coh-lec-tee-voh), or an unofficial taxi that you’ll share with other passengers along the way. (Think UberX Share and similar.)
Colectivos typically operate under the umbrella of piratas, or pirate taxis, which are completely unofficial and essentially under the table. Again, think UberX but without the app. We do not recommend taking unknown pirate cabs; that said, in many areas, pirate taxis are the only that run.
Before you ride, though, ask for a recommendation from your friends or neighbors. There are always good piratas, but there are unscrupulous ones, too. And, as pirate cabs have no meter or oversight, you do need to find someone you can trust.
Public Buses in Costa Rica
If you’re looking for the most inexpensive transportation option, then you’re looking at taking the bus in Costa Rica: What it lacks in unified convenience, it makes up in affordability.
Before you decide on bussing it, know that there is no unified national bus network – all bus routes are owned by private companies – so successful bus travel requires research, chutzpah, and at least basic Spanish. That’s because you’ll find yourself googling schedules, checking Facebook pages, and possibly calling companies for details – especially when you’re traveling outside your own backyard.
So, let’s start with the basics. In Costa Rica, there are two kinds of buses: local buses and long-distance buses. If you go car-free, you’ll likely avail yourself of both. (Although, as previously mentioned, many car-free residents balance convenience and cost by choosing Uber/taxis for local travel and buses for long-distance trips.)
Local Buses in Costa Rica
Costa Rica public transportation is well used, and local buses include the local to hyper-local routes that you’ll find in almost every region, town, and neighborhood.
And what do we mean re: local and hyper-local? Well, you’ll find that there are local bus routes – for example, Tamarindo-Liberia via Transportes La Pampa – and then there are hyper-local routes, which are almost like satellite routes to their bigger siblings. They’re run by the same companies as the major local routes but offer service into the farther reaches of specific neighborhoods and rural communities.
The biggest difference? The major local routes run frequently – as often as every 15 to 20 minutes – while the smaller, hyper-local satellite routes can run as infrequently as once or twice a day.
Additionally, you must know that local buses do not connect to the various communities (unless they happen to be on the same route); instead, they all connect to a central hub – say, Tamarindo or Liberia – and from there, fan out. So, even if a neighboring town is just 5 miles from home, you may be required to take a bus into a hub in the opposite direction, then take another bus to the neighboring town. A 5-mile trip, as the toucan flies, can easily add up to 45-60 minutes, if you have to take two buses. (This is why so many car-free residents combine taxis/Uber with bus travel.)
Bottom line: If you plan to use the bus as your primary method of Costa Rica public transportation, then be sure to choose a home close to a bus line that runs frequently enough for your lifestyle.
Long-Distance Buses in Costa Rica
This is where your local transportation options get really affordable: Taking the bus in Costa Rica can be nearly dirt cheap (especially considering drive time and gas prices!), usually clocking in at less than $10 for even the furthest-flung destinations.
Let’s start with the inconvenient bits: In Guanacaste, most long-distance buses depart from Liberia. So, even if you live near a major local hub, like Tamarindo or Playas del Coco, you’ll likely have to make your way to Liberia to catch a bus to any major destination other than San José.
You should also know that buses often take longer than it would to drive, because many buses are indirecto – that is, they make lots of stops along the way, to pick up/drop off passengers. Traveling to the route’s final destination? Ask if there’s a bus directo (pronounced boos dee-rec-toe), which, at max, will make one rest stop along the way.
Finally, you should know that long-distance buses do not have air conditioning. The windows all open to let in a breeze, though; be sure to choose a window seat, so you have control over your airflow!
Speaking of choosing a window seat, more and more long-distance buses now offer online booking and seat assignments. That said, many still do not, so you may have to make your way to the closest terminal to purchase your tickets. If you are a Type A planner, you’ll want to do this in advance to ensure a seat assignment on the bus of your choice (ex. a directo at a specific hour).
And always ask how far in advance of departure you should arrive: ¿A qué hora debería llegar? (ah kay ore-ah deb-er-ee-ah jay-gar – What time should I be here?)
Have Questions about Costa Rica Public Transportation (or Just Life in the Tropics)?
And that, friends, is a basic primer on Costa Rica public transportation. Have questions? Want to pick our brains about taking the bus in Costa Rica, taking a taxi in Costa Rica, or the car-free life in paradise?
That just happens to be one of our fortes. At Blue Water Properties, we are happy to help you in any way we can. We can talk about locations and costs of living, schools and receiving mail. We can refer you to residency attorneys or other sources of information, and share our own experiences and lessons learned.
As a company and as people, we thrive on relationships and promise the fastest communication and best services in the industry. And that begins with lots of information. We are happy to answer your questions and point you in the right direction, even if you’re only in the beginning phases of planning your future move.
We’re proud to offer some of the best Costa Rica real estate, from condos and homes to land and businesses for sale. So, go ahead – try us. Give us a chance to show off our expertise – and wow you with the possibilities! We look forward to it.