Getting around in Costa Rica, be it by way of driving or public transport, can be a frustrating endeavour. Streets aren’t always named or well-signposted, and in most cases, locals will give directions using well-known buildings, stores or landmarks as references instead of street names. For this reason, it is advisable that expats keep a map on hand until they’ve found their bearings.
Although the public transportation infrastructure in Costa Rica is poorly developed, getting around using buses is fairly easy, and most expats report not needing a car. There are a handful of commuter train lines still in operation, but buses are the main mode of public transport. While journeys are long and can be uncomfortable, the network is extensive.
Taxis are relatively inexpensive and are often the least stressful way to get around in Costa Rican cities. Driving in Costa Rica is also something that will take expats a while to get used to.
Public transport in Costa Rica
Buses are a cheap mode of transportation, and Costa Rica’s bus network is extensive, but long-distance routes can be time-consuming due to frequent stops and slow driving. The bus services in Costa Rica are operated by private companies that determine their routes, schedules and fares. Only a few bus services allow commuters to reserve tickets in advance, so during peak season, it’s best to get to the bus terminal early to secure a seat.
Expats are encouraged to check the date and seat number are correct, as one usually cannot get a refund or change their ticket. Another frustrating element of bus travel is the fact that bus schedules can change frequently, so expats should ensure they monitor the schedule of their bus routes.
Railway services in Costa Rica are overseen by the Costa Rican Railways Institute (Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarrile, INCOFER). Costa Rica’s railway system is still largely underdeveloped, but there are plans to introduce an electric passenger train service that runs between east and west San Jose. Trains in Costa Rica are largely limited to cargo trains, but there are several passenger rails that are of an adequate standard.
While these trains are largely clean and comfortable, they are plagued by issues of infrequent and unreliable service. Adventurous expats looking to take a commuter train in Costa will find first class more comfortable, while tourist class are more affordable but offer no air conditioning.
- For information on rail schedules and ticket prices, visit INCOFER’s website.
Taxis in Costa Rica
Taxis are a good transportation option in Costa Rica and are available in most large cities. They are inexpensive, but expats should always be sure to ask the driver to put the meter on when getting into the vehicle. Alternatively, if outside the capital city, agree on a fixed price before starting a journey.
Official taxis in Costa Rica are red vehicles with a yellow triangle on the side. These taxis are regulated and required to use the meter. Unlicensed taxis are prevalent in many Costa Rican cities, and expats should avoid taking taxis other than the official ones.
While the ride-hailing service Uber is technically illegal in Costa Rica, it is available across the country. Alternatives to Uber include Easy Taxi and Didi, which are also widely available.
- Expats in San Jose looking to book an official taxi in advance can visit Easy Taxi’s website.
- For ride-hailing services, check out Uber and Didi.
Driving in Costa Rica
Expats in Costa Rica are allowed to drive with their existing driving licence issued in their home country for the first three months, after which they’ll need to convert it to a local licence. Some countries have reciprocal agreements with Costa Rica that allow their nationals to keep their driving licences in the country for longer.
Temporary or permanent residents who need to get a local Costa Rican driving licence must secure a medical certificate from a licensed doctor affirming their fitness to drive. They must also attend a local driving school to obtain a certificate of approval. Expats can then submit all of these documents to the Council for Road Safety (COSEVI) and take a written test. If they pass this test, they will be eligible to receive a Costa Rican driving licence.
Expats who do not have a driving licence from their home country will need to complete both a written and practical driving test. Both of which will only be available in Spanish. The local COSEVI branch will have reference materials expats can use to prepare for their written test.
Driving one’s own vehicle is a convenient way to get around Costa Rica, as it allows expats to explore far and wide and on their own time. That said, those who decide to drive should do so with caution. Road infrastructure in many parts of Costa Rica has been poorly developed. Roads are often unpaved, and potholes are common. Streets tend to be incredibly narrow, and signage isn’t always clear. Local driving behaviour can be erratic, so it’s important to be alert at all times and drive defensively.
- Visit COSEVI’s website to learn more about obtaining a local driving licence.
Domestic flights in Costa Rica
By far the quickest and easiest way to travel in Costa Rica is by flight, but domestic airlines tend only to service major tourist hubs, so the network is somewhat limited. Expats travelling to these destinations will find that domestic flights are fairly cheap, especially when booking in advance.
What do expats say about public transport in Costa Rica?
"I would highly recommend having your own car to access the best beaches and most scenic destinations. Getting around solely by bus is very doable, however, and many locals don’t own a car. I would give public transport 4.5 stars." Read more about Jason's expat experience in Costa Rica.
"Oh, it is very nice to own a car here, but I do not own one! However, you can get anywhere in the country by the public buses. Get ready for a long bumpy ride. Despite my complaining the public transportation here is fairly organised and usually on time." See what else Jenna has to say about her expat experience in Costa Rica.
►Learn about Healthcare in Costa Rica
Photo credits: Blue bus in Costa Rica and Driving in Costa Rica. Both by Frames For Your Heart from Unsplash.
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