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 always have a map on hand until they've found their bearings.
The public transportation infrastructure in Costa Rica is poorly developed. 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
Unfortunately, expats moving to Costa Rica won't have an abundance of transport options. Despite major improvements to the railway system, buses still provide the most accessible way to travel around the country.
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.
Only a few bus services allow advance reservation of tickets, so during peak season, it's best to get to the bus terminal early to secure a seat.
Costa Rica's railway system is still largely underdeveloped. There are a handful of commuter lines running between San José city centre and outlying suburbs of the greater metropolitan area. These only run from Monday to Friday at peak times to accommodate those travelling to and from work.
Taxis in Costa Rica
Taxis offer a good transportation option and are available in most large Costa Rican cities. They are inexpensive but expats should be sure to always 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. Expats should avoid taking any other kind of taxi because of the prevalence of ‘pirate’ taxis in many Costa Rican cities. These taxis are unlicensed and have been associated with criminal activities in the past.
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. The process can be complicated, so it’s best to get it done as soon as possible.
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. However, 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 is important to be alert at all times and drive defensively.
Domestic flights in Costa Rica
By far the quickest and easiest way to travel in Costa Rica is by flight. However, domestic airlines tend to only 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.
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"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, windows down for the breeze because there won't be any A/C. 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.
Are you an expat living in Costa Rica?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Costa Rica. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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