As someone who frequently takes public buses in Costa Rica, I can say that public transportation here is a bit tricky. The infrastructure is not fully developed, and the buses are not government-owned. It requires a bit of research for planning a vacation if you intend to use public transport, especially if you are planning to go to multiple destinations.
But, traveling by bus is a good way of saving money and experiencing life as a local. It is an adventure in itself!
There are many details that you should know beforehand, like which company runs buses to which destination, where to board the bus from, how to book, etc. After almost 2 years in Costa Rica, I can proudly say that I am now adept with the public transport system here. Which is why I have prepared this detailed guide to taking public buses in Costa Rica. Let’s start!
Buses are owned by different private companies
One very important thing to note is that, unlike other countries where all public buses are owned by the government or one single company, buses in Costa Rica are owned by multiple private companies. Each company decides its own route, fares, stops, and times. There is also no single terminal for all buses. Each company will have its own terminal, so you will need to check with the bus operator for the terminal from where you have to board the bus.
You may find the word “Empresa” in the names of the bus operators. Empresa is a Spanish term for “company”. Some of the bus operators that I have used so far are – Tralapa, Tracopa, Alfaro, MEPE, Pulmitan de Liberia, Transmonteverde, Transportes San Carlos, and Transportes Jaco. All of them have their own terminals except for one or two that run from Terminal 7-10.
You can take a bus to almost every popular destination from San Jose
Since San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica, most of the bus companies have their offices in San Jose. So you will find a bus for almost every popular tourist destination in San Jose.
- Some of the popular routes are –
- San Jose to Jaco – Transportes Jaco
- San Jose to La Fortuna – Transportes San Carlos
- San Jose to Tamarindo – Empresa Alfaro
- San Jose to Flamingo, Brasilito – Tralapa
- San Jose to Playas del Coco – Pulmitan de Liberia
- San Jose to Monteverde – Transmonteverde
- San Jose to Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Manzanillo – MEPE
- San Jose to Puntarenas – Empresarios Unidos
How to look up bus routes and terminals
One website that proved to be a blessing for me is rome2rio.com. It is very simple to use and provides information like – direct or multiple buses to your destination, name, contact details, website name, and social media info of the operator. Other websites/apps that are useful are Moovit and Passer.
One trick that I always use is calling up the number provided on the FB page or website and asking them for the bus terminal, and where to purchase tickets.
Bus stations are called “La Parada”
If you are looking for the bus station or get lost, ask someone for La Parada and they will guide you to the nearest bus station. “La Parada” is Spanish for bus station.
The bus tickets may cost between $1 – $10. The farther you travel the more is the ticket price. You pay a little extra for tickets purchased online.
Purchasing tickets beforehand is recommended
If you are planning to travel during the holidays, an extended weekend, or Santa Semana, you may not be able to get tickets at the last moment for certain busy routes. Therefore, it is highly recommended you purchase the tickets online. One trick that I always use is calling up on the number provided on the FB page or website and asking them for the bus terminal, and where to purchase tickets.
Where to purchase tickets online
Now, this is another tricky part of taking public buses in Costa Rica. Some operators have well-maintained websites that allow you to book tickets online. Some have a website but mention that the tickets have to be purchased from the counter or from the driver when you get on the bus. But some bus operators have partnered with bus applications that allow you to book tickets for multiple routes.
Some of the apps/websites that I frequently use are mibus.cr, Yo Viajo, Passer, and La Terminal Costa Rica for purchasing tickets online.
Purchasing tickets over the counter
As mentioned above, some operators do not provide a facility for booking tickets on their websites or from any other app. You have to purchase the tickets from the counter or when you board the bus.
One such operator is MEPE. When I had to go to Puerto Viejo a few months back, I called them up and asked where I could book the tickets. They told me that the tickets can be purchased only from the counter at the bus station. In another instance, when taking a bus for Ciudad Quesada, I went to terminal 7-10 to board the bus. There, we couldn’t even purchase the tickets from the counter. They told us we have to purchase the tickets from the driver when boarding the bus.
This is why I highly recommend calling up the bus operators and checking with them where you can purchase the tickets.
Credit card is not accepted everywhere
For instances when you have to purchase tickets at the bus station, please be ready with cash. Not everyone will accept cards, and for buses where you have to buy the ticket from the driver, cards will do no good at all. Also, it is better to carry small bills of 1000 and 2000 as well. You need not worry about exact change, as they have enough of it.
Bus conditions & facilities may vary
There is no standard rule as to how the condition of the bus should be. Bus conditions and services offered vary depending on the company. Some buses have Wifi, some have air conditioning, some are double-decker, and some have spacious seats. Not all buses are the same.
Buses may be direct or have stops
Long route buses stop once for food and to use the restroom. Long routes are typically more than 3 hours. For any route shorter than that, buses may not stop at all. For example, when going to Jaco, it took us 3 hours to reach and there was no stop on the way.
Another helpful tip is to look for the word “directo” or “collectivo” which means direct or with multiple stops. This will help you determine whether the bus will make a lot of stops and take longer to reach your destination. Direct buses are much faster.
Many long route buses have a luggage compartment under the bus. For storing your luggage there, get in the queue when the bus arrives and give your luggage to the driver. He will give you a ticket which you have to show him when collecting your luggage back.
Not all bus stops have proper markings
Many bus stops do not have proper indications. It is advisable to ask the locals in case you are having difficulty looking for the bus stop. One such example is Manzanillo in Limon. There is no specific bus stop there and you really have to be aware of where the bus will arrive.
Get early to the bus station
This is very important to keep in mind if you are traveling during the holidays, extended weekends, or Santa Semana. It may get really crowded at bus stations during such times, and you may have difficulty purchasing tickets from the counter. And in cases where you have to buy tickets from the driver while boarding the bus, the chances of being able to make it are very slim.
Last year, during Santa Semana, I had to take a bus from San Jose to Monteverde. And though I had already purchased a ticket online, there was a long queue to get on the bus. Many people who didn’t get the ticket for the seats were sitting or standing in the aisle.
To avoid landing in such situations, it is better to plan ahead and get early to the bus station and get in the queue.
Tips for safety when using public transportation in Costa Rica
- Never ask any stranger to watch your stuff at a bus station. Take your belongings with you if you have to use the restroom.
- Be extra cautious of your belongings when getting in or getting off a bus.
- When inside the bus, keep your valuables with you, and not in the overhead compartment or luggage compartment under the bus.
- Do not flash your valuables inside the bus or at the bus station. You may become a target for muggers.
- When taking a taxi to or from the bus station, always look for official taxis. Official taxis in Costa Rica are red colored with a yellow triangle on the side. Do not agree to ride with a random person who claims to be a taxi driver.
- When inside an official taxi, ask them to turn on the meter, and pay close attention to it.
After you get used to public buses in Costa Rica, you will realize that it is not that difficult to navigate the routes and terminals. A bit of experience, research skills, and patience is all you need!
I sincerely hope that this blog will help you in taking public buses with much more confidence from now on. Pura Vida!