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Car Rental Costa Rica – how to get around

Why we decided NOT to drive in Costa Rica And forgo the rental car

Bus Station in Quepos

Picture this:
Beautiful country; lush tropical foliage; sunshine and heat; nice breeze; narrow two lane roads; many dirt roads; winding mountain roads; deep drainage ditches (see our post on Ditches of Death) on each side of the narrow roads; no street signs; large buses driving very fast; buses taking wide turns and encroaching on opposing lanes; crazy drivers tooting horns; everyone passing each other as fast as they can; and you are white knuckling it in the back of the taxi, thinking you’re going to die there at any moment. Oh, oh!

Yep, that was our first impression of Costa Rica’s driving.  We had a car rental reserved for the latter part of our trip.  We were planning on visiting some of the nearby communities and figured that it would be nice to have wheels to get around.  We took buses for the first part of our trip and after observing the driving for a couple of days, we started wondering if car rental on our first visit was even a good idea.

So, we did what we always do: more research online. And we found some disturbing accounts of scams that go on with rental cars.  For example, Costa Rica US Embassy website reports flat tire scams on rental cars and break-ins to locked trunks.  To top things off, the day before we were to pick up our rental car, a tour guide we hired told us that driving crazy and finding ways to pass each other on the narrow roads was Costa Rica’s national pastime (that’s besides football/soccer, of course).  That was the final straw.  We called and cancelled the rental car.  Now here is the good news:

Buses in Costa Rica

We had a very good experience with taking buses in Costa Rica.  They are by far the most popular mode of transportation in the country.  In general, they are comfortable (although not always air-conditioned, especially on the shorter routes) and mostly on time.  People tend to be friendly and helpful and we felt like we got the “Tico experience” – which we really liked.  Below is a picture of the Quepos bus station that we used as our base.  From there we took buses all around.

Bus Station in Quepos
Here are some tips on taking buses:

  • Do bring exact change as much as you can, especially for the short routes.
  • Do give yourself plenty of time – buses are not the “fast option”.
  • Don’t wait until last minute to buy tickets for longer routes (especially to/from San Jose), they can sell out.  Locals told us to buy tickets at least 1-2 days in advance.
  • Check bus schedules before you leave because they do change. Best way is to stop by the bus station but you can also check  it out online at thebusschedule.com/cr/
  • Be polite.
  • Be aware of your surroundings.
  • NEVER leave unattended belongings on the bus, even if it is locked.  We’ve heard accounts of buses being broken into.
  • Avoid taking buses at night.  On the one occasion we took a short route in the evening, we could not get a bus back.  They run less frequently and are not as reliable.  We took a taxi back instead.
  • Be aware that in most bus stations there is no English spoken.  So, you will need to either know a little Spanish or at the very least, write out what you need in Spanish before you go, so you can show it to the booth attendant.  Use translate.google.com if you need to.
  • Check out this writeup on buses in Costa Rica: www.costaricaweb.cr/en/bus-services-in-costa-rica/ – I’m not exactly sure how current it is but it’s a good overview.
  • And lastly, don’t forget to bring water (and a snack).  Some non-air-conditioned buses get pretty hot.

Now that we sort of got the lay of the land, we are probably going to brave a rental car next time.  But for anyone visiting for the first time, I would not recommend it simply because it seems like an overwhelming experience.  Stick to buses, they are safe and reliable and you will feel like you blend in.  We are planning our first trip to Panama in November and will stick to buses there as well.  Just sayin’…

You may also like our posts on Costa Rica Trip Report and Cell Service in Costa Rica.




About Joanna

is a Polish American living in Arizona with her husband Tim. She is a founding partner of JTR Tech and she is proud to be a professional geek. She had dreamt of living abroad for many years. So, she and Tim created AbroadDreams.com to document the process of making their dream of moving abroad come true. They spent 2 years in Puerto Rico and several months in Spain and Poland. Now they are exploring the American Southwest.

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