Local buses are the best (if rather slow) way of getting around Costa Rica. You can take one just about everywhere, and they’re frequent and cheap, with the longest domestic journey out of San José costing less than US$10.
San José is the transportation center for the country, but there is no central terminal. Bus offices are scattered around the city: some large bus companies have big terminals that sell tickets in advance, while others have little more than a stop – sometimes unmarked. (One local bus ‘station’ in San José consists of a guy with a clipboard sitting on a lawn chair.)
Normally there’s room for everyone on a bus, and if there isn’t, someone will squeeze you on anyhow. The exceptions are days before and after a major holiday, especially Easter, when buses are ridiculously full. (Note that there are no buses on the Thursday to Saturday before Easter Sunday.) There are two types of bus: directo and colectivo. The directo buses presumably go from one destination to the next with few stops. If only this were so! It is against the instinctual nature of Costa Rican bus drivers not to pick up every single roadside passenger. (Directo buses charge more for this largely nonexistent nonstop service.) As for the colectivo, you know you’re on one when the kids outside are outrunning your bus.
Trips longer than four hours usually include a rest stop (buses do not have bathrooms). Space is limited on board, so if you have to check luggage watch that it gets loaded and that it isn’t ‘accidentally’ given to someone else at intermediate stops. Keep your day pack with important documents on you at all times. Thefts from overhead racks are rampant.
Bus schedules may fluctuate, so always confirm the time when you buy your ticket. If you are catching a bus that picks up somewhere along a road, get to the roadside early. Departure times are estimated and if the bus comes early, it will leave early.
For information on departures from San José, pay a visit to the ICT office to pick up the sort of up-to-date copy of the master schedule, which is also on-line at www.visitcostarica.com. Another more thorough but less reliable source of bus schedules and fares is Costa Rica by Bus, a self-published e-book that is available at www.costaricabybus.com.
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