Driving vs. Buses in Costa Rica?
October 28, 2007 11:47 AM   Subscribe

I am going to Costa Rica in November for one week. What are the advantages of renting a car vs. using public transportation?

We will be going for about 1 week, and plan to be on the move alot. We would like to go to the volcano at Poas...Monteverde...and would like to hit the beach at Montezuma.

As with everything, money is a consideration but we managed to find a decent 4 x 4 for about $300/week (with insurance).

Any hints/advice/explanations/experiences on the matter would be awesome.
posted by zach4000 to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Public transportation there takes FOREVER. You will get to do more and see more if you rent a car. If you can drive stick, definitely get a car with manual transmission. Make sure that you rent a decent car from a reliable company.

Hints and advice? You have to drive for both you and other drivers. Speed limits, rules, road signs...they are mostly guidelines. People pass on whenever they feel like it (regardless of curves on mountain passes, double lines, etc). You have to be aggressive and defensive. There are symbols painted on the road, a heart with a halo inside of a square. They are put there by the state for traffic and pedestrian fatalities. Take note of how many you see-they are everywhere.

Other advice...be aware of police roadblocks, and cooperate. Sometimes they feel like grilling you, sometimes not. Usually they are just looking for illegal Panamanians and Hondurans. I would avoid driving in San Jose if you can. There are no street signs, and if you are not familiar with the city at all, you will end up getting really lost.

Be aware that the maps are not great either. Some roads are just suggestions. There is no self-serve gas.

I tried to think of everything. If you stick with the main touristy areas, you won't run into a lot of the things that I usually do when I am down there conducting research. You'll have a great time. My email is in my profile if you have any other questions-I'd be glad to help.
posted by bolognius maximus at 12:24 PM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

We spent about a week in Costa Rica after getting married tere. We rented a 4x4, a Daihatsu Terios. It was a very capable little car, and it needed to be. A regular sedan would never have survived. I found the traffic to be quite reasonable, but the roads were awful. We drove from San Jose to Jaco, back to San Jose and then up Monteverde, from Monteverde to Arenal back down to San Jose. The worst parts were definitely from Monteverde to Arenal. A 50-mile drive took about 5 hours and our teeth were rattling out of our heads. Get the tire insurance with your rental car.

We also spent a few days driving around the San Jose area, and the biggest difficulty we ran into was the road signs. They are very sparse and when they exist, they're confusing. However, most of the people we talked to for directions were very friendly. Budget a lot of time for driving, getting lost, and driving more. In retrospect we should have stayed in one area for longer, rather than trying to see several areas.

Depending on what you're interested in, either the San Jose area (and surrounding), Monteverde, or Arenal would be good places to spend half of your trip. I'll bet that spending several days on a full expedition like whitewater rafting or horseback riding would be a good idea. They'll pick you up at your hotel and drive you back. We did that in Arenal and it was a lot of fun.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by eiramazile at 1:06 PM on October 28, 2007

Public transportation there takes FOREVER.

Yeah, if you take the transportation that's for the Costa Rican public. OTOH, the little tourist shuttles work pretty well. A little pricey, but they go point-to-point between where you want to go. Maybe $30-$40 per person.
posted by smackfu at 1:06 PM on October 28, 2007

I went for 12 days with some buddies and we spent a lot of time traveling all over the place.

We rented from the Fox rent a car affiliate, by the Hampton Inn in Alajuela (San Jose Airport). We were glad we did. We moved around nearly every day and beat the crap out of our Suzuki Ignus 4x4. I'm glad we didn't take public transport 'cause it would have added a lot of time.

Depending upon your budget and time constraints, you might look into short domestic flights as a way to get around.
posted by rbs at 3:53 PM on October 28, 2007

An alternative view: I took a combination of private tourist shuttles and public buses all up and down the west coast and it was fabulous.

I wouldn't say it took forever, although waiting without knowing the schedule took awhile. I saw the country close up in way you don't when you are either focused on traffic or speeding down the road.

I saved money and mixed with average Costa Rican in a way that I never would have been able to had I been driving a car.
posted by Xurando at 5:01 PM on October 28, 2007

For a week with a lot of traveling you'd probably be good to get a car. I did two weeks there & did basically exact same route as Eiramazile. The trip around Monteverde was actually pretty fun. It's crazy dirt roads & I was happy to have our little 4x4 SUV but we never had to go into 4x4 mode. I probably could have done it with my civic (well, maybe.) We had dry roads though & so I'm sure it gets much worse.

I wouldn't have wanted to do it at night. We didn't drive much at night in any event. It's rather confusing, roads mostly don't have names. (The convention seems to be to refer to them like train routes, that is by their endpoints.) And even the paved roads can be fairly white knuckled at points. All-in-all I enjoyed the driving, but a few times were stressful, especially when it rained.

Mainly though because we did about 4 places in 12 days & pretty much left the car alone when we were in each town I figure we could have paid for tourist buses or even cabs / hires and come out ahead.

Here's a pic of the road to Monteverde:

posted by Wood at 5:10 PM on October 28, 2007

Best answer: I found my travels from Tamarindo to Arenal pretty tame compared to the horror stories I read before I got there. I didn't plan on driving, but I was an idiot and left my Mac at the hotel in Tamarindo. I realized it at the Liberia airport about 20 mintues before my flight to Arenal so I took a taxi back to the hotel. Once I had my Mac, I found out I had already missed the Interbus for the day, and the next air flight from Tamarindo or Liberia was the next morning. I ended up passing the Interbus as I was getting into La Fortuna even though I left almost two hours after it did.

Definitely get a good map. I got the Berndtson Map from the hotel I was at. It has good markings on paved vs. unpaved roads. Costa Rica is a tiny country, but when you're traveling at 20mph, bout don't go very far very fast. The guy that rented the car to me showed me the best route to get to my destination. Without him, I probably would have gone the most direct route, but his way paved and actually faster.

The roads can be poor. There was a stretch going through the rainforest as a I approached Lake Arenal where half of the road was just gone. There was another place we went to near the volcano where a bridge was damaged. However, unlike Wood's pictures of the road to Monteverde, my route was paved the whole way. We had a little Suzuki 4x4 that was like a Rav4. A full sized car wouldn't have made it past either of the obstacles. It was a great fun adventure. As bolognius mentioned, stop signs and other rules of the road appear to be optional for the locals.

Signage was a problem. Sometimes there'd be nice signs like this. When I was to turn from the road to Tamarindo onto the Panamerican highway in Liberia, I missed the intersection and started driving through the town until the pavement turned to dirt and I realized I missed it. I missed another turn and almost went to Monteverde.

But having a car was great because you could stop whenever you want to check something out and not have to wait and having to wait for the bus' schedule. And in many cases, there's only one of two a day that may not be convenient. Xurando's comment about not seeing the country speeding by in a car isn't much to worry about. Except for some boring stretches on the Panamerican Highway, you'll be going pretty slow. If you or someone in your party aren't the driving adventure type, you may want to fly/interbus around.

Since you're going to Montezuma, you might want to seriously consider flying there since it will save many hours in the car and/or ferry. The local planes are a great way to get around the country fast. Even though they're little prop planes that go slow, everywhere in the country is about 30 minutes in the air from San Jose. I flew Sansa [flysansa.com] and Nature Air [nature air] while there as well. The 10-12 seaters were another adventure [especially taking off and landing on primitive runways]. You can book your flights online but the websites don't work at all in Safari, work somewhat in Firefox. Since the planes are small, reservations are suggested. There were only two of us on my flight to Tamarindo but the plane was full and some walkups were turned away in Fortuna. Sansa flies out of a little terminal next to the main terminal at SJO. Nature Air uses a totally different little airport in Pavas. I found both airlines great. My flight from Fortuna to San Jose was late, but I didn't have a connection until the next morning so I wasn't worried. Even though I was in Costa Rica in the "rainy season" there wasn't a problem with weather. Don't cut it short on getting back to the airport to catch your flight home. I'd imagine poor weather would impact your plans.

I'm going back to CR soon and trying to figure out where I want to go. I'm probably going do a hybrid Nature Air/car route.
posted by birdherder at 6:14 PM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi everyone. Thanks for all the advice. Right now, the car option seems the fastest/funnest option. However, getting around with the unmarked roads in the rainy season is a worry.

Can the rain be predicted in any meaningful way? Is it a rain in the afternoon type thing?
posted by zach4000 at 8:21 PM on October 28, 2007

When I was on the Pacific coast during "rainy season" it rained in the late afternoon -- or it didn't rain at all. Inland at Arenal volcano it rained like a son of a bitch early one morning [like 4 am -- the rain came down hard on the tin roof, thought it might have been cinders from the volcano. It was sunny and nice the rest of the time. My last night in San Jose before coming home there was a rain storm in the afternoon about 5pm. So if there was a pattern, it was in the afternoon. The rains I experienced were pretty brief so if you were on the road, you could just pull over and wait it out.

The other thing I didn't say above was you'd probably not want to drive at night and in Costa Rica the sun sets around 5 in the afternoon [it rises around 5 in the morning]. When you're on the road, I'd try to be at your destination by 4. Remember, the maximum speed limit is 60km/h [about 40mph] and in the mountains and shittier roads, you'll never get that fast. If you do get stuck driving after sunset, it isn't the end of the world, you'll just have to go slower.

My car rental agency gave me a rules of the road sheet in English and Spanish. The Lonely Planet Guide also has some pointers. It takes a while to get used to driving in Costa Rica, but by the time you turn the car in, you'll be a pro. Just remember in towns to assume the guy at the cross street is just going to slow down at the stop sign or red light.
posted by birdherder at 8:59 PM on October 28, 2007

I've been living here for 6 years..

Rent a car. Public transportation is okay, but you are on vacation - you will save a lot of time by driving, and you will see a lot of extra sights you would otherwise miss, and you will be much more free in your travels.

The roads are shitty in places.. generally meaning unpredicatable potholes that can rip off a tire... that said, many of the roads are also in very good condition and you can drive without issue.
Right now, the roads are worse than usual due to excessive rain this year.

The maximum speed limit is 90kph.. in some places 100. Off the highway the limit will be 60, sometimes 80.

Driving is easy... but you have to use your head and pay attention to what is going on around you. Don't expect anyone to blindly follow the rules. People tend to drive sensibly.

Rain is indeed an afternoon type of thing. Rainy season is almost over, though, so depending on when you are coming you may not care.

Don't be afraid of police.. they may give you "the routine".. but they are only trying to illicit a bribe. If they are "stalling".. and you'll know, because you'll think "What's taking so long"... they are only looking for a bribe. You can just ask for the ticket, or give them 5000c and be done with it. They won't arrest you or ruin your trip... they're basically harmless.

Rent an SUV of sorts.. whether small or large.
Dollar Rent-a-car has some nice Mitsubishi montero sports.. a very good vehicle for touring this country in.
posted by TravellingDen at 11:02 PM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

« Older How do you mentor someone?   |   Can St. Louis hold a candle to Chicago? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.