If there's something that's abundant in Costa Rica it has to be public buses. Public buses are inexpensive and can take you almost anywhere in the country. A lot of people spend a fortune renting cars and chartering tour buses, and don't realize that they could simply use the public transportation system and save a bundle.
You can find lists of all the bus routes that operate in the country and the companies that run them, here . There's also an app containing this information that you can download on your cell phone.
All roads lead to RomeEdit
The first thing you have to be aware of when using buses in Costa Rica is that a lot, if not most of the buses in the system, normally go through downtown San Jose. Routes are set up so that the buses leave a stop in downtown San Jose, head off, and come back to the downtown area. Downtown, bus stops are grouped by sector so they are easy to find. The major advantage of this is that if you're ever lost and want to get back to downtown San Jose, you can take almost any bus and it will eventually lead you to the city center.
Be aware that the Periferica routes as well as the intersectorial routes don't pass through downtown.
It also gives you a lot of advantages when moving inside the city, since you can use different buses can get faster travel times or more convenient routes. You can find the location of the most common downtown bus stops by checking Google maps , or by checking booklets published by the ICT. All buses have a defined route name that describes the major locations or neighborhoods that they go through. The route name is normally posted in large letters on the windshield.
Buses are state regulated, which means their routes and fares are fixed by the government. You can find a full list of routes and fares here . Plus you can download that list as an app for your cell phone.
Buses stop at different places along their route. Inside cities these bus stops are normally well marked or defined, outside cities it's a bit more difficult to determine where they are, normally the bus stops where people typically gather. If you ask around people should be able to tell you where the bus stops, or if not just ask the driver when you get on. You can also ask them to tell you when you're near a certain destination and they'll let you know so you can get off at the right place.
Detailed information for your tripEdit
Getting detailed information about which buses will take you where, and what their schedule is, is kind of a hit or miss thing. Unfortunately there's no central database of route maps or schedules (there's the fares and operators database mentioned above and that's it). Usually you have to do some detective work to find out what buses to take.
An excellent way to find out what bus you need to take is to email your hotel and ask. They'll usually know and can tell you the route name and who operates it. If that's not possible, the Internet has a lot of good information from people who have blogged at some point about their trip.
If that fails, you can find the route name in the fares database. Some are easy to find in the DB, others require a bit more research. Sometimes you'll find there's several routes that head to the same destination. But they differ in their start point, or the specific area they arrive at. You could arrive in the same city, but on the other side completely. Or your bus could simply stop outside the city and keep going on the main road, and you'd have to walk to the inner part of the city. That's where it becomes hit or miss, if you've never travelled the area before.
When you've found a route that works, find out who the operator is. If you looked the route up in the database, it'll tell you right there. Find their website, and you should find a schedule list. If there's no schedule list, the website will usually have their phone number and you'll have to call them up to ask.
So once you have their phone number, call them and ask (observe local office hours which are usually 8 to 5 or so). Skype works ok for this, if you're not in the country. While you're at it get the terminal address. Find out what bus you need to board, and what the precise route name is, so you don't get confused when you arrive at the terminal.
Paying for your tripEdit
Most bus trips you pay for in cash, when you board the bus. There's no prepaid tickets except for buses that go outside the metro area from the larger terminals. For those buses you can sometimes buy tickets the day before or a few days in advance, although if you don't make it you can still buy the ticket when you board if there's space left on the bus. Or if you take the bus from outside the terminal you can probably pay by cash when you board. The fare you have to pay to take the buses is normally posted on the windshield in large letters, or if it's not posted there you can view it on the bus’ circulation certificate, which is normally above the driver's head when you enter. Currently the prices of most buses inside the Central Valley are under 1000 colones. Buses that go outside the Central Valley or to some remote areas are more expensive and can range from 1200 colones all the way to over 5000. You can view the rates that are currently authorized for the different bus routes in the country here .
There's also an app you can download called "Mi Ruta", which lists all the rates for bus routes in the country. You can download the app on Play store .
Be sure to carry enough change in small bills and coins to pay for your trip, since most buses can't readily make change for anything over 5000. They'll happily accept lots of coins, and this is a good way to get rid of all that spare change you have floating around in your pockets. Some buses will charge different rates depending on where you get on and off. If you make the full trip it's one amount, if you open the part of the trip gets a small amount. These partial rates are also officially authorized, and you can view them in the rates document. Bus schedules
Inside cities buses that run continuously throughout the day have no defined schedule, though they try to keep a certain frequency. For example you'll have buses that stop by a certain place every 15 to 20 minutes, or less if their more popular routes. Only the long-haul routes which go outside the major cities were between cities, have defined hours when the bus arrives and leaves the terminal. You should check with locals that are familiar with the routes you'll be using, they can usually tell you how often the bus stops by.
Cargo and luggageEdit
All buses have cargo space, though not all buses are accustomed to using it. Especially if people don't normally have cargo or luggage on the route. The airport and most popular beach routes often see people with luggage on them so they're accustomed to the situation. But for example if you're taking one of the bus routes to the suburbs that's not associated with an airport or a beach, they'll probably look at you funny if you ask for access to the cargo space.
Assume that it's normally not going to be easy getting access to space on the bus for large items, and that you should check with the bus operator or the bus driver in advance in order to figure out what to do about them. If what you're carrying is not excessively large many times buses will allow you to take it on board by paying for another seat, if that's not possible you may find an alternative is to talk with the bus driver the day before and find a convenient run when there's less people and you can take the time to stow whatever you're carrying underneath.
International travel via busEdit
It's possible to travel to all of Central America by bus, using for example the lines that Ticabus offers. Rates vary by country, though they're usually much less expensive than airfare. Trip times are normally over 10 hours by bus to Nicaragua and Panama.
At the borders, buses have to stop by customs and inmigration, so you're not going to get away from that by taking the bus. These trips through inmigration normally take a few hours and conditions are not always comfortable while you're waiting, which is something you should take into account before making these bus trips. It's especially troublesome during the holidays, when people from Nicaragua are heading home. If you don't like long lines and packed buses, you should avoid traveling routes that go through Nicaragua between December 22 and the first week of January.
Private and restricted linesEdit
There are some private and restricted lines that move throughout the city. The most evident are buses owned by tour companies and operators. You'll also find buses owned by large companies that are used by employees to travel to the workplace. These buses are clearly marked, so it's hard to confuse them with public lines.
Most confusion occurs with bus lines belonging to the University of Costa Rica, known as “UCR Bus”. These are bus routes that travel the major cities and neighborhoods, and make their last stop at the central campus in San Pedro. Originally these lines could be boarded by any person at the stops, and people found them very convenient to get from one place to the other without going through downtown San Jose. However recently the University placed a restriction on these bus lines, allowing only students with ID to board these buses. If you see a bus that says “UCR”, be aware that you might or might not be able to board it, and if you do it's not going to take you downtown but rather to the San Pedro area.
Intersectorial (Interlinea) routesEdit
Thanks to an unexpected traffic crisis, in 2013 three new bus routes were created, called intersectorial lines. These lines run along the northern and eastern suburbs, without entering the downtown area. The buses arrive every 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the time of day.
Taking an intersectorial bus instead of going downtown on a regular bus can save you quite a bit of time, especially during rush hour.
You can see a map of the available routes, and their stops, here .