There are several options for getting around Costa Rica: the cheapest, the fastest and the somewhere-in-between.
Your choice of travel will depend largely on your budget, time table and disposition for adventure.
Unlike other Central American countries, public bus is a completely viable option in Costa Rica and is considered both safe and reliable. However, due to winding and mountainous roads, travel time between destinations is often a lot greater than how it appears on a map.
The Fastest Option: By Plane
Nature Air flies to Arenal, Barra del Colorado, Bocas del Toro in Panama, Drake Bay, Golfito, Liberia, Managua in Nicaragua, Nosara, Palmar Sur, Puerto Jimenez, Punta Islita, Quepos, Samara, Tamarindo, Tambor and Toruguero from the airport in Pavas, San José. Sansa flies to Golfito, Liberia, Nosara, Palmar Sur, Drake Bay, Puerto Jimenez, Punta Islita, Nosara, Quepos, Tamarindo and Tambor; with additional destinations in the high season.
Flights cost between $80 and $120 one-way. All destinations can be reached in less than an hour.
The Cheapest Option: Public Bus
The least expensive way to get around Costa Rica is public bus, which is not a bad alternative for the adventurous traveler. Buses leave on time, are clean and have a good safety record. To look up bus schedules, try Anywhere Costa Rica and Avenida Central.
It’s best to call ahead to confirm the schedule, as departure times are subject to change. In Costa Rica, “all roads lead to San José”, which means travel between tourist destinations is difficult.
The Moderate Option: Tourist Shuttle
Maybe flying is out of the budget, but you still want a moderately priced way to get around Costa Rica. Look for Interbus (Tel: 2283-5573), Grayline (Tel: 2220-2126) or EasyRide (Tel: 2524-0889 (Costa Rica) or 202-448-2910 (United States or Canada)). Each tour company offers reasonably-priced transportation between tourist destinations. On average, ticket prices range from $35 to $70 and vans pick up travelers directly from their hotel.
The Independent Option: Car Rental
Renting a car should only be considered by those free spirits who have patience for getting lost. Because Costa Rica doesn’t have an address system - other than those based on reference points (25 meters from the Radio Shack or 100 east of the Catholic Church) - it’s very easy for those unfamiliar with Costa Rica to get lost. Renting a car is not cheap. As a basic insurance plan is required by law, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a car company willing to rent for less than $30 a day. Narrow roads, high speeds and unpredictable weather conditions makes driving in Costa Rica a bit of a challenge.
Travel Time Between Destinations
San José-Arenal (La Fortuna): 3h30m
San José-Jaco: 2h
San José-Mal Pais: 5h30m
San José-Monteverde: 4h
San José-Puerto Jiménez: 8h
San José-Puerto Viejo: 4h
San José-Quepos (Manuel Antonio): 3h30m
San José-Tamarindo: 5h