San Ramon is an easy town to navigate. It is a 10×10 block square and easy to see from one side to the other with the church and park in the middle as landmarks. The bus system consists of two systems – local and long distance. The local system, for the most part, services the local surrounding communities making several round trips all day. Because the province of San Ramon stretches from Atenas in the south up to Lake Arenal on the north, there are a few long “local” routes including one to La Fortuna which leaves from the local station.
Here is where the two stations are located in San Ramon. The two stations are only a few blocks from each other, so getting from one to the other to change buses is convenient and simple. Note two other items on the map below. The central market is across from the local bus station and has a number of sodas (small cafes) where you can get a quick, inexpensive meal and I marked the museum which has a clean bathroom for c200 donation. There is a public bathroom in the central market which is also c200 but it is not well kept. The last time she checked, my wife said the ladies’ room at the central market did not have toilet seats. The long distance station has a clean bathroom for c200 that you should take advantage of before boarding since the buses do not have bathrooms on them.
The local station can be a little intimidating the first time you enter. It is busy and unfriendly. Note: the people are not unfriendly, the station is. What I mean is that there are buses coming and going, people lining up, walking through, with lots of hustle and bustle and no easy way of getting information. The real draw back for first time visitors is the lack of signs indicating where the bus stops or clearly visible schedules. That means you have to interact with the locals which can be challenging if you don’t speak Spanish. Don’t worry, but look at the experience as an adventure. First, 99+% of the folks have no interest in harming or robbing you. In fact, they probably do not even notice you since they have busy lives and need to be somewhere. So, ask around for the bus you need. Surprisingly, you will find many people who speak English, if reluctantly, since many Ticos have lived in the US. Always guess if they lived in New Jersey since that state has the larges population of Tico so the odds are with you. An important thing to keep in mind is the bus is going to advertise the end point not the route. So, in my case, I take the Rio Jesus bus and my stop is midway, so you need to know a little geography. Second, for most cases, the local bus won’t take you far and worst case you simply stay on the bus and ride back or hire a taxi to finish the job. You have options.
The photo above is from our Rio Jesus stop. You would never know that is the stop since there are no signs. But if you ask around, someone will direct you to the right place. After the first time, it is a no brainer. Look at the first time as an adventure. To better understand the station, I once sat down and just observed the buses coming and going until I understood the rhythm. Usually, it should only take one ride to be familiar with the route.
The local station has few seats so you will be standing up waiting for many of the buses. The tradition appears that people leave their belongings to mark their place in line which you see above. This allows them to sit or stand in the shade (within view of their property) and wait. When the bus arrives, everyone makes a dash for their spot. Remember that the elderly and handicapped have priority so keep your eyes open to let them pass.
Two anomalies are the “local” bus to La Fortuna and UCR San Pedro. The La Fortuna bus makes the 3 hours trip four times a day. The UCR bus takes students to the west side of San Jose where the University of Costa Rica main campus is located.
Long Distance Station
The long distance buses leave San Ramon either going east to San Jose and Alajuela, often making a stop at the airport, or going west to Puntarenas, sometimes stopping in El Roble and Esparza. The bus berths are clearly marked and the schedule is on the wall by the bathroom. Note: sometimes too many buses arrive at the same time and you might need to jump up from your seat and get to the bus on the street, so stay alert. Pay attention to the crowd.
I like at the San Ramon long distance station they sell you a plastic card ticket. You had the ticket to the driver when you board the bus. One cool feature is there is no date on the “ticket” which means you could buy an extra for the times you are running to catch the bus and can directly board the bus without having to stop to buy a ticket.
Pickup at the AutoPista
I wanted to mention a third option. Many long distance buses travel up and down the AutoPista from San Jose to the beaches, and many stop mid-route at the crossroads location by the mall. I have not figured out which ones stop and which ones don’t. To guarantee a seat on the bus route I wanted, I decided to travel all the way into San Jose to catch a bus from there to the beach that would travel back by San Ramon. Note: the long distance buses do not appear to sell tickets in advance, remotely or online, so you take your chance they will stop in San Ramon or that a seat will be available if they do stop. Tica and Nica buses which go to Nicaragua and Panama both have online ticket purchase with guaranteed pickup on the AutoPista stop shown below.
Note the guys on the left. They are selling food to folks at the stop and to passengers when the bus stops. They are your friend. They know which buses stop there and when they are coming. Actually, the local vendors at any station are a good resource since they will know the routes, stops and times.
I know there are 300 beaches in CR. I am going to try to discover a way to visit the 6-10 best beaches by bus. I am sure I will get a lot of grief over any list I create since there are so many favorites. I have a list of what the tourist department encourages visitors to see which I am going to start with. They include: Playa Flamingo, Playa Conchal, Tamarindo, Santa Teresa, Manuel Anonio, Uvita, Cahuita, Pureto Viejo. I wonder if I will be beached out after seeing so much sand?
Here is the information I have collected so far to plan, execute and enjoy my trip:
After much consideration, I decided the best route to the beach was to break the trip into a number of steps. The first leg of the trip was to go from my home to San Ramon on a local bus costing c205. I left at 6 a.m. and reached San Ramon at 6:30 a.m., then caught the 7:00 a.m. bus to San Jose that arrived at 8:30 a.m., where I finally caught the bus to Liberia at 9:00 a.m. I hated to take this route because I hate backtracking (going east to go west). I knew the bus to Liberia would drive by San Ramon and, in fact, by my house, but I could not guarantee it would stop for me. Furthermore, when you catch a bus mid-route, the bus might be sold out, so you have to stand, which is unacceptable for three or more hours.
Day One (San Ramon-San Jose-Liberia)
Itinerary (about $14)
6:00 a.m. Left house
6:20 a.m. Catch local bus at El Empalme (c205, school bus)
6:35 a.m. Arrive at San Ramon local bus station
7:00 a.m. Catch long distance bus to San Jose (c1500, open windows)
8:30 a.m. Arrive in SJ at SR bus station and take an official red cab (c1000)
9:00 a.m. Catch bus at Pulmitan station to Liberia (c4000, air conditioned)
1:30 p.m. Arrived in Liberia (4.5 hours)
San Ramon to San Jose Bus
The first step for me was getting from my hometown of San Ramon to San Jose where all the buses depart. The way the bus system works is each company has a route and their own bus station. So, the challenge is to know which station you are arriving and the station you are departing. For me, the bus coming from San Ramon arrives at P12 on the map below. To catch the Pulmitan bus to Liberia, I had to get from station P12 to P13. Note, the distance is not far and the area relatively safe; still take precautions. Since I had my carry-on luggage and wanted to catch the next bus out to Liberia, I chose to pay an official red taxi 1000 colones or about $2 to take me the distance. It is amazing that I paid c1000 for that taxi ride for 2 kms and c4000 for the trip to Liberia which was much longer. Also, I will mention that Tico taxi drivers do not appear to think geographically in terms of maps but instead think in terms of landmarks. So, I had the awesome the map below which I thought made it clear I wanted to go about 10 blocks north, but what the driver really wanted to hear “Pulmitan de Liberia” to know which station wanted. So, bring maps and printouts if you like, but make sure you know the name of the station where you are departing and the taxi driver will do the rest.
Pulmitan de Liberia Bus Station and Bus
The schedule for buses leaving San Jose for Liberia is below. Notice some are DIRECTO which means they make fewer local stops and are supposed to be faster, but it appears the driver is flexible on mid-route stops. Also, note there are some times where the bus will continue on to Playas del Coco after stopping in Liberia. If the 8 a.m. bus to Coco is too early, no worries. Once you get to Liberia, there are plenty of options for the next leg to Coco via bus or taxi.
Bus Station – Pulmitan de Liberia in San Jose
The Pulmitan station in San jose is small, enclosed and simple to navigate. The ticket booth is inside on the left after the parcel pickup window as you enter. I told the lady where I was going, paid her c4000 ($8), and she gave me a ticket and told me to go to “Zona 1”. Compared to stations without signage, this one was easy. I think there are only three platforms. I went directly to Zona 1, saw the bus and approached the driver who told me to sit down until they were ready. Shortly later, he said something and everyone got up and moved toward the bus. I walked to the under-bus storage area and put in my carry-on bag while the driver watched. I did not get a claim ticket for the luggage although some people insist upon never storing it underneath without a claim ticket. I keep all my valuables either on my person or in my backpack that never leaves my possession. Worst case, I lose my underwear and spare shirts if my luggage is stolen. Still, my seat was right above the storage door, so I could keep an eye on what went in and out.
Here is my ticket from San Jose to Liberia for seat 12.
Bus to Liberia
The bus to Liberia is modern, comfortable, and air conditioned. There are no toilets though. You can see from the photo below that the seat numbers are clearly marked. I also took a picture of the temperature inside the bus. The trip starts off at a comfortable 23C (73F) and will gradually decrease to 18C (64F) along the way, so some folks may get cold and need to bring a jacket.
On the Road
Here are a few tips and observations. I put my backpack on the overhead across from my seat where it was in direct sight. Note: there are no supports or railings, so my backpack was sliding around; and second, I could not use the locking strap on the pack to secure it to a post from a snatch and grab. The traffic on and off the bus was limited so I felt secure, but I have gotten enough warnings from friends that I think, from now on, I will keep it in my seat just in case. Note, the bus seats are not like airplane seats with room for a small carry-on, under the seat in front of you so it is a little challenging putting anything on the floor in front of you but not impossible. Another difference for frequent fliers is the storage option on the back of the seat is small and inflexible, so my iPad barely fit in the space. The space was probably intended for a magazine. Finally, I use a GPS to track where I am, whether in a taxi or bus, so I know where we are and what is coming up. I store the maps offline (Google Maps) on your smart phone before leaving, and Google Maps will accurately tell me where I am as long as there is a cell tower or WiFi to triangulate from.
Rest Stop: El Gran Parqueo (“C” on the map)
Midway through the trip, the bus stopped at El Gran Parqueo so the passengers could get some food and go to the bathroom. Since this was my first time on this route, I was not sure what to do. I waited and thought about staying on the bus guarding my luggage and seat, but I was the only one left and it looked like the bus driver wanted me off. So, I collected my backpack, left the bus, and the driver exited too and locked the bus doors; clearly, there was some security but I liked having my backpack in my possession. The driver told me the break was for 20 min. The facility is quite clean, modern, and had plenty of eating options. There was a snack shop with fresh fruit batidos, a convenience store, and a full restaurant with a buffet, but I am not sure if you have enough time or want to wolf down a big meal. Personally, I think it is best to bring a light snack instead of chancing bus stop food. I typically bring unsalted nuts and water. Oh, the bathroom was clean and free (instead of what you typically see at the bus station–someone collecting a toll of c200 or $0.50 ).
When all done, you take a place by the bus door waiting for the driver to return. There was a loud street preacher trying to save my soul, but since I do not know Spanish, his eloquent speech did not register.
Station: Pulmitan de Liberia Transporte San Jose – Liberia (“D” on the map)
Think mini-San Jose. Liberia has two bus stations like most towns – one long distance (Pulmitan) and one local (Municipal). Below you can see they are a block apart, so if you need to walk from one to the other, it’s not a big deal. Since I wanted to explore Liberia, I choose to stay in a Tico hotel called Hotel Liberia for $35 a night.
When you reach Liberia, you disembark the bus and take your luggage from under the bus. As I said, there is no claim ticket and you just reach in and take yours; so don’t sit around on the bus, but get off and claim your luggage. The main terminal is easy to find and the bathroom is a deal–only c100.
There are plenty of seats in the terminal but not much else. I sat down to assess my options. Be aware that everyone is going to try to help you. Don’t freak out. They probably get a commission directing you to certain hotels or taxis. That is capitalism. The mistake I made was I looked for a cab and didn’t see any official red taxis, so I asked for help and ended up with a Pirata taxi, which is a private cab without a meter. I knew I was supposed to negotiate a price up front, which I did for c1500. I was pretty smug until I took an official red cab back the next day and only paid c1000. So, Piratas 1: Rob 0. There is much talk about the pirata cabs not having insurance and robbing you, and I have no way of assessing the danger, so I typically stick with the red taxis. If you prefer the red taxi, you will probably have to walk a block to the municipal station; they are all waiting for fares there. Note the rate is $1.20 a km so you can always whip out Google Maps and get an approximate idea of the cost, not counting the traffic and waiting time which are extra but so fare I have trusted the meter.
I selected Hotel Liberia because it was cheap. I wanted a cheap, centrally located place and this hotel seemed to fi the bill. Also, I wanted to investigate cheap lodgings in each city which I could use when traveling whenever my bus schedule might require an overnight stay. What you get for $35 is a clean room and a fan. There is no AC or hot water. Liberia is a hot place, so one does not really need a hot water shower. I think their business plan must be to draw folks in with cheap rooms and make money off the food. I like the convenience of the hotel restaurant and ate there a few times. The food was great but not cheap.
Central Church of Liberia
I was hoping for more to see in Liberia. The central park was pleasant and the main church (below) was unique. I enjoy seeing how different towns design and build their central church since it reflects the community’s wealth, the construction time period, and the materials available.
Museo de Guanacaste
I had high hopes for the Museo de Guanacaste since it looked so cool from the outside. I was and still am confused about the structure’s original purpose. It appears to be either an old fort, jail or administrative building. There is so much potential untapped here. I wandered around the inside and outside, but there were no plaques or displays explaining the history or future of the building. In the states, there would be a donation jar with “save the fort” by the door, but there was nothing here.
08:30 a.m. Official red taxi from hotel to local bus station (1.5km, c1000)
09:32 a.m. Liberia to Panama with stop in Hermosa (34km, c1500)
10:30 a.m. Arrived in Playa Hermosa
The next day, I took a cab to the local bus station to catch a bus to Playa Hermosa. I had a printout from one of the bus schedule websites, so I knew the time the bus left but nothing else. The map below illustrates my mission, but I wasn’t sure how to recognize the correct bus since it was labeled simply “Liberia.” The bus driver called out “Panama” and I discovered that he stops at Playa Hermosa on the way. As shown on the map below, the bus leaves Liberia, stops at the airport, and travels from Guarda to Sardinal to Hermosa to Panama and eventually back to Liberia. I think I paid c1500. Note: the buses do not go to Coco (I think that route is owned by Pulmitan). You need to get to either the Y in the road between Hermosa and Coco or back to Sardinal to go back and forth between the beaches. I really cannot say what the bus does after it leaves Hermosa, since that is where I got off. It may turn around in Playa Panama and retrace the route instead of making a loop. Sometimes, you simply have to ask.
Shout out to piratas: This is my first time waiting at this particular bus station. There are no signs, but I had a departure time. During the hour wait, a pirata offers to take me for $30 and checked back every fifteen minutes reducing the price each time. In the mean time, I think the right bus comes in (no signage) and I ask someone if he is going to our destination and he says no, so I sit back down still thinking it is the right time, but hey, this is CR and who can count on published times? After making his final offer of $15 and realizing I really wanted to take the bus, the pirata tells me this is the right bus, no matter what anyone else said. He grabbed our luggage and helped me get on. I only wished I had tipped him, but in all the confusion of getting on the bus before it left, I missed the opportunity; but next time through I will seek him out and make it right. I am finding the piratas and food sellers are my friends and being courteous pays back benefits.
Below is the online bus schedule for departure times from Liberia to Hermosa. I was waiting at the berth at 9:30 like the schedule below shows hoping to discern which bus to take. Notice there are two times (9:30 and 9:34) listed. I am not sure if I caught the 9:30 or 9:34 bus, but I eventually got to the beach.
The local bus station to the beach is open and has ample seating. Looking like a gringo fresh off the plane, I got a lot of attention from vendors and piratas. I learned a valuable travel lesson from the famous travel blogger, Nomadic Matt, to be friendly to everyone since it has a way of paying you back as I mentioned above. I often take time to admire vendors’ wares and consider their offers which they appreciate. Afterward, the conversation evolves to where I am going with them giving me valuable tips on where to eat and what to see.
The local station in Liberia is easy to navigate with a few souvenir and food vendors and plenty of piratas. The passengers wait in seats and the buses pull into their designated bay shown above. There is no signage indicating which bay is for which bus, so ask around. I recorded each bus that pulled in and where I though it was going above though it could change.
Story about a nice taxi driver who helped us. Debt Paid
The bus to the beach was a typical bus with no AC. I put my luggage in the seat in front of me where I could keep an eye on it. Because there was not signage on the bus to indicate where it was going, the driver had to yell out the door as he passed each stop, “Panama” and people at the stop took the appropriate action of ignoring him or trying to jump on as he glided by. Yes, it was like a trolley in San Francisco with the bus slowing just enough to let people jump on and off. Fortunately, he came to a full stop so I could get off with all my luggage.
Play Hermosa (“E” on the map)
I got off at entrance #1 and walked to the bottom of the hill to the beach.
The beach appears safe, and the tide is calm.
Here is the local schedule the housekeeper wrote up for us to get around.
I wanted to mention Eddie , the taxi driver, who I used to get from Hermosa to Coco. He charged c6,000 ($12) each way.
The Return Trip (Playa Hermosa to San Ramon)
We traveled by car from Playa Hermosa to Liberia to catch the bus to San Jose. The information station is on the right and the ticket booth on the left as mention above. The ticket costs c4,000 or about $8 each.
09:00 a.m. Left Liberia
10:50 a.m. Stopped at the same midway point above for a bathroom break and food
11:10 a.m. Left midway point (yep 20 minutes as advertised)
12:00 p.m. Arrived at San Ramon crossroads
I told the agents I was going to San Ramon, not all the way to San Jose and was told to tell the driver. Note: there is no discount for getting off early, and there are no assigned seats like on the bus from San Jose to Liberia. Oh, I gave the guy c10,000 and he did not give me change until I asked for it. The luggage goes under the bus as before. This time they separated the luggage into San Jose and getting off early luggage, which makes it a little more convenient when you get off midway.
I wanted to mention some difference between the return bus compared to the one we took to the beach. First, the overhead storage had the supports I like to secure my luggage and the elastic rope to prevent luggage from falling when taking sharp curves. I mentioned earlier that I like to put the backpack strap around the support to make it impossible to snatch and grab it and I appreciate the elastic after my luggage nearly crowned a passenger on the first leg we took from San jose to the beach. The downside was the overhead was narrower than usual, and I had a hard time putting one of the bags up there, so I kept it with me in the seat. Unlike the first bus, the temperature in this one was normal and it never got chilly.
Getting off Mid-Route
The ticket agent told me to alert the bus driver that I needed to get off in San Ramon instead of traveling the full distance to San Jose. Not knowing how to correctly do this and having heard horror stories about how this plan can fail, I used a multi-tier approach to be semi-annoying. I Google translated a note requesting to get off at San Ramon which I hand wrote not having a printer with me, and I handed to the driver at the rest stop. I am not sure he understood my writing, so I kept saying “San Ramon” and eventually he understood or got tired and wanted me to go away. We met again in the bathroom at the rest stop and he smiled and repeated “San Ramon,” which gave me a warm fuzzy. Finally, as we approached San Ramon, I moved to the front of the bus where the driver acknowledged my presence and intention to stop and finally, I had my wife ready to ring the stop bell. Man, was I annoying this first time, but I feel better now that I can make this work next time with fewer steps. The great thing was getting off mid-way in San Ramon made the return trip only 3 hours verses the 6 hrs. I took backtracking through San Jose initially.