The bus stations are at the beginning of the peninsula on the right side of the map below. I come in from San Ramon at the station closest to the water. I think that is where the San Jose bus comes in too. The station a little further north has the local routes listed above.
Most significant bus trip and take some time so it is best to prepare with a little food and water. I typically bring a small bottle of water in my backpack to make sure I don’t get dehydrated and I refill it when ever I am need a water source. One of the biggest underrated assets of living in Costa Rica is the water is drinkable.
The second part of the equation is food. The bus stations all have food but it might not be what you want or need. It appears to me the food in the station is “heavy” meaning it is fried and probably would not travel well. I try to 1) eat light while traveling on the bus to make sure I don’t encounter something that will upset my stomach and 2) I am never 100% about food I randomly encounter and it’s quality, ingredients, etc. Remember there are no bathrooms on the bus like you might have seen on a Greyhound in the States. I carry a “barf bag” from an airline trip but there is no easy cure for an upset stomach.
So, one of the items we have been experimenting with are Rambutan which are quite ugly on the outside but sweet and juicy on the inside. The thick outer skin makes great protection while traveling. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of “meat” in the fruit so it is a nice snack but wound serve as dinner. An apple, would be much better travel food but they have to be imported and are expensive.
I think a combination of fruit and nuts might be the most condensed food selection to satisfy your hunger in a small, easy to keep and transport package. Unfortunately, nuts are expensive in Costa Rica but we use these packages to hold us over until we get to a place that serves the kind of food we prefer (more vegetables and less frying).
Here are some life tips I have learned while riding the bus in Costa Rica.
Waiting for the bus
It all starts with catching and getting on the bus. You might start at a rural stop (parada) which may or may not have a shelter like ours pictured below. Or the parada may simply be marked by a painted stripe on the road. If you are going in the opposite direction, wait across the street from the marked stop or shelter.
Sometimes in town, you need to pick up the bus at a beat-up sign on the side of the street. Don’t get discouraged, but think of it as a scavenger hunt and rise to the challenge.
And sometimes you will have a modern bus terminal with seats, shops, and good lighting like this one in Palmares.
Here is the new $10M bus station in San Jose that I can not wait to visit.
If the bus stop is by the side of the road, many people will simply put their stuff down to mark their place in line. Here you can see from our red grocery cart that we are third in line. Once marked, I can retreat to the shade to wait on the bus. I have never seen anyone bother anyone’s bags, but you should still remain vigilant and don’t mark with obvious valuable items like computers or cameras and keep an eye on your belongings. It is just common sense while traveling.
Here is another example at my local station in San Ramon of people marking their place in line.
Costa Rica confuses me. In the states, being exposed to the people on public transit meant getting sick. Sure, I washed my hands and covered my mouth and nose in the States, but it never helped and I would invariably catch cold. The only conciliation was I thought maybe my immune system was getting super charged from exposure to so many germ variants. Since riding the bus in Costa Rica, I haven’t been sick. In fact, I don’t get the impression others are often sick either. You know the image I have in mind of a crowded bus or train in the US with hundreds of people sneezing and coughing on each other. Maybe it is because US buses are air conditioned so the windows are always closed and everyone is locked in a petri dish passing germs. I have been very healthy since moving to Costa Rica. Since there are no major temperature changes in Costa Rica, the US winter cold phenomena in the winter does not pertain. Maybe it is the sunshine or the fresh air or lack of cold weather that makes germ transmission lower? I say all this because, if you have been one to avoid pubic transportation because of possible contact with germs, all I can say is I am not seeing the rampant transmission like I experienced in the US.
Here is a great article that may explain what I experienced. It appears the flu strives at 40 degrees which is when season change in the State, added to returning to school and being inside all make germ transmission easier.
On many of the buses, there will be simple sliding windows to get fresh air as seen below. I have been surprised that many times when I board a bus the windows are all closed and the bus is stuffy. Why? I think the behavior might be due to frequent monsoon rains that would otherwise come in the window and soak everyone so it is not a habit to open all the window wide.
What I look for is regular departures since they make my life easy. Notice the schedule below for buses leaving from San Jose going to San Isidro del General. Notice the schedule show three bus companies – Musoc, Transp. Blanco and Tracpoa – all servicing San Isidro. But what catches my eye is Musoc hourly departure (7:30, 8:30, 9:30). The reason is because I know with regular departures I have plenty of slack if something goes wrong. Given, I have to get to San Jose initially by a combination of local / long distance buses and taxis, I could get very anxious if my schedule depended on a making a connection with infrequent departure times. Think of all those people you remember running frantically through the airport. That feels too much like when I was traveling for work and I had to constantly monitor the time, looking up the gate, etc. With regularly hourly departures, I can sit back knowing if the traffic is bad, there is a wreck, a protest, or a volcano erupting, I can eventually just catch the next bus leaving.
One of the difference between my old life working for a living and being retired is that life has slowed way down. I use to schedule my day in five minute increments and now I do it in one hour blocks and sometime daily blocks. So, in my mind, when we travel slowly, I visualize catching the 6:00am bus to San Ramon, 7:00am from San Ramon to San Jose, and 9:00am bus from San jose to the beach. Typically, the result is that I spend 30 minutes to 2 hours cooling my heels waiting in a bus station. That can be very frustrating to people who are on a schedule and who think “Time is Money”. That difference in outlook is the main reason I enjoy riding the bus and many others with real or perceived time constraints hate it. So, what to do with all the down time – read, people watch, learn Spanish, etc. Once you think of the bus ride as part of the adventure, it changes the experience and makes the time waiting enjoyable.
I initially worked very hard optimizing my trips such as trying to catch buses mid-route or trying to never backtrack. It was a lot of work fraught with potential failure and it started to be less fun. Now, I have accepted the inevitable and I am running with the rule to always get to San Jose as my starting point. I really hate traveling one hour east to retrace the route west but face it, San Jose is the countries transportation hub. It just goes against my sensibility but sometimes, “A man’s got to know his limitations” (Clint Eastwood, Magnum Force) and make the best of things which I am doing by planning my trips to originate from San Jose.
Be aware that the bus drop off may not be the bus pickup point. Our local bus into San Ramon terminates a few blocks from the place we line up to return. It works really well getting everyone off the bus so that when the bus pulls around the corner people can start getting on. It is not a big deal now but when you are brand new, a few blocks can be scary. So, first be aware and do not assume. Second, ask everyone who you think can assist from the bus driver to passengers.
I discovered a new information resource at the bus station … Mormon Missionaries. They are easy to pick out of the crowd, speak English, don’t have cars so walk and take the bus. They were very helpful yesterday find the right bus.
Another great resource are the vendors who sell fruit at the bus stops. They work the location every day and know when every bus comes through and where it stops.
What you do not see
Once I was standing on the steps to get into the bus and the bus driver politely asked me to move. I did not understand at the time but later noticed that some buses had an optical counter they probably use for accounting to make sure the receipts match the passenger count. By me standing where I was, I probably made the counter go wild cause a headache for the driver at the end of the day when he reconciled his accounts. So, be aware and patient and quickly move past the scanners when your time comes to enter the bus.
One thing about Costa Rica is the diversity of plant and animal life , terrain and even bus stops. In typical Tico fashion, they install exactly what is necessary and no more. So you won’t see solar powered stops with benched dotting the country.
Below is the smallest and simplest stop I have encountered which is just a yellow stripe on the road. Sometimes it is only on one side. Fortunately, over time, tribal knowledge takes over and people tell people and everyone knows where to stand.
Some stops are easy to recognize and offer shelter from the rain like my stop below on the left to get to town. The stop below on the right is the return stop to get from town home which has no bench or shelter and one needs to keep an eye open for pigeons overhead.
Most towns have bus stop like the one below (Liberia) which is open air and also serves as a market place. As you see, there are plenty of seating and overhang to protect you from the rain.
On the large size are station like the new $10M station in San jose which I understand has multiple floor and shops.
To get started riding the buses, the first thing you need is a schedule so you know where to stand and when. More and more online resources are becoming available, but many times you will need to seek out the elusive paper schedule. The paper schedules come in many forms and sizes and are found in many places. Here is the paper schedule I cut my teeth on when I first arrived in CR. It was given to me by our caretaker, and I guarded it jealously for fear I would lose the only copy in the world.
The first thing I did was take a picture of it with my phone camera so I would have it with me always. I never thought to ask the bus driver for a schedule, but once when he thought I was confused, he handed me one.
One thing to note is that the bus may have different schedules depending on the day of the week. So my schedule above is for Monday – Saturday and below (on the reverse side of the paper) is the Sunday schedule.
The Sunday schedule (Domingos) also serves as the holiday schedule, though I am not always sure which holidays are schedule change holidays. For example, a fiesta that closes all the streets may not be an official holiday even though everything is closed. Best to be aware and ask beforehand if you need to travel on a holiday.
So, where are the schedules posted? It can be as easy as looking at a big board at busy bus stations or in the window of a shop for local buses. You may feel as if you are on a scavenger hunt as you walk around looking at all the shop windows where the schedules might be posted. Once I find them, I whip out my phone and take a picture.
Another place the schedules can be found is posted in the front of the bus. I find working with that one to be the most challenging. Typically, I am in line queuing up for the bus to get in and 1) don’t want to slow boarding down and 2) don’t want to draw any more attention to the fact I am a newbie gringo than I already bring on myself by the way I dress. So, for the front of the bus schedules, I typically try to capture them as I exit.
Many times the bus stops have the schedules posted like this one in Naranjo. By the way, don’t trust the picture. I think this bus is not blue anymore.
The best ones are the big overhead signs at busy stations like this one in Alajuela. The only problem is there is nothing that cries tourist like staring up at the big board for a long time. Note: the schedule tells you the time but not where to stand, so maintain your patience and sense of adventure.
The most important thing to remember about the bus schedules is that they may change. (Although, I have been very surprised that the buses run on time given Ticos’ Pura Vida attitude to life. Perhaps because the buses are as essential for getting a majority of the population to work and to appointments, they take bus travel and schedules very seriously.) But if you absolutely, must be some place on time, factor into your plans the possibility of schedule changes, understand the alternate routes, and have the number for a taxi as a backup.
Finally, I am sure all these paper schedules’ and signs’ days are numbered by the advent of online resources which include internet bus schedules and phone apps to make the information easier to access. For a list of online resources and phone apps for bus schedules, see the “Getting Started” link at the top of the blog.
The buses in Costa Rica range from old, recycled US school buses to modern, comfortable, air-conditioned coaches. I have a collection of bus photos on Facebook (see the link below). I particularly like the vintage photos below that show what people had to do to get to the Caribbean not so long ago and the effort the bus companies went to to get them there.
There is one bus station and two bus stops. The main station is modern and clean and is where the local buses leave from. Across the street from the main bus station is the bus stop where the bus to Atenas departs. Finally, on the west side of Palmares is where the local traveling to Buenos Aires departs.