Tica Bus has daily service to Panama and Nicaragua, with connections to Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and southern Mexico. Transnica serves Nicaragua and Honduras. Central Line offers service to Nicaragua. We recommend Tica Bus—it's more established and serves more destinations—but Transnica and Central Line are acceptable too. All three companies have comfortable, air-conditioned coaches with videos and onboard toilets, and help with border procedures.
All Costa Rican towns are connected by regular bus service that's reliable, comprehensive, and inexpensive. Buses between major cities are modern, but in rural areas you may get a converted school bus without air-conditioning. On longer routes, buses stop midway at modest restaurants. Near their destinations many buses turn into large taxis, dropping passengers off one by one along the way. To save time, take a directo (express) bus, which still might make a few stops. Be prepared for bus-company employees and bus drivers to speak only Spanish.
The main inconvenience of long-distance buses is the time spent getting there. For example, a bus from San José to the Osa Peninsula is nine hours or more, whereas the flight is one hour. Shorter distances reduce the difference—the bus to Quepos is 3½ hours, while the flight is 30 minutes. There is no central bus station in San José; buses leave from a variety of departure points, depending on the region they serve. You frequently have to return to San José to travel between outlying regions.
Avoid putting your belongings in the overhead bin. If you must, keep your eye on them. If anyone—even someone who looks like a bus employee—offers to put your things in the luggage compartment, politely decline. If you must put your luggage underneath the bus, get off quickly when you arrive to retrieve it.
Most bus companies don't have printed schedules, although departure times may be posted on a sign at the ticket window. Phones are usually busy or go unanswered. For the most reliable schedules, go to the bus station a day before your departure. The official tourism board, the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT), provides bus schedules on its website, but the information is updated infrequently. Hotel employees can usually give you the information you need.
Buses usually depart and arrive on time; they may even leave a few minutes early if they are full. Tickets are sold at bus stations and on the buses themselves; reservations aren't accepted, and you must pay in person with cash. Be sure to have loose change and small bills handy; employees won't have change for a 10,000-colón bill. Buses to popular beach and mountain destinations often sell out on weekends and holidays. It's difficult to get tickets to San José on Sunday afternoon. Some companies won't sell you a round-trip ticket from the departure point; if that's the case, make sure the first thing you do on arrival in your destination is to buy a return ticket. Sometimes tickets include seat numbers, which are usually printed on the tops of the seats or above the windows. Smoking is not permitted.
Two private bus companies, Gray Line and Interbus, travel to the most popular tourist destinations in modern, air-conditioned vans. Vehicles for both companies seat 10 to 20 people. (Interbus can also supply coaches for large groups.) Costs range from $42 to $99 one way, but can take hours off your trip. Reservations must always be made at least 24 hours in advance. Gray Line offers a weekly pass ($198) good for unlimited travel. Interbus offers three- to seven-trip Flexipasses; they cost $125 to $275 and are good for one month, but not on every route served. Be sure to double-check information on the websites—published prices do change and routes may be discontinued. Costa Rica Shuttle offers minivan service that's great if you're traveling in a group. Rates range from $65 to $465 for up to five people.
Central Line. Avda. 7, C. 10, Barrio La Merced, San José, San José. 2221-9115; www.transportescentralline.com.
Tica Bus. Avda. 3 and C. 26, 200 m north and 100 m west of Torre Mercedes, Paseo Colón, San José, San José, 10103. 2296–9788; www.ticabus.com.
TransNica. C. 22, Avdas. 3–5, San José, San José, 10103. 2223–4920; www.transnica.com.
Costa Rica Shuttle. 2289–4292; 800/849–9403; www.costaricashuttle.com.
Gray Line. 2291–2222; 800/719–3905; www.graylinecostarica.com.
Interbus. 4100–0888; www.interbusonline.com.