Ok, buses in Costa Rica… First let’s dispel one of the myths of buses here. No, there aren’t any “chicken buses” (i.e. buses where live animals are allowed to be taken on). I have heard Nicaragua has those, but I haven’t run into any of those anywhere so far. In fact, friends of mine were rejected from riding the buses because they had their dogs with them. The buses are for people only.
You have many bus choices really but the primary one is this: do you want to spend lots of money? Or do you want to save money?
Perhaps it’s really not all that cut and dry with this decision really, and this is why:
Expensive buses: they have Greyline buses and other lines that charge upwards of $40+ to get to a destination that with the local buses would only cost a few dollars. However, you will get air conditioning on these buses and you are guaranteed your own seat with no one potentially standing in the aisle beside you. So those of you who are claustrophobic, this may be your best option. You are also pretty much guaranteed on these buses to ride with a ton of other tourists as well. Locals do not ride on these buses perhaps due to the expense, so if you choose this route, you will be missing the fun times of meeting and chatting with some locals. This option is a lot faster though than the local buses as they take you directly to your final destination (sometimes there are a couple stops along the way but nowhere near as many as with the local buses) so if time is really of the essence, this may be your best travel bet too.
Unfortunately riding these buses does not guarantee you a smooth ride (only a comfortable one) as many of the roads are bumpy and wind around a lot! So if you get car sick as well, you may want to consider having a calming agent with you regardless of which bus type you ride on. The final important note with these buses is that tickets must be purchased in advance.
Cheap/local buses: this is the only mode of transportation I have used and let me tell you, it’s an experience! Each one has been a bit different but all good. Some allow you to keep your bag with you (my backpack) and others insist that you put it under the bus. Now for traveling safety I have always been told never to part with your bag. However my backpack has never contained any super important stuff (i.e. clothes and toiletries only) so while I was ok with parting with my bag, I did always try to score a seat near the window or standing space near a window so I could check that my bag wasn’t being removed by someone else at one of the various stops we would take. In any event, these buses can get very, VERY crowded! All the seats can fill up quickly and then they will continue to stuff the bus aisles with people and their various belongings. There have been a few times that I’ve felt a little claustrophobic, but drowning my surroundings with music from my iPOD has helped!
The best kept secret for finding these buses and when they run exactly is thebusschedule.com. It provides information for all the local buses that run within each Central American country! Simply go to the website, click on the country you are in, fill in the information (from where to where, date and time- I usually always put 05:00 for time so I can see the entire days schedule) and voila! It will show you all the options and times, the duration of each option and how many changes you will have to make. It really is a fantastic site and is all I’ve ever used when traveling around!
You don’t have to purchase any tickets in advance, you just get on and when you are ready to depart they tell you as you are getting off how much you owe.
That reminds me of another little tip. If you choose the local buses I would recommend to always double check with the driver that they are actually going to the destination you want. This really serves two purposes: #1 that you are on the correct bus and #2 asking the driver puts a little bug in their ears as to where it is you want to get off. The drivers are very good at their jobs and are quite good at recalling where to make sure and announce which stop is which for those who have specifically asked about them. Because let me tell you- none of the stops are marked in any fashion. As a back-up to ensure that I get off where I need to, I always strike up conversations with locals so they know where it is I want to get off and therefore they can help me get off where needed. The locals have been invaluable in this way!! I have never had a bad experience in speaking with locals and asking them for help. Each have been amazingly accommodating and helpful! There have been times when my little dictionary, maps and games of charades have broken out for us to completely understand each other, but that’s all part of the fun:)
Another difference with local buses is that vendors will come on board at certain stops selling drinks and little things to eat and such. They hang on for a few stops or several stops depending on how much their products are in demand. This can definitely make the buses more crowded, but again it’s all part of the fun of the experience in my book.
So in summary for the cheap buses: you are not guaranteed a seat, you definitely won’t have any air conditioning (but you can open the windows!), you won’t get to your destination on time (always add about an hour to two hours from when they say you will arrive), your personal space may be violated at times, you may have to keep an extra keen eye out for your personal belongings, BUT you will miss the local experience and chatting with locals going the other route. As I said, I’ve only ridden the local buses and plan to continue always riding the local buses. To me, the experience and the people make the trip much more fun than an air-conditioned tourist bus:)