Getting around in Costa Rica is an adventure in and of itself. Renting a car is the most flexible transportation option because you set your own schedule, but is also the most expensive. Car rental here typically runs $20 a day for a small sedan (a Toyota Yaris usually) to $50+ for a 4×4 SUV…plus the mandatory insurance which is usually another $20 per day or more. The cost of gasoline here varies, but tends to run around $1-1.30 per liter (or $4-5 a gallon). The end result is spending more on transportation to get around the country than the cost of your flight to get here. Since the modus operandi of this site is to travel on a budget, we will say no more of renting a car.
To understand public transportation in Costa Rica you must understand a bit of the culture. Contrary to popular opinion, Costa Rica is not México. The two countries have a very large cultural difference, more so than say between the United States and Great Britain. México is known for it’s midday siestas and late nights out on the town. Costa Rica is not that way, especially in the rural areas. The people here are early morning risers, and in general are not night owls (or considering owls are nocturnal animals perhaps we should just say owls and drop the night all together).
The buses here go everywhere; unfortunately not always at the time you want them to go. If you’re going to travel by bus in Costa Rica, it’s very likely that you’re going to need to get an early start to get where you want to go. For example going from the tourist hub of La Fortuna to the capital of San José on public transportation is very easy. There are buses as early as 4:30 AM to get you to San José, but if you are not on a bus by about 4 PM you probably won’t be able to get to San José even though it’s only a four hour ride. The buses at night are primarily for Ticos returning home from work, and usually the last local buses run at about 9 PM.
Buses do have the advantage of being by far the cheapest option. From San José you can get to almost any part of Costa Rica by bus for under $10. Some of those will be easy, quick, and convenient (there are direct buses to La Fortuna about once an hour during the day). Other locations like Poas Volcano only have twice daily bus service.
The public transportation here is also much nicer than you are probably imagining in your head. I’ve ridden on buses in various countries in Central America, and Costa Rica has the best maintained and cleanest buses I’ve been on. They’re usually charter bus style (ie bucket seats, cushioned, etc.) not the dilapidated old school bus that may come to your mind. And unlike some less developed countries, you’re not going to be sharing a seat with some live stock or having 50 people crammed into a mini-van. At times the buses get a bit full on popular routes, but it’s not that bad at all.