Trial and error can be the best way to do things, but it can also be terrifying. If you are traveling through Costa Rica by bus, here are a few tips to get you started. This article should serve as a beginner's guide to traveling near San Jose, the capital city.
Thanks to the new highway that opened in January 2010, commuting from San Jose to the towns of Escazu, Santa Ana, Cuidad Colon and Puriscal is much. much easier (yes, buses are allowed on the highway). But do not go expecting a transportation system like the one in your city. There are no maps, there are not many clear signs, and, in some cases, there is no bus stop. People simply "know" where the bus stop is. Buses in Costa Rica are owned by different companies, and so they look different. They usually vary in color based on the towns they serve.
This is not always true, but usually:
1. Blue buses with white lettering on top - Service to Santa Ana or Escazu
2. Red and white buses with TUASA written on the side - Service to Alajuela via the OLD highway.
3. Yellow and red - Service to Heredia via the OLD highway (this is a very modern bus company).
4. Yellow and purple - Service from La Sabana (the large, beautiful park near the new highway) to the heart of San Jose (these buses are usually very cheap, like twenty cents).
5. Orange and white - to Puriscal or Ciudad Colon
Local buses in small towns are usually old schoolbuses.
Buses that say "servicios especiales" will not stop for you.
The Pista (the new highway)
Stopping along the new highway can be dangerous because there are not always bus stops or bridges to cross the road. Running across the highway is very common. If you are not comfortable running across the highway, there are pedestrian bridges by the Hipermas (the large supermarket with the whale icon) CIMA (the hospital) and before Puente Pozos (Pozos bridge). Hopefully they will build more.
If you wish to catch a pista bus, you can wait at the Northern end of La Sabana instead of waiting in the Coca Cola. The Coca Cola is a major bus hub, but it is also known for its high levels of crime and pick-pocketers. If you are traveling along the new pista, it is easy to avoid. Wait for your bus along the Nothern end of La Sabana or the Western end of the city near a restaurant called Soda Tapia. The pista buses to Santa Ana and Ciudad Colon pass by there.
Remember to always ask, and if a bus says "calle vieja" on it, that means "old road." It means it does not follow the new highway.
To avoid the Coca Cola, wait along the Southern end of La Sabana in front of the Burger King. All of the buses to Pavas pass by there. Always ask before you climb on, because the Pavas buses all have their own routes.
Escazu buses all pass by the Northern end of La Sabana. They will have the destinations (Chimba, Corazon, etc.) written in front. If you are not sure, ask.
Into the Heart of San Jose
Taking a bus from La Sabana into the city is a good way to save time and avoid the sketchy Coca-Cola. These buses take you right to the museums, best shops, and the national theatre. Also, from the heart of San Jose you can easily reach the buses to the University of Costa Rica in San Pedro. That area is a typical college town and is fun to visit (and safe!)
La Coca Cola
Or simply known as "La Coca." It is near the two main public hospitals (San Juan de Dios and the children's hospital). Buses to Escazu, Atenas, Jaco beach, Quepos, Puntarenas, Santa Ana, Ciudad Colon and Pavas all start here.
Aside from the Coca-Cola, there is a major bus hub called "El Caribe." These buses go to Limon and to the Carribean side. Buses to National Park Braulio Carillo are also there. To get to El Caribe, I highly recommend taking a cab from the center of San Jose. While the bus hub itself is safe, you must go through an unsafe neighborhood to get there. If you are alone, this would not be a good walk. If you wish to walk, follow the large yellow building, and ask policemen for directions. They will probably not tell you in street names, but in meters. 50 meters = one block. So, "go straight 100 meters" really means, "go straight for two blocks."
Near the Coca-Cola on Main Street (also known as Paseo Colon) you will find buses to Alajuela, Belen, and San Rafael de Abajo. Continue going up main street towards the heart of San Jose and you will run into the Heredia buses and the buses to La Sabana. Continue past the National Theatre and you will find buses to San Pedro and the University of Costa Rica.
What does 'el centro' mean?
You may get directions to change at "el centro." What does this mean? Every town has its own "center," which is where all the buses from that town will meet up. The "centro" literally refers to the middle of town. It is usually close to where the church and the main plaza are. Santa Ana has its own centro that you can recognize from a "Piedades Brasilia" sign. Escazu's "centro" is right in front of the cream-colored church, near the Musmanni. If you are not sure, ask!
I hope this helps your journey to Costa Rica!
Since graduating from NYU, I have been teaching English in Costa Rica...and learning the hard way.