Taking Public Transportation
It was rush hour, and the bus was overflowing with people on their way home after a long day of work. Every seat was taken, and at this point, it was standing room only for the 25-minute ride. The young woman who had boarded before me carried a small baby and I had several grocery bags dangling from my arms. I noticed the driver eyeing us, the bus at a standstill, when a boy stood up to indicate the mother should take his seat. Then, a tap on my shoulder -- another man was offering me his own. The bus driver nodded in satisfaction and shifted into gear -- he had been waiting for someone to offer us seats. In Costa Rica, chivalry is alive and well on public buses.
When I moved to Costa Rica, I was excited by the prospect of fresh fruits, tropical weather, and, yes, public transportation. I couldn't wait to ditch my car and the gas pumps, insurance payments, state inspections, and maintenance bills that went with it. I also knew that being car-free was a greener choice, and I was committed to walking and taking the bus wherever I needed to go.
Before Costa Rica, my only public transportation experience was with Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.'s, bus and metro systems. I was used to feeding a machine, choosing my destination, and using a swipe card or token. But I soon learned that the most complicated part of Costa Rica's bus system is the utter lack of complication. Here, you just get on and ride.
All public buses display their final destinations, some major landmarks, and bus fare in their front window. You'll need to find a bus stop -- they usually have benches, an awning to provide shade, or a sign that says "Parada' or Bus Stop. When you see the bus approaching, stick out your arm as if hailing a taxi, and climb on board. You won't need exact change, but bus drivers don't appreciate large bills to pay a 25¢ fare.
There are no bus transfer slips, and on most local buses there are no discounts offered for riding only part of the route. When you get close to your final destination, pull the cord or press the button and get off. Tip: When boarding, do not pause between the two infrared bars -- they can be at the top of the steps, right near the driver, or just past the driver. These bars automatically count passengers, and if you stand between them, you will count as multiple riders and the unlucky (and probably) irate bus driver must pay the difference out of his own pocket.
Public buses also travel to many national destinations. I have had nothing but good experiences aboard these giant, lumbering vehicles and I love spending the hours observing the scenery without worrying about changing lanes or finding my exit. And the price simply can't be beat - a recent trip from San Jose to Manuel Antonio cost only about $6! With prices like these, it's easy to pick up and head out for the weekend.
For San Jose city dwellers, buses are great but the urban train is even better. The San Jose route makes frequent trips daily on rails traveling from the eastern suburb of San Pedro to the western suburb of Pavas/Rohrmoser, avoiding traffic and cutting commute times in half. The air-conditioned, safe and economical trains (about 75¢ one way) are so popular that a second route -- between San Jose and Heredia -- was opened. When it began, this new route was so well liked that many families lined up to take weekend joy rides. Now, the Costa Rican Rail Institute has announced plans to extend lines further, reaching out to other neighboring suburbs and, perhaps someday, to the coasts. When they do, I'll be the first to board for a short jaunt to the beach.
But until the train arrives, I'll be content with the new Sun Highway that connects western San Jose to the central Pacific coast. Inaugurated in January 2010, the toll road cuts travel time to Puntarenas in half. Though I have yet to travel this highway to the sun, a friend of mine reports that its promises are true -- just an hour after leaving his San Jose home, he was strolling the Puntarenas boardwalk, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It will be interesting to see how public buses traveling to Jaco and Manuel Antonio handle the new road. I assume rates will be higher to account for the tolls, but I'll definitely shell out an extra dollar to shave my travel time by half.