The Passenger's Seat: Taking Taxis
If you ask me, it's no coincidence that the words car-free and carefree look similar. I have always preferred being a passenger to taking the driver's seat, and Costa Rica has allowed me to indulge this preference. Though you'll most often find me aboard a public bus with my nose in a good book, the country's inexpensive taxis are a great supplement to public transportation.
Taxis in Costa Rica are much less expensive than in the United States. Within my small mountain town, I rarely pay more than $1 to run errands like hauling heavy groceries home or filling up my propane cylinder -- this is especially helpful during the rainy season! When my husband and I go out at night, we often catch a cab from downtown Heredia; the five-mile trip costs about $7.00. For us, taking the occasional taxi is far less expensive than purchasing and maintaining a personal vehicle. Note: Unless you're taking a long ride or the taxi driver helps you carry luggage or groceries, tipping is not customary and taxi drivers do not expect a tip. However, a tip is always appreciated, so do whatever makes you feel most comfortable.
There are three types of taxis in Costa Rica: cooperativas (official, semi-private), private taxis, and pirate taxis. Official taxis are called rojos, named after their red paint; they also have a yellow triangle on the door and an official license plate. They are required to use the meter, called the maria, at all times. Rates for official taxis begin at 510 Costa Rican colones (about 93¢) for the first kilometer (0.6 miles) and increase by about 90¢ per kilometer thereafter. If an official taxi driver tries to charge you a set rate per trip or refuses to use the meter, get out of the taxi. Official taxis are the most reliable: they are required to undergo vehicle inspections, carry insurance, and comply with other transport laws.
Private taxis are called porteadores and are only permitted to pick customers up at their homes. They have small jurisdictions and technically must have a written contract between the company and its clients -- in practice, most private taxi companies do not bother with contracts. Porteadores use regular cars of all models and colors. Rates are on par with official taxis, though porteadores are not supposed to use a meter; instead, they should use the odometer to calculate your fare based on a fixed rate per kilometer.
Pirate taxis do not belong to an official cooperative or private taxi company, and are therefore illegal. They often use older cars, sometimes with missing seatbelts. Because of passenger safety issues and their illegal status, we cannot recommend that you use a private taxi. However, in my experience, a trusted pirate taxi can be very efficient and less expensive than an official cab. They're also more willing to take you short distances -- trips that official taxis sometimes (illegally) refuse to make.
By and large, I have had excellent experiences with all three types of taxis. Most taxi drivers are personable and interesting, like Cristian, an official taxi driver and part-time musician whose band got invited to play in New York last year. In fact, Cristian and I have developed a professional relationship, so whenever I need a taxi, I call him directly. He knows all the back roads and will go out of his way to take the short route and save me money. For long trips, we negotiate a rate up front -- and I get a discount if I go roundtrip with him. Cristian does this in exchange for my loyalty, and I do this because I trust him and know that I'll get the best deal. We both win.
When hailing an official cab, follow these steps for a hassle-free ride:
Step 1: Ask the driver to turn on the meter: "Puede poner la maria, por favor?'
Step 2: Tell the driver where you're going: "Voy a your destination.' If possible, tell the driver the general route you'd like to take. For example, instead of saying "I'm going to the airport,' say "I'm going to the airport. Could we take the highway?' This way, your driver can't take any "longcuts' and run up the meter.
Step 3: Avoid any objections. If the driver tries to quote you a flat rate, insist she or he use the meter. If the driver refuses, find another taxi. If the driver tells you the meter is broken, say thank you and find another taxi. If the driver turns the meter off mid-trip, insist she or he turn it back on. You are only obligated to pay the price on the meter; if the driver tries to charge you more, insist on paying only what the meter says. In dire situations, offer to have the police resolve any dispute. The law favors the passenger.
Step 4: Ask good drivers for their card. You want to establish ongoing relationships with reliable, trustworthy drivers. Any time you need a taxi, call your favorites first.