We always say that Costa Rica is best explored with your own rental car. That’s because a car gives you the flexibility to explore and move around at your own pace. But there are many reasons why you might not want to drive during your vacation. Maybe you are trying to save money, are nervous about driving in a foreign country, or drive all the time at home and just want to relax during your time off. Whatever the reason, don’t fret, there are plenty of places to visit in Costa Rica without a car. In fact, when we first visited the country as tourists, we didn’t rent a car until our fifth trip! In this post, we’ll give you some ideas for beach towns to visit in Costa Rica that are easily navigable without a car.
Tip: If you are looking for alternatives to the public bus, read our post about Shuttles in Costa Rica. We explain how both shared and private van services work and how we can help you book the right one.
Tamarindo is a beach town in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. This surfing hotspot is perfect for those without a car because there are lots of restaurants, shops, and tour operators just steps from the beach. Most hotels, hostels, and bed and breakfasts in Tamarindo are also only a short stroll or cab ride away from the main strip. And with plenty of activities to do locally, you can easily spend a week or more in this one spot. Read our post Tamarindo: Where Paradise Meets Convenience to learn more and get some ideas.
From Liberia International Airport (LIR): Shuttle in 1-1.5 hours or bus in 2.5 hours. From San Jose International Airport (SJO): Shuttle in 5 hours or public bus in 5.5-6 hours. Small plane flights from San Jose arrive in about 1-1.5 hours.
Walking will get you to most places in town. There is also a local bus, plenty of taxis, or you can rent a bicycle or scooter.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
The most popular beach destination on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. This small town gives off a distinct island vibe and is completely doable without a car. Caribbean-style cooking, surfing, plentiful wildlife, and some of the most gorgeous beaches in the country are just a few of the reasons to visit. Read our post Puerto Viejo: Caribbean Cool in Costa Rica to help you plan.
From San Jose’s International Airport (SJO): Shuttle in 4-4.5 hours or public bus in 5-5.5 hours.
Many choose to flip-flop their way between their hotel, the beaches, and the bars, but the main road that leads south is also a popular bicycle route. You can rent beach cruisers by the day or week. A local bus also connects the downtown to the beach communities to the south (all the way to Manzanillo) and to the north (Cahuita).
Some people avoid Jaco because of its party scene, but this busy beach town on the central Pacific coast really does have something for everyone. The scene at night can be easily avoided, and tons of tours and attractions are available to keep everyone busy, including kids. A few standouts are surfing beaches, every type of adventure tour that you can think of, and a main strip packed with shops and restaurants (some of our favorites in Costa Rica). The area also has a lot of wildlife nearby thanks to the rolling green mountains that back it. Read our post Jaco: Costa Rica’s Booming Beach Town to see some of our favorite things to do and places to stay.
From San Jose’s International Airport (SJO): Shuttle in 2 hours or public bus in 3 hours.
The main street in Jaco has lots of lodging options, so if you stay there, you can walk to the beach and just about any place in town. You can also rent bicycles or scooters. Tip: The south end of the main way, Avenue Pastor Diaz, is a little more spread out and quieter, but still has great beach access and is an easy walk to town.
Tortuguero is a special place for wildlife viewing on the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. There is simply no need for a car here because there are no roads. The town is accessible only by boat or small plane, and the closest thing you will find to a road is a concrete walking path on land and a maze of canals in the water. Tortuguero has become famous for its sea-turtle nesting, which occurs along its long gray-sand beaches several times a year. The inland brackish waterways and mangroves are also filled with an array of wildlife like monkeys, caiman, and hundreds of bird species. Read our post Tortuguero Off the Resort for plenty of ideas for things to do right from town.
From San Jose’s International Airport (SJO): Shuttle and boat taxi in 5 hours or public bus and boat taxi in 5.5-6 hours. Small plane flights are less than 1 hour. Read our separate post Getting to Tortuguero for more information.
If staying near the main village, you can walk to everything. Resorts and more isolated lodges along the canals require a boat taxi to get to town but are often all-inclusive.
Manuel Antonio was the first place we ever visited in Costa Rica and we loved it, even without a car. It was also the first town we moved to and we still visit often. This popular tourist destination on the central Pacific isn’t set up like your typical beach town. Although there are some lodging options near the beach, many are located up the hill, surrounded by jungle and featuring fantastic ocean views. With some careful planning, you can stay either down by the beach or on the hill near the main road and still get around very easily. Read our post Manuel Antonio Trip Planning for more information to plan your stay.
From San Jose’s International Airport (SJO): Shuttle or public bus in 4 hours. Small plane flights to the neighboring town of Quepos take less than 1 hour from San Jose.
Since Manuel Antonio is built on one big hill, walking isn’t the best way to get around unless your hotel is right on the beach. Luckily the public bus runs frequently along the main road, carrying you to and from the beach, hotels, and restaurants. If you’re not up for taking the bus, local taxis, which are everywhere, can get you where you need to go for relatively little money.
We hope that this post has helped give you some ideas on where to go without a car in Costa Rica. When we first traveled the country, we did so by bus, shuttle van, and small plane and still had a blast. Having a rental car is definitely nice, but you can learn a lot about the country by riding the bus or talking with shuttle and taxi drivers about the local area.
What’s your favorite town in Costa Rica to visit without a car? Let us know in the comments below.
Looking for more information to help you plan? Check out these posts:
- Shuttles in Costa Rica: How They Work and When to Use Them: Here we cover the two types of shuttles (private and shared) and give the advantages and disadvantages of each one.
- Cost of Traveling in Costa Rica: This post will give you an idea on what costs to expect for things like hotels, restaurants, and tours when you travel to Costa Rica.
- Simple Spanish for Visiting Costa Rica: Learn some Spanish basics before you come or print this post to help you order food at a local restaurant.
- Best Airport Hotels Near SJO: Coming in late or leaving early? Check out these smaller hotels near the San Jose international airport.