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How to: San José to Manuel Antonio – Fast and on a Budget

Luscious green rainforests teeming with wildlife. Crystal aquamarine waters lapping against miles of pristine beaches. That’s pretty much Manuel Antonio National Park in a nutshell.

The nature reserve is one of the most popular tourist centers in Costa Rica, but it’s not known as a typical day-trip destination. Despite the country’s small size, central Costa Rica is blanketed with steep, jagged mountains. Those mountains make a trip from Costa Rica’s capital to the coast one seem like one heck of a haul.

In February, when my girlfriend Dasha and I were planning an itinerary for a trip to Guatemala, I was excited to find out that a connecting flight in San José, Costa Rica would be our most affordable option when traveling from Atlanta to Guatemala City.

I wasn’t about to miss out on an opportunity to explore one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. So we cut a couple days off our plans in Guatemala and decided to spend two nights in Costa Rica. At first, we’d planned to stay nearby the airport in San José and take a couple day trips to the surrounding national parks and volcanos. But after spending hours browsing online photos of Manuel Antonio, we couldn’t help ourselves.

We wanted to walk on those white sands. We wanted to swim in that lagoon. And Dasha – in particular, wanted to see sloths.

So without much of a plan on how to get there, we booked two nights at a hostel in Manuel Antonio and decided to sort out the details once we arrived at the airport.

Information, please?

Things weren’t so simple once we arrived in San José. We knew the road trip to Manuel Antonio would take at least four hours, so we were urgent to find transport as soon as we passed through customs around 2:30 p.m.

First, we headed to the tourist information desk where we asked for information on public buses. The lady at the desk handed us a pamphlet and told us that buses from San José to Quepos (near Manuel Antonio) only ran three times per day. The next available bus was set to depart at 6 p.m. But what desk attendant failed to mention, is that she was referring to only the DIRECT route from San José to Quepos.

Our next option was to try traveling by shuttle, but that option came with a new set of problems. Tourist shuttles in Costa Rica are quite expensive, and $60 per person for a one-way trip was not in our budget. Besides, the earliest the shuttle services typically depart a location is 7 a.m. That meant, we’d never make it back to the airport in time for our 10:30 a.m. flight to Guatemala.

We decided we’d try our luck with the bus, even if it meant arriving to our hostel at 11 p.m. or later. As it turned out, that was a smart move.

Costa Rica has an excellent public transport system and some of the best infrastructure in Latin America. Still, you won’t find much helpful information online concerning Tican public transit. After taking an Uber ride to the San José bus station, our path to Manuel Antonio became clearer.

The official public bus schedule for routes between Quepos and San José, Costa Rica.

Trust the bus 

As it turns out, buses from San José to Quepos (and vise versa) run nearly every hour – from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. The “C” buses make stops along the way – as needed for the individuals that may be commuting. We hopped on a bus as soon as we arrived at the San José station and enjoyed a comfortable four-hour ride all the way to Quepos for only $8.

Once in Quepos, visitors can either take a taxi to their lodging, or take a shuttle bus that runs from Quepos to the Manuel Antonio Park entrance – departing every half hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Manuel Antonio isn’t so much a city as it is a five-mile stretch of road between Quepos and the nature reserve. Along that road are numerous restaurants, hostels, hotels and residential areas.

When we finally arrived at our hostel, we found a paper bus schedule attached to the wall. We were excited to see buses departing Quepos leaving as early as 4 a.m. We were even more thrilled to learn that we wouldn’t have to travel all the way back to San José. The “C” Bus route runs right by Juan Santamaria airport and will make a stop if needed.

After a wonderful day of hiking the national park and swimming in the ocean, we went to bed knowing we’d made the right decision in making a day trip out to Manuel Antonio. We took a 5 a.m. from Quepos to the airport the next day and made our flight with time to spare.

San José is nice, but you won’t find this type of sunset in the city.

The bus ride from San José to Manuel Antonio is a long, time-consuming haul. But in the end, the savings are completely worth it. Costa Rican public buses are safe, comfortable, affordable, and most importantly, reliable.

Do you have any experience taking public transport in Costa Rica? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!

Also published on Medium.

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