To access the Costa Rica Caribbean coast (including Puerto Viejo, Cahuita National Park and the super laid back towns of Playa Chiquita Costa Rica, Playa Cocles and beautiful Playa Punta Uva), you will most likely have to go from San Jose to Puerto Viejo.
The reality of traffic jams and getting stuck behind slow moving trucks on this route (particularly on the portion from San Jose to Limon, which is a main shipping route) means that the actual drive could take 5-7 hours.
If you enjoy this, come back up when you ar done for some other useful Costa Rica travel information!
- Staying in a Treehouse in Playa Chiquita, Costa Rica
- The Costa Rica Caribbean Coast with Kids: Playa Chuquita, Playa Punta Uva and Cahuita National Park
- Samara Beach, Costa Rica – Your Insider Guide to Visiting this Laid Back Piece of Paradise
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The Best Route Between San Jose and Puerto Viejo
Most likely, you will be landing in the San Jose airport. There are two ways to get from San Jose to Puerto Viejo. The one that most folks take and recommend is taking Highway 32 east towards Limon and passing through Braulio Carrillo National Park. This is the route that we took, and the route that I can provide insight about.
The other route takes you east to Limon via Highway 10 via Turrialba. You will rejoin Highway 32 before arriving in Limon to continue down the coast. This route takes longer, and is said to be quite scenic. It is also the route that is used as a detour when Highway 32 is closed.
For sake of expediency with two small kids in the car, we chose the more direct route, but if you wish to take this lesser traveled route, there are some great directions here.
A note: There are two different places in Costa Rica called Puerto Viejo. Make sure to put “Puerto Viejo de Talamanca” into your phone or GPS. This is the correct one.
The Drive Between San Jose and Puerto Viejo
The distance between San Jose and Puerto Viejo is approximately 134 miles or 217 kilometers.
If you are looking into how to get from San Jose Costa Rica to Puerto Viejo and you value freedom and flexibility, a rental car is a great option. It will not save you any money over booking a shuttle, but will give you the ability to stop along the way if needed or desired.
Many folks heading to the Costa Rica Carribean coast may discover that they won’t actually use their car once they are there as it is common to bike between the small towns sprinkled down the coast. For these folks, this is a valid reason to consider taking a shuttle or a bus between San Jose and Puerto Viejo.
With small kids, riding a bike on the side of busy, skinny roads wasn’t an option for us, so having a car was a necessity for us.
Driving in Costa Rica gets a bad reputation, but the drive from San Jose to Puerto Viejo really isn’t that scary. The first section from San Jose to Limon Costa Rica is one of the best roads in the country. It passes through beautiful Braulio Carrillo National Park, and then onwards to Limon which is a major shipping port.
Once you escape the urban jungle that is San Jose, you start rising towards the mountains. The scenery was lovely, with beautiful green jungle on either side.
That being said, it is still only a two lane highway with extensive semi truck traffic on it. Multiple times during the drive we were stuck going uphill behind a slow moving semi or stopped altogether because road work had reduced the road to one lane (there really are no good detours, so everyone just stops).
Tips for Driving Between San Jose Costa Rica and Puerto Viejo
- If you are traveling with kids, it is especially important to make sure that you have food and water with in case you get stuck in an extended traffic jam.
- Make sure everybody goes to the bathroom before you leave, because there weren’t many places to stop along the way.
- Do not try to drive this route in the dark. It gets dark year round here by about 5pm, so it you are leaving San Jose after 1pm, you should reconsider or plan for a stop over.
- You can avoid the worst of the truck traffic by getting an early start onto Highway 32 (before 7am) from either end.
Here is a link to a full post all about our experience driving in Costa Rica to give you some more details!
How to Take a Bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo
Taking a public bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo is also a viable option, and will be much cheaper than renting a car in Costa Rica. Autotransportes Mepe has buses that leave regularly from San Jose to Puerto Viejo.
The cost for a bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo is approximately $10 USD. The buses leave 7 times per day from the Bus Terminal Atlantico Norte (here is a map).
As I noted above, many folks rent a bike once they arrive to get between the small towns on the Costa Rica Caribbean coast (and it is easy to book tours if you want to venture out of this area) so a car is not strictly necessary.
I am not going to post instructions about how to take a bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo. Instead, I am going to refer you to Puerto Viejo Satellite where instructions for getting from San Jose to Puerto Viejo by bus (an on to other cities in the Caribe Sur coast including Punta Uva and Playa Chiquita) have already been fully covered at length and in great detail.
How to Take a Shuttle From San Jose to Puerto Viejo
A nice option in between driving in Costa Rica and taking a bus is booking a shuttle with a local transportation company. The above website also has great instructions about using local shuttles (both shared and private) to arrange a shuttle from San Jose to Puerto Viejo as well as associated costs. Caribe Shuttle offers a regular shuttle from San Jose to Puerto Viejo and is a good place to start.
On a previous trip to Costa Rica, we did all of our transportation by booking private shuttles and it worked out beautifully for our family! Both options have advantages and disadvantages. A shuttle is especially convenient for family groups or those traveling with small kids, and per day, it is not any more expensive than renting a car.
Where to Stop if You Want to Break Up the Drive Between San Jose and Puerto Viejo
Many folks choose to break up the drive from San Jose Costa Rica to Puerto Viejo and the coast by stopping and spending the night in the middle. Guapiles Costa Rica is a great mid point to stop at.
With kids, a 6 + hour drive with multiple stops for extended traffic jams was not our idea of a good way to start our vacation, so we chose to stay for a couple nights in between at Casa Rio Blanco Eco Lodge in Guapiles Costa Rica.
I always read Tripadvisor review prior to booking. Here are reviews of the Casa Rio Blanco Eco Lodge.
The Casa Rio Blanco Eco Lodge is on a quiet road just off of the main highway. It is a small collection of cabins and a main lodge located right on the Rio Blanco River. The grounds are located in a nice patch of rain forest and trees. It is a great place to see birds and animals and be immersed in nature.
The Casa Rio Blanco Eco Lodge is run by a lovely expat named Herbie. He was gracious and extra helpful in giving advice and information.
Breakfast is included at the Casa Rio Blanco Eco Lodge. Each morning, we were served a lovely breakfast of an omelette, toast and jam, fresh fruit and juice. Herbie even had breakfast for us the morning that we got up extra early to go on a tour of Tortuguero National Park!
The lodge also offers the option of including dinner. While there are cheaper options in the area, both dinners that we ate were freshly prepared and wonderful. Herbie is a great cook and it was convenient to eat onsite after one day of driving and a day of exploring. For security, the gates are locked at night, so eating in also avoided the inconvenience of going out to dinner and having to ring the bell to be let back in after dark.
It was also a great place to stay with kids, as there was an open area adjacent to our cabin where they could run and stretch their legs a little.
Our Room at the Casa Rio Blanco Eco Lodge
Our cabin was simple but clean, with a king sized bed and a bunk bed. The walls were made out of rustic local wood. The bathroom had a shower, sink and toilet. It had a lovely covered front porch that looked out into the trees and over the river in front.
The cabin was screened in, so we did not need to mess with sleeping under bug nets. A note – bugs were minimal inside the cabin and no one got bit while we were sleeping, but if you are a person that needs a completely bug free environment, this might be too rustic for you.
The cabin was a great place to be immersed in nature. It has screens nearly all the way around, letting in fresh breezes. We fell asleep to sounds of the river and jungle. It was really lovely.
Optional Daytrip to Tortuguero National Park
Staying at the Casa Rio Blanco Eco Lodge was also a great opportunity to visit nearby Tortuguero National Park. The boat to Tortuguero leaves only about an hour away from the lodge, and Herbie has arranged a tour that guests can book if you have an extra day to explore!
I want to be honest with you and let you know that doing a day trip this way to Tortuguero was not the best option for those with small children. What we had realized that getting to the park would involve a boat ride. What we hadn’t calculated into our equation is the one hour drive each way on either end.
One hour of driving PLUS one hour of boating on each end made for some cranky kids by the end of the day. To make matters worse, we got hit by one of those late afternoon rain showers that is so common here, so by this time, everyone was wet.
Doing a daytrip to Tortuguero in this way would be great for adults or those with older kids or teenagers. Tortuguero is a great place to take small kids – the beach is beautiful and there are many opportunities for short hikes and tours to look for wildlife.
For those with younger kids, I would suggest planning for a couple of days in Tortuguero, to make the challenge in getting there worthwhile (HERE is a link to a great, family friendly 3 day trip to Tortuguero from San Jose).