The bus system overall is excellent here: you can ride a bus to ANYWHERE practically FREE. All you need is time. And to be perfectly honest, unless you happen to be driving when there is no traffic which would have to be the middle of the night, you aren’t looking at too much extra of that.
It’s $1 to ride a bus from my house to San José round-trip. In the car, it’s at least $3 plus $5 in parking. Add the traffic factor and, once you’ve got the buses figured out, why would anyone drive?
The trouble is in the whole figuring out process. Like figuring out which bus goes where. After figuring out where to catch a bus at all. In a few places – very few – bus stops are easy to find. In fabulous downtown Escazú, for instance, you have very modern plexiglass and metal bus shelters with large billboard ads on the sides. Just like in Manhattan.
But everywhere else, like at my stop, there’s nothing to indicate Bus Stop. Nothing at all, except sometimes people hanging around looking expectant. Photo left is Ryan and a lady waiting for the bus to go downtown. No sign anywhere. No nothing. But we always see people here and sometimes we see an actual bus. Photo right is where we get off the bus – I’m taking this shot standing next to Ryan. See the bus stop sign? No.
Your next task is to figure out where the bus is going. Buses here, like in Manhattan, have the first and last stops written on the front with various stops indicated in between. This one only has a couple of places written on it. Sometimes the entire windshield is covered with a list of places and these guys drive fast. Try reading a list of foreign names none of which sound familiar as they whiz by.
Then there are plenty of buses
with NOTHING on the front of them. Big empty windshield. Most of them have
at least the top banner, like on this bus: "Escazú San José"
which means it runs the Escazú San José route. At least that narrows it
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the basic "what you have to know" to get started riding the bus:
1. Forget bus maps. We have one. A recent one. If this map is correct, I will eat it. Not even close to correct. And impossible to read on top of that. Don’t waste your eyesight.
2. First thing: find out the name of your stop. Every stop has a name. So when any bus stops near your house, you ask the driver "Que es el nombre de esta lugar?" [K ace L GNOME-bray day AYE-stah loo-GAR?] I know my more learned friends will correct my terrible (but improving) Spanish, but this is what I meant to ask: "What is the name of this place?" The driver I asked understood me and replied, "Buena Vista." [BWAYNE-ah VEE-stah, good view.] Wow. For the first time in my life, I know where I am.
You must know the name of your stop because, unless you happen to be a named stop on the front of the bus, to get home you will have to ask every bus driver of every bus you see if they stop at your stop. You have to hail the bus because he won’t stop unless someone on the bus is getting off or someone at the stop indicates they want to get on this bus. On busy streets, I’ve had plenty pass me by before I figured that out, so hail away. Then you just run to the door of the bus and ask, "Buena vista?" Point vigorously if it makes you feel any better…
If they aren’t stopping at your stop and they figure out you stopped them just to get information, they are annoyed as hell. Hey, if I were in charge, I’d have an accurate bus map printed up and we could avoid the whole lost-gringos-annoying-bus-drivers in the first place.
Remember that ticos don’t like to say no. If you get a bus driver that doesn’t like to say no and you ask "Buena vista?" and they say yes… This happened to mom the first time she rode the bus. She said, "Buena vista?" The driver said yes. She got on. She ended up in Santa Ana at the end of the line. She refused to get off the bus. First, the driver was practically in tears. Then he started yelling at her in Spanish. She was responding in Spanglish which, for mom, is mostly Loud English. The driver finally had to get another driver on the bus and they pretty much dragged her off. She’s feisty for 77.
Am I painting a little picture here?
Fortunately, most bus drivers, tico or no, are too hardened by years of bus-driving to really care if you like them or not. They are more likely to not answer or answer rudely than to try to avoid saying no. You just want to maybe ask twice and look them in the eye, make sure you are getting on the right bus.
3. The trickiest thing for me is knowing where the places are that are listed on the front of the bus. This is harder than it sounds because these places are not usually towns but names of other stops. Like La Merced. Berbedero. Pista (which I finally figured out means the highway… but did it mean that bus takes you to the highway and drops you off? No. It means it goes to La Merced via the pista. I guess that’s good information…) Some buses just have a picture of a blue whale, which I happen to know means it’s headed to Hipermas.
I had absolutely no idea where those other places were. I’ve since figured out where La Merced is because that’s where my bus stops in downtown San José. Still have no idea where Berbedero is. Since these are usually the names of stops and not towns, they aren’t listed on maps. The only thing to do is to get on the bus and ride it. In fact, most of my friends here who know the bus system learned it by getting on the nearest bus and taking the tour.
4. Which is not always a circle. When the buses I’ve gotten on get to the end of the line, you have to get off and the bus drives away. You will sometimes catch the return bus where you got off, but not always. Not by a long shot. I hope you wrote down the name of your stop because you will need that now. Your return bus will leave from somewhere in the vicinity. I’d advise pinpointing this location before wandering off, so start asking: "Donde esta la parada del bus a Buena Vista?" [DOHN-day aye-STAH la pah-RAH-dah dale boos ah BWAYNE-ah VEE-stah, where is the stop for the bus to Buena Vista?]
Hopefully it will be within a one block radius, because ample warning about interpreting directions from ticos will take another 1,000 words at least. Here’s the short version: if it’s more than a block away, ask at least five people.
5. Most of the buses I’ve been on have these red buttons you push to indicate you want to get off. This one is nice and low. But most of them are very high and I’ve had to let Mo or Ryan to press it. That annoys the life out of me. In Costa Rica, I am regulation height… why do they put these buttons on the ceiling? Occasionally there is a rope to pull, but I almost never see that these days.
6. Have small change. If you have to change a bill, don’t expect the driver to be obliging for more than 1,000 colones. If he doesn’t have change, you don’t ride. If you have dollars, don’t even bother getting on the bus.
7. CRITICAL INFO: There are two metal/dark plexiglass floor-to-ceiling posts that you’ll walk between when going for your seat. You can see them just behind the driver in this terrible photo: metal sides facing me, the dark plexi-glass which is where the electronic sensors are facing each other.
Do not walk between these posts until you have paid and gotten your change. If you walk between them, then have to go back to the driver for change or whatever, you will have to pay again because you will have to walk back between those bars again to take a seat.
These bars are counters, counting the riders, keeping the bus driver honest. Bus drivers are VERY anxious about you walking between these bars and they will yell at you if you screw this up. It comes out of their pocket if the count is wrong. Just a heads up.
8. Bring a good book and a good city map. As you get to places, you can mark them on your map. Sometimes a neighborhood stop will be named on a map – that is always a victory somehow. Leave a whole day for the first time you ride any bus line. And keep in mind that this mini-adventure is practically free. It takes a whole lot of the anxiety out of it.