Get an insight into Tico culture – hop aboard the bus in Costa Rica

Josefinos wandering past a colorful mural in San Jose, (photo by Corrie Wingate )
Josefinos wandering past a colorful mural in San Jose

If you want to really get to know the locals in Costa Rica and you're in the capital, San José, do as the josefinos do: hop aboard a public bus – you'll get to see the city and you'll get some insights into Tico culture.


Buses are ubiquitous in San José. They go everywhere throughout the city and its surrounding areas. Many downtown streets are clogged with buses of all kinds. There are shiny new Mercedes models, personalized with their owners’ names garishly painted on the rear window; some rusty wrecks emitting thick black smoke – although these have mostly been replaced by cleaner, hybrid buses; and recycled school buses from the United States, scrupulously cared for and graced with fanciful names.


The great equalizer

Whether new and slick or decrepit and smoky, the buses have a common trait. They are wonderful windows into everyday Costa Rican life. Almost everyone uses them: students on their way to classes; women in high heels, dressy clothes, and impeccable make-up on their way to work; country folk coming into town to do business of one kind or another; young mothers taking children to doctors’ appointments at the social security hospital; men with briefcases and neat pants and shirts. They are all on the bus, heading this way or that.

And for a fistful of colones, you can climb aboard and join in the great comings and goings of life in the Central Valley. A bus ride in San José is not particularly comfortable, especially during peak hours, but there is no better or more enjoyable way to make quick and often delightful observations on Tico life and characteristics.


Courtesy and kindness

For one thing, chivalry is still alive. Or is it just a simple sense of decency, of caring for others? Young men will assist older men, or women with children in tow up the steps; a seated passenger will offer to hold your packages while you stand; someone will always offer his or her seat to an older person or a pregnant woman. The driver will wait for someone making a last-minute dash to catch the bus. 

Every visitor should take at least one bus ride in San José. Board near the beginning of the line so you can still get a seat, and watch the rush of humanity come aboard, pausing to place their fare in the driver’s hand, pushing past the turnstile, greeting friends and neighbors as they make their way down the aisle, more passengers boarding stop after stop, until it isn’t possible to squeeze another body on.

Buses marked Sabana–Cementerio will take you on a loop around downtown, past the Central Post Office, the Central Market, Sabana Park, and the vast city cemetery. It’s a good idea to take a ride outside the city too. The bus journey to Heredia, via Santo Domingo, will give you a glimpse of San José’s prosperous suburbs as well as some of the shabbier parts of town.


Expanding services

There is a move afoot, as well, to rationalize bus routes in the city so that there aren’t as many buses from the suburbs duplicating services. A bright spot on the horizon is the revival of train service. A train now runs from west to east through the city, and another runs between San José and Heredia, north of the city. The services are still fledgling, with two-car trains traveling mostly during rush hours, but they are the best hope for getting people out of their cars and onto public transportation.

To further cut down on congestion and make San José a more people-friendly city, some major avenues are being closed to vehicles and turned into pedestrian zones. To cut down on the visual clutter in the city, unsightly overhead electrical wires are also being buried. San José may never be a beautiful city, but at least it is working toward improving the quality of life for residents and visitors alike.


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