Although Costa Rica is relatively small and distances may seem short, topography and road conditions make driving time longer than you would expect. Before setting out to a destination make sure you have a map and try to get someone at your hotel to go over specific instructions with you. Signs are limited so when in doubt stop and ask. You will find that Ticos are quick to help.
These conditions have not been a deterrent to the more than 50% of tourists that opt to rent a car for the duration of their vacation, however when possible and budget allowing, an efficient way to move around is by air. There are two companies, Travelair and SANSA offering daily scheduled flights to the most popular destinations with a landing strip available. You can expect to pay between $70 and $140 for a round trip ticket depending on the destination.
Flights operate out of San Jose but you will find that you can move easily between several destinations with the availability of inter-destination connections. If your destination is not on their itinerary you may consider chartering a plane from one of the many companies available. Most are based at the local Pavas airport. Among the most popular are TACSA, VEASA and Aero Costa Sol. Charter rates are around $300 per hour and you usually have to pay the return portion of the flight. The availability of helicopters for charter is also on the rise.
Many people choose to join organized groups for their vacation with the advantage of leaving any necessary driving to the bus driver. If group travel is not what you are after, a mini bus and driver can be rented from many tour operators for anywhere between $90 and $150 per day. Availability of mini buses may be limited during high season. Traveling with a driver also has the advantage that he knows his way around. The driver usually ends up being a friend that looks out for you and may show you a bit more of the country and the people than if you are on your own.
Rental car agencies are readily available with prices ranging between $35 and $90 per day. This depends on the season and the type of vehicle. Although on the higher end, 4x4's are highly recommended. Most rental car agencies operate out of San Jose. There are a few that have branch offices in places like Quepos, Flamingo, Tamarindo or Liberia allowing you to pick the car up at your destination. This would be a good option if you chose to use other means of transportation to arrive at your destination. Adobe Rent a Car and Travelair have teemed up to offer free pick up or drop off to any Travelair destination with the purchase of the ticket and a minimum 3 day car rental.
Public bus transport is available to most places with access by road. This is the most economical means available to get around. Compared to other countries, public transport in Costa Rica is generally reliable and quite safe. The drawback to traveling by bus is that advance ticket purchase is not always possible and the routes and connections necessary to arrive at your final destination if a direct bus is not available may be difficult to figure out. Most connections between different regions of the country are only made possible through San Jose. If you have time to get around and are on a tight budget, this is a good option. Bus drivers and passengers in general will usually be very helpful with additional needed directions.
Boat transportation is necessary to get in and out of Tortuguero if you are not going to fly. Most people going into Tortuguero do so on a pre-arranged package with the hotel they will be staying at. This is definitely the best way to try to get there. There is public boat transport daily out of Limon but unless you are really up for an adventure, two to ten hours to get there and the possibility of having to ride on top of cargo, you may want to stick to more reliable options such as hotels and tour operators can provide.