A deserted road on the beach in Costa Rica

How to Get the Bus from San Jose to Cahuita or Puerto Viejo

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a beach town on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, in the south close to the Costa Rica-Panama border. (This is not to be confused with Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, which is further north in Costa Rica and has about nothing to do with the Caribbean coast!). Puerto Viejo is very commonly visited by travellers and the best way to acquaint yourself with the Caribbean Coast. 

Cahuita is a much smaller town just twenty minutes north of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, but it has a growing reputation as being its quieter, less touristy relative. It is true: it’s less touristy, but there’s also much less to do. On the plus side, the place is so damned small you get to know the locals in no time (and this even resulted in someone returning my friends’ lost phone!).

Most people arriving in Costa Rica will arrive in the capital, San Jose, as San Jose Airport is the largest in the country and San Jose is also where the majority of international buses arrive. (If you’re travelling through Central America north to south, like me, then check out my guide on taking the bus from Nicaragua into Costa Rica!).

That being said, it’s well talked about amongst travellers that There’s Nothing To Do In San Jose. Whilst that’s kind of true (and the tariffs for foreigners at their museums are quite extortionate), I have a quiet love for the city. It’s come to my rescue on several occasions, most recently when I got ill on my travels and the very reasonably priced Hospital Clínica Bíblica sorted me right out. But more on that another time… 

I’ve written a lot already about the pros and cons of taking a private shuttle bus versus taking public transport in Central America. In most Central American countries, public transport can be a bit hit and miss or, in some cases, downright dangerous. This is not generally the case in Costa Rica. The public buses in Costa Rica, whilst still loaded with Latin American charm, are by far the safest in Central America. I’d be perfectly happy to jump on one alone as a solo female traveller, and I don’t say that often! 

Mepe Buses Timetable San Jose to Cahuita (don’t be alarmed – the map on this webpage is wrong!)

Mepe Buses Timetable San Jose to Puerto Viejo 

Firstly: Cahuita or Puerto Viejo?

I may write another article just on this subject; the two places are very close together and either side of a lovely national park. 

But, essentially, it all boils down to this:

Cahuita is much smaller, and the number of shops and bars are limited. In just three days we got to know some of the locals and ended up bumping into them basically everywhere we went. We sang karaoke with them, got invited to a fogata (bonfire) on the beach, and inevitably knew some people on the next table over when we got caught in a rainstorm.

Puerto Viejo is bigger, more colourful, and built for tourists. The beaches are incredible, the food is amazing and you’ll find a much bigger range of shops (and more than one ATM, place to do your laundry, etc). You won’t get the same local and authentic vibe, but you will feel a lot more like you’re on holiday, if that’s what you’re after!

More about Costa Rica: Is it Safe to Travel Alone in Costa Rica?

Useful Information

Whilst I wholeheartedly recommend the public bus and I think it’s the best way to travel from San Jose to Puerto Viejo, here are a few things that will come in handy to know!

The bus company I travelled on from San Jose to Cahuita and Puerto Viejo is called Mepe Buses, and you can put Mepe into google maps to find the bus station (also known as Terminal Atlantico Norte). 

Important note: The bus terminals in San Jose are in a dodgy part of town, so the best option is to take an Uber there (they’re very reasonably priced). 

The total travel time is around 4 hours from San Jose to Cahuita or 4.5 hours from San Jose to Puerto Viejo.

You cannot book these tickets online. You can call and reserve a ticket, but you’ll need to speak Spanish and be able to call a local number (they don’t take messages or calls on WhatsApp). Most people I knew went to the bus station the day before and bought their ticket to confirm their seat.

When it comes to packing, keep all of your valuables in your “hand luggage”. If you have a larger backpack or suitcase, you will have to check it in to the luggage compartment underneath the bus.

If you arrive too late for the bus you wanted, you can opt for a “standing ticket”. Whilst you could sit in the hallway or in the fire exit, it didn’t look comfortable. (I was with my friend Nassim and we decided to wait 2 hours for the next bus to make sure we got a seat!).

That all being said… the public bus is the cheapest option for travelling from San Jose to Cahuita or Puerto Viejo.

Booking a Private Transfer

There are a few reasons you might book a private transfer: if you’re really short on time, you have a lot of bags, or you’re travelling with children, using a private transfer is a good option to make your journey much easier.

Private shuttle services almost always offer a door-to-door service, which means no hauling to the bus station, no waiting around (and no extra spending on bus station coffees!); you can simply wait for them to pick you up at your accommodation. 

They can also be safer: depending on the company you travel with, you can usually expect a vehicle in good condition and seatbelts. The same cannot be said for the public buses in Central America, even in Costa Rica! Additionally you can expect good aircon which can be especially important when travelling in the summer months with kids. 

It’s also the fastest way to travel, because minivans (the usual vehicle of choice for a shared shuttle) will drive faster than a large public bus, and it won’t make as many stops. 

A couple of the most popular shuttle services that run these routes (San Jose to Cahuita and San Jose to Puerto Viejo) are:

Caribe Shuttle – I haven’t done this particular journey with Caribe Shuttle, but I did take their transfer from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro in Panama (more on that soon, too!). They’ll helpfully pick you up from anywhere in the city centre in San Jose or the Denny’s near San Jose airport, and they’ll drop you off at your accommodation in Cahuita or Puerto Viejo. They also offer a range of other Puerto Viejo Shuttles.

Caribe Fun Tours – I haven’t used this company myself, but some friends did and had a great experience! They offer a wide range of door-to-door service shuttles around Costa Rica, especially focussed on the Caribbean side of the country.

More about Costa Rica: A Guide to Money and Currencies in Costa Rica

Is it Safe to Rent a Car? 

Although I wouldn’t recommend it in most other Central American countries, it is considered safe to drive a rental car in most parts of Costa Rica, and that includes this stretch from San Jose to the Caribbean coastal towns of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. Taking a rental car from San Jose to Cahuita or Puerto Viejo has the shortest travel time, and isn’t so expensive if you’re travelling with a car-full of people. 

It’s probably safe to drive a rental car in Panama as well, but I wouldn’t recommend taking driving into your own hands in Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras or Nicaragua. Of course, it depends how daring you are, but I wouldn’t do it personally.

The problem with this option is that you will likely need to drive the car back to San Jose. If you’re heading back to the capital anyway to visit more of the amazing things to see in Costa Rica, that may not be a problem for you. If you’re planning an itinerary through Costa Rica that carries on through Central America, like me, you won’t want to hightail it all the way back to the capital only to travel south yet again. (I travelled straight on from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro in Panama).

A Step-by-Step Guide to Buying Your Ticket on the Public Bus

So, back to our guide to taking the public bus in Costa Rica! 

By far the most difficult part about this journey is buying your ticket. As I mentioned earlier, unusually, you can’t book Mepe bus tickets online. (This surprised me for an otherwise quite developed country). If you have access to a Costa Rican phone number and speak decent Spanish, you can call up to reserve a ticket, but I’m not sure how that works and how you then redeem your reserved ticket at the ticket counter: because I travelled through a lot of countries in quick succession, I was using an eSIM in Central America and therefore wasn’t able to try this. 

Most people I met had had the good idea to go to the Mepe terminal inside the Terminal Atlantico Norte the day before to buy their ticket. Of course, me and the one friend I was travelling with were not this organised, and instead decided to get up at the crack of dawn to head down to the bus station. 

This bus is the same price no matter how far you take it (yeah, even if you just take it the half hour from Cahuita to Puerto Viejo..!). At the time of writing, it cost us just under 6,000$C which is about $12, but be prepared for ticket prices to change as the currency in Costa Rica has made incredible gains on the US Dollar in recent years. 

Practically everywhere in Costa Rica will accept Costa Rican Colones, US Dollars, or credit card. But not here. On public transport both around the city and intercity, they only accept Colones, so make sure you’re prepared with cash! 

If you’re alone, I recommend taking an Uber to the Mepe bus terminal because the area feels a bit sketchy. It’s generally fine to walk if you’re in a group, but make sure to go during daylight hours! 

The Mepe ticket office is directly in front of you as you enter the bus terminal (Terminal Atlantico Norte), and has signs that say Cahuita and Puerto Viejo on them – it’s hard to miss! 

They have frequent daily departures and departure times, usually every two hours or so until around 6pm. Nassim and I arrived at the bus station at around 7.30am and crossed our fingers for a ticket on the 8am bus. No dice – we were offered standing tickets, but as SOMEONE had not slept all night (spoiler alert: it wasn’t me), we decided to wait until the 10am bus and get a seat. 

It’s also possible to buy your return ticket at this stage, but you don’t save any money by buying in advance – it saves you from doing this whole ticket-buying rigmarole a second time, but then you’re committed to a return date and time.

We decided to look for a cafe nearby to pass the time, but just a couple of blocks outside of the bus terminal we were unable to continue due to people fighting in the street. We turned a different way and came across human faeces on the floor and were temporarily followed by someone who didn’t look like good news. So, we headed back to the cafe in the bus terminal which seemed relatively safe (but had hilariously bad coffee).

So, yeah, that’s what I meant when I said the area can be a bit sketchy! 

Where You Get Picked Up in San Jose

The Mepe terminal is within the Terminal Atlántico Norte in the north west of San Jose. This bus terminal also services other lines and other public bus companies in Costa Rica, but as I mentioned before, the Mepe counter is easy to find and it’s also easy to notice when people are queuing up for the bus. 

What is the Bus Like from San Jose to Cahuita/Puerto Viejo?

As far as daytime public buses go, I’d say that this one was of medium comfort (that is, if you get a seat). There was no air conditioning, so even though it was fairly early in the day and the windows were open, it did get a bit stuffy. The seats on the bus are not particularly comfortable, and due to certain standing passengers it was a little cramped… all in all it wasn’t a bad journey, but I wouldn’t expect to sleep much (to the dismay of my friend, who slept about half an hour and still managed to go out that night… oh to be 23 again!) 

Once you get out of San Jose, you spend around an hour travelling through the Braulio Carrillo National Park (Parque National Braulio Carrillo), which is quite a winding road but has great views. After that, you’re on a main road or highway for the rest of the journey. The road conditions are good pretty much the whole way; it’s not too much of a bumpy ride.

How Many Stops Do You Make?

Out of the whole journey time from San Jose to the Caribbean Coast of 4-5 hours, you make one rest stop in Limón. This bus doesn’t officially stop in Limón, but we did notice that one or two memorable passengers didn’t get back on (and I hope they didn’t just miss it…). Puerto Limon is around 3-3.5 hours outside of San Jose, so at that point it almost feels pointless and you’d rather just get to Cahuita or Puerto Viejo quicker! That being said, I did have one of the best cheese empanadas of my life at this rest stop (could have been the hunger talking, I won’t lie), and a toilet break was much needed, too! It cost us 200 Colones to use the bathroom here, which is about 30 cents, and the lady in attendance was only accepting change and small notes. 

Where You Get Dropped Off in Cahuita/Puerto Viejo

Cahuita is such a small town that, no matter where you are, you will be within walking distance of your accommodation! The Mepe bus stop is in the south of Cahuita (it’s called “Terminal Cahuita” on Google Maps). If you carry on to Puerto Viejo, you’ll be dropped right by the coast in a place marked on Google Maps as “Autotransportes Mepe Bus Stop“. This is very central to Puerto Viejo, but beware that many popular hostels in Puerto Viejo, including the Selina, are a short walk from the town centre (10-20 minutes depending on the hostel). Although this sounds annoying when you have to haul your backpack all the way out there (you can always take a tuk tuk if you’re tired!), it gives you access to some of the most incredible beaches in the Caribbean!

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