Air Travel and Ground Transportation
For several years, my wife and I have flown to Costa Rica into both international airports - San Jose and Liberia. We have stayed at various places, from the Nicoya Peninsula to the Caribbean slope, while renting a small SUV. My wife is both a beach lover and a naturalist, and I am an avid birder - so we split the short time that we have between intense birding and relaxing. Since we both work in the American educational system, we generally travel in July. However, I have been to Costa Rica several times in March and April and my personal bird checklist reflects both seasons.

There are some minor differences between the two locations. Liberia is a simpler highway grid, and there's far less traffic. San Jose has quicker access to well-known birding locations. However, the time spent in Costa Rica and one's flight options from the city of origin may eventually determine which airport is more convenient. There may also be significant cost variations in flying to each airport, but since this changes so much every year I'm reluctant to say much on the subject. Where you're flying from will determine if you can save time and money flying into Liberia.

Commercial Flights - One of the most significant issues concerning Costa Rican birding in the last decade is the opening of the Liberian airport to International travel. Prior to 2000, you could not fly into Liberia on any International commercial flight. Beginning that year, we became aware of charter flights flying into Liberia from two American cities (charter flights may have ended for most Americans in 2007, although it may be still available for some Canadians). With the expansion of the Daniel Oduber Airport in 2003, however, it became possible to get direct public commercial flights from many U.S. locations into Liberia. The following major airlines now fly into Liberia: Delta, American, U.S. Air, Frontier, Continental, and Southwest Airlines. At present, Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Chicago, Houston, Miami and perhaps other cities now have direct non-stop flights to Liberia although they may be limited to specific days of the week.

San Jose Airport

Liberia International Airport
San Jose International Airport

San Jose International Airport Terminal

While I much prefer the non-stop flights, they will not likely be the cheapest flights for the American traveler. From Dallas, the flight time to Liberia is about 4.5 hours of flight time with the time change. It is not significantly longer to San Jose. If one flies non-stop, there's much less stress, and it's possible to get about 1/2 day extra for birding when one flies without a transfer. However, non-stop travel may be seasonal, may just be possible one or two days a week, or may be possible only at night from some destinations. Furthermore, the non-stops (in my experience) frequently are the last option in which one will get a price break.

Flying into the San Jose\Alajuela airport has become easier in the last decade. Access to some terrific birding locations is less than 3 hours if traffic is accommodating (more on this below). Well-known birding locations north and east of San Jose include La Selva, Poas Volcano Lodge, Arenal, Monteverde, Cano Negro, and Braulio Carillo. Going straight west towards the Pacific Ocean, one could drive to Carara National Park accommodations in about the same amount of time. All of these locations are relatively easy by rental car, when one is driving north, east, or west. Assume about 3 hours to locations in any of these directions. If one has to drive through San Jose going south, I'd recommend a shuttle service or at least a GPS app such as WAZE. A shuttle service could get the traveler to the southerly accommodations around Cerro del la Muerte, Rancho Naturalista, and Savegre Lodge in about the same amount of time. A rental car is more stressful if one has to drive south from the airport through the city of San Jose. The risk of getting lost can waste valuable time.

Liberia vs San Jose - Commercial flights to Liberia from anywhere in the United States are frequently direct flights from places like Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Miami, New York, Atlanta, and Houston. Some non-stop flights may only fly direct one day a week. Things have changed over the years, so please check all possibilities. I'm not a travel agent.

The Liberia airport is a much easier "in-and-out" issue than San Jose. Rental car companies will meet you at the airport in Liberia and will drive you back to their offices for paperwork, and the road system around the Liberia airport is drop-dead simple for people driving. San Jose, on the other hand, can be more congested. If a person has to drive south through San Jose from the airport, signage is limited and traffic is usually heavy. Even locals avoid the congestion.

White-faced Capuchin- Jim Peterson    

Fortunately, the San Jose International Airport is not actually in San Jose, but a bit northwest of it. After renting a car, one may not have to drive through San Jose proper depending on the destination. Driving south from the airport is the main problem. As I said earlier, places like Cerro de la Muerte, Tapanti, Rancho Naturalista, and Savegre Lodge south of San Jose are better accessed with a shuttle service than a car in my opinion. Still the area is largely a metropolitan area. There's no getting around heavier traffic. Non-resident drivers will find their way out of town with a rental car, and local people will generally help even if it's with sign language. Standard stuff for the lost traveler. 

Liberia is inherently much smaller than San Jose, and the road system around Liberia is ridiculously simple. Directions from the Liberia Airport to Pan American Highway: Go out of the car rental place, turn towards Route 1, That's it.

The only downside to Liberia is a geographic one. The Liberia destination is on the Pacific northwest of Costa Rica. One is further away from the Caribbean slope avifauna (which have a higher density of bird species) than if one landed in San Jose. Birders will be closer to the Guanacaste specialty birds, but a long way from several of the better-known Costa Rica birding locations. One can still drive to some very birdy habitats from Guanacaste for the wet-tropical birds - like Rincon de Vieja National Park, Carara National Park or Heliconias Lodge - but returning to Liberia can be an all day thing if the itinerary is stretched too far south. However, it's entirely possible to create a strong and varied birding itinerary from Liberia if one understands the geography. For instance, if someone was flying into Liberia, a birding itinerary of Palo Verde, Heliconias Lodge area, and Carara might be more than adequate. If one adds Monteverde to that list, nearly every ecosystem would be covered, and there would be no reason to drive anywhere near the metropolitan areas in the central valley.

In 2013, my wife and I booked a flight into San Jose and acquired a rental car with Budget. We exited the country 10 days later in Liberia and dropped our car off the car in that city. We paid no penalty for this either with the airline or rental car agency.

Customs and Immigration - Recently a customs official asked to see proof of our return flight and proof of our hotel reservation when we entered the country (2013). This caught us completely off-guard. We've been coming to Costa Rica for 20 years and have never been asked that. With so many transactions done over the Internet, people may not have this information handy. We sure didn't. We actually believe we caught someone who wasn't quite up-to-speed with proper documentation procedures, but it's hard to know. For whatever reason, we believe it wouldn't hurt to have this information at your fingertips when entering Costa Rica.

And finally, there is an exit tax for Costa Rica. That exit tax has now been rolled into into the airline ticket. It is no longer collected at the airport. 

At the Airport - Ground Transportation

Shuttle Service - One option a birder might choose if they were flying into San Jose and then going to Rancho Naturalista, Savegre Lodge, or some other birding lodge for a few days is to rent a shuttle. Costa Rica Gateway offers such a shuttle and generally deals with a birding clientele. Instead of going to the car rental agency at the airport, one simply meets the shuttle service outside the airport entrance. The reason this might be beneficial over a rental car is that when traveling to one of the birding lodges, one's rental car usually just sits there doing nothing anyway. The traveler might pay a little more for the shuttle than a few days of rental car, but the stress of driving through San Jose will make that worth it. From the Liberia airport, on the other hand, a shuttle wouldn't be as relevant. Driving around Liberia is rather simple.

The idea of a shuttle with Costa Rica Gateway (CRG) has one other advantage: Customizing the trip. With this company, it's possible to rent the shuttle service and a qualified bird guide. With up to about 14 people, this concept becomes completely realistic. All sorts of options become available. One could, for example, hire a CRG shuttle and a guide to take travelers from the airport to La Selva and Braulio Carillo for 3 days of guided birding and then return to the airport so the customer can pick up a rental car and begin birding independently. 

Birding Tour Van at Tapanti National Park - Jim Peterson

One could hire a driver and a guide for, say, eight people and target a specific itinerary for several days. This type of itinerary management can be very helpful especially when one has to travel through large metropolitan areas to get to specific birding lodges.

Several possibilities exist for small groups.

Other ideas for non-birding transportation (shuttles, etc...) to other locations can be found here: Costa Rica Travel Transport, Transportation Services Costa RicaLiberia Costa Rica Transportation Online

Rental Cars - A rental car should be reserved over the Internet before one arrives in Costa Rica. That way the car agency will literally meet the traveler at the airport (in Liberia), drive a few blocks to the agency to fill out papers, and then let the customer drive off on their own. In San Jose, the rental car companies have operators near the airport and will drive customers to the vehicle in most cases.

There are several familiar rental car agencies in Costa Rica. Most car rental agencies have a web page where one can email the Costa Rican representative and get the necessary car (I strongly recommend at least a small SUV). I've used "Budget" "National" and "Avis" but they're probably no better or worse than any other major carrier. I have heard that the larger car companies may be better suited for the American traveler in case of an accident, so I continue to use a company like National or Budget that have offices in the U.S. Also, please read my information on car insurance in the section called "Driving."

Trip Insurance - Trip insurance should not be equated with rental car insurance. Trip insurance can be done over the Internet. It has some advantages in regards to injury and theft. We do this every year in case we have a serious accident in the car and have to be flown back for medical reasons. Most policies like this will also cover expenses in the case of theft (think "binoculars"). They will also cover the customer if the flight is cancelled or over 6 hours late - a growing problem recently. We've had trip insurance pay off on two different occasions - a laptop computer theft in Jamaica which occurred at baggage handling, and a badly delayed flight to Costa Rica where the policy actually paid for a hotel room and expenses right next to the airport. My wife and I have probably paid less than $500 on trip insurance since we began purchasing it a few years ago. To date, it has paid out almost $2000.

We have used Access America for trip insurance, but I recommend Googling "trip insurance" and poking around.

Lost Luggage - I have lost my luggage once while flying into San Jose. It wasn't put on the plane that left from Houston. On most occasions, lost luggage will be driven your hotel\lodge accommodations within 24-36 hours. The airports usually subcontract this problem to a specialized delivery company. This could be tricky though if the first few days of the vacation are in a truly remote destination. Plus it's hard to keep up with the status of one's luggage by phone. Lost luggage is a bummer for a lot of different reasons. For instance, I made the mistake of putting all my road maps in the checked luggage when mine was lost - making the first driving day difficult. One thing that might help is to put a change of clothes in a companion's luggage, and to keep pills, maps, and other essentials out of the checked luggage system. Finally, trip insurance (see above) handles this pretty well if it's delayed over 24 hours. At least one can expect some compensation.

Weather can be a problem any time of year, so I wouldn't let the wet season deter me if I really wanted to bird on my own May-August. The months of May through early August are wetter months but not dramatically wet. We're not talking monsoon season. Usually one gets afternoon or evening rains at that time. Only September-October would be truly difficult months for birding in most of Costa Rica (the low Caribbean areas are the exception here being a little drier in these months). Some lodges even close at that time. December through April is generally the dry season everywhere with February-mid April as the driest period. But just for the record, I have seen it rain for 30 hours straight during the dry season, and seen continuous days of beautiful blue sky during the wet season. Generalities are just that. Generalities. Weather probably shouldn't be an all-consuming issue. Each region is a little different. I talk more about this on the "Of Interest" page.

Red-eyed Tree Frog - Jim Peterson

The wet season has some definite peculiarities. Seasonal rainfall by month is sometimes quite different in each geographic area of Costa Rica during this season. Many tour companies like to say that there is a "little summer" in July when rainfall is less than it is during the surrounding months of June and August. Since I frequently visit Costa Rica in July, I hear this a lot. The tourist industry loves using this factoid. Unfortunately this is not altogether true on the Caribbean side of the country and in southern Costa Rica. Statistical measurements show that July is frequently the wettest month in parts of the Caribbean lowlands and on the Osa Peninsula (although most mornings are generally rain free). Guanacaste and some of the central mountains, on the other hand, do show substantially less rainfall in July than June and August. For those areas, the "little summer" story is accurate. In essence, I take the "little summer" story with a grain of salt. Avoid making plans in September and October unless you're only going to Caribbean lowlands. Outside of that, I wouldn't worry about it.