With so many visitors in Costa Rica during this high tourism season, The Tico Times decided it was time to compile the ultimate (though relatively simple and short) guide to taxi service here.
The ride-hailing service Uber arrived in Costa Rica last year, and continues to be controversial, while private chauffeurs, known as porteadores, waged a battle with the government in 2015 over the latter’s decision to renew only half of their permits.
If you’re a newbie, we hope the following guide will make clear your options. And if you’re a citizen or long-term resident, we hope you’ll learn a few things you might not have known. Without further ado, here are five options for getting a paid, private ride in the land of pura vida.
Airport taxis: Orange airport taxis are the only ones officially authorized to pick up and drop off passengers at Juan Santamaría International Airport outside San José. They’ll take you anywhere in the country. You can call ahead for reservations, 2221-6865 or 2222-6865, or just grab one when you arrive.
In practice, red taxis (see below) drop passengers off at the airport all the time.
Official red taxis: There are just over 11,000 of them across the country. These are probably your best bet if you’re on the street and a torrential downpour suddenly makes you think twice about walking home. In San José, and in many other major cities and towns, red taxis are ubiquitous from sunup to sundown, though you might have a harder time hailing one at night to, say, get from your house to a bar. Vice versa, no problem.
Red taxis are regulated by the government and their fares are set – and regularly tweaked — by the Public Services Regulatory Authority (ARESEP). All red taxis are supposed to have meters, which means there should be no negotiating over the price of a ride between driver and customer. Taxis also have a yellow taxi hat on top and a yellow triangle on the door displaying the taxi license number and the area where the taxi is permitted to operate.
Besides hailing one on the street, an app launched last year called Easy Taxi lets users in San José and Nicoya hail a red taxi through their smartphone. The app uses the phone’s GPS location to signal nearby participating taxis that there’s a fare waiting to get picked up.
Riders get an estimated wait time and can track the taxi’s location on the app’s map. Easy Taxi works exclusively with licensed red taxis.
You can also call a taxi company or cooperative that owns multiple vehicles and they’ll radio a car to come pick you up. If you prefer this to hailing one on the street, ask the nice man or woman who took you on your last ride for his or her card, or call one of the large cooperatives such as Coopetico (2224-7979). Alternatively, you can just search “taxi service Costa Rica” on the Internet or, if you still believe in such things, flip through the Yellow Pages and you’re sure to find many options.
One big upside to calling a taxi? If you leave something behind or have any other problem with the ride, the company or cooperative can track the taxi that served you. At least one Tico Times staff member has recovered a cellphone that way.
Also, if something seems off with the red taxi you hail – e.g. driver slurring his words, no meter — you can report it to ARESEP at 800-027-3737.
Porteadores: This kind of transportation service is technically called a SEEtaxi (Special Stable Taxi Service), though everyone just calls them porteadores. These are private chauffeurs who shuttle people around for a fixed or negotiable price. You can find porteadores at the airport (even though they’re not supposed to pick up passengers there) and in tourist areas. Porteadores used to be piratas, but in 2001 the government decided to recognize the out-of-control pirate taxi business and give some of them permits to operate legally.
The porteadores business is big, and has some powerful interests, including some legislators who own dozens of permits and pay drivers to operate cars. Last year, the Luis Guillermo Solís administration tried to reign in consolidation of the porteadores business by announcing that it would only renew half of the existing permits, those owned by individual drivers.
Protests erupted and periodically blocked streets for several months but the government has thus far held its position. Solís did try to appease some of the drivers who lost their jobs by letting a certain number of them become regular red taxis.
Pirate taxis, taxis piratas: These are guys who will take you where you want to go, and charge you whatever they want for it because they’re not regulated by the government. You can often find piratas at key spots off bus and train lines where other public transportation is scarce.
A taxi pirata also might be your neighbor’s trusted driver who comes highly recommended and will give you a great deal on rides to the airport in his or her unmarked, smooth-driving car.
Piratas are illegal, though, for the most part, tolerated by the government. (Still, more than 4,000 piratas were fined during the first six months of 2015, according to Traffic Police Commissioner Mario Calderón.)
If a pirate taxi gets caught carrying a passenger, he or she could get fined. If a driver spots a Traffic Police officer up ahead and is worried about getting caught, you might be asked to make a quick exit from the vehicle. More likely, though, a pirate taxi driver will ask you to sit up front in the passenger seat to begin with and, if stopped, pretend like you know him or her.
Because pirate taxis are unlicensed, you should avoid taking one unless a specific driver or association of drivers (some pirate taxis are actually, er, formally organized) is recommended by a trusted source.
Uber: The giant taxi industry disrupter arrived in Costa Rica in August to the same mix of applause and controversy that the company elicits over nearly all of its ever-expanding turf. Uber offers services in the Greater Metropolitan Area, which includes the capital San José and parts of Heredia, Alajuela and Cartago.
Uber drivers here now number several thousand, the company says.
Services include the company’s basic ride-hailing service, UberX, and UberXL (formerly UberVAN), designed for groups of between seven and 14 looking to take day trips from San José.
Would-be Uber riders should note that unless they have a local SIM card in their phone and have updated their Uber account with that number, they won’t be able to communicate with their driver, for example, to verify the pick-up location. Travelers might have roaming enabled on their phones but drivers may not be willing or able to make an international call.
The Solís administration has reiterated on numerous occasions that it considers the company to be operating illegally, but has made very little effort to do anything about it. Meanwhile, Uber drivers say they’ve been attacked by disgruntled taxi drivers, and the company recently abandoned a job fair following sustained protests and confrontations with job-seekers.
It was a rare retreat for the company, and while official taxi drivers will likely keep up the fight, by all appearances, Uber is here to stay — until the next big thing takes its place.
Recommended: La horma de mi zapato: On love and taxis