Playa Zancudo, cherished for its remoteness, is also remote in regards to transportation. There are easier ways to get to Zancudo, like flying from San Jose to Golfito, hiring a private taxi for all or part of the route, and also hiring a private boat. Even if you rent a car, it's still quite a round about way to get there. But those are not the things we do when we're on a budget so I'll leave those details for the other sites.
There are two basic routes getting in and out of Zancudo. Via boat from Golfito (a town on the inland coast of the gulf that is also a main way to get to Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Penninsula), and via land down toward the south (usually by way of the border town of Paso Canoas if using public transportation).
The public transportation is sadly difficult to pin down and changes with the seasons. I've done my best to document both what I have experienced and what I have found out from locals. Your best bet is to be flexible with your time.
Getting To Playa Zancudo from San JoseFrom the airport, the general plan is to get into the actual city of San Jose, take a bus from the Tracopa bus terminal to Golifto, then take a boat or bus over to Zancudo. Sounds pretty simple, right? Not. Given the timing of it all, it's not possible to do it all in one day.
Going South via land (instead of Golfito/boat), you have the same timing problem. The once daily bus to get into Zancudo leaves Ciudad Neily at 2:15pm and there's no way to get down there in time from San Jose unless you leave San Jose on the 5am bus.
No matter which route you choose, you first have to get out of the airport and get on a bus going south. You can get to the Tracopa bus terminal for only $1 by taking a pubic bus from in front of the airport, then walking (or taking an Uber) to the bus terminal. See Getting to Your Bus from the San Jose Airport in Costa Rica for details.
Going by Way of Golfito / BoatIf all the stars align, this is the most time efficient way to go. You only have a 30 minute boat ride instead of spending hours more on buses.
Your first hurdle is that the public shared boat only goes once a day, M-Sa in the high season, and M, W, F during the low season and only if there are at least 3 people going! At time of writing, Eric (aka Coco) is the captain. You can reach him at +506 8638-7712 to ask if the collectivo boat is going and confirm when and where. If not, he'll be more than happy to take you by private boat for $60 (vs. $5 for the shared boat!). So let's assume the shared boat is running and you want to head to Golfito.
Bus to Golfito
The Tracopa buses from San Jose to Golfito leave super early in the morning (6:30 am) and then not again until 3:30 pm. However, there are other options than the San Jose - Golfito bus. The town of Rio Claro is only about 1/2 hour away from Golfito and there are buses going there from San Jose more regularly. The key times being 10:15 am, 11 am, 1:05 pm and 2 pm (₡7,660 $13).
If you land at SJO in the afternoon, see if there's a night bus, otherwise the Golfito route won't make sense for you. Your best bet is to head to Paso Canoas either that night or first thing in the morning, then take land trans into Zancudo. Even if you go toward Golfito first thing in the morning, you'll still have to spend the night in Golfito before heading to Zancudo the following morning since you simply won't get there in time to catch the noon boat.
Check the Tracopa site for the current schedules.
Spend the Night in Golfito
You will arrive in Golfito too late for the public boat. Spend the night in the Hotel el Tucan. It's just past the supermarket on the inland side of the street. The woman who runs it will treat you like family. We paid ₡15,000 ($25) for a double with aircon. The Hotel Golfito is okay too but a little more expensive at ₡18,000 ($30). Budget eats at the supermarket (grab a cold beer - ₡1,300 for a large), Buenos Dias, and Chicken Bros.
All fresh and rested in the morning take the public ferry (collectivo bota) that leaves at noon from the ramp right across from the supermarket, next to the Hotel Golfito and costs ₡3,000 ($5) each.
Before you head off, buy your groceries at the supermarket and ask them to deliver them to the dock for you. They'll do it for free. :) There's also and ATM at the bottom of the stairs to Hotel Golfito. Get whatever money you'll need for your time in Zancudo.
If you're lucky and the tide is up, you'll go via the mangrove river which is really picturesque. You may even see dolphins in the gulf!
If your cabina or casa is not within walking distance, hopefully you have arranged for your host to have someone pick you up when you land. If not, you can be sure that Eric might run a taxi service for you (for a fee of course!).
If you end up in Golfito with no boat to take, it's not impossible to take some buses that will eventually get you to Zancudo. You'll want to take the 10:00 am or 3 pm bus to Pavones (ask more than one person to find out the current schedule - you'll get different answers from everyone) but get off early in Comte where later in the day (3:30 pm?) a bus will come by on it's way from Ciudad Neily going to Zancudo. Or if you're feeling particularly daring you can try to hitchhike form Comte. Good luck. ;)
Transportes Barrantes shows (most of) the current bus schedules around the area. Check their home page too for special schedules and see Public Transportaion in the Zancudo / Pavones Area for an overview.
Going by Way of LandBus to Ciudad Neily or Paso Canoas
It's not impossible to get to Zancudo via land from Golfito, but it just doesn't make sense. If you're not going to take the boat out of Golfito, then from San Jose you should go down to either Ciudad Neily or Paso Canoas on the Panamanian border.
Whichever of those two towns you go to, you'll end up on the same Neily - Zancudo bus so which one you choose is more a matter of where you want to (possibly) spend the night and how much time you want to spend on the slow bus.
See Leaving Playa Zancudo below for photos of the Paso Canoas area and where the taxis are in relation to the bus terminal.
Bus from Neily to Zancudo
Get on the bus that leaves Neily at 2:15 pm, hits Laurel around 3pm (or is it 4pm??) and gets into Zancudo around 5:30pm+. I do see the bus coming into town at around 5:35pm each evening.
Bus from Paso Canoas to Zancudo
Going via Paso Canoas is a longer way on the whole, but can have its benefits. This is where the local expats of Zancudo go to provision for their stay. Yes, they "provision" as you would a boat. This is where you get good prices on food and booze.
From Paso Canoas you'll head to the town of Laurel. A shared taxi should cost ₡1,000 (about $1.75) and takes about half an hour. From there, you'll get the Neily bus as it comes through at 3 pm on its way to Zancudo for around ₡1,600. The ride takes at least an hour and the bus will drop you off anywhere on the road that you ask.
I haven't done this route, but it should work. You can only do this if you overnight in San Jose, so I suppose it's not really getting there in one day.
Take the 5am Tracopa slow mountain bus from San Jose to Paso Canoas. You arrive in C. Neily at around 12:15 pm and in Paso Canoas at 12:45pm where you should have plenty of time to shop, eat, walk around before catching the regular Neily - Zancudo bus as stated above.
Leaving Playa ZancudoYou basically have the same two route options in reverse, but the good news is that both can be done in one day - woohoo! Other than a couple of buses heading South to David in Panama and a few to San Isidro from Rio Claro, all buses go to San Jose but there are many stops in between where you can get off if you don't want to go all the way to the city.
Leaving by Way of Golfito / BoatThe public boat to Golfito leaves at 7am, but be sure to check with Eric (+506 8638-7712 ) if and when the boat is actually going. Taking the boat over to Golfito on the way out is definitely more fun, but it has its drawbacks.
• You have to find a way to the dock in Zancudo (if you pay for the $60 private boat, Eric will pick you up).
• It costs more.
Taking the boat, you will miss the super early bus from Golfito to San Jose and the next one isn't until 1:30 pm, so hop on a public bus to Rio Claro and you'll have a lot of options to head north from there. E.g. there's an 8:30 am or 9:15 am Tracopa to San Jose. In a pinch, you can take a private taxi from Goflito to Rio Claro $30 (₡18,000). Yikes.
See Going by Way of Golfito / Boat above for photos of the Golfito area and where the dock is.
Leaving by Way of LandThe public bus leaves Zancudo at approximately 5:30 am from the tip of Zancudo. Depending on where you are staying along the road, be on the road at around 5:45 am. Just stand on the side of the road, listen to the morning birds, and wait for it to come by. The first bus that comes by is the school bus taking the high school kids, so don't worry when it doesn't stop to pick you up. Hop on the public bus.
2) Take it to Laurel (1 hr+) for ₡1,600 and get a collectivo taxi from there (30 min) for ₡1,000. Since the public bus stops anywhere and everywhere along the road any time someone wants to get on or off, this option takes more time, but less money.
For your collectivo, the taxis (cars waiting where the bus stops) will be more than willing to take you in a private taxi (for something like $30 USD!) so make sure you specify collectivo. Hopefully there is at least one other person from your bus who wants the same so you’ll share the ride with them (I don’t think the taxi will go if there’s only one person) and your driver will try to pick up additional people along the way.
Transportes Barrantes shows (most of) the times for the local buses around that area, in particular the one that goes from Zancudo, to Comte, to Laurel, to C. Neily and back. It is missing the La Langostina to Comte / Laurel at 1 pm. Check their home page too for special schedules.
Or if you want to leave super super early and get on your way, the 4am Tracopa bus out of Paso Canoas actually originates in a town called Bella Luz at 3am. It's closer to Zancudo but there are no public buses that go there at that hour so you'd have to find a ride or take a taxi for $30.
Tracopa Bus from Paso Canoas to San Jose
The taxi drops you off on the corner at the border for Panama. Off to the left and across the street is the ticket office for the Tracopa bus line. The buses actually leave from just a bit further down that road (same side of the street) where the immigration offices are. Just like when you come south, make sure it's the Costanera (coastal route) and not the Cerro de la Muerte (mountain route)!
You could always invest in a field trip to Paso Canoas a few days in advance to buy the ticket (round trip it would cost you around ₡4,200 / $7+) or try to find someone in town who is going and have them buy the ticket for you. Or just take it slow and plan on experiencing either Golfito, Rio Claro, or Paso Canoas for a day or two.
San Jose / Airport
In San Jose, just like when you came, walk to the public bus terminal and take a public bus to the airport. Boom.