Zancudo - A Challenge Getting There and Away

Costa Rica     Destinations, Getting To and Fro
Boxes of groceries delivered to the dock by the supermarket. Here comes Eric, ready to load up on the boat and go.
Boxes of groceries delivered to the dock by the supermarket. Here comes Eric, ready to load up on the boat and go.
There's the easy way and there's the budget way. And even the easy way isn't very easy! Here's the cheapest way to get to and from Zancudo.
Getting To Playa Zancudo from San Jose  |   Via Golfito / Boat  |   Via Land
Leaving Playa Zancudo  |   Via Golfito / Boat  |   Via Land
Itinerary / Cost
$1
bus / walk to Tracopa
$13
10:15 am bus to Rio Claro
$1
1/2 hr bus to Golfito
$12.50
Tucan Hotel
$5
noon boat to Zancudo
 
arrive 12:30pm

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.
If you are renting a car, Google maps often gives incorrect directions sending you down and impassible road! See Google Maps Gives Incorrect Directions to Zancudo for details.
Be sure to read Public Transportaion in the Zancudo / Pavones Area for an overview on the public transportation in the area and also Getting to Monteverde from Southern Costa Rica for more details and options on your way out.

Getting To Playa Zancudo from San Jose

From 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.
Last minute blurry shot out the bus window, but that's the Tracopa bus terminal in San Jose as seen from the outside. Go in those tall blue gates.
Last minute blurry shot out the bus window, but that's the Tracopa bus terminal in San Jose as seen from the outside. Go in those tall blue gates.
Tracopa station in San Jose. The buses are all bright pink or green.
Tracopa station in San Jose. The buses are all bright pink or green.
Now let's look at the boat vs. land options so you can decide where to take your Tracopa bus to! Whichever town you decide to go to on Tracopa, be sure to take the Costenera (coastal) route rather than the Cerro de la Muerte (mountain) route which is winding, slower, and less direct (many stops). The literal translations are "waterfront" and "death hill". Choose wisely. LOL
Here's a super basic map I made to give you a lay of the land. This only shows some of the routes but they are the most important and the ones you are most likely to use.
Here's a super basic map I made to give you a lay of the land. This only shows some of the routes but they are the most important and the ones you are most likely to use.

Going by Way of Golfito / Boat

If 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.
The drive down the coast from San Jose to the south is so green and beautiful the whole way!
The drive down the coast from San Jose to the south is so green and beautiful the whole way!
There are 2 stops. This one is only 10 minutes for a quick potty break and a snack.
There are 2 stops. This one is only 10 minutes for a quick potty break and a snack.
If you take the bus to Rio Claro, from there you only pay about $1 for a public bus (1/2 hour) to Golfito. Just ask someone when you get off the bus where to catch it. It's green and says GOLFITO in the window. You pay the driver when you get on, and ask him to let you off at the muellecito (the small public pier). It's across the street from the Supermercado Pearson and next to Hotel Golfito.
When I took the bus to Rio Claro, I made sure to ask the driver if that's where I get the bus to Golfito in case there was more than one Rio Claro stop; I wanted the correct one. He said to stay on. "The other side" he said. Well soon we were no longer in town! When I re-questioned him about it, he let us off on the side of the highway where the Golfito bus eventually came by on it's way back through Rio Claro where we had just come from and on to Golfito. No biggie, we got there. So just get off in Rio Claro.
Pouring rain, we got out on the side of the highway to wait for the correct bus going back the way we had just come from.
Pouring rain, we got out on the side of the highway to wait for the correct bus going back the way we had just come from.


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.
Hotel Tucan is just up the road from the dock past the little park.
Hotel Tucan is just up the road from the dock past the little park.
Hotel Tucan - the nicest people and a good value for the area.
Hotel Tucan - the nicest people and a good value for the area.
Boat to Zancudo
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!
Looking from the dock across the street to Chicken Bros and the supermarket is on the right.
Looking from the dock across the street to Chicken Bros and the supermarket is on the right.
The muellecito / public dock in Golfito.
The muellecito / public dock in Golfito.
We had the highest tide of the year so we had no problem taking the shortcut through the mangrove river.
We had the highest tide of the year so we had no problem taking the shortcut through the mangrove river.
So pretty. Lynn even saw monkeys on her way back through when she left.
So pretty. Lynn even saw monkeys on her way back through when she left.
Ride to Your Cabina
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!).
There's not a lot going on in Zancudo so don't expect to hop off the boat and grab a taxi. My property manager picked us up and drove us to the house.
There's not a lot going on in Zancudo so don't expect to hop off the boat and grab a taxi. My property manager picked us up and drove us to the house.
Eeks, No Boat?
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.
There are private taxis that will take you but all rides are very expensive. Taxis average $50 USD to go between Golfito or Paso Canoas and Zancudo.

Going by Way of Land

Bus 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.
This is the stop further south where you get 20 minutes for potty and lunch.
This is the stop further south where you get 20 minutes for potty and lunch.
Cafeteria style food. Decent prices, big selection.
Cafeteria style food. Decent prices, big selection.
The Tracopa coaches are nice and comfy with air conditioning.
The Tracopa coaches are nice and comfy with air conditioning.
Given all the unknowns and varying bus schedules by season (and by whim), this can be a bit more of a challenging effort. It might all go perfectly smoothly, but be prepared. A lot of people travel this way though so it's likely something will work out.

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.
You can optionally take a shared taxi from Paso Canoas to Comte (the next stop on the bus's route) for ₡2,500 (45 min) and then on into Zancudo.
If you can find someone to pick you up on Langonstino (it's not too far from Zancudo), you can get an earlier bus from Neily / Laurel / Comte; the one that leaves Neily at 9:30am for Langostino.
Getting There in One Day
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 Zancudo

You 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 / Boat

The 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.
This is the pier where you get the public collectivo bota.
This is the pier where you get the public collectivo bota.
You need to check the Tracopa schedules to see which bus works for you. Not all buses that orginate in Paso Canoas make a stop in Rio Claro, but Rio Claro has some buses of it's own that originate in Ciudad Neily that you can't get from Paso Canoas. If you are going to San Isidro, that leaves from Rio Claro.

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 Land

The 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.
Starting the morning off early with the first (and ONLY) bus out of Zancudo. LOL
Starting the morning off early with the first (and ONLY) bus out of Zancudo. LOL
You have two choices here:
1) Take it to Comte (45 min) for ₡1,100 and get a collectivo taxi from there (40 min) for ₡2,500. This is a better option if you need to get to Paso Canoas earlier. I did this because I was nervous about the time but it turns out I would have been fine going on to Laurel.

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.
You can always hop off the bus in Comte and if you can't get a collectivo, just hop back on the bus and take it to Laurel.
If you want to go to Paso Canoas later in the day, like maybe you prefer to spend the night there but you don't want have to get the 5 am bus, try to get someone to drive you to Langostino and get the 1 pm bus from there to Comte or Laurel where you can get a shared taxi into Paso Canoas.

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)!
*** Buses sell out **** Mainly the popular routes. I was told that it’s best to buy a ticket for the 3am bus out of Bella Luz the day before and from my experience the same is true for the 8:30 am out of Paso Canoas. The 8:30 was full but the 9 was almost empty. Yes, this causes a problem all the way around. I just went for it and ended up on a more expensive and less convenient bus.

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.
This is about where the taxi drops you off in Paso Canoas. Panama is to the right (seen here) and the bus ticket window is to the left.
This is about where the taxi drops you off in Paso Canoas. Panama is to the right (seen here) and the bus ticket window is to the left.
Here's where to buy your bus ticket in Paso Canoas. There's an ATM right next door that will give you either US dollars or colones.
Here's where to buy your bus ticket in Paso Canoas. There's an ATM right next door that will give you either US dollars or colones.
About 100 yards from the Panama border is where the Tracopa buses stop. They don't hang out there, they just pull up when it's time to go.
About 100 yards from the Panama border is where the Tracopa buses stop. They don't hang out there, they just pull up when it's time to go.
Departure location for Tracopa from Paso Canoas
Departure location for Tracopa from Paso Canoas
At around 11:30 am, the bus makes a 20 minute stop just before Uvita for lunch. The restaurant has clean (free) bathrooms and reasonably priced cafeteria style food. But being the budget traveler I am, I packed my own lunch. ;)

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.

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