When I first moved to Guanacaste, driving around from place to place, I was so amazed by all the cars that would abruptly just stop in the middle of the road to pick up and drop off people.

“What’s up with this?!” I kept wondering.

A few months went by. Then one day, I was in Tamarindo with friends and we were figuring out how to get to where we wanted to go next. One of them suggested, “Let’s just catch a colectivo.”

“Huh,” I asked, “what’s that?”

Matt and Jess looked at us in surprise, responding, “You haven’t used the colectivo?!”
Thus began my inaugural colectivo experience, which was uneventful but enlightening. I ultimately learned that many people in Guanacaste, and elsewhere in Costa Rica, heavily or exclusively rely on this form of transportation.

The colectivo is a “gypsy cab” that runs up and down the street offering rides in the driver’s own vehicle for a low price. Particularly when you need to get somewhere on relatively short notice, maybe just a few miles away, it can be your best bet. The price may be negotiable, but for sure, you will save money in using this cheap transportation alternative — perhaps paying as little as 500 colones, or just under a dollar.

There’s also a good chance of enjoying your ride in the company of up to six other passengers piled into the vehicle, perhaps with a chicken.

When attempting to catch a colectivo ride by catching the driver’s attention, just stand on the road. Try not to look like a gringo because the asking price might be higher. As soon as you see a small vehicle, wave and the driver will pull over and stop. It’s helpful to speak some Spanish, but you can probably fumble through it with gestures and broken Spanglish.

The collectivo culture gained strength about two years ago, when bus tickets became super expensive for locals who take the bus to work every day. So taxi drivers started accommodating groups of people in their cars willing to share rides for the cost of 500 colones each. This situation evolved as people other than taxi drivers started using their own vehicle to provide a carpool service to make some extra money. Thus, colectivo trips from beach town to beach town became available. Even though bus ticket prices decreased back to previous rates, colectivos remained popular as an economical, fast and safe way to move around.

Whether I should feel lucky or disappointed that my own colectivo initiation was so uneventful, depends on what others might seek in the way of excitement or entertainment. In the realm of what NOT to expect, be sure to read this month’s Tico Time Zone story on page XX, “Colectivo Fugitivo,” by guest contributor Caison Gaither.

High Five and Hop In

“Think of it as Costa Rican Uber,” is how Caison Gaither explains colectivo travel to anyone unfamiliar with the ins and outs. Elaborating on this article’s “what to expect” basics, he adds:
“Colectivos will pick you up on the street or at a bus stop. You just stand out near the road and stare down approaching traffic. The colectivo car will approach and flash its lights, or if you’re at a bus stop, the driver may yell out a destination and offer a ride. Hold up your hand as if to say ‘5.’ The car will pull over and you just hop in.”
How do you know a colectivo when you see one?

Be on the lookout for a small, beat-up sedan, Caither says, one level below a Costa Rican taxi. “Think Hyundai from the early 2000s, driven by a Tico.”