Updated: Jun 2, 2021
Perfectly placed between the Caribbean and Atlantic coast, Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse and beautiful countries to visit in the world. Its no wonder why fellow nomads all around the world are constantly putting it in their travel plans. But with that popularity comes certain consequences, good ones for the local people, but negative ones for budget travelers such as ourselves.
I’m talking about money.
A big wake up call for me was when we stopped at a gas station to buy water and were being charged $3USD for a regular 8oz. bottle. The country has witnessed such an influx of tourists in recent years that the acceptance of U.S. Dollars is as common as Costa Rican Colóns. Regular tours are never below $50USD and everyone seems to be trying to get a piece of the pie which is your hard earned money.
But fear not, it is still possible to enjoy the beauty that the Pura Vida nation has to offer while still being kind to your wallet. After spending a couple of weeks in the country, Ashna and I learned our fair share of lessons that we want to share with our readers to maximize your budget in this charming and eco-friendly nation:
1. Eat at a Soda
No we’re not talking about carbonated beverages (even though those weird midwesterners call it ‘Pop’). A soda is a family-style restaurant usually located in every town or city offering local cuisine at extremely reasonable prices. While in La Fortuna, Restaurants want to charge at least $10-$15 USD on a single dish. Sodas are different, the most expensive of dish will run you around $5 USD, while the average is usually around $3-4 USD. The best part of this is that from our time and experience in Costa Rica, we can say Sodas usually have the best food.
Additional tip (or lack thereof): Ticos (What the Costa Rican people call themselves) seldom tip when eating out. Though good service should always be rewarded, don’t feel shame or guilt if you’re not tipping. The regular tico person is usually very hospitable and kind by default.
2. Pay in local currency
As mentioned above, the use of US Dollars is widely accepted in Costa Rica, so one would be tempted to avoid the currency conversion queues and just pay for everything in USD.
The national currency is the Costa Rican Colón and that's what most people are carrying with them. Sure they'll take your dollar, but they'll do their own conversion rate in the process. While we were in Costa Rica the conversion rate was around USD 1.00 = CRC 599.00 give or take. Yes, the currency conversion spots were doing it at about USD 1 to CRC 585.00 meanwhile the local guy at a rest stop wanted to charge me a rate of about CRC 550 per USD. It may not seem like much (about 6 cents on the dollar) but when you're in the business of budget travel like we are, every single penny counts and adds up in the end.
3. Cook your own food
This goes back to our first tip about eating at a Soda. But if we're being completely honest, you can't expect to travel long term and be cost conscious without cooking some of your meals. This tip expands more into a daily life and not only for traveling, but it is an important one. Eating out simply just costs too much in the long term. Most hostels and Bed & Breakfast have a kitchen that is open to use for their guests. We don't book an establishment unless it has one. On top of that, most local supermarkets always have great produce and prices that the average Tico making $500 USD per month can afford. Just always try to cook your food entirely, even vegetables, cause you never know how long something's been out there and how safe it is to eat raw.
Food Poison is no joke.
4. Breakfast included
On average most places have some sort of breakfast included. But while looking through HostelWorld and Booking.com for a hostel One would be tempted to book the cheapest hostel possible and just call it a day (or in this case; a night). I say hostel because if you're a budget traveler you most likely should stay in one. Though keep an open eye for AirBnbs in some countries these could be cheaper than an actual dormitory.
But we've come to realize that most good hostels that offer breakfast are usually only $1 more than the cheaper alternative, and in Costa Rica, that dollar can usually go a long way. Sometimes that breakfast can get you through the whole day. And since there's just so much to see and do in Costa Rica that you may even forget to have a meal or two, that's just good business.
5. Extend your stay if possible and Shop Around
Costa Rica is a little bit different than other "cheap destinations" in the sense that like the fog covering its mountains in Monteverde, the deals are usually well hidden. This means that you have to shop around, talk to many people, and weigh all of your options before committing to something. The first deal you find may not be the best one. The tour that you're thinking of paying $75 USD for may be accessible on your own for less than $15 USD. The only way to do this we find is to take your time. To me one amazing experience is more valuable than 10 shitty ones.
Classic example is the picture to your right (or above if you're on mobile). Rio Celeste is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The beautiful turquoise water is due to the chemical species living in the water. It occurs due to the drop of the pH levels in the water as a result of the mixing of two rivers, one is highly acidic due to the volcanic activity in the La Fortuna area, and it is a pleasure to behold. Tours to the area usually start at around $60 USD with food and entrance included. Well, the entrance is only $10 USD to foreigners and a meal can cost you less than $5 USD if you follow advice number 1. That leaves only transportation and information for $45 USD.
You can rent a scooter for less than $20 USD per day and have absolute freedom (but be sure to read Tip #7 if you're doing this). We did not book the tour and drove there ourselves and even found a free section of the river where the locals go to hang-out.
6. Talk to the locals
Okay, maybe tip 5 and 6 go hand-in hand with each other but I give it its own number because of its extreme importance. If you read our article San Jose to La Fortuna in a Cop Car you'll know how valuable a local friendship to us really was. Officer "Roberto" and I even speak till this day. Ticos are extremely kind and friendly and if you really get to know one, you'll have a friend for life. Their advice is invaluable, their loyalty is unwavering, and their kindness is transcendent.
Unsure about a hotspot you've heard about. Talk to a local! Feel cheated with the price they're offering? Talk to a local! Hungry for some real food? Talk to a local! Whatever your issue may be, talk to a local. Their help is much more valuable than of a money grubbing tour operator. Some of them may even take you there themselves, or show you a hidden free entrance.
7. Get precise locations when using the GPS
So you may have had to read and follow tip #6 to get through this tip. But I can not stress this one enough. DO NOT USE GOOGLE MAPS! Ashna and I got lost soooooo many times while walking or driving somewhere and following our GPS blindly. The locations on Google are not spot on so if you're going to drive anywhere make sure that a local shows you the exact spot on the map of the entrance. I once drove for 3 hours in our scooter to catch a sunset only to be stuck in an unpaved road in the middle of nowhere. The worse part was when nightfall came and we couldn't see anything. We only got to our hostel at 11PM when we were planning to be back by 6:30 PM. This kind of thing happened several times while in Costa Rica, so much so that in the end we gave up on driving all together.
8. Do not rent a car and take public transportation
This one should be a no brainer in terms of budgeting but it's very easy to fall into this trap. While researching into visiting Costa Rica and figuring out the best way to get around I couldn't help but notice that car rental was so damn cheap. While browsing online I saw cars go as little as $8 USD per day and in one case even as low as $3 USD per day (for 4WD). Seems to good to be true right? That's cause it is! Insurance is the real culprit here. Ranging from $400 USD in low season to $600 USD in high season per-week.
That's right, I said PER WEEK.
In our case, $600 was more than the budget for two people in the 2 weeks, so we had to avoid that altogether, which is a good thing considering tip #7. On top of that extremely high price, the deposits for a car can go over $1,500 USD in some cases for the week, and God forbid something were to happen while handling the vehicle, that money stays with the company until your case goes to court. Which can happen more often than not as the road conditions in Costa Rica are not particularly well made.
Buses are a much more viable option for getting around (if you have time of course). There is a public bus for any destination that you'd like to get to, but it can be quite time consuming. (e.g. Monte Verde to Manuel Antonio can take up to 10 hours in a public route, instead of 3 to 4 hours by a private shuttle. The difference though is substantial, with the bus costing you less than $10 USD and the shuttle costing you $50 to $60 USD).
All in all, this beautiful Central American country can be a joy to experience and is a great place to visit to get more in touch with nature, yourself, and other humans. Don't let the price of things deter you from experiencing "Pura Vida" at its finest. Just go there already!
You wont regret it. And if you do it right, your wallet wont either.
Please feel free to add anything I may have missed in the comment section, and contact us if you'd like to know our 2-week itinerary in Costa Rica.