How to See Costa Rica on a Budget
Costa Rica certainly isn’t the cheapest Central American country. In fact, it has gained a reputation among some budget travelers as being overpriced and full of tourist traps. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time here while staying on a budget. Costa Rica still has a lot to offer budget-conscious vacationers.
You’ll find plenty of cheap, delicious food, budget accommodations, and affordable transportation options if you know where to look. Many of the best attractions in Costa Rica are cheap or free, especially if you eschew group tours and take your itinerary into your own hands. Here are some of our best tips for a budget vacation to Costa Rica.
Eat Where the Locals Do
Costa Rica, like any popular travel destination, has its share of restaurants that cater to tourists, but these establishments tend to be among the most expensive. You’ll pay as much or more for a meal at one of these establishments as you would for a chain restaurant meal back home – and you’ll miss out on the authentic Costa Rican dining experience.
Enjoy authentic Costa Rican cuisine at one of the many local-run sodas. Sodas are often family-owned establishments that serve typical Costa Rican dishes. Generally, a plate of food at a soda will consist of rice, beans, a salad, and a meat dish of your choice. Some sodas will include on the plate fried plantain, a fried egg, and a starchy vegetable such as potato or cassava. Many sodas do not provide written menus; instead, the server will rattle off a list of that day’s meat selections, and all meats will be served with the same side dishes. However, with the growth of the Costa Rica tourism industry, this is changing, and some sodas have made adjustments, providing paper menus or at least a chalkboard with the establishment’s dishes written down on it. At a soda, you can get a large plate of food with a drink for less than $10.
Skip the Tours
You can rent a car in Costa Rica for $300 to $700 a week. That might seem like a lot of money up front, but bear with us – renting a car can allow you to skip many of the expensive group tour options offered to tourists. For example, instead of spending $130 for a day trip to La Fortuna from San Jose, you can drive in your own rental car, grab lunch and dinner at sodas, and have a unique experience at off-the-beaten path attractions in the La Fortuna area, for as little as $30 a person – not counting, of course, the cost of the rental car and gas. Renting a car also allows you to explore Costa Rica’s beaches, many of which are free and open to public! Free beach days plus independent exploring equals a fantastic, budget-friendly vacation!
If a rental car isn’t in the budget, however, don’t panic. You can get city-to-city on a public bus for about $3.00 a person. Domestic flights from airlines such as Sansa and NatureAir are also very affordable. And if you decide you want to go deep sea fishing, snorkeling, or some other activity that might normally require a tour, don’t just book the first one that comes up online. Ask for comparable tours at your hotel – they’ll point you toward cheaper, local tour operators.
Don’t Be Afraid of Budget Accommodations
Nightly accommodations can be had in Costa Rica for as little as $5 a night for a tent camping site, to $200 a night for the nicest resort hotels. You may not be interested in staying at a $10-a-night backpacker hostel and sharing a room with 15 other people – but if you are, go for it! A nice middle ground might be booking a room in a guest house ($25 to $40 per night), or a budget hotel ($50 to $75 per night). Budget hotels often provide kitchen facilities so guests can cook their own meals, but most hotels in Costa Rica don’t serve breakfast. Many locals are willing to open their homes to foreign tourists, so it’s worth asking around if anyone is looking to rent out a room for the night.
Don’t Skimp on the Fun
The whole point of saving on food, transportation, and accommodation is so that you can have more money for fun, right? Plenty of Costa Rica’s best attractions are free – such as the aforementioned public beaches! Other cheap attractions you won’t want to miss include Manuel Antonio National Park, which charges a $16 admission fee, although you can probably skip the pricey guide. You may want to splurge on a jungle boat tour at Tortuguero National Park, where, at the right time of year, you can see baby green sea turtles hatching and making their way towards the water. You’ll also want to hike Montverde Cloud Forest and the Arenal Volcano, which you can do on your own for cheaper than taking guided tours. However, you may want to hire a guide for the remote Corcovado National Park, home of some of Central America’s richest biodiversity and only old-growth forests. However, you can no longer hike this park on your own.
A trip to Costa Rica doesn’t have to break the bank. You can have an authentic and budget-friendly experience in Costa Rica, so you can bring back plenty of memories – and souvenirs.