I just came back from a trip to Costa Rica. Since I was in the Houston area, it was cheap and easy for me to catch a flight to the small Central-American country, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. With a GDP per capita of only about $11,000 (similar to that of Malaysia or Poland, and less than a fifth of that of the US) I expected the trip to be cheap. Boy, was I wrong! It turns out Costa Rica is quite an expensive travel destination.
In this article I will give you some tips for planning a budget trip to Costa Rica, saving as much on unnecessary expenses as possible. Keep in mind, though, that even with these travel tips, your trip to Costa Rica will be much more costly than a trip to, say, Mexico or Guatemala. When I was researching my travels, I encountered some very useful blogs and articles. I will not repeat everything I found there, but instead refer you to the original sources. This article (and the following in the series) adds the information that was harder to find elsewhere.
Why Costa Rica is so expensive
The Costa Ricans are not unaware that the cost of living in their country is so high. According to most locals (also nicknamed Ticos) this is primarily the result of high taxes. While income tax isn’t particularly steep, apparently there are a lot of excise taxes. The collected taxes are partly used for public goods like free high quality education for citizens. As a visitor, however, you benefit little from them.
Additionally, the explanation given to me by some Ticos is that graft puts a lot of money into the pockets of wealthy politicians. Also, apparently interest rates are very high, making it expensive to run a business. This creates a situation where most people make little money–less than $500 a month for an unskilled worker–but pay a lot for everything they need.
The prices for tourists are (much) worse than for locals. Most tourists in Costa Rica are American or Canadian, and “they can afford it,” or so the reasoning goes. Anything that is aimed specifically at tourists tends to offer poor value for a lot of money. A few examples of tourist costs:
- Entrance to a national park: $10-20 (Costa Ricans pay $1-7)
- Stay in a 3-star hotel: $100-200 per night (long-term rental houses cost less than $500 per month)
- Shuttle between towns: $40-65 (Ticos take the public bus for $4-8)
- Meal and drink in a sit-down restaurant: upwards of $15 (the locals eat at sodas for $4-6)
- Exit tax to depart San José or Liberia by plane: $29 (may be included in your ticket price)
How to save money on your Costa Rica trip
Despite its high cost, you can still see a lot of Costa Rica without paying a fortune. A lot of this comes down to doing things like the Ticos do. Take advantage of these six budget travel strategies to see Costa Rica like a Tico.
1. Travel like a Tico
Many Costa Ricans travel around by car. But cars are expensive, and those who don’t have a car travel by public transportation. Costa Rica has a very extensive bus network, with almost every village accessible by some bus. The buses are cheap too, ranging from about 200 colones ($0.40) for a ride within San José, to 10,000 colones ($20) for the longest conceivable bus ride all the way across the country. Some buses are more comfortable than others, but generally speaking they are also slow.
If you’re travelling between San José and another major destination, the bus is usually a good option. When you take a directo bus it won’t even be all that much slower than a fancy tourist shuttle. However, if you need to travel to or from a smaller town, you have to take a colectivo bus that happens to stop in that town, as well as in many others. That may slow down your journey quite a bit. You can find a pretty good inter-city bus schedule here, but call the operator to see if there have been any changes recently.
If you’re travelling between two smaller places that are not directly connected, such as La Fortuna and Monteverde, taking the bus is not worth it. You will have to transfer either in San José or in another major hub, and what would otherwise be a relatively short journey turns into a full day of riding the bus. Only opt for this if you really can’t afford anything else.
Otherwise resign yourself to overpaying for private tourist transportation. There are three major companies offering this. Two of them are Gray Line and Interbus. The third is an anonymous operator–I haven’t been able to ascertain their identity–that offers its services through affiliates such as SJOShuttle and SuperShuttleCR, as well as through local hotels and travel agents. The prices for all three are about the same.
2. Eat like a Tico
Walking around any town in Costa Rica, you will often notice places with SODA written on them. Sodas are small family-run restaurants that serve simple but tasty Costa Rican fare. Many Ticos eat at the sodas when they are not eating at home. What they lack in decoration they usually make up for in taste and in price.
To find a good soda, ask around. Especially if you’re staying in budget hotels or hostels, the owner or receptionist will often be able to point you towards a good and inexpensive soda. If many Ticos are eating there, it’s a good sign. The most popular sodas tend to be located inside or on the edge of the central market of the town. Don’t rely on TripAdvisor, as many sodas aren’t listed, and the reviews are mostly written by American tourists.
The most common meals you’ll find on the soda menus are casado and arroz con …. Casado is meat or fish on a plate accompanied by rice, black beans, salad, potatoes, and fried plantain. They are differentiated by the type of meat on the plate. A casado will typically cost you 2000-4500 colones ($4-9).
Arroz con pollo is fried rice with chicken, and arroz con camarones is fried rice with shrimps. You may also encounter arroz Cantones, which is fried rice with various types of meat. These rice plates are filling and tasty, albeit a bit monotonous. Expect to pay around 2500-3500 colones ($5-7). Some sodas will also offer a plato del dia which includes a fruit juice with the meal.
The sodas are also not a bad place for breakfast. You should be able to get a typical plate of gallo pinto (beans with cilantro rice) with eggs, cheese, and toast for about 2000 colones ($4). Alternatively, bakeries like Musmanni are a cheap breakfast option, with a coffee for 550 colones and pastries ranging from 400-650 colones.
3. Hustle like a Tico
Tourism in Costa Rica is big business, and many offers are aimed at (especially American) tourists. You can easily recognize them as they are advertised in English and priced in US dollars. While these offers may seem like reasonable value by American standards, they are almost always a rip off.
There are air conditioned private shuttles available between most popular tourist destinations. These will cost $40-65 for a 3-4 hour drive. The same trip would cost just $4-8 by public bus, so unless the public buss takes an awfully long and indirect route, the shuttles just aren’t worth it.
In most towns you’ll find guided tours priced at $35 to $70. These tours will take 10-15 people for a half or full day in some national parks or other nice area. Considering that the parks cost $10-20 to enter, and a guide makes less than $10 per hour, you can easily see how much profit is made on these tours.
Part of the ticket price (usually 10-25%) goes to the hotel or travel agency that sold you the package (they are not actually the operator). So on a $60 ziplining experience your hotel may collect around $10-20. Keep this in mind when getting advice on the best ziplining or hiking tour to take, as the person supplying the advice may not be unbiased. It is not always possible to book directly through the operator, because they need to keep their agents happy. An agency that at least shares part of its commission with you is Pura Vida Eh!
Your best bet is often to get three or four travellers together and arrange for a taxi to the place you’d like to see. There will be enough guides walking around so that you can overhear some interesting facts about the area you’re visiting. All national parks have well-marked trails that you can easily find on your own.
4. Sleep like a Tico
Well, when vacationing it’s pretty hard to sleep like the locals, as they will have their own rental house or apartment. I’ve always found the best way to get to know a place is to stay with a local through a hospitality network like CouchSurfing or BeWelcome. However, there is no real active CouchSurfing community in Costa Rica, with fewer than 2,000 hosts in the entire country. BeWelcome, while a wonderful initiative, is just too tiny to really be a viable way to search for people to stay with. I would only recommend using these networks if you really believe in the spirit of them and have an established profile.
Your second-best bet is Airbnb. I stayed with a nice and knowledgeable host in San José, who really helped me get my bearings in town. Unfortunately a lot of Airbnb listings in Costa Rica are priced for tourists, so you won’t necessarily get a better deal than staying at a budget hotel.
The other type of budget accommodation that I used a lot were cabinas. They are small budget hotels, often family-run, that provide good value for money. Sometimes the rooms have a shared bathroom, and most of the times they have hot water. This is the type of accommodation that I noticed a lot of Ticos use when travelling within their own country and not staying with family or friends. Many good cabinas are listed on Booking.com, and I highly recommend booking them well in advance.
5. Talk like a Tico
If you speak some Spanish the local population will be more sympathetic towards you. You’ll find it a lot easier to hitchhike or share a ride with some others, sharing the cost of the gas. Locals will be able to give you directions on how to avoid expensive items while still getting the best experience. A good starting point to learn basic Spanish is DuoLingo.
When buying things other than food, often there is some room for negotiation. This especially applies to tour packages and to souvenirs. If you speak Spanish you come off as more knowledgeable about the local environment and prices (even if you are not). Combine your charm and your experience in negotiating with your Spanish speaking skills, and you’ll often find yourself able to negotiate a 10-30% discount.
Also, from time to time you may be able to charm your way past a security guard. If you don’t look like a rich Westerner and you speak their language, they may sometimes let you pass without paying the inflated foreigner entrance fee. (Note that this doesn’t work at the state-owned national parks, but it may at private enterprises.) The guards are just people too, often without all that much sympathy for their rich bosses. They do enjoy a nice chat in their own language.
6. Shop like a Tico
The two most popular souvenirs from Costa Rica are coffee and wooden handicrafts. If you want the ultimate Costa Rican souvenir, you can even get a traditional wooden coffee maker. (I don’t find them particularly practical, and for that reason wouldn’t buy one myself, but they look cool.) During your travels you will find plenty of souvenir shops, most of which offer the same mass-produced (but authentic-looking) souvenirs. They are horrendously overpriced.
Instead, try to shop for coffee at the local supermarkets. The cheapest one is Palí (sometimes found as Maxi-Palí). It has a similar feel to the German chains Aldi and LIDL. The selection is small, and you have to take things directly from the box. Mas x Menos also offers good prices and a slightly wider selection. There are many smaller, more local supermarkets and chains, such as Super Cristian or Super Mora. They are more hit-or-miss, but you can get some very good items at very reasonable prices.
If you are intent on buying some original Costa Rican coffee, you should be aware that it comes in a wide range of prices, from about 700-6,000 colones ($1.40-11.00) for a 250g package. Whether this is worth it depends on how much of a coffee aficionado you are. I’ve tasted some really good organic coffee while in Costa Rica, but also some stuff that was expensive but bland. The coffee that most Ticos like is of the brand Volio, and it’s available at most supermarkets. I would rank it towards the upper end in quality and lower end in price.
Handicraft souvenirs are generally unavailable in the supermarkets, because no local would buy them. If shopping for these, absolutely avoid buying them at the airport, at rest stops on a bus ride, and in the very center of touristy towns. The Mercado Nacional de Artesanías in San José offers a lot of choice, and the prices are somewhat lower than most souvenir shops.
With these budget travel tips you should be able to keep the cost of your Costa Rica vacation down. While Costa Rica isn’t a cheap country, at least you won’t be paying like a sucker. Over the next few weeks I will share with you some more specific tips that I picked up visiting San José, La Fortuna, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio.
- Read more about visiting Manuel Antonio on a budget.
- See how to visit El Arenal volcano and La Fortuna cheaply
There are a few blogs and other websites that I found particularly useful when researching my Costa Rica trip. I have listed them below.
- Anywhere Costa Rica. One of the most extensive introduction websites to Costa Rica. The activities on their website are too pricey, but they provide excellent background information if you’re deciding which parts of the country to visit.
- Costa Rica Guide. This site has some more detailed information on specific areas and national parks. Their downloadable maps are a very useful resource.
- Costa Rica, guía de viajes online (in Spanish). If reading Spanish isn’t an obstacle for you, this blog covers some detailed information about bus travel in Costa Rica.
- WikiVoyage Costa Rica. I find WikiVoyage an invaluable resource wherever I travel. The Costa Rica guide has some useful information but most articles are just stubs.
- Two Weeks in Costa Rica. This blog has a couple of nuggets of useful information. It’s not comprehensive, but pretty good if they happen to cover some particular topic that you’re interested in, like travelling in Costa Rica with a baby.
- Pura Vida! Eh? A for-profit online travel agency that offers many of the pricey commercial tours in Costa Rica with a small discount or cash back. I’ve found their prices to be on par with what the best local hotels and travel agencies charge, and slightly cheaper after the discount (but you have to book at least a week in advance). A useful reference to get a sense of how much certain tours cost, and to know if you’re getting ripped off or not.
- The Lonely Planet Costa Rica (paper guide). I dislike the Lonely Planet and avoid it when I can. But if you don’t want to rely on a smartphone or internet connection, it’s probably the best paper guide for medium-budget travel in Costa Rica.