Last Updated: Apr 30, 2012
Costa Rica can be a budget traveler’s paradise, From $5 private rooms (with ensuite bathroom!) to $2.50 belly-filling meals. In fact, Costa Rica has never been a better bargain – and our insider tips will help you travel large and spend wisely on a shoestring budget.
Plan to spend $40-$50 per day, including lodging, meals and transportation. Guided tours and park entrance fees are extra. Some days, you may get away with less, but it’s always best to pad the budget in case of unexpected expenses.
Hostel and camping prices fluctuate depending on location – $5 will buy you a dorm bed in Arenal, but you’ll have to pay double to camp beachfront in Mal Pais. Don’t worry if you go over budget one day, since you can always make up for it the next. If you plan to stay anywhere for more than three nights, wheel and deal yourself a bargain -- paying upfront should knock $1-2 per night off of longer stays. If you speak Spanish well, it’s possible to sweet talk someone into letting you set up camp for free on his or her land.
You won’t have any trouble eating on the cheap in Costa Rica. In fact, some of the country’s best comfort food is found in tiny food stands or roadside diners called sodas, where the plate of the day (plato del dia) offers huge servings at small prices. The plate of the day will usually include chicken or beef, rice and a vegetable side for about $2-3. Casados are heartier meals, and generally offer a fresh fruit drink, small salad, rice, beans, a vegetable side dish, fried plantains and your choice of chicken, beef, fish or eggs for $3-$4.
Delicious snacks like meat-filled empanadas, tacos, and other deep-fried delicacies, can be snatched up throughout the day for less than $1. Cheap breakfasts come in many forms (sometimes included in your hostel rate), but our favorite is a fresh-baked bread baguette, which you can buy at small bakeries for about $0.50.
Costa Rica’s public bus system is cheap, reliable, safe and extensive. All domestic bus rides cost less than $14, And most hover in the $3-$6 range each way. Keep in mind that traveling by bus takes longer than by car or plane, so budget your time wisely. Hitchhiking in Costa Rica is possible, but safety can never be guaranteed, and we don’t recommend it.
Tours and Activities
So you hopped on the bus for $3.50, found a bed for just $9, spent a grand total of $10 on the day’s food, and then it happened: you tried to book that amazing whitewater rafting tour, and the cost was $65. It’s true that organized tours can cost a pretty penny ($25-$100+ per person), and a tight budget can only be stretched so far. Keep in mind that Costa Rican tour prices are high due to strict safety controls – well-maintained equipment and safety certifications for trained guides are expensive – which directly benefit you, the client. Our advice is to spend wisely. Certain once-in-a-lifetime activities can only be enjoyed on an organized tour -- waterfall rappelling, canopy tours, turtle nesting tours, and whale watching, to name a few – but, If you ask us, these experiences are so unique and incredible that they’re well worth the extra dough.
For less expensive activities, ask around – remember that fellow travelers and hostel employees offer a wealth of information. Most national parks in Costa Rica have extensive trail systems, and you’re free to explore thousands of acres for about $10. Hikes to nearby waterfalls, lookout points, hot springs and other natural points of interest are either free or cost very little. Additionally, many private parks and gardens will give independent travelers a reduced rate for tickets without a guide.
When to Visit
If you’re on a tight budget, consider visiting during the green season, which is Costa Rica’s off-peak tourism period that coincides with North America’s summer. From May-November, you can expect sunny mornings, afternoon rain showers or thunderstorms, and lots of lush, green scenery. During this period most hotels offer deep discounts, generally in the neighborhood of 10-40% off their high-season (December-April) rates. You’ll enjoy fewer crowds, which means more one-on-one time with your naturalist guides, surf waves all to yourself, and plenty of opportunity for quiet contemplation in the rainforest.
Taxi from San Jose Airport to San Jose: $20
Casado or Plate of the Day: $3-4
Fast Food Combo Meal: $6
Fresh Fruit Juice (glass, At a restaurant): $1-$1.50
Soda (at a restaurant): $1.50
Local Beer (bottle, at a bar): $2
Local Beer (grocery store 6-pack): $5
Hand-woven hammock: $25
Costa Rica Souvenir T-shirt: $14
AA Batteries (brand-name 4-pack): $3
Tip: With the exception of hotels and restaurants that list prices in USD, always pay with local Costa Rican currency (colones). You’ll get a much better exchange rate.