Budget Travel Guides
Is it possible to travel in Costa Rica on a budget? Learn how much it cost me to backpack in Costa Rica — along with my favorite travel tips, accommodation, and activities.
Travel Guide: Costa Rica (2016)
Everywhere I traveled in Central America, I kept hearing the same thing. “Skip Costa Rica” they said. “It’s expensive and touristy”. But one lesson I’ve learned in my travels is to never believe everything you hear from others.
Costa Rica surprised me in a good way. Sure, there were plenty of expensive tourist-friendly types of activities that other backpackers warned me about. For example: I’ve never seen so many advertisements for zip-lining!
But I soon found out there are a variety of ways to experience the best of the country even on a backpacker’s budget.
You just need to dig below the surface a bit.
The Rich Coast
Named the rich coast (Spanish: Costa Rica) by Spanish conquistadors, Costa Rica is one of the planet’s most biologically diverse places. From stunning beaches and incredible rainforests to the charm of small towns nestled between volcanoes, Costa Rica is a nature lover’s paradise.
The country’s system of national parks and reserves protects approximately 25% of the country, one of the highest in the world.
Here are a few budget travel tips and some useful advice about traveling in Costa Rica that will help you plan your trip.
Budget Travel In Costa Rica
Costa Rica may be more expensive than some other Central American countries, but you can certainly experience the country on a backpacker’s budget if you take the time to investigate low-cost sleeping options like camping, hostels and small eco guest houses.
Budget travelers can survive on around $30 – $50 USD per day.
Costa Rica’s unit of currency is the Colon (520 – 550 colones / $1 USD).
While US dollars are widely accepted, changing your currency to colones is recommended to avoid overpaying for things in dollars.
My Costa Rica Travel Budget
TOTAL DAYS = 34
TOTAL SPENT = $1,100 USD
DAILY AVERAGE = $32 USD
When I spent 34 days traveling through Costa Rica in 2011, I spent a total of $1100 for an average of $32 USD per day. This was possible by staying in hostels, camping, using public transportation, eating cheaply, and avoiding organized tours as much as possible.
READ MORE: Travel Banking Tips
Where to stay in Costa Rica
Costa Rica offers a wide range of accommodation, so everyone can find a perfect place to stay. Prices of accommodation vary depending of the region (prices are highest in well-established tourist towns such as San Jose, Manuel Antonio, Arenal and Tamarindo) or time of the year.
Here are some examples to help you plan according to your budget.
- Backpacker Hostels: $9 – $18 per night
- Guest Houses: $24 – $40 per night
- Mid-Range Hotels: $50 – $75 per night
- Resorts & Nice Hotels: $100 – $200 per night
Food In Costa Rica
Rice and beans are the foundation of most low-cost Costa Rican meals. If you never get sick of eating it over and over again, this will help you save on food.
You can buy a hearty plate of beef, pinto, & fried plantains for about $3 at small local establishments. Yuca (also known as cassava) is another inexpensive starchy root vegetable that is served frequently.
A great money-saving option that might give you insight into the local culture are sodas – local family run restaurants that serve typical Costa Rican cuisine for as little as $5 – $8 for a gigantic plate of food.
They’re a bargain compared to restaurants that cater to tourists, so you’ll definitely want to follow locals to the busiest spots if you’re on a budget.
If you want something a little more fancy, meals at the best restaurants begin at around $20 USD. Most restaurants already include a 10% gratuity fee, so there’s no need to tip more.
Costa Rica Transportation
The main ways to get around in Costa Rica are by public bus, rental car, taxis, shuttle minivan or small planes. Public buses are the cheapest option, but they aren’t always convenient.
While the buses aren’t luxurious, the ride is definitely doable. You can expect to pay around $3 to go from one town to the next or to up to $20 USD to travel across the entire country.
You can rent a car in Costa Rica for about $300 – $700 USD per week.
Shuttle buses cost about $40 – $80 USD per person from one town to another.
If you’re short on time and willing to spend some extra money you may want to travel using small domestic planes from local airlines NatureAir and Sansa. You can get a flight starting around $30 by booking in advance.
Citizens of the United States and most European nations don’t need a visa to visit Costa Rica unless the length of your stay exceeds 90 days. Visitors must pay a Costa Rican departure tax of $29 when leaving the country.
Things To Do In Costa Rica
Costa Rica has plenty of less-traveled towns and national parks that offer travelers numerous adrenaline-fueled or wilderness activities – and they won’t break the bank either.
Tortuguero National Park
Ever dreamed of sea turtles? Tortugero National Park is the place to go, because endangered green turtles are breeding on the beach here. Tortugero is also home to many birds, crocodiles, monkeys, sloths and manatees, so if you’re a fan of the jungle you’ll love it! Boat or kayak tours through the jungle will cost you between $40 – $60.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Monteverde is one of Costa Rica’s most popular natural parks with a lot of activities, such as walking through the tree canopy, zip lining ($50 – $90) over the forest, coffee plantation tours ($10 – $30) or hiking and wildlife spotting. The park is gorgeous and shouldn’t be missed. It’s easy to hike Monteverde on your own and save money.
Arenal Volcano (La Fortuna)
Costa Rica is home to many active volcanoes with Arenal being the most visited one. Volcano hiking is a must, but unfortunately you can’t see lava oozing out of the volcano anymore. There is also whitewater rafting ($70 – $130), relaxing hot springs, or walking through the treetops on suspension bridges ($60 – $80).
Lively Tamarindo is a hyped-up surfing and water-sports beach with wild nightlife. Most visitors come here to surf and learn Spanish. The beach is gorgeous and shouldn’t disappoint you.
Corcovado National Park
Corcovado is for adventure lovers, where you can hike through the jungle searching for unique Costa Rican wildlife like tapirs, toucans, and pumas. The largest of Costa Rica’s parks, it covers one third of the Osa Pensinsula. While you can’t hike the park on your own anymore, it’s possible to hire a local guide to show you the way.
Budget Travel Tips
If you’re on a strict budget in Costa Rica, consider bringing your own tent for camping, instead of paying for a bed every single night. Campsites in Costa Rica are cheap (about $5) and the landscapes are often gorgeous.
You could also look into homestay style lodging, as locals are starting to open up their homes to travelers in an effort to make a little extra money.
Off The Beaten Path
For an off-the-beaten path experience in Costa Rica you might want to check out Cocos Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site located 300 miles southwest from the Pacific coast. Cocos is part of the same chain of underwater volcanoes as the Galápagos Islands and activities include scuba diving with dolphins, hammerhead sharks, giant rays, or exploring over 200 waterfalls.
Costa Rica is rainy pretty much all year round, so make sure to bring a light rain jacket or poncho no matter when you’re planning to visit.
December through April are generally considered dry season, but this is also high-season and the most expensive time to visit, so keep that in mind if you’re on a budget.
However, visiting during the rainy season between May and November is a wonderful way to experience Costa Rica’s best nature reserves without large crowds – if you don’t mind occasional wet hiking conditions.
The busiest times to travel to Costa Rica are during Christmas break, as well as the week leading up to Easter Sunday (also known as Semana Santa). It’s also the least economical time to travel, as accommodation prices are high.
Challenges In Costa Rica
San Jose isn’t the safest city in the world, and taxi scams are rampant (especially the “broken meter” scam). Some national parks, such as Manuel Antonio, can be flooded with tourists at peak times/seasons.
Keep in mind that during the rainy season many unpaved roads could be impassable for regular cars, making getting to remote places more difficult.
Internet & Cell Phone Service
If you have an unlocked cell phone, you can purchase a local Costa Rican SIM card and pre-paid data package with 4G coverage/internet. The airports in San Jose and Liberia both have cell service booths from the country’s largest carriers — Kolbi and Movistar.
Useful Things To Know
Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica, but English is widely spoken. You might want to consider learning some Spanish while there and sign up for a language course. Costa Rica is one of the most popular destinations to learn Spanish as people speak slowly and their dialect is easy to understand.
Costa Ricans are extremely polite and quick to shake hands and greet you with a kiss on the cheek. Spanish polite form used is used almost exclusively and it’s considered impolite to address anyone with tu (like you would in Mexico) or vos.
Family is important in Costa Rica, so don’t be surprised when you’re constantly asked by everyone about your marital status and family!
Costa Rica Photography
Adventures From Costa Rica
Planning to travel to Costa Rica soon? Browse all my blog posts from Costa Rica to get ideas & recommendations for your own adventures.
Suggested Books & Movies
Costa Rica Books
Costa Rica Movies
Enjoy Your Trip!
Despite what you’ll hear about Costa Rica being expensive, you can certainly experience the country on a backpacker’s budget if you use low-cost sleeping options like camping, hostels, and small guest houses. Spend a few weeks exploring the diverse biology, mountains, beaches, and rain-forests of Costa Rica and I promise you won’t be disappointed! ★
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Do you have any budget travel tips for Costa Rica?