Costa Rica is one of the most expensive countries in Central America. The whole country is a giant tourist trail, and older Americans and retirees have driven up prices over the years. Many budget travelers simply skip the country altogether because they feel it’ll be too expensive. Since it’s a hugely popular destination, I was skeptical I could do Costa Rica on the cheap. But I also wanted to prove to other travelers that, while relatively expensive, Costa Rica can still be affordable. My budget goal was $35 USD per day (max $40 USD).
How Much Did I Spend?
In total, I was in Costa Rica for 20 days and I spent 424,660 colones or $849.32 USD. (The exchange rate is about $1 USD = 500 colones). That works out to be an average of $42.46 USD per day. So, like in Panama, I went over my budget. However, I often set my budgets low simply as motivation not to spend a lot of money. There are many reasons why I went over my budget, but let me break down my expenses first:
Food: 150,755 colones or $301.51 USD
Alcohol: 16,740 colones or $33.48 USD
Bottled water: 9,150 colones or $18.30 USD
Accommodation: 89,530 colones or $179.06 USD
Activities: 17,500 colones or $35 USD
Local buses: 9,105 colones or $18.21 USD
Cabs: 98,000 colones or $196 USD
Miscellaneous: 33,880 colones or $67.76 USD
My miscellaneous expenses were things like laundry, sunscreen, a poncho, and the departure tax. I didn’t factor these costs into my original budget plans. Moreover, I took a lot of taxis, because sometimes they were the fastest and most convenient way to go — but they were certainly not the cheapest. I overspent on food simply because I did eat a lot of nice seafood dinners on the coast as well as have some Western meals. Also, in many touristy areas a cheap meal can still cost 4,000 colones ($6 USD).
Can You Do It Cheaper?
Yes, but it won’t be fun. If you simply account for food, room, and buses, you can probably get by on a bare-bones $30 USD per day. But you won’t enjoy it. That budget has no activities included, and the fun adventure activities like ziplining, surfing, diving, and jungle trekking are what make this country as amazing as it is. It’s not a budget I would recommend.
On my budget of $43 USD a day, you can afford cheap rooms, mostly local food and some Western meals, going out, and many activities. (If you avoid the taxis, you can have even more money for fun adventure activities.) I didn’t do a lot of adventure tours this time, since I did them the first time I was in Costa Rica. I never felt I was missing out on anything with my budget, and though it’s more than you might spend in Nicaragua or El Salvador, $43 USD shouldn’t be high enough to scare you away from the country.
Ways to Save Money
There are plenty of ways to save money in Costa Rica. And if you don’t at least try to do some inexpensive things while here, your budget will go through the roof.
Don’t drink. Drinking in bars in Costa Rica can be quite expensive. Local beer is typically 1,200 colones ($2.50 USD). Sometimes you can find it for around 900 colones, but that’s very rare and usually during a happy hour. I avoided drinking here simply because it was too expensive.
Eat at the sodas. The “sodas” are the local Tico restaurants and a great bargain. You can usually find casado, a typical local dish, for around 2,000 colones (about 1/2 the price of tourist restaurants). In many of the towns on the Caribbean coast, you can find meals for under 1,000 colones. I found the empanadas the best value for money; for 500 colones, I could get a filling snack/light meal.
Eat at Musmanni. Musmanni is a bakery chain found all over the country. It offers a great lunch special. For 1,000 colones, you can get a sandwich and a soda; most of their pastries are only 300 colones. I ate at this place whenever I found one, because it helped keep my food costs down.
Stay in dorms. Accommodation in Costa Rica isn’t cheap. I stayed at a few budget hotels, and they were around 15,000 colones ($30 USD) per night. Dorm rooms offer the best value, as they cost only 5,000 colones ($10 USD) per night; on the Caribbean coast, you can find them for around $8 USD.
Couchsurf. Don’t like dorms? Use the site Couchsurfing, which can connect you with locals who will let you stay at their house for free. It’s a great way to meet locals and cut down your accommodation costs.
Drink the water. Though I spent 9,150 colones on bottled water, the water in Costa Rica is safe to drink. I would always lose my water bottle and have to replace it, but if you can remember to keep yours, refill it from the tap and avoid spending money on water.
For more travel tips on Costa Rica, take a look at my guide to Costa Rica travel.