Costa Rica is one of my favorite countries in the world. I love the never-ending activities, gorgeous beaches, a plethora of wildlife, delicious food, and friendly people. The country may be firmly on the tourist trail and expensive by regional standards but that doesn’t make this country any less amazing. The beaches feel like paradise, there’s great surfing, diving, and plenty of places to get away from the hoards of retired Americans that live here. There is always a quiet spot to be found if you look. Moreover, the local food uses a variety of spices and flavors that excite your mouth. I really can’t say enough good things about this country. It’s a place I happily revisit often!
Accommodation – Hostel dorm beds are between 5,500 to 10,000 CRC per night. Private rooms in hostels are usually around 15,000 CRC. Free WiFi is standard, and most hostels also include free breakfast. The majority of hostels around the country also offer self-catering facilities, too. Budget hotels begin around 17,000 CRC per night for a double/twin room and go up from there (breakfast is often included). For Airbnb, shared accommodation usually begins around 15,000 CRC per night. For an entire home or apartment, expect to pay around 25,000 per night. For those traveling with a tent, camping is an option. Most campgrounds usually charge 5,500 CRC per night though you’ll pay up to double that for camping in national parks.
Food – By eating at local restaurants you can expect to pay around 535-1,600 CRC for meals. These are a local favorite and will save you from paying tourist prices in other establishments. Typical meals like the traditional casado are 2,670 CRC. Most restaurant meals will cost around 3,900 CRC or more. A very nice meal in a tourist area will cost around 9,000 CRC. For cheap food, eat from the street vendors where snacks and light meals can cost as little as 265 CRC. If you plan on cooking for yourself, a week’s worth of groceries will cost around 15,000-20,000 CRC.
Transportation – Public transportation is cheap here. Short bus trips (under 3 hours) are around 2,000 CRC while longer trips will cost closer to 5,500 CRC. There are a number of private coach operators who go directly between major cities and tourist attractions. Those buses are about triple the price of the local public bus, so stick with the local buses if you’re on a budget. Trains are virtually non-existent and flights around the country are quite pricey.
Activities – Entrance into most national parks is usually around 5,500 CRC with discounts available for students. Canopy tours and day trips are around 24,000 CRC. A two tank dive can be between 32,000-53,325 CRC. Surf lessons start around 11,000 CRC per hour. There are also lots of surf camps where you can spend the week learning how to surf (or honing your skills if you already know how to). Prices vary widely, though expect to pay at least 23,000 CRC for a week.
Suggested daily budget – 22,150-27,700 CRC / 45-50 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
- Travel off season – Late April through November is considered the rainy season here and as a result, prices tend to be less expensive and beaches less crowded. During the US winter months, hordes of people visit and prices double.
- Eat at the sodas – “Sodas” are small family run restaurants which specialize in inexpensive local meals, usually costing around 1,065 CRC including a drink. These hole-in-the-wall restaurants offer the best value in the country.
- Go camping – Most of the resorts and hostels in many places will let you camp. If you don’t have your own tent, you can rent them. Usually, under 3,000 CRC per night, this is the best way to keep your accommodation costs down.
- Visit the Caribbean side – Costa Rica is pretty expensive. There are few ways around that fact. But visiting the cheaper Caribbean side will let you see the beautiful country without the high prices of the popular Pacific destinations.
- Eat at Musmanni – Musmanni is a bakery found all over the country. The offer a great lunch special. For 1,000 CRC, you can get a sandwich and a soda. Most of their pastries are only 300 CRC. I ate at this place whenever I found one because it helped keep my food costs down.
- Avoid the tourist buses – While local buses are a lot slower than the tourist buses, they are also about half the price. If you aren’t rushed for time, take the local buses.
Top Things to See and Do in Costa Rica
- Tortuguero National Park – This park on the Caribbean coast is regarded as one of the most important breeding grounds for the endangered green turtle. It also helps to protect manatees, sloths and various species of monkey. Visit at night to catch the turtles laying their eggs on the beach. It’s very out of the way and hard to get to and there isn’t much there but if you like jungles, birds, and quiet, this is a must see.
- Coffee plantations – Costa Rican coffee is famous all over the world. By taking one of the coffee plantation tours you can see every step of the refining process and get the chance to buy discounted coffee in the gift shops. I hate the taste of coffee but the kind I had in Monteverde tasted like chocolate. I bought bags home to drink — it’s that good! Prices vary but expect to pay at least 14,000 CRC for a tour.
- San José – Costa Rica’s capital is located in the center of the country making it a great hub. Overall, the city only requires a few days. It’s sort of gritty and there’s not a whole lot to do. Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art & Design to check out the future of Costa Rican art, the magnificent Teatro Nacional to take in its décor, and the history museum located in the town center too.
- Zip through the rainforest canopy – The highest 10% of a rainforest is where most activity takes place. By going on a zip-line tour, you can have a hair-raising close view of these vast forests. There are dozens of companies offering tours throughout the country, though Monteverde is my favorite place to do it. Expect to pay around 30,000 CRC.
- Puerto Viejo – Located on the Caribbean coast, this city is popular with expats and backpackers because of its great beaches, surf, and party atmosphere. The town is very lively, and you’ll find something going on every night. For those looking for a quieter place, there are many tranquil beach hotels around. It is one of my favorite towns in the country because its Rasta influence makes it very different than the rest of Costa Rica.
- Jaco – Jaco was once a sleepy resort town whose main attraction was its excellent surfing, but growing tourism has transformed it into a haven of beach parties and pumping nightclubs. Surf lessons and rentals are widely available on the beaches and sport-fishing is also popular here. For a more sedate affair, head to the nearby Carara Biological Reserve to spot scarlet macaws, armadillos and hundreds of species of bird.
- Learn some Spanish – Costa Rica is one of the most popular Latin countries for learning Spanish due to the country’s easy to understand dialect. Programs vary in length and cost, but most offer the opportunity to do a homestay with a Costa Rican family.
- La Paz Waterfall Gardens – Aside from the famous waterfalls, La Paz also includes an aviary, hummingbird garden, butterfly garden, reptiles, big cats and more. The gardens are the most popular tour from San José have recently been restored.
- Explore Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge – With 800 acres of land, seven kilometers of walking trails, and three kilometers of fantastic beaches, this refuge is another prime example of Costa Rica’s natural beauty. Birdwatching, canopy tours, and walking tours are the main attractions in the park.
- Go sports fishing – The country’s waters are home to Marlin, Sailfish, Dorado, Snapper, Wahoo, and many other species. Consider doing either a one-day or multiday fishing excursion. A basic excursion can cost around 55,000 CRC though prices can by ten times as high for multiday trip.
- Volcanoes – The volcanoes are among the country’s top tourist attractions. Since many are located in national parks you can combine a visit with kayaking, rafting or hiking. Arenal was famous for the lava coming down its side but in 2010 that stopped. There’s still beautiful trails nearby though. Irazu is known for its astonishing green-blue lake that sits in one of its craters, while there is a boiling acid lake within a crater of the Poas Volcano (which is close to San Jose).
- Corcovado – Corcovado National Park is on the remote Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. It’s more popular than it used to be but still offers a very rugged, quiet, and off the beaten path destination. Here you’ll find pristine jungles, dolphins, and diving away from the much more developed northern western coast. The peninsula is still not easy to get too (which helps keep tourists away) but your efforts will be greatly rewarded. It’s the highlight of the country for me. Entry to the park is 5,600 CRC per person per day for adults and 600 CRC for children under 12.
- Santa Theresa – At the bottom of the Nicoya coast is the hippy backpacker town of Santa Theresa. This “town” really nothing more than a beach with a road lined with eateries, surf shops, and hostels. Not much goes on here as everyone is up early to hit the waves. I like this place as it is a good place to just go, lay on the beach, hang out with people, and relax. It’s an easy place to fall into and spend weeks. Or, like most people, months.
- Learn to Surf – Whether in Puerto Viejo, Cahuita, Manuel Antonio, Jaco, Santa Theresa, or Tamarindo, Costa Rica has a lot of waves and lots of places to learn to surf. In fact, most travelers come here to surf because the waves are world renowned. If you never learned but always wanted to try and Australia, Hawaii, or Bali seem too far, this is your best place to in the region to learn.
- Walk through the Treetops – The Rainmaker Aerial Walkway was the first aerial walkway to be built in Central America, and it is still considered to be one of the top ariel walkways in the region. At the highest point on the walkway, you’ll find yourself a 20 stories above the ground. Tours start at 45,000 CRC and include two light meals.