How To Travel Costa Rica On A Budget: 9 Money Saving Tips
March 21, 2021
One of the things that surprised me the most while backpacking through Costa Rica was how expensive it was. I had read about it online, but I still assumed it would be way cheaper than what I was used to in Europe. Turns out I was wrong! Nevertheless, I managed to keep my expenses relatively low. I didn’t really have a choice either, since I was planning on living in Costa Rica for at least 6 months with a limited budget and – at the time – no source of income.
After a quick google search, I found that most sources recommend a budget of $500-1000 per week with an average accommodation cost of around $60/night. Before you start crying in poor, I want to assure you that I didn’t even spend half of that (and still had a great time). Enjoying a cheap vacation in Costa Rica may be more of challenge than you imagined, but it’s definitely possible!
If you’re a broke backpacker like I was or a first-time visitor that wants to avoid spending too much, I have some very useful money saving tips for you. Here’s everything you need to know on how to travel Costa Rica on a budget!
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1. STAY IN DORMS OR BOOK WEEKLY/MONTHLY AIRBNBS
One of my top tips for those of you who are travelling to Costa Rica on a budget: book an Airbnb for weekly or monthly periods. Airbnb will give massive discounts if you book a place for a longer period of time. In some cases, you’ll get 70% off, so it’s definitely worth looking into. At times, the cost of my stay was no more than $10 per day.
If you’re more of a social butterfly, you can also opt for a dorm in a hostel. One of the most popular hostels in Costa Rica is Selina Hostel, which offers great value for money. I LOVED this one in La Fortuna, it had such cosy and comfortable dorm beds (with curtains!).
Another great way to score cheaper accommodation is to plan your trip during Costa Rica’s rainy season, which lasts from May till November. Aside from the lower prices, there’s some other advantages too such as fewer crowds and luscious green vegetation everywhere you go (some places can get very barren during dry season).
2. LOOK FOR FREE OR CHEAP ACTIVITIES
There are so many things to do in Costa Rica and many activities are quite pricy. However, that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the fun. In general, I tried not to pay more than $25 for an activity, with the occasional splurge of around $50-$75 if it was something I really wanted to do.
Free things to do in Costa Rica:
- Get adventurous at El Salto, La Fortuna (picture below)
- Free hot springs in La Fortuna (near Tabacón resort)
- Visit one of the many amazing beaches
- Go swimming or snorkelling
- Watch the sunrise (Caribbean side) or the sunset (Pacific side)
- Cahuita National Park & Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge have no entrance fee (they do ask for a donation)
- Watch baby turtles release in Montezuma
- Montezuma’s main waterfall (for the other smaller ones it’s only about $2)
- Visit a farmer’s market
- Spot crocodiles at Costa Rica’s Crocodile Bridge
Cheap activities in Costa Rica under $20:
- Rent a bike and explore – about $5/day
- Visit the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo – $20 and so worth it!
- Rent a surf board – around $15/day
- La Fortuna Waterfalls – $18
- Río Celeste – $12
- Explore Arenal Volcano National Park – $15
3. DRINK TAP WATER
A really big advantage in Costa Rica is that you can drink the tap water (in most places, always ask to be sure!). Not only is it safe to drink, it also tastes surprisingly good. When I saw the prices of bottled water in Costa Rica, my choice was quickly made. Even if you’re going on a shorter trip, it would still be cheaper investing in a reusable water bottle, considering how hot it can get in the tropics (gotta drink loads). Also, think about all the plastic waste you’re avoiding!
4. DON’T GET A GUIDE
Whenever you visit a national park, guides will most likely be waiting for you at the entrance. They easily charge around $50. They will tell you that you won’t see any animals without a guide, but I promise you that’s not true. I’ve seen monkeys, sloths, iguanas, raccoons, lizards, tropical birds and even a puma – all without a guide. In many places in Costa Rica, you can spot wild animals from your hotel or on the side of the road!
Side note: If you want more information about the local fauna & flora, I would suggest going with a guide, as they do know the jungle like the back of their hand.
5. EAT AT SODAS
The cost of food in Costa Rica definitely wasn’t a pleasant surprise, I will tell you that. Most of the time, I avoided touristy places altogether. Even when the prices seemed okay at first glance, restaurants often charge a “service cost” (up to 15% extra), which adds up quickly. Make sure you check the menu carefully for these hidden costs!
Cooking your own meal is obviously your cheapest option when it comes to food. However, if you do want to go out for lunch or dinner, try eating at a soda. They’re small, locally owned restaurants and they’re way cheaper than the touristy places. The food is mostly traditional Costa Rican and usually very tasty!
6. GET YOUR GROCERIES AT BIG SUPERMARKETS
Lots of Costa Rican towns have small (and expensive) supermarkets that sell the necessities. These shops are mostly catered to tourists, which is why the prices are high. Try looking for big supermarket chains such as Pali or SuperCompro. This is where the locals buy their groceries. They’re way cheaper and have more options. Sometimes these supermarkets aren’t in the town centre, but a bit further down the road. Still worth it though!
7. USE UBER INSTEAD OF TAXIS
This may be my best money saving tip out of all of them: AVOID the official taxis in Costa Rica and use Uber. Honestly, I saved tons of $$ this way. A short taxi drive usually starts from $20, while the same route would be anything between 1-5$ with an uber. Even for a 30-minute drive, it’s still very affordable, especially if you share one with other people. Unfortunately, Uber isn’t available everywhere, but it is available in San Jose, La Fortuna and Tamarindo (maybe also other places, always check the app!).
8. TAKE THE BUS
There are many ways to get around in Costa Rica, but the local bus is for sure one of the cheapest options. You usually pay around $5 for a longer trip, though bus rates can go as low as $1. It may take a little longer than the tourist shuttles, but you’ll save about $50!
9. USE THE LOCAL CURRENCY
Colón is the local currency in Costa Rica, but you can also pay in US dollars. Though it’s convenient to carry around a few dollars, it’s more profitable for you to pay in colones, since many restaurants or stores will choose a high exchange rate. For example: for my allergy pills I got the option to pay c11000 or $22, which comes down to roughly €17 vs €20. Another good tip is to avoid pinning small amounts of money at an ATM, since you’ll be charged a transaction fee each time.
These are all my tips on how to travel Costa Rica on a budget! It’s definitely not the cheapest country in Central America, but with a bit of effort, you can keep costs low.
Have you ever been to Costa Rica? Were you surprised by the cost of living? Let me know in the comments and feel free to share any other tips! 🙂
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