It’s actually a common misconception that Costa Rica is cheap! In fact, many of the day-to-day costs are on par with many Western countries.
For some reason, Costa Rica keeps ending up in various “cheap countries to travel” lists, even by major outlets like Conde Nast Traveler. I’m not sure why. Perhaps since Traveler Magazine is based in New York, everything seems cheap to them…
In general, I would say Costa Rica is very expensive for the region, and even quite expensive globally.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be a backpacker in Costa Rica. You can still travel on a budget reasonably well, though you may just need to be a little more savvy than in super bargain-priced destinations like Nicaragua or Guatemala. Be sure to use the following tips to keep your travel costs in Costa Rica under control.
Is Costa Rica Cheap?
Honestly, the answer always depends on what you want to do and what you think expensive is.
If you’re coming to Costa Rica from a penthouse in Manhattan, then heck yeah, Costa Rica is cheap.
But if you’ve quit your job to take a 4-month backpacking trip through Central America, then no, Costa Rica isn’t the easiest option for making your money go far.
In terms of local cost of living, the site Livingcost.org ranks Costa Rica 56th, near Portugal, Spain, and South Korea. However, keep in mind that accommodation and tourist activities like tours, hikes, ziplining, whale watching, etc. are usually priced at higher levels, almost on par with expensive Western countries.
But luckily, with a little bit of planning, Costa Rica can still be budget-friendly for backpackers. While some of the must-dos in Costa Rica can be costly, if you are wise and cut back on a few things, it can be quite doable.
Recommended daily budget
A backpacker’s average budget in Costa Rica should be at least around $40 a day if you want to have a good time. If you want to couch surf, cook at home, or only do free activities, you could get away with $30 a day, but this budget can have you wondering if it’s worth it. If you can stretch your budget to about $50 a day, then this will let you do more organized activities and truly get the most out of the trip.
Despite the higher costs, one advantage Costa Rica has is its relatively high development for Central America and its higher level of safety.
This can make it an ideal introduction to the region; even if you’re not a very experienced traveler, you can have an incredible time in Costa Rica without too many worries.
It’s fairly easy to get around and it’s possible to see a lot even in a span of just one week.
Money-Saving Travel Tips
The easiest way to lower your spending on any trip is through accommodation. As any backpacker knows, hostels are the way to save some serious cash. Swap out your cushy private room and head to a hostel to make some friends, share a dorm room, and spend your money elsewhere.
As far as hotel and hostel prices go, the interior is usually cheaper than the coast. In some of the cities like San Jose and the region where you’ll visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest, you can snag a dorm bed for an average of around $12.
If you’re headed to the coast, prepare to spend some more money. Santa Teresa on the tourist-favorite southern coast starts at $29 and only goes up from there. Backpackers often go to the northern coast, such as to Cahuita, where prices tend to be lower.
Another major spending is going to food. Besides cooking at home, one of the best ways to save money in Costa Rica is by eating at Sodas.
Sodas are typical Costa Rican Restaurants that serve daily set menus. You’ll be able to get a filling meal of rice, beans, veggies, and some type of meat for about $6-7.
Many of the hostels also have shared kitchens, so you can stock up on groceries at the local market and cook vs going out. This will usually cost you around $2-4 a day. Supermarkets can be pricey in Costa Rica though, so to truly benefit you may have to do a simple pasta bolognese or such.
I can’t stress this enough—ride the local buses!
As Costa Rica has gotten so popular with tourists, you’ll find many tourist minibuses available. They don’t make roadside stops, so they get to the destination faster, but they easily cost double the price.
Costa Rica’s bus network can leave something to be desired in terms of frequency and destinations, but if you don’t mind a bit of extra travel time, you’ll often save significantly on your transport costs.
If you’re serious about your budget, one of the saddest but easiest ways to save money is by not drinking. And let me tell you, the drinking culture among backpackers is… whew. It’s a lot. Cocktails will run you around $6-8, and beers are around $3-4, depending on where you’re at.
If you want to drink, buy from the grocery shop or corner store. Beers are less than a dollar, and they taste just the same. Maybe even colder!
If you’re really trying to save a pretty penny while visiting Costa Rica, you should consider volunteering. There are loads of opportunities from working in a hostel in exchange for a free bed, to finding some eco projects in the rainforest in exchange for a free bed and some meals. You can look for opportunities in Costa Rica on sites like Workaway and WWOOF.
A friend of mine surfed his heart out in Santa Teresa by volunteering at a hostel. He’d work 5-hour shifts during the day and hang out with friends and surf in either the morning or the afternoon, all without spending a dime on accommodation. Not bad!
High Season vs Low Season
If you plan ahead, you can be in Costa Rica during the low season, which can save you a good bit of money (mainly on accommodation).
High Season in Costa Rica is from December to April, and prices are doubled or more during this time. May through November is considered the low season, and the prices reflect this. Just keep in mind you might experience more rain during the low season.
Inexpensive Activities in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is absolutely full to the brim with outdoor activities. And trust me, some of them can be insanely expensive. My biggest tip for saving money on activities is if you’re going to do a tour, book in person!
Don’t use international websites that mark up costs. When you arrive at your destination, you’ll find all kinds of local tour companies, and you can book the same tours for nearly half the price.
Here are some other activities in Costa Rica that are budget-friendly.
A day at the beach
It doesn’t get more budget-friendly than a day at the beach. Pick up some snacks and drinks at a corner shop and spend the day throwing a frisbee or playing in the waves.
All you need is a surfboard, and Costa will provide the waves!
On the Pacific, you can rent a board from around $10-$30 a day. This is a lot more expensive than neighboring Nicaragua, but it’s still a pretty good deal considering tours are more expensive. If you’re staying for longer than a day or two, you can negotiate a lower price.
Costa Rica has some pretty epic hikes. For the most part, you’ll have to pay to enter the national parks, but it’s a small price to pay for the amazing views and wildlife you’ll see. Once you pay the entry fee, you can usually opt out of a tour guide and go exploring on your own.
For example, right outside of the Monteverde Cloud Forest is Cerro Amigos, and it’s a free hike that will give you some incredible views amid the cloud forest.
Natural swimming holes
The best way to find free, fun things to do is to ask locals. They know the ends and outs of their beautiful country, and they aren’t paying to see it. And just about anywhere you go in Costa Rica, there will be natural swimming holes or waterfalls around where locals like to hang out.
Of course, they take some effort to get to, but we’re backpacking. It’s all a part of the fun!
Explore local markets
One of the best ways to experience Costa Rican culture is by visiting local markets. From fresh produce and handmade goods to delicious street food, you can spend hours wandering around and taking it all in. Not only that, you can put together a cheap meal, too!
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