Traveling in Costa Rica as a backpacker is an expensive experience, and we constantly found ourselves looking for ways to beat the budget and save money. Many articles have placed Costa Rica as the most expensive country in Central America, and these comments are not farfetched at all! In all we seemed to rush through the country despite its beauty, just to get to slightly cheaper options in Panama.
And whilst it was unfortunate for us to skip some of the country, we did end up seeing some great sights and were also able to keep the daily spend further down than we thought was possible. We were able to do this by following some standard guidelines, hints, and tips that we both came up with for ourselves, and ones that other budget travelers passed along to us. Here are some great ideas to help you on your next budget backpacker trip to Costa Rica, which can also be applied to most other expensive countries in Central or South America.
Buy Supplies in Nicaragua Before You Arrive
This is a pretty specific tip for Costa Rica, especially if you are traveling from north to south as we were. Unfortunately this also might not work as well in reverse (if you are going from south to north), as Panama is similarly priced to Costa Rica in most aspects.
If you do find yourself coming from the land-of-the-cheap in Nicaragua, buying some supplies to keep you going through Costa Rica is not that crazy an idea. One of the most important things we would say to get is RUM. Flor de Caña for example costs around $5US for a large bottle in Nica, whilst in Costa it can go for 3 to 4 times this amount!
In addition to this, we would say that you should also buy up on basic supplies like deoderant, shampoo, conditioner, insect repellent, sunscreen, and other toiletries. Amazingly the prices for these products jump dramatically in Costa Rica, making for some annoying shopping moments!
You could also extend this cheapness to buying some food before entering Costa Rica, but please remember not to bring items like fruit and vegetables as they will most likely be taken from you at the border.
Buy Street Food
A given in most Central American countries, because street food is DELICIOUS! And of course the street-cooked food is also cheap, and whilst it is slightly more expensive in Costa Rica (but of course) it can still provide a cheap and quick meal if you do not feel like cooking or spending a fortune on a restaurant meal!
You should be able to find some pretty good options, ranging from the standard chicken or beef, to the rice and beans (or gallo pinto) you see everywhere in these cities.
Buy Food From Supermarkets
This one is a fairly obvious and basic tip that will help you to save money no matter which country you are based in. Constantly eating out at restaurants (and even on street food) definitely adds to your daily budget, and may also take away from being able to get out and actually have the money to experience new cities and towns.
Shopping at a supermarket will help to lower your daily food bill, and provide you with enough food to usually last for a few days or for however long you are in town. We also usually end up bringing staples with us to our next destination, including rice, quinoa, or pasta.
A further tip that we got from a few friends of ours is to store spices in a ziplock bag or container that you can bring with you to new hostels. This way, you do not have to continually buy new ones (and in turn waste money) when you arrive, and do not have to hope that there is basics like salt and pepper in the free section of the kitchen!
Stay in Hostels That Have a Kitchen
Second to purchasing groceries to save money, is to book hostels that have a kitchen available to cook in. This way, you can buy food in supermarkets for full meals and cook them in your hostel.
Some of the best meals we have had on our travels have originated in a hostel kitchen, and there are plenty of hostels in Costa Rica that offer them for budget backpackers such as us. We also think that having the ability to cook your own meals offers up a healthy option in amongst all of the deep-fried foods on offer throughout Central America.
Eat in Local Restaurants
Local restaurants are fairly easy to find when visiting new towns, though there are also plenty of ‘tourist’ restaurants in the main parks and squares that are easy to find but definitely not meant for the budget backpacker.
Whenever we get into a new place, we try and find a restaurant option that provides good food at a reasonable price. These places generally end up being a few streets back from the main tourist attractions and many will also offer up a menu or plate of the day. This offer provides a great option for a cheap plate whilst usually also being the traditional food of the country. And whilst it is not the greatest idea to eat every meal here, it is always nice to be able to not have to cook for yourself all of the time!
Try Not to Blow The Budget on Alcohol
I mean sure this tip seems like it should be easy, but you would be surprised how much casual alcohol you consume whilst backpacking around the world. This is coming from a couple that are certainly not alcoholics, but enjoy the occasional drink and going out with new friends.
Obviously when you are meeting new people at hostels every few days, a few drinks helps to break the ice and going out helps to get to know everybody. Our advice is to attempt to either limit the days you are buying and drinking alcohol, or buy some cheap beers or liquor from the supermarket and pre-drink to your hearts content. Of course the drinks are going to be more expensive at the bar!
Take the Local Buses
This also seems like a no-brainer for fellow budget travelers, however you would be surprised at the amount of expensive options that seem to hide the cheaper options away. For example, the amount of times we saw advertisements for expensive shuttles or even just other reputable (but not cheap) bus companies such as TicaBus and NicaBus was incredible.
In Costa Rica, the majority of locations can be visited by bus for just as cheap as taking buses in other central american countries. Most of the buses go through the capital, San Jose, which can be a bit annoying but also provides a base from which you can be sure you can reach your next destination.
The biggest bus station in San Jose is called the 7-10 Terminal, because it is situated on 7th and 10th streets. From here you can get to a lot of places including La Fortuna, Monteverde, and the pacific coast. Of course there are other terminals around, though the majority of them are in the same area as 7-10.
Our main piece of advice for getting to the bus stations is to make sure you always take safe and reliable transport to them especially at night. This is not a very safe area to be in once the sun goes down, so please either take a taxi or the cheaper option in Uber – which is available in San Jose.
The above map gives a great overview of where bus stations are in San Jose, including for destinations you might be looking for. Maps.me is also a pretty good resource for finding bus terminals. We also recommend this site for bus schedules, though please also find out local information at your hostel or at the bus station as times seem to change regularly.
Stay Away From the Tours
Tours for us are usually something that can be done on your own, and are rarely worth the money. Sure, there have been some times where an all-inclusive day have ended up being worth it but the majority of the time it is an expense that drains money away from your budget and could have been done for a third of the price.
Research is key for something like this, as unless you get lucky you will need to know at least a little bit of information on how to reach somewhere on your own first. We recommend looking around on the internet a little bit, and also asking at your hostel for some ideas on what you can do for cheap in the area. In Costa Rica some of the cheapest things we ended up doing were in national parks, even though you still need to pay to enter them there. Hiking and visiting waterfalls and natural pools gave us amazing views and adventure all for a small price.
One of our best trips we did without a tour was actually in Mexico, visiting some beautiful cenotes all through public transportation. You can read about it here.
Look at Camping Options
Costa Rica has some amazing destinations, with a lot of them being on either the Pacific or Caribbean coast. This means that for most of the year you can be in great weather, and can camp close to a beach that may even end up being a private sanctuary.
And with the cost of staying in hostels being quite expensive in comparison to budget-friendly Nicaragua, the idea of camping suddenly becomes somewhat of a good idea. There are many options available for camping and if you do not have your own tent some will even let you rent one for a low cost. By doing this, you usually will end up paying around the same price as a hostel bed in Nicaragua (unfortunately). The upside of this is that you will still be saving money, and the adventure of camping for a few days will be well worth it. We would say keep an open mind about camping, but also be careful as sometimes it will work out being more expensive (and who wants that)!
Use US dollars if You Have Them
Costa Rica has its own currency in the Colon, however a number of times we wish we had not bothered to convert or withdraw some of our dollars to obtain them. This tip can be a bit of hit or miss depending on the exchange rate you are obtaining, however we found that sometimes it paid (pun intended) to have some US dollars handy.
It is always hard to know exactly how much money to obtain when traveling in a new country, and you do not want to get stuck with money on the border of a new country wishing you had exchanged it earlier. By adopting a system of Colon and US dollars, we found that we were able to limit the pain of a bad exchange rate at the border of Panama, and also were able to save money based on the exchange rate.
Further to this, US dollars are used in Panama, so if you are traveling south (or even north) you will need to have them with you which once again will help you save as you do not need to change to yet another currency.
Come In the Low Season
The low season is something that is hotly debated online as to whether it really applies or not. Sometimes it feels like the cost of accommodation and tourism is essentially the same all year around, however there are still some bargains to be had if you plan it out correctly.
If you are able to visit Costa Rica in the low-season of May through to December (which also corresponds with the rainy season), you may be able to negotiate with accommodation for example. This will only really work though if you are able to be flexible with your travel plans and not book online before you arrive.
We found that the majority of times we saved any money (and we did not visit in the low season) on accommodation was when we turned up somewhere without a booking and attempted to negotiate. Whether we were able to talk our way to a slightly cheaper bed, or even find that a hammock was available at a cheaper rate, we were happy to search around and be flexible with our options.
Try to Speak Spanish
Our final tip may seem quite obvious, but you won’t really notice it unless you put it into action yourself. It was actually funny the amount of times we saw ‘Gringos’ like us speaking in English without a lick of Spanish in their dialect trying to buy or book something with locals. The majority of the time we would find ourselves, with limited Spanish, getting a cheaper rate just because we were trying to speak their language.
Moreover, what can be friendlier than a quick greeting in Spanish before attempting a conversation with a local? We found that even just being courteous with a “hola, como estas?” (hello, how are you?) was better than some people who would speak in loud English in some attempt to get people to understand them. The tip here is, even if you are simply friendly to those you are trying to negotiate or book something with, you will either get a cheaper rate or at least a friendly conversation (and better reputation for Gringos) with a local. Why not give it a go?
Enjoy your time in Costa Rica, whilst it is not always a budget friendly paradise, it is indeed a paradise and one that should not be missed!