Updated: Sep 22, 2021
Costa Rica is exactly what it translates to: Rich Coast. We assumed we were planning a cheap trip when we saw the exchange rate was about $1 USD to 600 Colones. But, when we arrived, we learned that Costa Rica prices are about the same as the United States. Despite this surprise, we have still found a way to live well, but save as much money as possible.
Eat like a Local
You can expect food in hotels and tourist cities to be similar to that of a hotel and tourist city in the USA. But, there is an amazing meal served nearly everywhere that will fill your tummy and not burn your pockets. This meal is called either a Casado or Pinto Gallo, the traditional Tico (a person from Costa Rica) meal. It includes rice, beans, a meat (or more veggies), plantains, a salad, and some sort of potato mix. Talk about a lot of food with a lot of flavor. The exciting thing about these plates, is that it is served differently at every restaurant and sometimes each day at the same restaurant based on the ingredients they have in stock or what the chef is feeling. Most restaurants will serve this for around 1800 - 4000 Colones depending on the restaurant. We like to find the small eateries that are owned by local families (a Soda). At these you are looking to pay around 2500 Colones (~$4 USD).
Cook Breakfast and Lunch
Every once in a while we splurge and get a meal during the day, but we try to stick to cooking. You can spend around $25 on eggs, rice, dry beans, pasta, fruits and vegetables, bread, frozen meat, and salt. This should feed 2 people for about 3-4 days. Minus one meal per day.
Take the Bus as Much as Possible
Taxis in Costa Rica are extremely over priced. The roads are not very good, so a driver will say that since they do not have a 4x4 car, they have to take an alternate route. And then, they will charge you more. In general, even if you have an honest driver, the cost for taxis is very expensive. If you do need a driver, try to find one that has a 4x4, and try to get a confirmation of the price in writing.
The buses in Costa Rica are cheap. There are buses from most major cities, and smaller cities will have bus stops on the way. You can expect to pay around 6.000 Colones (~$8 USD) for a bus from Quepos to Dominical, which could have been 30.000 Colones ($50 USD) with a driver. The bus schedules do vary though. So always arrive to a bus stop at least 30 min early if not more. Most locals are friendly and can help you find the bus schedule and costs.
For the bulk of our trip, we arranged to volunteer at an eco hotel, Cascada Elysiana, in exchange for housing and 3 meals a day. We work about 4-6 hour days, and get 2 days off a week. It is a pretty fantastic deal! This is a great way to not have to worry about creating a large budget for accommodations or food. This is a wonderful way to gain experience while abroad.
There are numerous hostels in Costa Rica, all over the country. This is the next cheapest way to stay. We had some hostels booked when we planned our trip, but we had last minute changes to our itinerary. When staying in a hostel, be sure to bring locks for you luggage, and be ready to share a space with several people. Do your research and see what kind of atmosphere your potential hostel has, so that you can make sure that your personality blends well, and you will have a great time! Staying in hostels in a great way to meet new people.
There is a large variety of stays on Airbnb, and this kind of accommodation will provide the most privacy. In Costa Rica we were able to find some really nice stays all under $50/night. Airbnb will be more expensive than the other options, but it is great for couples or friends travelling together because you can split the cost. In Jaco, we stayed in an awesome shipping container apartment that was only a 2 minute walk from the beach. In Manuel Antonio, we stayed in a small home owned by a local family, and lived more like the locals do. We were closer to small towns with Sodas not restaurants, and a little bakery. It was really nice and we were quite comfortable. We were also only a 10 minute bus ride to the beach.
Make sure to get an Airbnb with a kitchen or at least a kitchenette.
Explore on Your Own First
There is so much to do and see in Costa Rica, and it can be overwhelming to try and see all of it without a guide. I recommend exploring each city you visit on your own first. This way you can walk or take the bus around and see what might peak your interest or stumble across something that you would have never found by only paying for experiences every day.
For example, in Jaco we stumbled upon Jaco Impact, a non-profit that works to benefit the environment, animal welfare, social projects and more! We were able to get involved with a reforestation project that week! Another example in Manuel Antonio, is that we walked past a small refuge, Ecotique Hotel & Refuge, and saw that they had a butterfly sanctuary. We asked the security guard about it, and even though it was closed he took us back and showed it to us! It was a small little place but so beautiful! Often times by just exploring you can meet the nicest people and see the most amazing views!
Ask the Locals
Yes, there are amazing tours offered to tourists, but when you want to see the really good stuff, you ask locals what they like to do! We met a young guy who sent us in the direction of Manuel Antonio! We wouldn't have booked our stay there if he didn't recommend it! You can also find great places to eat this way!
If you can't tell, I love Airbnb. I am not affiliated with them at all, but I love what they do, so I share it! The next place we look for something to do is on Airbnb. I come to this after exploring on my own. For example, there are several guided tours through Manuel Antonio National Park where guides take you around and show you animals with their binoculars. We decided to go to the park by ourselves first, and we saw everything we wanted to see, so we skipped out on the guide. If we hadn't seen anything we would have hired one and gone back the next day. Some of the experiences we did via Airbnb were the Waterfall Tour to 10 waterfalls! I highly recommend this tour! We also paid for a Medicinal Plant tour in Quepos, and we learned so much! We could not have done either of those on our own!