Traveling Costa Rica on a Budget

Costa Rica Pacific Coast

Traveling to Costa Rica, on a budget? That sounds difficult. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Traveling Costa Rica on a Budget?

Costa Rica is considered “Switzerland of Central America”. One of the reasons is the cost of living here. Tourists, Divemaster interns, Digital Nomads who come here find a great country but have to make sure they don’t see their travel shortened by the expensive lifestyle.

Is Costa Rica expensive?

To compare and to make sure I’m not basing this on my feelings (and my shrinking budget when I’m here), I checked Nomad list. Nomadlist is an initiative of Pieter Levels, collecting and sharing information for digital nomads, location independent entrepreneurs, and other types of long-term travelers. When we compare the most popular locations in Central America for digital nomads, we find:

  1. Antigua, Guatemala. A month living here would cost you $946. (1)
  2. When you go a bit more south, there’s Managua, in Nicaragua. A month here is about $1075.(1)So, these very nice places in Central America will cost about $1000 per month. Guatemala city is about the same price.
  3. And then have a look at the budget in Costa Rica: San Jose would cost you about $1,400 (40% more), and Puerto Viejo $1,600 (60% more). Tamarindo is about the same as these places, $1,500 (that’s 150% of the Guatemala cost.

As a digital nomad, you will have to count on about $40 a day at least.

So when you come to Costa Rica (and there are many reasons to visit Costa Rica, as I wrote earlier) and you travel on a budget, here are some things that can extend your money:

Pay in colones, not in dollar (or check the rate first)

Dollar – Colones evolution

All stores in Costa Rica (i met 1 or 2 exceptions) will accept US dollars. But, while the dollar and the Colone (the local currency of Costa Rica) had a stable exchange rate, things recently changed. Up until 2015, 500 Colones was a dollar. Easy and simple but since then, the Colones is playing a complicated game, and the exchange rate now starts to impact your budget if you don’t watch out. I had places still exchanging me 500 Colones for a dollar, but even my US bank and credit cards give a better rate…

Since shop owners decide their own rate (and don’t necessarily show it before you pay), you better agree with them before you pay.

And while most shops will accept cards, paying by cash avoids all the banking costs and exchange costs your foreign bank will charge.

Use local buses

There are several companies in Costa Rica that offer some kind of transportation. Most of it is a private initiative. Your choice of whom to work with, and in some cases, the level of negotiation skills you have will define the price. In the Guanacaste province especially, these choices matter. A Uber or Taxi in NYC from the Airport JFK to lower Manhattan will set you back $52 plus tips and tolls. The ride will take about an hour. In Liberia, a 15-minute ride with a pre-booked taxi will be the same… So it’s worth making your arrangements. Conveniently for the taxi drivers, not all buses arrive at the airport. But an 800-meter walk along the only route there is will bring you to a stop where the companies such as Pulmitan De Liberia operate lines between Liberia and many towns on the coast, such as Playas del Coco, and Tamarindo.

A bus ride from Liberia to San José is about $9, one way. $55 with a shared van. And more if you do it by taxi. Traveling Costa Rica on a budget will be possible if you make the right choices in transportation.

Soda’s are your friend

Soda’s in Costa Rica are local restaurants. You might find some specialties, but you always will find a casado, a local meal that will include beans, rice, and plantains (a kind of banana). You can choose to add chicken, pork, or fish to it. Most sodas will serve you that (often with a drink) for $4 or less.

One not of conservation, however. The only fish that can be bought for this kind of money in Costa Rica is the shark. So when you’d choose fish in a soda, you’re allowing the lack of protection to continue. And since often this fish is a byproduct of shark finning, you’d rather stay away. The sharks, nature conservationists, and the next generation thank you.

I try to eat several days a week vegetarian meals only. That proved a challenge when dining out in Costa Rica. Vegetarian meals often are something from the menu where the meat has been left off, not the creative cuisine you would expect elsewhere. Some exceptions, and fortunately more and more restaurants here start to bring variation in vegetarian food as well.

Find a local collective vegetable shop

Supermarkets in Costa Rica, some of them owned by big American chains, are showing big differences in prices. Studies in Costa Rica showed that some identical products will cost up to 2.4 times more in one supermarket than the other. AutoMercado tries to cater to the wealthy expats and the new middle class in Costa Rica. But when you’re thinking about traveling on a budget to Costa Rica, have a look at the collectivo fruit market, and the local fish market.

When you go to the small neighborhood stores, or Pulperias as they are called in Costa Rica, make sure the price is shown, and don’t be shy to ask before you buy.

Dreaming of traveling to Costa Rica on a budget
Dreaming of traveling on a budget to Costa Rica

(1) Data obtained in fall 2017.

5 replies
  1. Hugh Sellers says:

    Thanks for the breakdown on Costa Rica and all the nearby countries. I didn’t know the differences in costs were so big. I’ve heard of many people from the U.S. living in Costa Rica because of the lower cost. This may sound awkward, but how welcome are Americans? I’d love to go there for a few months because I hear it’s beautiful. It doesn’t sound too expensive either. I could work on my next book or just lollygag for a while.

    Reply
    • Koen Blanquart says:

      Hey Hugh! Happy you liked it. I’m working on a similar article about living on a budget, after spending several months in Panama (Central America). As it is in many societies, the locals (Ticos and Ticas) like the wealth and jobs that come with the inflow of foreigners (Americans and others). The rising prices are of course the other side of the medal. And especially people who do not benefit from this immigration in their salary can be a little less welcoming. But I’ve not seen – or heard about – any aggression towards Americans (Gringos).

      Reply
  2. Remy says:

    Costa Rica is one of my favorite country to go. They have mountain, beach and rain forest. It’s beautiful, fun and interesting. I recommend everyone to come here at least once in your lifetime. Thank you for the article. Now I don’t have to spend so much money like I did (2000$ for 1 week through a travel company).

    Reply
  3. Alyssaallday says:

    Loved reading this for my future trip! Definitely didn’t know they served shark so I’m so glad for the heads up!

    Reply

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