It is no secret for backpackers that Costa Rica is Central America’s most expensive country to travel to. After eating steak and lobster for every meal in Nicaragua, you’ll be heartbroken to find that you can hardly get a plate of nachos for $10 at your average Costa Rican restaurant.
Why is Costa Rica so much more expensive than its other Central American counterparts? I don’t know for sure, but I think that Costa Rica’s level of modernization and strong political and economic infrastructure have a lot to do with it. It is a first-world country surrounded by countries that are still developing and often facing political and economic uncertainty.
In short, you can expect to pay similar prices to the United States and even Western Europe. I spoke to some local Costa Ricans who had traveled around Europe extensively and even they said that places like Berlin and Madrid were cheaper than Costa Rica. In resort towns and tourist attractions, you are definitely going to have to shell out more than what you’re used to as a backpacker.
That doesn’t mean that Costa Rica can’t be done or should be rushed by backpackers. Although the cities, like San Jose or Liberia, aren’t generally tourist hotspots, they are much more affordable and a good place to get your bearings. Hostels in these cities range from about $8-12 a night, a fairer price than the $25-45 per night that I had to pay in the tourist towns. With ample nightlife and activities, the cities aren’t a bad spot to call your home base. Rather than laze away for four or five nights in an expensive beach town (which I promise is really easy to do), you could consider staying for one or two nights before returning to San Jose and planning your next destination in Costa Rica.
San Jose is very central and is the transportation hub of all of Costa Rica. Costa Rica is a relatively small country, so almost anywhere can be reached from San Jose within six hours, usually less. It is nice being in close proximity to beach, but if you don’t mind sacrificing a few beach days, you will save a lot of money by spending more time in San Jose as opposed to Tamarindo or Manuel Antonio or Jaco or any of the other endless beach towns in Costa Rica.
I stayed in Tamarindo during Semana Santa, a huge holiday week for all of Central America. Tamarindo was packed, and for the three nights I stayed there, I paid an average of $40 per night. A meal at a decent restaurant could run you up to $20, and don’t even get me started on trying to get drunk in Tamarindo. Manuel Antonio was not that much cheaper, at about $30 per night to stay at Hostel Selina.
I’ll admit that I’m not much of a beach person, so skipping out on the beach doesn’t sound so awful to me. Staying at a $10 hostel in San Jose usually meant you had a pool anyway, and the restaurants were much more reasonably priced. I also had a lot of wild nights in San Jose because I could actually afford to. Oh yeah, I highly recommend popping into Club Vertigo at some point.
Pictured above is what a $10 hostel looks like in San Jose. Incredibly lush and exotic, with hammocks and a pool. What more could you ask for?
On average, I’d assume you could save $40-50 per day by opting to stay in a big city rather than a small beach town. For short-term vacationers, by all means stay at those beach resorts. However, for backpackers, that extra money could really go a long way.
San Jose and Liberia are also excellent places to stay because there are no shortage of day trips one could take from the city. From San Jose, you can go to Territorio de Zaguates, an amazing dog shelter where on designated days, you can go hiking with almost a thousand dogs at once. There’s also Poaz Volcano and a number of other national parks nearby. Liberia has a national park to the south and three more to the north, near the Nicaraguan border.
Transportation is also something one should consider when it comes to saving money. Taking local buses might be more work to figure out, but will save you a monumental amount of money if you opt to take a bus instead of taxi or an uber every time. The buses can be a headache, especially the ones that go through every suburb of a city before actually heading towards your destination. If you don’t mind spending an extra two hours on a bus, you’ll save about $15-20. It also helps if you happen to have two friends driving their van all the way to Peru that you can hitch a ride with, but not everybody has friends like @TheBroAbroad and @Gr3ngasho and their trusty Van-essa.
I truly believe that Costa Rica is a paradise that offers an immense amount of activities and adventures, but it does come with a little bit of a price tag. However, instead of considering the hefty price tag as a scam of sorts towards tourists, understand that it goes towards Costa Rica’s impressive green and environmentally-focused infrastructure. With one of the world’s most biodiverse environments and a strong government led by impassioned people that understand the importance of renewable energy and preserving these environments, Costa Rica is a leader when it comes to taking care of the planet. The Costa Rican people have a patriotism for their country that shows in how much they take care of their country. Although I did spend a lot more money in Costa Rica than the other Central American countries, not once did I feel like I was being scammed or shorted on an experience that matched what I paid for.
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