The Budget Travel Guides are travel tips to help you save money and enrich your travel experiences. Many people love beach and island life. Annabel shares her best Costa Rica travel tips to save money and have the best travel experience.
Before moving to Central America we spent a lot of time researching where to go and where to settle. Panama, Guatemala and Nicaraguan all sounded interesting but we decided we definitely wouldn’t live in Costa Rica because it was too touristy and too expensive.
But after traveling around all those countries we ended up living in Costa Rica because it’s definitely the top spot.
A Costa Rica Travel Guide
Yes, Costa Rica is more touristy and more expensive than many other Central American countries but it is also has the most beautiful beaches and it has the most abundant wildlife.
So what’s the best way to travel round the country and how can you do it on a budget? Let me share some of my Costa Rica travel tips.
Consider renting a car when traveling in Costa Rica.
If you’ve got your own wheels you won’t need to spend money on overpriced tours, you can get off the beaten track and it will make it easier for you to find decent budget accommodation. This is definitely the best way to go if there are two or more of you.
Many destinations have mini bus shuttle services from San Jose but you should research and book them in advance.
The true budget alternative when it comes to transport is the Tica bus but it will take you longer to get around by bus. I recommend that you take the bus if you’re traveling from Costa Rica into Panama, Nicaragua, or farther as you won’t be able to take a rental car across borders.
Even if you can’t stay long, try to stay in one place for as long as possible rather than moving around and spending a night here and a night there.
If you stay in one place three nights or longer you can usually negotiate a discounted rate. If you stay one week or two weeks then you will have much better negotiating power.
I prefer not to book accommodation in advance although that can be useful when you first arrive in a country. Sticking to a budget is usually easier if you can just arrive in a place and spend time looking around the options before choosing where to stay.
Often you can find lovely new places that no one else knows about with cheap rates because all the rooms are empty, or locally owned cabinas with great rates that don’t even have a website.
Don’t be embarrassed to negotiate with accommodation owners. Remember it is to their advantage as well as yours if you stay longer because they won’t have any empty nights if you book the room for the whole week.
One way to find good budget accommodation when you’re there is to book one night’s accommodation in a backpackers or guest house and use your first day to look around for other places which are nicer, more private and/or cheaper.
Because we were staying long term in Costa Rica we rented houses and usually paid around $1,200 per month for a big flash house. If you’re a family or you’re going with a group of friends renting a house is the best way to go. Try accommodation booking sites like VRBO or Wimdu or wait until you get to Costa Rica and the place you most want to stay then start asking around.
Steer clear of touristy areas like Tamarindo, Manuel Antonio and La Fortuna where accommodation prices are always higher. If you do want to visit those tourist hot spots get in and out fast.
Here are some budget accommodation deals in three of my favourite spots in Costa Rica:
Puerto Viejo – on the Caribbean Coast
Cabinas Jacaranda – Cute cabins in a beautiful garden close within walking distance of the Puerto Viejo centre and beach. There’s also a kitchen so you can save money by cooking or preparing your own meals.
Uvita – with gorgeous beaches in the southern zone
Toucan Hotel – A centrally located backpackers which is a fun place to stay to get to know the area while you look for a house or cabana to rent long term.
Osa Penninsula – the most biologically diverse place in the world
The Osa Peninsula isn’t cheap but Poor Man’s Paradise is the best deal for accommodation. It’s also locally owned and offers packages which include meals and boat transfers since their property is only accessible by boat. If you’re lucky you should spot scarlet macaws and monkeys right on the property. Some friends of ours were even treated to the the sight of a giant boa in the restaurant!
Costa Rica Food
This is a downside to Costa Rica. The food is not great and not cheap either.
The best deals in a restaurant will always be the plato typico which literally means typical dish.
The plato typico will vary in every restaurant you go to, but it’s basically a main course with your choice of fish, chicken or beef and a lot of side dishes. It always seems to be carb overload so it will be served with rice, a pasta salad, potato salad and a fried plantain. You’ll also get beans, a cube of cheese and salad and a dollop of cream.
The plato typico is not a gourmet meal but you won’t go hungry. Vegetarians just ask if you can have an omelet or beans instead of the meat.
The best food in Costa Rica is the fresh fruit so make sure you take a knife and plate with you so you can buy your own fruit in the market and eat it whenever you feel like.
The pipas (fresh fresh young coconuts) are are also divine and cheap – ideal when you’re hot and thirsty.
My favourite Costa Rican dish is the ceviche which is raw fish or prawns marinated with lime juice, coriander and red pepper then served with crackers or crispy deep-fried platanos (plantains). Look out for ceviche stalls at roadsides or even outside shops or parks where enterprising locals may be selling ceviche from the boot of the car.
The best things in life are really free so be sure to spend a lot of time walking in the jungle, hanging out on the beach or basking in the warm ocean.
Buy the Rainforest Publications laminated guides to Costa Rican mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles which you can find in good tourist shops and spend time studying them.
It won’t be long before you can recognize the four different types of monkey, tell the difference between the Fiery-Billed Aracari and a Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan and know full well that you’re looking at a black and green dart frog, even though it’s the first time you’ve ever seen one.
If you stay in the right places surrounded by jungle you’ll find that the wildlife comes to you.
Don’t spend your money on things like zip-lining which you can do anywhere but do splash out on a local guide who will point out wildlife that you would have missed.
Try to visit both the Pacific coast and the Caribbean coast which which each have a distinctive vibe, cuisine and culture.
Connecting with locals
Always try to stay at locally owned accommodation. They probably don’t have a website so that’s why you need to spend time looking for it when you get there.
Watch out for local festivals like the lantern festival to celebrate Independence Day on September 15th which will be celebrated in every town and village.
Costa Ricans love horses and rodeos so look out for those too wherever you’re staying. It might not be the running of the Bulls in Pamplona but you will get to see how real Costa Ricans have fun and be amazed by the lack of safety. Don’t get too close to the action.
Costa Ricans are generally extremely friendly and helpful. Take time to talk to them no matter how bad your Spanish is. They’ll be good company and a useful source of information – try asking them where the best beaches are and you’ll soon get off the tourist track.
If you love beaches, jungles, and beautiful locations, these Costa Rica travel tips will help you save money and encourage you to spend as much time as possible connecting with this beautiful country.
This post was written by Annabel Candy.
Annabel is a freelance writer and web designer. Born in England, she’s traveled to over 40 countries, lived in eight of them and has both British and Kiwi passports. But don’t hold that against her. Annabel now lives in Australia where she writes travel stories on Get In the Hot Spot and shares blogging tips at Successful Blogging. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.