Costa Rica is famed for its beautiful beaches and luscious rainforests but regrettably also for its huge tourist reputation, and more tourists means higher prices. So in this post I'm going to share my best tips to travel Costa Rica on a budget and the best hidden gems that aren't overcrowded with tourists.
1. Find a friend or group and hire a car
So one of the best ways to travel around Costa Rica is by car, this gives you the most freedom and can be the best for your budget. Many shuttle services between towns can cost between $40-$60 USD, and sometimes these are necessary as public buses aren't available everywhere, so these transport costs can add up and hiring a car between 2-4 people can not only save you money but time and effort.
2. Eat at Sodas
Now you may be a little confused but a soda is the Costa Rican name for a small local restaurant selling affordably priced food. You can go these small eateries for breakfast, lunch or dinner but the typical meal served for lunch is a Casado, consisting of rice, beans, a little salad, plantains and your choice of protein, usually chicken, beef or fish. These places also sell the traditional breakfast of Gallo Pinto, also rice and beans but not the same as you have for lunch, traditionally made from the left over rice and beans from the day before, they are sautéed in a pan with onions, garlic and capsicum, and served with eggs and plantains.
3. Stay in hostels
Most budget travellers would think this is a no brainer but they can be great for a group of friends or couple on vacation. Throughout my time in Costa Rica I only stayed in Selina Hostels which I loved for their versatility, as they catered for the budget traveller with dorms from $8(US) per night up to beautiful private rooms for $50(US) a night. But no matter what room you stayed in you got all the same amenities, with all but one of the hostels having a pool, all equipped with a kitchen but also a bar/restaurant dining area (which they call the Playground).
Disclaimer prices may vary seasonally.
4. Cook your own Food
As I mentioned above all the hostels I stayed in had a kitchen and this helped me cut back on food costs because Costa Rica has a huge tourist industry and US influence, the supermarkets/corner stores, are pretty well equipped with basic food supplies like pasta, rice, eggs, fruit and vegetables etc. even in small towns, and whipping up some avocado toast or tomato pasta is so simple and easy that it'll save you time as well as money! Not to mention the fruit there is amazing! Some of my favourites were pineapple, watermelon, passionfruit & rambutan (cousin of the lychee).
5. BYO beer or wine
Now this tip won’t be for everyone as a) not everyone drinks alcohol and b) it depends where you are staying. Luckily all the Selina hostels I stayed in allowed outside alcohol in the kitchen area, just not in the bar/restaurant area, which made it super easy to pick up a six pack for the evening for the same cost as one beer at the bar!
6. Go to the beach
Every budget traveller loves free activities but the beach is the ultimate one especially in Costa Rica, with miles of both Pacific and Caribbean coast line, and the ultimate laid back surfer lifestyle.
7. Drink tap water
Surprise! Tap water in Costa Rica is safe to drink. Unlike many other Central American countries Costa Rica has a pretty good quality water system, and I drank tap water there the whole time (2.5 weeks) and I was completely fine. Many others also claim the same. However I would still advise caution if you have a sensitive stomach, weak immune system or are in a very remote place where water might be coming from tanks or wells. But for the most part save yourself some cash, and the planet, and drink from the tap instead of buying the bottled stuff! P.S. Same goes for going to restaurants just ask for "un vaso de agua" (a glass/cup of water) instead of a bottle.
8. Travel during the rainy season
Low season in Costa Rica is typically marked by the months of the rainy season from May through to November, with the heaviest rainfall in September, which is when I was there. Travelling during this time, as with most other places during their low season, means less tourists and thus lower prices for accomodation, flights and other transport. Also don't be afraid that the rain means no sun! During my two and a half weeks there, I actually had many sunny days and sometimes the rain just meant in the afternoon or the evening for a couple of hours and then it would fine up again, or that some days were just overcast but still hot!
9. Make the most of Ladies Night!
If you end up in some of the more touristy towns ladies night is a great way to save some money! Sorry boys! I met a few girls at my hostel and after heading out to get food we proceeded to the local bars/clubs and there were at least two of them running 'Ladies Night' which meant free house drinks for us! So that night I ended up having four rum and cokes completely free. Only catch was you could only get one at a time which meant getting one, chugging it and getting another before heading back to the dance floor.
10. Stay in
Admittedly I didn't go out that much in Costa Rica compared to other places I went on my trip, because it was actually pretty nice to stay in. Plus a lot of the smaller towns didn't really have many, if any, bars to go to, which ended up saving me a heap of cash. This kind of goes along with buying your own drinks, but many nights I just spent chilling by the pool, then chatting and drinking with others and playing pool or card games or whatever until we all decided to head to bed.