Costa Rica has a lot to offer, but is unfortunately not quite cheap: For food & lodging, entrance fees, restaurant visits, goods for daily needs and leisure time one has to pay a lot of money. In the following you get some tips how to keep the costs in check.
In my booking price, the stay in the host family in Heredia with half board was already included. But of course I also wanted to go out and travel around in the country. In order not to overcharge my travel budget, I informed myself about the cost traps and cheap alternatives in the first days:
Inexpensive lunch menus are available in snack bars called „sodas“: Experience shows that it tastes best in the fullest sodas. The „Casado“ menu is the classic on the menu. Translated, this national dish of the Ticos is called „Married“. It probably bears this funny name because it is served at any time of day in all possible variations. The ingredients include rice, fried black beans, fried plantains, onions, often scrambled eggs or sour cream. You can eat meat or fish with it and often salad as well. On the Caribbean coast the meal is prepared with coconut milk. Costs: from 3 €.
Gallo Pinto“ („spotted cock“) is also a typical Tico dish, which consists of a mixture of rice and roasted black or red beans, to which – depending on the region – the following is served: onions, sour cream, tortillas (thin flat cakes made of corn flour), cheese, scrambled eggs, pepperoni or even chicken, ham or bacon are added – just as you like it. It is often eaten for breakfast. Costs: from 2,50 €.
Those who prefer fast food can of course also go to McDonalds (Combo Meal from 5.50 €) or Taco Bell (Burrito from 1.80 €).
Cook for yourself / save costs when shopping
For two people and more it is worthwhile to cook for yourself, which is possible in most hostels and budget hotels. There are grocery stores in every small town, although the larger supermarkets (e.g. „MaxiPali“ or „Walmart“) are cheaper. Especially expensive is the „AmPm“ (but it is open for a long time). In the tourist places one should best look where the locals go shopping. The many local markets, for example, offer not only fruit, vegetables and other food, but also many goods for daily use.
I was told that you can drink tap water in most places in Costa Rica (with a few exceptions). Nevertheless I bought additional mineral water in the supermarket. Just like in Germany, in Costa Rica, there are different kinds of mineral water in all price ranges (1.5 l costs about 1.50 €). Imported mineral waters are more expensive than the local ones.
The coffee (from 1 € at the kiosk) tastes good everywhere in Costa Rica. That’s obvious, because coffee is one of the most important export goods of the country. If you want to order coffee or something else in a chic café or bar, you should have a look at the beverage or menu card first: It might be a little more expensive…
Fruit shakes (batidos) with water or milk, from 1.50 €, are also very tasty and always a good alternative to mineral water. Most of them are prepared with fresh fruit (e.g. papaya, pineapple, bananas).
Alcohol is not served in the sodas and other small restaurants, because the licenses cost a lot. But those who still do not want to abstain from their beer can either get one in the supermarket (Tico beer „Imperial Gold“ or „Imperial Silver“ e.g. tastes good and is available from 1.50 €) or go to a restaurant with an alcohol licence. Often there is also a happy hour with more or less delicious drinks. By the way, good wine from abroad is expensive (costs in the supermarket: from 8 € upwards). But wine is also grown in Costa Rica. I have never tried it, but I have heard that it is not exactly the best (headache included)…
Public transport is very cheap (provided you find the right bus, see: Bus, train, water taxi: Nothing for sissies! »). For a trip with the city bus I paid 0.65 €; a seven-hour bus trip across the country cost me 11 €. Public boats are also cheap (from 5 €, depending on distance). Also the costs for the taxi and the bus are limited (taxi short distance in the city from approximately 2 €).
However, if you miss your boat or don’t want to take the interurban bus, you have to book an expensive transfer for tourists (from 40 €, depending on the distance), take the plane (from 80 € ) or rent a private water taxi (about 50 €, depending on the distance). With these transfers tourists are usually picked up at the airport or hotel in San José – but not inHeredia.
There is accommodation for every taste and budget. It is sometimes worth booking bed and breakfast, as food is expensive in Costa Rica. In the low season, i.e. the rainy season between mid May and early December, the overnight prices go ′runter and the hostels / hotels sometimes offer discounts. Those who can, should especially avoid the time between mid-December and the end of January and around Easter. There are not only many foreign tourists on the way, but also the Ticos, whose kids have school vacation. Everywhere it is full and the costs explode sometimes.
Rainy season does not mean that it is pouring continuously. Usually it rains from the early afternoon for a few hours or at night. In some areas, however, unpaved roads are no longer passable. Therefore, one has to consider what is more important: to travel cheaper during the rainy season and leave some places out or to add a few hundred euros during the dry season and do the full excursion program.
By the way, sometimes it is also worthwhile to stay over night in Airbnb rooms. Or one decides right away for couch surfing: it doesn’t cost anything and one gets to know nice people.
Excursions should not be booked from Germany, but only on site. This has a positive effect on the budget.
Besides the big providers with their own websites, there are many small, local agencies that are just as good or even better and in any case cheaper. Often hostels or hotels work together with local guides or agencies and negotiate special deals that also benefit the tourists. If you have special wishes concerning leisure activities, e.g. fishing, you can ask the locals if they know someone who offers something else, e.g. a boat trip or something else. This is a win-win situation: the locals are happy that they earn some extra money and the tourists are also happy because they get away cheaper than with an organized tour.
Although Costa Rica is not big, it is mountainous with a partly bad infrastructure and a lot of traffic. A tour, where you spend half of the day in a bus or van and then rush through a national park for two hours, is rather less worthwhile. Most of the times, these excursions cost from 100 euros upwards and in the end, one only sat in the bus.
Those who have more time and want to really enjoy the nature should arrive on their own and stay at least one or two nights on the spot. By this way, the entrance fee to the national parks (between 10 and 20 euros) is also worthwhile. The journey is a little more complicated but feasible, as almost all places near the national parks can be reached by public buses (bus schedule „); if necessary, you can also take a taxi or bus for the last few kilometres.
Guides in the National Park
Who does not want to spend additional money for a guide, just goes on his/her own. Mostly the parks are well signposted, one gets a briefing or a small hiking map in order to explore the area on one’s own. But the guides see much more animals than the tourists, as they have a trained eye and know the area well. And they can tell a lot about the fauna, flora and the daily life of the local people. I always liked that, but of course, a lot of information can be found in the travel guide or on the internet.