With coastlines on both the Pacific and the Caribbean, Costa Rica is one of the most tourist-friendly countries in Central America. With 8.2% of its GDP depending on tourism, Costa Rica is welcoming to travelers from all over the world. Even though Costa Rica is commonly known for its luxury vacations, expensive getaways, and all-inclusive retreats, you can still explore and enjoy the immaculate beaches, incredible national parks, spectacular volcanoes, and biodiverse wildlife on a limited budget. Here’s how you can do that.
If you are really short on money, you can try a work exchange to travel across Costa Rica on a limited budget. Also known as voluntourism or work travel, work exchange lets your time and skills provide you with accommodation, and sometimes also food. This will essentially reduce your living expenses to zero.
You usually have to work less than 20 hours in a work exchange program, and the work is quite simple, and no prior experience is generally required.
Work exchange programs are offered by Hostels, campsites, NGOs, social projects, farms, ecovillages, restaurants, and even small businesses. In Costa Rica, you can easily find a work exchange program with eco-lodges and retreats where you’ll have to work with things like cleaning, repairing, gardening, cooking and more.
Work exchange or not, you need to have good planning to be able to save money on a trip anywhere. Even though Costa Rica, at just 51,179 square kilometers, is not a huge country, there still is a lot to see. So, you need to plan and be clear about where you want to go and what you want to experience. Going in without planning will be of little help in saving money.
For example, knowing about the best beaches Costa Rica has to offer and shortlisting which ones of them you want to go to, which one(s) of the 30 national parks you want to visit, whether you want to participate in the activities like river rafting, canyoning, cave tubing, or zip all should be clear before you pack your bag for a trip to Costa Rica.
There is a lot to see and do in Costa Rica, and if you are on a tight budget, you need to decide your destinations and allocate your budget in advance.
With over 1.7 million people visiting Costa Rica every year, the food market is dominated by westernized restaurants and eateries that are generally expensive. If you eat where the usual tourists eat, you’ll spend a large portion of your budget on food. The best way around this is to eat like the locals. You can ask your hotel staff or work exchange hosts about local restaurants where you can save money while also experiencing authentic food.
A Soda is a small family-run restaurant in Costa Rica that generally serves an assortment of local food that costs under $5 per serving, which can be a good place to enjoy delicious Central American Cuisine on a tight budget.
Alcohol is generally quite expensive in Costa Rica. If you do have to drink, look for happy hours; otherwise, abstain and use that money on something more fun.
As in many other countries, the cheapest way to get around Costa Rica is a public bus. However, public buses are often non-air conditioned and quite slow. The best way for long-distance or intercity travel in Costa Rica is shared minivans. These are comfortable, fast, and often have more convenient pick-up and drop-off locations while still being very affordable.
Taxis are really expensive, again, because most of the tourists in Costa Rica are wealthy. So use taxis only for shorter trips or when no other mode of transportation is available.
As Costa Rica is so rich in natural beauty, there are countless things here that you can do on a budget, and they are all pretty amazing too. Here are a few of them:
The pacific coast of Costa Rica has a lot of cool beaches where you can go and surf. Surfing is free at Playa Avellanas, Playa Negra, Playa Tamarindo, Playa Hermosa, and Playa Langosta. All you’ll have to pay for will be the rent of the gear if you don’t have your own.
Hiking is one of the most popular activities in Costa Rica and is often free or costs under $20, which given the incredible views, is a bargain. Some of the best trails can be found in Corcovado National Park, Arenal Volcano National Park, and Santa Rosa National Park.
If you are interested in wildlife, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is home to some of the most unique wildlife in the world. The entry ticket is just $25.
Throw another $80 on top of that, and you can go ziplining. That might be a bit too much for a traveler on a budget, but the experience is unforgettable.
For coffee lovers, $30-$40 can get a tour of one of the country’s coffee plantations. These are spread all over Costa Rica, but the best ones can be found near San Jose and the Monteverde Area. You can even get a work exchange at one of these if you really want to learn about coffee and save money.
Another of the attractions of Costa Rica is the waterfalls, and these are totally free to visit. You’ll just have to pay for transportation, and that too can be shared with people at the hostel or work exchange who want to visit the falls.
Even though it is known for luxury tours and vacations, you can travel across Costa Rica on a limited budget. The best way to do that is to look for a work exchange program that can cover the cost of living and food. Whether you get one or not, plan the tip in advance to save money. Eat where the locals do and avoid drinking as liquor is very expensive in Costa Rica. Budget activities in Costa Rica include surfing, swimming, hiking, and waterfalls.