“Well, we’ve got three months for Central America which should be okay as we’re only spending a week in Costa Rica.”
“We’re skipping Costa Rica entirely.”
“You’re going to Costa Rica?! I guess you really hate your money.”
From Peru to Panama we met backpackers warning us against the budget-wrecking horrors of Costa Rica. Had we made a drinking game out of taking a shot every time we heard a traveler mention it, I don’t think we would have remembered what sober felt like for a few months — that’s how ubiquitous a topic it was among the Latin America hostel set. Pretty much every time, I rolled my eyes discretely to Anders. I mean, come on. I quit the cheaplympics. And I’ve been to Costa Rica before, when I did a student exchange in high school — didn’t they know how awesome a country it is?
And then we arrived in Puerto Viejo.
There must be some colones in there…
This charming beach town just over the border from Bocas del Toro, Panama, would fit many people’s definition of paradise. It certainly fit mine — except in my perfect Eden, small bottles of water don’t cost $2.50! In comparison, a water that size would cost 30-50 cents in Peru. Unfortunately, drinking tap water isn’t an option in Puerto Viejo, and even simply refilling our reusable bottles at our hostel set us back a dollar each. Ouch. In Bocas del Toro, where tap water is also a no go, it cost just 30 cents to fill both our water bottles at a refill station. And that’s the cheapest form of hydration — I paid $3 for a small smoothie at a roadside shack, double what I’d paid the day before in Panama.
In Ecuador, buses are about a buck an hour. In Costa Rica, it’s three times that price. We met a couple who told us their bill for a pizza and two sodas in came to almost forty dollars. When I went to drop off our very small load of laundry in Puerto Viejo, I almost fell over at the $10 bill — $4 per kilo! We had been paying a third of that for the past five months. Granted, we could wash our own clothes and those people could cook at their hostel — but those are just examples to show the disparity between Costa Rica and the other countries we visited as part of this trip. I was starting to see how Costa Rica earned its nickname as the Switzerland of the Americas, and why so many backpackers see it as little more than an extremely expensive transit hub between Nicaragua and Panama.
Why is Costa Rica so expensive compared to its neighbors? A common theory is that the country’s popularity among wealthy North American travelers and retirees has driven up prices. But when I spoke to my Tica friends, my hosts from my first trip to the country more than six years ago, they assured me it was much more complicated than that — and that locals were suffering from the price bumps, too.
I am so grateful for the time I spent in Costa Rica back in 2007, and all I was able to see and experience back then. But would I replicate it again today, on my own and at the current prices? Probably not. Other countries in the region simply offer too competitive a value.
All that said, I still wouldn’t recommend skipping Costa Rica entirely. The idea of seeing a country only through a bus window pains me! Costa Rica is a beautiful country with lovely people and a lot to offer, and I’d encourage travelers overlanding through the region to pick at least one destination in the country they really want to see — for me, it was Puerto Viejo. But aside from the usual money-saving methods (take mass transit, eat local, stay in hostels) I would recommend a few Costa Rica-specific tips.
• Avoid alcohol, which is very pricey there, and save the partying for your next pit stop.
• Avoiding buying toiletries and other essentials in Costa Rica — try to stock up before you arrive.
• Think very carefully about activities. Pretty much every activity we saw on offer (whitewater rafting, ziplining, surfing) we had done for a fraction of the price at no discernible value difference in neighboring countries. However, there are exceptions. While our horseback riding experience was much pricier than ones on offer in other destinations, it was an incredibly unique and was a higher value than we could have found in, say, Ecuador.
• Don’t forget to budget $30 for the exit fee if you are flying out of the country.
• If you’re only there a week or so, resist doing laundry until after you’ve crossed the border — you’ll pay a fraction of the price.
For those who are reading this and thinking how high those prices seem, rest assured there are travelers who manage to travel Costa Rica on a budget. For a few examples, check out spending breakdowns from Expert Vagabond, Globetrotter Girls, and Nomadic Matt. For those that are reading this and thinking I’m being cheap, well, I’m not afraid to open my wallet when I travel. But if I can have a comparable experience for a fraction of the price by hopping a border, I’m going to do it — and I’m going to save the big bucks for when I’m traveling Europe or Australia. As a long-term traveler, I have to be strategic about where I spend my time and money.
I truly do love Costa Rica — Puerto Viejo was one of my favorite destinations on this trip! — and I’m sure I’ll be back again someday to visit my friends there. But on thing will be different — I’ll never roll my eyes at those complaining backpackers again.
Have you been to Costa Rica lately? Were you surprised like I was by the prices?
I found this a really insightful and helpful post Alex. A few tips there to keep to mind when visiting and a thoughtful look at how to spend your money and on what when travelling.
I really enjoyed it.
You’re welcome, Janice! I wish I had listened more thoughtfully to my fellow travelers before we arrived!
Very interesting to hear about the costs of Costa (!) Rica. I had heard that it was pricer, but would never expect to spend $2.5 on a small bottle of water or $4/kg of laundry. We’re heading to Central America next year (been to Belize already) so we’ll see if we hop the border to CR.
Luckily you can actually drink tap water in most places in Costa Rica. And actually, we travel with a SteriPen so typically we drink the tap water regardless after treating it. However when we arrive in Puerto Viejo we were both still recovering from food poisoning so we were playing it super safe… but I couldn’t believe I was paying $1 just to refill my own damn water bottle!
This is so helpful!! I’m actually going to be in Costa Rica at the end of the month and had no idea about the exit fee. I’m so glad you mentioned it!
I would recommend paying it in cash, Erica. I had an issue where I paid with my credit card and later found out it had been run as a “cash advance” and so I was being charged interest and a big fee! So I had to spend a while on the phone with my credit card company having all of those reversed. Not sure if that was just a freak accident but it might be worth it to pay in cash to avoid!
A travel writer friend of mine, Chris Baker, author of Costa Rica Handbook from Moon Publications, has also told me about the high price of CR. He also wrote the Moon guide to Cuba, which he vastly enjoys but he hates the political situation. Do get in touch with him, he now lives in Palm Springs after many years in OaklAnd. I wrote all the original Moon guides to SE Asia. It’s a long story…
Yes, it seems high prices are a bit topic when it comes to Costa Rica… everyone is talking about it!
I’ve heard the same thing about Costa Rica, what some people say never really deters me. I still have quite a few friends in Nicaragua who said they’ve seen some of the same things start to happen there. Though, on a much lower scale than in Costa Rica.
Uh oh… Nicaragua is pretty high on my bucket list. Better get there soon!
Funny/crazy as it is, I have actually only spent any length of time in the 2 most expensive countries in Central America: Belize and Costa Rica! I DID find Costa Rica to be more expensive than I originally expected it to be (especially considering that my friend and I rented a car while there so we could get around easier). But I don’t regret going at all – we had a great time!
Next time I would probably check out another nearby country, however, where my money would stretch a bit further…
Before this trip I had been to Belize (with my family), Costa Rica (with an exchange program), and Honduras (on my own). While I knew Belize and Costa Rica were the most expensive, as I hadn’t really backpacked there I was totally out of touch with how much they really cost… whereas I felt like I spent a fortune in Honduras thanks to diving 🙂
Exactly my argument against Costa Rica – way too expensive compared to every other country around it (most of which I like way better anyway).
I think Costa Rica has some amazing natural treasures… like beautiful volcanoes and abundant wildlife. I would recommend travelers save the activities for countries where they are much cheaper and focus on the free stuff in Costa Rica instead.
https://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Latin-America/currency-value According to this site it would be almost 20% more expensive than Panama.
Plus – I have been told – there are weekly bus trips from Costa Rica to the Albrook Mall in Panama, lol.
Ha! That doesn’t surprise me based on what my Costa Rican friends told me. They all do their shopping elsewhere.
Thanks for sharing our Costa Rica On A Shoestring post! I remember how shocked we were arriving in CR from Nicaragua (which is probably the cheapest country in Central America!) I still thought Costa Rica was worth every penny we spent there – the gorgeous beaches, the wildlife (which I haven’t experienced in that way anywhere else in Latin America!), volcanoes and cloud forests – not the greatest destination for a backpacker budget but a great destination nonetheless!
Agreed, and like I said elsewhere in the comments I think it’s best to focus on those natural wonders and save the pricey activities (ziplining, rafting, etc.) for other locations where they are much cheaper.
Very interesting! I didn’t know Costa Rica is so expensive. I guess I’ll move it to the “When I am Not Completely Poor” list.
Yeah, I think it is a great destination for not-budget travelers! Tons of hotels and resorts with a focus on sustainability, great infrastructure, etc.
good to know! I’ll keep these tips in mind if I ever make it down there!
I think it would be quite the shock after the prices of India!
We traveled to Costa Rica twice and then Belize before getting brave and hitting Honduras- totally concur with your assessment of the prices. I do think there are “gringo prices” in some areas, of CR but overall, I think it is just more of a robust economy. Heading for Nicaragua next- hoping to find some reasonable prices and adventures there!
Sounds like you are Central America addicts! 🙂 I like it! Of course if you look through my coverage for the past month you’ll see that I’m also a fan of Panama, which I highly recommend you check out some time.
Ahh great information, as I’m currently looking into when I could travel that way, maybe I need to save a lot harder after my current trip!
Or you could cut your time in Costa Rica a bit and add some in nearby Panama or Nicaragua!
I knew Costa Rica was going to be expensive but I didn’t realise quite how much! I’m heading there next week so will just have to be a bit careful about what I spend my money on. Thanks for the post!
Hope it helps a bit, Christie! Something else we realized after a very expensive and tragically mediocre meal was that at these prices if we were going to splurge we wanted it to be worth it. So while we cooked a lot when we did eat out we did a bit more research than normal on Tripadvisor or wherever to make sure it would be good!
Wow! Those are London prices! I just feel really bad for local people who, as you mentioned, probably suffer a lot with these high prices. Years ago we lived in Venezuela and we had to leave because prices and inflation were just so high compared to the wage we made at the time.
Interesting! I haven’t made it to Venezuela yet but I wonder how they would stack up today.
I keep hearing about how expensive it is too. I also recently met an expat who said that it has also become much more dangerous with kidnaps etc. I don’t usually listen to other travellers though. I always like to make up my own mind. I often like places other people hate, such as Phnom Penh.
I am surprised to hear that, because one of the positives I always hear about Costa Rica is how safe it is! And yeah, I often listen to the advice of other travelers and then just do what I wanted in the first place anyway 🙂
Been to costa rica twice and loved it. I been on both sides the guanacaste side and puerto viejo. I looved puerto viejo… younger crowd extremely laid back and awesome food. Guanacaste side I stayed at a resort where I was able to share a room with my other two friends and the puerto viejo side I stayed at a bed and breakfast. One thing I will say is that between the two you will get eaten up with prices more on the guanacaste side. If you decide to stay at a resort that has an alcohol bar make sure to ask how much the drinks are before you order them..my friend ordered two double shots of top shelf tequila that cost her 75 bucks!! She Damn near lost her mind lol.. they will laugh and smile and charge up your card if you not careful lol. On the puerto viejo side you are able to budget a lot more. I stayed for 7 days off of 35 a day. The b&b I stayed at had a kitchen so breakfast was a no brainer you can make your own food bring in your instant oatmeal or whatever and cook that sucka on the stove. Boom! Done. I’m big on having dinner so the majority of the money would go for that. There is a fish place that has no name on the main road that only opens when they catch fresh fish that day. A meal may cost 6000 to 8000 colones if I remember correctly but it will be the best Damn food you will ever have out there plus I always shared the dinner with my friend. You get a fish dinner, a glass of wine and you’re out like a light. . Plus you have enough to eat for the next day. . They just give you a ridiculous amount of food..at theend of the day it depends on what you are comfortable on spending to have a good time. .Im not a back packer type of girl but I do believe that you can save money if you do the right research and stillhave a good time without eating hotdogs on a stick on the side of the road to save 2 dollars…
Sounds like you had a fabulous experience! I’ve been to Guanacaste as well at an all-inclusive resort, but I was with my host family so I have no concept of the prices. Sounds like you managed some great deals — kudos!
Wow! We had no idea Costa Rica was so pricy. We were under the impression that it was very inexpensive. This write up came to us at a perfect time because we had been looking into going to Costa Rica for three months in January, and although we will still visit Costa Rica at some point, we think we will look into Ecuador instead!
I would also suggest looking into Panama or Nicaragua as well! Best of luck, guys!
I traveled through Costa Rica in 2008 and I remember it being more expensive than the other Central American countries, but no THAT expensive though. I’m not surprised though, back then i found the country way less rough than it’s neighbourhoods and with plenty more North American visitors. It was my least favourite country of the bunch. I’m curious to find out what yours will be.
In Central America I’ve been to Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Belize. Honestly they were all such incredibly different trips (I didn’t do a big overland thing) that it’s really really hard to compare! Especially as I visited at vastly different ages, stages in life, etc.
WOW. The price difference between the neighboring countries is HUGE!! As someone who is in a place where things are cheap, I would have such a hard time with such large price gaps. I’ve heard great things about CR, but don’t think I can really afford to head there any time soon.
I’m traveling in Costa Rica and found your article very helpful. It is more expensive here but I agree – it’s still worth a visit for sure! Happy Travels
Definitely worth a visit, just a shorter one than I might do elsewhere 🙂
Looking at a country through a bus window.This was what I wanted to explain to a guy a couple of days back.Walking around is the only way to capture the moment.When you have to save money or get tired … Hope to see Costa Rica for real.
Good luck, Dan! It’s a beautiful country well worth exploring, it is just a little pricier than its neighbors 🙂
Hi! I started reading your page cause I want to travel to Asia and your tips are so good… & then I popped in this post.
I’m from Costa Rica actually & it’s so funny to read your post cause it’s so true. I’m living in Hawai’i & loving it, I met this new friends from Spain & they told me they wanted to visit CR, the first thing I say to them was “It’s really expensive, good luck you can stay at my place”.
So to all reading this post, it’s true even for us (nationals) but telling you the truth, now that I’m leaving somewhere else I’m beginning to notice how lucky I am for being Costa Rican, we have so many things.
Just imagine great volcanoes and hikes, jumping from cold nice mountain weathers to warm clear water beaches in 6 hours. We love wildlife and nature so much that for us a monkey or a snake is like watching a dog. You won’t believe the amazing things you would see.
My recommendation is if you have doubts about going just visit our profile on instagram “thisiscostarica”, promise you’ll love it.
So I agree on Alice, maybe it’s not for backpackers but It’s definitely a place that should be on your bucket-list.
Costa Rica and Hawaii… what beautiful places you’ve called home! I absolutely love both 🙂 Thanks for your comment!