A Budget Traveler’s Guide to Costa Rica
It’s getting to be the end of the year, but if your travel funds are running low, you can still fit in one more trip. Now is the time to go to Costa Rica, as international carrier Alaska Airlines has just started to fly to two cities in Costa Rica, San Jose and Liberia. They are offering a promotional price on their flights down there for the next few months, which means you are that much closer to soaking up the white sand beaches and tropical paradise for a major discount! Thanks to the plenty of free and budget friendly things to do, you can easily travel to the country without blowing your budget.
Want to learn first hand the meaning of Pura Vida? Check out how to plan your trip to max out the fun without maxing out your bank account.
Where to Stay in San Jose, Costa Rica
San Jose has plenty of accommodation options for the budget traveler with a slim wallet. It’s the main airport hub and capital of the country, and makes a great place to camp out and do day trips from. The college town is used to having plenty of people with low budgets and a desire for fun visit, so there’s plenty of options and places to stay on even the tightest of budgets.
Costa Rica Love Hostel 2
Costa Rica is very English friendly and modern, but you can still enjoy the same hostel rates that you’ll find across less visited areas of Central and South America. For instance, at the Costa Rica Love Hostel 2, dorm room beds in a coed room start at just $6.00 per night. For under $20, the Hostel also provides shuttle rides to and from the airport directly to the hostel as well, saving you the hassle of figuring out taxi rides and negotiating charges. A double bed in a private room only costs $10 a night, so you can enjoy a bit more privacy for only a few bucks extra.
Budget Hotels are a great option for budget conscientious travelers who don’t want to sacrifice when it comes to comfort and style. The Aranjuez Hotel is a great place to stay that provides hotel level comfort but is much more personal and charming than a chain motel. The architecture has a distinctly tropical layout and feel, accentuated by decor that includes plenty of plants, masks, and Costa Rican artwork.
There’s free Wifi, and a first class breakfast for free served in a beautiful courtyard that rivals the fare of a B&B three times the price; there’s omelettes, plantains, pastries, rice, and fresh fruit served alongside fresh coffee and juices. The hotel is located in the Old Town of San Jose, so it’s easily accessible and surrounded by plenty of great attractions and walking opportunities. A room there will run under $50 a night, which is a great price for the many amenities and easy location.
Central American hostels can be a bit dodgy and uncomfortable, but you will find the complete opposite at Hostel Bekuo. The hostel is very clean, has great dorm rooms and clean bathrooms, and several great common areas for meeting and hanging out with fellow travelers. The staff has a lot of recommendations for local attractions, things to do and what to avoid, and while there are plenty of nearby restaurants you can always cook for yourself in the hostel’s kitchen after running to the large grocery store located right next door. There’s also a phone and Wifi free for use to paying guests as well, which is a huge plus when you’re trying to cut down travel expenses. A dorm room bed costs $13 a night, and they offer female only dorm rooms as well.
Where to Stay in Liberia, Costa Rica
Liberia is much smaller than San Jose, but the city of 60,000 people still has plenty of great and safe places to budget travelers to stay at. Located in the northwest corner of Costa Rica, Liberia is a great place to fly into and then day trip from into the rest of Costa Rica.
There’s nothing too outstanding about the Hospedaje Dodero, but if you need a nice, clean and safe place to stay in Central America (and really, that’s more important than new furniture, right?) then Hospedaje Dodero is the best fit for budget travelers that care about the essentials and are ok not staying at the Ritz. It’s close by to just about everything in town, including the airport, central markets of Liberia, and some great restaurants. The basic dorm room hostel experience starts at just over $10, and goes up to $17 for private rooms.
Hotel Cabañas La Teca
The Hotel Cabanas La Teca is technically a hostel, but it’s a bit more expensive at $30 a person per night. The slightly higher cost gets you your own private cabin tucked into the Costa Rican rainforest surroundings, free breakfast and wifi, and you’re only a few miles away from one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful National Parks. There’s a restaurant on sight, and it’s a great bargain deal for couples or families who want a great place to call home and explore the rest of Costa Rica through day trips.
If customer service is important to you, then Hotel Javy is the perfect place to stay. The staff is incredibly friendly and helpful, and can easily help you organize the rest of your stay around Costa Rica and navigate through the language barrier. The furniture is slightly outdated, but it’s clean, cheap, has free Wifi and private bathrooms, which are hard to find in budget level accommodations in Central America.
How to Get Around Costa Rica
If you have a few extra dollars to spend, a rental car can be a great way to get around Costa Rica and enjoy the freedom of traveling where and when you want to. Depending on what kind of car you use and where you rent from, you can expect to spend around $40-50 a day for a rental. If you’re traveling in a group, this is a great way because you can split up the costs and the driving. For the most part, the main roads in Costa Rica are fairly easy to navigate and drive.
Taking the bus in Costa Rica is one of the best ways to get around the country; buses are inexpensive and run quite frequently to pretty much anywhere you’d want to go. Most of the buses don’t have bathrooms, but plenty of them are outfitted with air conditioning and are fairly reliable. Make sure to arrive at the stops early, as the cheap prices means you’ll be competing with plenty of others for a seat.
There are plenty of taxis in the larger cities in Costa Rica, and you can use them for both shorter and longer trips. If you do decide to take a taxi, make sure it is a legitimate taxi. The legitimate ones will have meters, but often times you can just negotiate a flat fee for a longer trip. Look for the bright red taxis; orange ones near airports are still legitimate options, but they often will charge more for a ride than a red one.
There are plenty of unofficial taxis in Costa Rica, but they are much less safe and often quite more expensive because they aren’t limited to price regulations and can charge whatever they feel like. Tipping isn’t mandatory, but many taxi drivers will tell you they don’t carry change, so bring small coins and bills along with before you hop inside the cab!
Officially, hitchhiking is definitely not recommended for travelers visiting Costa Rica. As English speaking and traveler friendly as Costa Rica is, Central and South America still face plenty of problems with drug cartels, violence, and somewhat sexist cultural attitudes toward women. That tends to be true for several of the other countries in very remote areas, but for the most part hitchhiking in Costa Rica is relatively safe, especially if you are going to or from well known cities or touristy areas, like national parks or popular beaches where taxis are not as present and buses only run occasionally.
What to do in San Jose, Costa Rica
San Jose has just under 300,000 people and is a college town, which means there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy Costa Rica without spending too much. This makes it the perfect place to stay for budget travelers who want to enjoy Central America without spending a lot.
Go Shopping at the Central Market
For just a few dollars, you can try out some of Costa Rica’s unusual fruits and vegetables at the city’s Central Market, which is open every day of the week all day long except on Sundays. The colorful stalls provide plenty of free sightseeing, and the atmosphere can’t be beat. If you are only in town on a Sunday, there are several farmer’s markets that are open; although they aren’t nearly as large as the Central Market, they’re still a great place to walk around and sample locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables.
Hike the Poas Volcano
Poas Volcano is an easy day trip from San Juan, and offers some of the best hiking opportunities in the area. Hikers can witness first hand the cloud forests, ancient crater filled lakes, and beautiful rainforests. The visitor’s center has plenty of information for those wishing to learn more about the still active volcano and the geological conditions that formed Costa Rica’s beautiful topography.
Visit the Bellavista Fortress
Old world Spanish architecture and Central American history are easily accessible at the Bellavista Fortress, a wonderful museum and fortress that hold important pieces of Costa Rica’s history. The site has played a large roll in Costa Rican history, even as recently as in the last few decades when the president would make speeches from it. Admission to the museum is only a few dollars, and you can easily spend hours discovering every corner of the historic fort.
Go Snorkeling at Tortuga Island
Escape the big city life of San Juan and take a day trip to Tortuga Island, where the white sands and tropical beach outlook make any other kind of life seem far away. The island is an easy day trip from San Juan, and home to some of the country’s best snorkeling. You can take a boat cruise to and around the island, and watch the sea wildlife and creatures swimming in the ocean. It’s easy to spend a day relaxing and soaking up the playa vida island vibe, just make sure to bring your swimsuit and enough money to grab a bit to eat at the sodas that line the beach.
Kayak the Rio Cuarto
Located just 2 and a half hours north of San Juan, the Cinco Ceibas Rainforest Reserve is the perfect place to put into the Rio Cuarto River and enjoying kayaking through the rainforest. There are plenty of outfitters and tour guides that provide kayak rentals and tours, and the gentle Rio Cuarto is the perfect river for all skill and physical levels to get out and enjoy Costa Rica’s beautiful horticulture and natural landscape. The rainforest also has some great trails to hike, and even a few zip lines for those who want an adrenaline rush high up in the forest’s canopy.
What to do in Liberia, Costa Rica
Liberia is a bit more out of the way than San Jose, but that just makes it that much easier to enjoy the natural Costa Rican beauty that surrounds the city’s landscape. There’s plenty of outdoor adventures to do that are cheap and full of lush tropical rainforests and ocean breezes, and the town itself is filled with bits of old Costa Rica as well as department stores and shopping malls where you can stock up on necessities.
Swim Behind a Waterfall
It can be a bit tricky to find Llanos de Cortez Waterfall, but those who know where to look are rewarded with a beautiful waterfall tucked into the jungle. It only costs $4.00 to park your car; and is only a half hour outside of Liberia. From the parking lot you get to hike through the rainforest and underneath leafy canopies and enjoy watching the monkeys swing back and forth above overhead. You can swim in the pool, and even trek behind the waterfall or hike up to the top.
Go Hiking at Rincon de la Vieja Park
In a land filled with natural beauty, Rincon de la Vieja Park is one of the best, with plenty of places to explore and beautiful vistas to take in. There’s miles of walking trails to enjoy, with plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities. You can hike among thermal pools, mud pits, waterfalls, and hot springs, as well as hike around Costa Rica’s most active volcano. You can easily catch a bus from Liberia early in the morning for around $10 for a trip there and back.
Have a Beach Day
The white, sparkling sands of Playa Conchal are only an hour and a half away from Liberia, and make the perfect place to enjoy a beach day in true Costa Rica style. It’s remote location means you won’t have to fight hordes of tourists, and you’ll get to enjoy the perfect tropical beach all by yourself. It is a little more off the beaten path, but you can easily get there by taxi or rental car.
Take a Day Trip to Nicaragua
Liberia is only a few hours drive from the border, and you can easily take a coach bus, taxi, or even drive up to the Nicaraguan border. The border crossing takes at least an hour for paperwork; if you’re not on a coach bus, the best and fastest way to get through is to walk through and hitch a new taxi or bus on the other side. If you’re on a couch bus, the bus will help process and take care of the paperwork and visas for you. Once you’re across, you can hop around a few Nicaraguan towns,hike around Masaya Volcano, or go for a swim in Lake Nicaragua.
Worship at the Church of La Ermita La Agonia
In the heart of Liberia lies this plain but beautiful church, called the La Ermita La Agonia. The church isn’t open during the week, but it is a great place to stop in for a few minutes on Sundays and admire the simplicity and history preserved inside the building. The status and detailing inside the building are well worth looking at, and it is unlike any kind of church found outside of Central America.
Where to Eat in San Jose
San Jose may not have the greatest reputation as a destination city, but in truth there are plenty of hidden local gems and great places to explore, including some restaurants that offer great authentic food for just a few dollars.
In both San Jose and Liberia, if you’re really keeping your budget tight, then local sodas can be a great place to find a meal. A soda means a small run shop, where you can spend about $5 a person for a full blown meal. The portions are huge, the price is right, and you’ll get the full blown authentic Costa Rican experience.
Seafood lovers will love eating at San Jose’s Product, which serves fresh sustainable fish that are brought straight from the ocean to the restaurant every day. It’s a great way to taste the food of Costa Rica’s coast if you don’t have the time or money to make your way to the beach.
Olio Restaurant is a great place to head for dinner or lunch. It’s cheap, and they serve some of the best tapas around. It’s the perfect place to head with a group; order several tapas to share and you can easily sample the entire menu without spending more than a few bucks.
If you want to try some authentic Costa Rican cuisine but are sick of rice and bean based dishes, Los Anonos is the perfect find; they serve some of the best steak in San Jose, which you can order to be cooked to perfection with their secret marinade sauce. The place is popular with locals, and is a great place to try very authentic and somewhat strange dishes that are local to the area.
Where to Eat in Liberia
Liberia’s food scene is perfect for the budget friendly traveler. There’s plenty of cheap hole in the wall options which serve up typical Costa Rican dishes and allow you to feel like a local for only a few bucks a meal.
Coffee lovers will fall in love with Cafe Liberia, but the cafe offers so much more than just cups of jo. The food is incredibly fast, and with huge portions and cheap prices it’s a great place to stop for lunch and fill up mid-day. Don’t fill up too quickly; there is also a great dessert menu with some amazingly sweet and filling treats to wrap up your meal.
If you’re just in the mood for some great, standard Mexican style food, then Liberia’s Taqueria Mazatlan is the perfect place to hit up for dinner. The prices are cheap, but the quality of the menu’s tacos, burritos, nachos, and other standard Central American staples are great. The menu is simple, but it’s easily accessible location close to the airport make it a great option to stop at either into or out of the country.
Looking for a place with great drinks and dinner? The Mariajuana Restaurante is the best place in Liberia to sit back and relax after a long day, with plenty of affordable high quality drinks, cheap food, and an great restaurant atmosphere. A few times a week local bands will play, so you can sip down a mojito and enjoy the live music. There’s also outdoor seating out back, around a large fire pit that embraces the restaurant’s laid back vibe.
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