There are a lot of great reasons to visit Costa Rica, and as I wrote in this post I have updated a couple times, it can be worth the splurge if you do it right as a traveler.
If you’re heading there thinking it’s a bargain, however, just because it’s a less developed country in Central America, or because someone who last went there in the 1990s told you it was a deal, you’ll be seriously disappointed. In short, as I write this it’s the most expensive country between Texas and South America.
Belize is close, so I need to at least mention that, and both countries seem to manipulate their exchange rate keep it tied to the dollar regardless of what is happening on the world markets. Or with the price of anything compared to their national reserves. Economically, Costa Rica operates in a kind of dollar bubble without actually using the dollar. There’s also a strange system in which the government is the main employer and it also pays more than double what the private sector does, so there’s an unnatural financial system where market forces don’t apply.
In general, if you expect to pay U.S. or Canadian prices when you visit this country, you’ll get a slight surprise to the upside now and then and you’ll be happy. You can find a hostel bed in a decent location for as little as $12 if you don’t mind sharing with a lot of other people in a small space. Drinks in a bar or restaurant are less than you’ll pay at home. (Craft beer is about the same though, so is wine.)
If you go shopping in the market you’ll find good deals on fresh produce, though outside that section there are few standouts in the grocery store. As in Belize, anything not produced locally will cost more than it would in the states.
Whenever I go there, I hear a lot of grumbling from independent travelers who are surprised that Costa Rica is no bargain, especially backpackers coming from neighboring Panama or Nicaragua. If you get into any conversations with Ticos, you’ll hear them complaining about it constantly too. Million-dollar mansions are more common than not in the swanky suburbs of San Jose, but for most of the population there’s a big gap between where expenses are and where wages should be to keep up. This is one of those destinations that seems expensive for no good logical reason.
So why go?
Because this is still quite a special place. A third of the country is protected parks and nature reserves and Costa Rica’s environmental record is the best in Central America. The whole huge Osa Peninsula and Gulfo Dulce area is a giant corridor for wildlife, so it’s not uncommon to see sloths, toucans, macaws, wild pigs, colorful frogs, and much more before you’ve walked a half mile. If you’ve got a vacation budget instead of a shoestring budget, you could go on a different adventure activity every day and have a terrific time.
More hotels are green than not and you don’t see nearly as much garbage here as you do in the rest of the region, including wealthier Mexico. You can drink the water out of the tap and because of that you’re probably not going to get sick from the food.
So if you’ve got a bit of cash, you’ll probably have a wonderful time in Costa Rica. I took my family there a few years ago and we have some great memories from that trip. I’d gladly do it again. If you’re staying at one of the best hotels in Costa Rica, you’ll have a glorious experience and have a great view of the water or wildlife.
My advice? Go on a tour. You won’t hear me say that very often, but this is a country where if you hook up with some reasonably priced company like G Adventures or Intrepid, you’ll probably get a better value than if you try to just go book hotels on your own—do a quick price check to the left there and you’ll see what I mean. Also, public transportation is kind of infrequent in this country and not very efficient, so if you’re on a group tour you’ll get from place to place much more quickly.
If you do go on your own, you’re probably going to need your own wheels, so see this handy guide with tips on renting a car in Costa Rica.
Otherwise, If you want to go somewhere that’s going to allow you to really enjoy yourself on $40 a day or less, you should head to Nicaragua or Guatemala instead. It might be fun and there’s a lot to do, but Costa Rica is no bargain I’m afraid.