Sorry Kids, but Costa Rica is No Bargain

Costa Rica wildlife

There are a lot of great reasons to visit Costa Rica, and as I wrote in this post way back in 2010, it can be worth the splurge if you do it right. 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 seems 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. 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.

Costa Rica beach

Whenever I go though, I hear a lot of grumbling from independent travelers who are surprised at the costs, 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.

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.

collared peccary Costa Rica

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.

Comments
  1. Candace Dempsey

    Excellent story, Tim . Love Costa Rica, but it is pricey. Value for the money though.

    • Tim Leffel

      I agree Candace. I’ve been back twice for a reason, but too many people have a perception from 20 years ago that it’s some undiscovered deal. Nope!

  2. DAVID

    I agree , Costa Rica is as expensive as the touristy parts of Mex , i.e. CABO and CANCUN …. you of course can find bargains but anything higher-end is $$$$ food tours and lodging. But like anywhere you can discover some off the beaten path locations and without the huge tourist dollars you might finds some bargains ..

    • Anthony Thomas (@djfourmoney)

      I have known for awhile Costa Rica is no long ideal for just about anything but a vacation.

      Housing is first world expensive and things that Americans and likely Canadians are use to going to the store to buy are outrageously expensive.

  3. Frank

    We’re not big fans of Costa Rica. Very poor value for money in touristy areas (Arenal, Manuel Antonio), getting around expensive and complicated on your own, and the country is too ‘gringorized’ for it’s own good. We’d go to a local cafe and be served by Canadian or US kids. I don’t understand why that would be…be we didn’t come to Costa Rica to be served by people from home.
    Stayed almost a month visiting places around the country and ranks up there as one of our most disappointing trips for many of the above.
    Frank (bbqboy)

  4. JB & Renee

    You’re the second experienced traveler I’ve come across this weekend who highly recommends tours. I never give them a second look because I assume that I can get things cheaper if I booked everything separately and on my own. I’ll give them a closer look form now on. Thanks for the tip. :)

    • Tim Leffel

      It just depends on where you are. But in countries where the independent transportation choices are not good, and/or hotels discount heavily for groups, it can actually be cheaper to go on a tour.

  5. Izy Berry - The Wrong Way Home

    Costa Rica has fantastic nature and the locals are very friendly. Unfortunately, as mentioned in the article is expensive. However, you can always find a cheaper way for eating and traveling.

  6. Robert Holloway

    I lived in Costa Rica for nearly 10 years and left for Santiago Chile a year ago, but this addressed Costa Rica. 14 years ago when I started going there, violent deaths occurred maybe 3-4 a year due to the peaceful nature of the country. As of 2015, that many people are being killed every day there…getting much more dangerous, and kids on motorcycles will pull guns on you to steal your cell phone, change, or anything they can take from you, 24 hours a day, in the light of mid day or at night. Not just in “bad” areas but in all areas.

    I lived in Escazu, (a very wealthy area) and my home was burglarized 4 times. My car was broken into 5 times and things stolen out of the car, even if they had no real value, but still my windows were broken or locks broken getting into the car.

    Drug cartels are much more prevalent and now people are being stopped on some highways and abducted for ransom money. Prices have sky rocketed and tourists are targets of “gringo” pricing which differs from “Tico” pricing. Service in horrible in restaurants and other businesses, and medical care that is touted to be some of the best in the world is sadly lacking in both professionalism and quality of care.

    The climate is wonderful and that is really what has not changed now. The Ticos are becoming more aggressive and violent and motorcyclists on the roads are like bandits. They will kick your car, knock off your side mirrors, throw rocks at you, and break every known law with no concern of being caught because there is simply not enough enforcement to make things work well there. Police are extremely corrupt and take bribes rather than issuing tickets.

    These are all first hand experiences from a very experienced traveller who has lived in 8 countries now…so beware, tourist buses have been getting held up and robbed on the way from the airport to hotels, hotel rooms are being robbed, and unless the thief takes more than $1000 in valued items, the police do not bother taking a report nor try to prosecute the case. Corruption is the name of the game in Costa Rica and there are a lot with their hands out to you to take a bribe to give you better service that you should already be receiving.

    I would recommend that you think twice about going to Costa Rica right now because there are so many lovely places to go to, (Nicaragua is actually safer than Costa Rica now and so is Panama)…Visas are NOT straight forward and take 1-2 years to receive a residence visa that has to be renewed at an expensive rate every couple of years, and then you must also purchase their public insurance or prove private outrageously private health insurance to renew your residency visa…visa require LOT of documentation, translated, presented to the Secretary General of your state if you are from the USA) and then to the Costa Rican Embassy in your country, and then an INTERPOL check is conducted which can take up to one year, etc…so it is not so straight forward or easy getting a permanent residence visa, unless you marry a local citizen, then things ease up a little at least.

    Just beware of your surrounding in countries like this throughout Central and South America, there are pick pockets, home robbers, car thieves, and street crime is wild…not a place I would ever return to unless things change dramatically.

    I can also tell you more about other countries if interested since I am a VERY experienced traveler having not only travelled as a tourist, but lived extensively in many countries and I disagree with some of the area the writer here writes about like Guatemala and Honduras. That area with El Salvador is considered the most dangerous triangle in the world outside of a war zone…yep, they are beautiful and all if you make it out in once piece and with your belongings you can consider yourself quite lucky.

    Thailand remains a bargain..Chiang Mai, rentals go for $300 – $600 for a very good class of living…$1200 per month will be quite sufficient to live there and gives you enough to even travel to neighboring countries as a tourist. That is my current home after leaving Latin America way behind me, and about 16 years experience in the Americas.

    • Anna

      not buying any of this….I love Costa Rican peaceful people and their epic kindness…..are you sure you were in Costa Rica??

      • Tim Leffel

        Been there three times. It’s far more expensive than its neighbors or Mexico.

  7. Lisa W

    I have to agree with you Robert Holloway on Costa Rica today. I too lived there for 3 years and in just those 3 years saw the crime rate, violent crimes and kidnapping for ransom, murders, break ins, etc., becoming very concerning. I left Costa Rica in February of 2014 and will never go back. And expensive, OMG! Gingos are constantly scammed and charged at least twice what a local is charged right in front of your face! Once they charged our caretaker, with me at the time, $2.00 for a beer and my husband I $4.00 each for our beers, as we all stood at the bar together. I personally know two men, one American and one from France, both highly educated and smart, however, not smart enough for the average scamming Costa Rican MAN or woman. Both, lost their fortunes in Costa Rica to do scamming. One spoke fluent Spanish, one intermediate. And yes, the government turns the other way and considers “petty crime” a means of “work” for Costa Ricans. Even the local doctors will scam a Gringo. It was sickening to me. What used to be a “very friendly country” has become one of vanity and greed. The country is not THAT beautiful. They are also NOT GREEN! I lived in the Central Valley and there is a river right next to a waste management area where the waste is dumped into that river which flows out into the ocean. They also little like crazy. They hate Americans, but want to own anything American, look and act like Americans. I also agree, Nicaragua is MUCH nicer and still has respect for foreigners who bring money to their country. Granada, considered THE most romantic City in Central America is a place I am considering retiring in. However, the greatest problem with all the Latin American countries is; you just never know from day to day what will happen economically or safety wise.

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