Costa Rica continues to surge in its popularity as a top travel destination.
In a country famous for its eco-adventures, many come to escape into the rainforest in search of exotic wildlife and discover paradise on Costa Rica’s tropical beaches. In turn, this can come with a price, especially for those hoping to check off many of Costa Rica’s popular tourist hot spots.
There are the most obvious of not traveling during the high season or holidays and avoiding the favorite tourist towns of Costa Rica but sometimes that can’t be avoided. So, here are a few other ways in which you can save money when traveling in Costa Rica and still enjoy every bit of your vacation.
1. Eat at the Local Sodas
I imagine you came to Costa Rica to experience the country so it only makes sense to try out the local cuisine. The best tip is to eat like the locals.
Dining out at restaurants that bring the familiarity of home is first off going to have you typically paying a bit more and out driving around searching for them. Most often leading you into the tourist zone, in other words, hello, tourist prices.
The local sodas serve up some of the most filling dishes and often for half the price featuring Costa Rican foods. They are all throughout Costa Rica with at least one in every town.
Casados are one of the most common and traditional plates in Costa Rica giving you a great deal for what you get. Rice, beans, salad, a meat, and usually fried plantains. They are the most typical meals eaten at lunch and dinner.
Arroz con pollo/camarones/ mariscos (chicken, shrimp, seafood) is another dish that is served up in generous portions and is just as common and one of the country’s favorites.
Whether you pick something off the comida rapido section or try something off the long list that the local soda menu has, you are sure to save some money.
2. Consider Both the SJO and LIB Airport
Costa Rica has two international airports conveniently located in different directions within the country. The San Jose International Airport (SJO) is in Alajuela which tends to have the most flights, both international and domestic.
But depending on where it is you are traveling to in the country you may want to consider Liberia International Airport (LIB). The flight may be slightly more expensive, but you want to consider some other factors as well when deciding which airport to fly into. How much more will you be paying in transportation, shuttle or an additional domestic flight, or even time spent to get to the other side of Costa Rica if you fly into SJO?
If you are trying to get across the country to Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula to places such as Samara, Nosara, Playas del Coco, Tamarindo, or even Nuevo Arenal, LIB may save you a bit of money in the long run.
3. Use Local Currency
Yes, US dollars are accepted in Costa Rica but don’t expect your transactions to be similar to those in the US. You might hear, si, esta bien, but I can’t give you any change, especially when it comes to taxis.
When paying in US dollars, expect the money to be examined. It may just be a quick glance over the bills for marks or tears. However, most cashiers will give the bill a thorough inspection, in what seems like a CSI analysis as you stand there and wait. Don’t take it personally, as they are just doing their job since the country is quite strict on the conditions of the bills.
So as a quick tip to remember if someone is giving you US currency inspect the bill before you accept it. They may be trying to offload some bad bills they can’t get rid of. ATMS are known for this, spitting out a mixture of both good and flawed bills. If that’s the case, you need to go into the bank and have it exchanged, even though it was their machine in the first place. Which yes, is quite frustrating, so it’s another reason to just stick with using the local currency.
And when you are using the local currency or getting change, still take a look at your money. As there has been a transition in the Costa Rican bills. As you are admiring the sloths and monkeys on your bills, also take note that the money feels more like plastic and durable. The ones that feel and look like a paper/cotton-like consistency may have been “accidentally” slipped in as those bills have been taken out of circulation and aren’t being accepted.
Another way you can find yourself throwing away your money in Costa Rica is through exchange rate shenanigans. The exchange rate isn’t always going to be the best as not everyone feels the need to follow it. Do a little research ahead of time and keep yourself aware if you are choosing to use US dollars in Costa Rica. Some still feel they want to go with an exchange rate of 500 to 1, so pay attention to your change, or better yet ask ahead first to be sure you aren’t being scammed.
4. Don’t Be Scared to Take the Bus
Costa Rica’s bus system may seem a bit overwhelming at first for those that haven’t taken it before. But if your vacation has a bit of freedom in its schedule, time-wise, then the bus is worth the ride and the huge savings in your wallet.
Many of the destinations are on the routes, some may take a little bit of planning ahead but with a quick search on the internet it can be found….usually. Some routes even let you buy your ticket online. If you are catching it out on the road and not at a station then just have a bit of patience, sometimes it shows up early, sometimes it shows up late, and sometimes even later.
But you can’t beat the price! The experience of being a part of the country and the locals, as you look out the window and watch the beautiful country go by is one to be remembered.
5. Visit the Fruit/ Vegetable Stands and Markets
Even if saving money on your trip to Costa Rica isn’t something you are concerned about, everyone needs to stop in at the fruit/vegetable shops and stands.
It is an explosion of colors that is bursting with freshness. Some may have you standing there a bit confused about how to eat them or even what to do with them. But that’s the best part. Learning new things about where you are visiting and what makes the country so special.
If you pick up local produce you will be surprised at how much more affordable it is compared to what you are used to from home. And then just wait until you taste it… that’s a whole other story! The fresh dragonfruit, papayas, mangoes and enormous avocadoes or even a big bag of mamon chino….
If you find the local farmers market known as “ferias”, even better. You can pick up some groceries, homemade delights, and often something freshly made right there.
Stopping into the fruterias/verdulerias is an experience in itself and should be on your list of things you must do when you visit Costa Rica.
6. Do A Little Research Before and Discover the Free Local Spots to Visit
Saving takes a bit of planning. Read some reviews about where you are visiting to find out if a guide is in your best interest.
Guides can be a great asset or even necessary for some destinations while others can be easily completed as a self-guided hike.
Not every place you stop at needs to be an expensive touristy excursion and adventure. There are plenty of free local and fun things to discover in Costa Rica. From the Rio Tarcoles Bridge and its famous crocodiles, and the culture of San Jose’s Central Market to the free local hot spring in La Fortuna, there are many hidden gems throughout the country. Sitting back, unwinding, and watching the sky treat you to some of the most magnificent sunsets is one of Costa Rica’s best gifts.
7. Don’t Waste Money on Bottled Water
Unless your preference is to always drink bottled water or your stomach is quite sensitive, there is no need to start now simply because you are in Costa Rica.
That can add up pretty quickly, especially if you are traveling as a group or family. Costa Rica’s tap water is safe to drink in almost every part of the country, so save your money while being environmentally friendly at the same time.
There are a few areas of exception where you will want to pick up a bottle or two such as the Caribbean or if you are off the beaten path in some rural and non-touristy destinations. Then you will want to veer on the side of caution to save you some unneeded downtime from your vacation.