Be the First One Off the Bus!
Having been to Costa Rica twice and having lived there for three months I would recommend planning a trip there to anyone who would like to have a great time in a Latin American country and still do it on a shoe string budget. Although Costa Rica may not be the cheapest country in Central America to visit, it is considered to be one of the safest. Summer can be a great time to visit Costa Rica but the summer months are usually among the priciest because of the number of tourists coming down from North America during this time.
The best way to get around the country is by bus, you can get from the Pacific coast to the Caribbean coast for about $10. The only downside with the buses, is that they can take awhile to get from one point to another. Taxis are available, but they are not a very good value. There is nearly always some bus available to take you wherever a taxi could possibly take you, for a fraction of the cost. If you want to travel by bus, you unfortunately are probably going to have to travel through San Jose at some point. San Jose can be a very dangerous place, so stick close to the bus terminal and don’t try and walk anywhere if you have any baggage. Most Costa Ricans or “Ticos” who are criminals are not very aggressive but if you have anything of value while you are anywhere you have to keep a constant watch on it or it will disappear. If you can, I would try and avoid San Jose all together and fly into the international airport located in Liberia on the Pacific coast. This will only cost you a few dollars more but ,it will save you from having to navigate through San Jose after you’ve flown for 10 hours, and trust me you don’t want to have to do this!
Lodging in Costa Rica varies from a simple shack to a 5 star hotel and everything in between. One of the keys to finding a good place to stay is being aggressive once you arrive somewhere by bus. Try and be the first one off, and dash for the hotels! If you don’t, the other tourists on board are going to get the best accommodations and you might be stuck in a bad hotel. On a budget, what I like to do when I arrive somewhere, is to ask to see a few of the rooms that the hotels are offering, and find out what I am going to get for my money. I try and find the best value for one night, knowing that if I don’t like it, I can likely move to a different location the next day. A good source of budget information is the people that you meet while you are staying somewhere. They can often tell you about where they are staying and how they feel about what value they are getting.
Most of the food in Costa Rica seems to be based on rice, beans, and plantains (a form of banana) expect to see some combination of the three, and often! Lunch is usually the biggest meal of the day with dinner being the smallest meal, and breakfast being the second largest. While in Costa Rica I try and eat a large meal in the morning if I am traveling, and take some food with me to eat on the bus for lunch. I usually worry about dinner once I have arrived at where I am going. I think that most of the lunch and dinner restaurants seem to be a bit pricey for what you get, so to try and save money I usually try and prepare my own meals during these times. Surprisingly a lot of Costa Rican hotels cater to backpackers, and many seem to have common kitchens available for guest use. Some hotels include breakfast with your room, but I usually find the meal very disappointing and not really worth the extra money that they charge you for it.
While you are in Costa Rica, there are a lot of great activities to choose from that are inexpensive. Many of the hotels on the beach offer surfboard rentals for about $10 a day.
Hiking and exploring the natural habitats of the country is a great way to see Costa Rica without spending too much money. Nearly every town seems to have a local waterfall you can hike to. My favorite budget activity while I am in Costa Rica is to go to one of the many national parks in the country. Costa Rican national parks make up about 11% of the country’s total land area so you have a lot of parks to choose from. They are all actually very well maintained, and don’t seem to have too many visitors. I would try seeing them without the aide of a guide. The guide services that I have encountered seem to have too many guests along with them and they don’t really show you anything that you aren’t able to notice when you are in a small group of your own.
A great source of first time traveling information to Costa Rica, is the Lonely Planet Guide to Costa Rica. I have used it extensively on both of my visits and think that it has some great information on how to make the most of your Costa Rican adventure.