Costa Rica is famed around the globe for its stunning coastlines, booming biodiversity, and rich cultural heritage. The jewel in the crown of Central America, the country has risen to become one of the most visited places in the region in recent decades. But is Costa Rica expensive? Unfortunately, popularity doesn’t come without a price tag. With more tourists flocking here every year, the costs have been steadily rising too.
Visitors in search of the affordability of most Central American countries may be in for a little bit of a shock upon arrival in Costa Rica. That said, although it is the most expensive country in the region, prices aren’t totally unreasonable. In fact, it’s still around 35-40% cheaper than countries such as the United States or Germany, so there are deals to be had. What’s more, you can travel outside of peak seasons and avoid the pricy eco resort hotels to help that budget stretch even further.
This guide will answer is Costa Rica expensive by taking a look at the average price of a vacation in these parts, what you can expect to fork out for a hotel, and what are normal outgoings for food and drink. The aim? To give you a rough idea of what that trip of a lifetime to the surf breaks of Tamarindo and the sloth-filled forests of Monteverde will set you back. Let’s begin…
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The average cost of a holiday to Costa Rica
The average price of a holiday in Costa Rica will be between $850 and $1,450 per week. That’s a general estimation for travelers who go for mid-priced accommodation, midrange restaurants, and a smattering of activities here and there. To break it down further, a double room in a mid-range hotel usually costs between $60 and $150, while a meal at a reasonably-priced restaurant can cost between $8 and $15 dollars a pop. Then there’s the cost of activities – a canopy tour will set you back $70, it costs $15 to rent a surfboard, and a hike through a National Park can cost $7-$25 for entrance and an extra $25 to $40 per person if you want a guide.
Of course, if you’re more selective, you can do things much cheaper. Backpackers on a budget can get away with spending $20 to $40 per day by opting for a bed in a dorm ($10-18), eating rice and beans at humble joints ($3-5), and forgoing many of the activities. Those with more luxurious tastes, however, might easily find themselves spending several thousand per week by choosing to splash out on beachside accommodation, high-end activities, and swanky restaurants.
Ultimately, the cost of your holiday to Costa Rica will really depend on how you like to travel. Factors such as your eating habits, the type of places you wish to stay, and how many activities you’ll be doing will all impact how expensive a trip to Costa Rica is for you. And then there’s the cost of flights, which can vary wildly throughout the year and depending on your origin location (flying from the United States tends to be much cheaper than flying from Europe, for example.)
Accommodation prices in Costa Rica
Accommodation tends to be rather expensive in Costa Rica, but it doesn’t have to be if you’re willing to camp, couch surf, or stay in hostel dorms. All sorts of budget accommodation are available, some costing even less than $10 per night. At the other end of the spectrum, the most luxurious villas in award-winning honeymoon hotels like the star-studded Peninsula Papagayo will set you back a cool $23,000 per night.
When it comes to the midrange, $60 per night should get you a reasonable private room in a three-star hotel and $120 for some more luxurious four-star digs. It is also worth noting that prices on the Caribbean coast will always tend to be cheaper than those on the Pacific coast, for popularity reasons, while prices will drop considerably during the rainy season (May to November) but soar at peak times like Christmas and New Year.
Here are a look at what you can expect to pay in different hotels around the country:
- Zeneidas Surf Garden ($$) – A midrange surf hotel-hostel with great vibes, costs around $500 for a full week’s stay in the shoulder season months of March and April.
- Peace Lodge ($$$) – Deep in the lush mountains north of San Jose, this eco resort has vistas of jungle-covered peaks and a waterfall basically in the grounds. It’s paradise, but will set you back around $4,000 per week, even in the shoulder season.
- Tasty Dayz Hostel ($) – A cheap and cheerful backpacker option on the Caribbean coast near the surf town of Puerto Viejo, this one costs just $200 for the whole week.
Is Costa Rica expensive for food?
Is Costa Rica expensive for food? In short, yes. An average visitor to the country can easily spend $40-60 a day on food here. That’s almost as much as on accommodation per night! The truth is that eating out has skyrocketed in price in the last few decades, with pricier eating options filling popular resort towns like Tamarindo and Monteverde.
Those looking to spend as little as possible on their food should try and eat local produce as much as possible. The reason for this is the prevalence of agricultural protectionism in the country. High import tariffs mean that imported foods cost far more than stuff grown in the land of Pura Vida. For example, Costa Rica has the third-highest rice prices of anywhere in the world!
You might think that renting a place with a kitchen and going out to buy groceries will help you to save here. This doesn’t always work out, however: Due to astronomical import tariffs, a lot of goods are still very expensive in supermarkets. You will save a lot if you manage to stick to local produce, but this can be tricky for those who don’t speak Spanish.
There are a couple of extra charges which can drive up the price of your meals out here. A service charge of 10% and a 13% sales tax mean that generally, you will pay considerably more than a restaurant actually charges for your meal. The good news is that tipping for your meals here is not necessary. Another big factor in how much your food will cost is location. While main courses in a San Jose restaurant might start at $10, you might end up paying double in popular coastal resorts such as Tamarindo and Playa del Coco. Conversely, eating in rural locations will set you back considerably less.
For those looking to push the boat out, the highest quality restaurants are usually found in and around San Jose – in fact, the food is one of the main reasons to visit the capital. Make sure your pockets run pretty deep, though. Meals in those spots are generally about as expensive as you would find in the United States. Similarly, visitors looking for more familiar flavors will be able to find staples such as pizza, pasta, and steak, but, again, those dreaded import tariffs usually crank the price up here.
Local sodas (small restaurants run by family cooks) are the place to go if you want to keep costs low. They have menues of simple food at very attractive prices. You can expect to pay around $4-5 for breakfast, or $5-6 for a main meal. Look at their platos del día (daily specials) if you fancy a taste of authentic local cuisine, and always enquire about vegetarian options if you don’t eat meat – there’s usually at least one choice but it’s not always on the menu.
A cheap staple you will find in sodas throughout Costa Rica is the casado. It’s a filling dish made up of rice, black beans, salad, sauce, a tortilla, plantain, and meat. Another cheap and local food is gallo pinto (literally ‘spotted rooster’), consisting of rice, beans, cilantro, peppers, and spices.
Is Costa Rica expensive to live?
Generally speaking, living in Costa Rica probably won’t damage your wallet quite so much as visiting as a tourist. An ex-pat could reasonably expect to get by in Costa Rica for as little as $1,000 a month including rent. For some, however, this might prove a little slim. If you want to go out partying often or partake in a lot of outdoor activities, it would be wise to add on a few hundred dollars to the monthly budget. Likewise, foodies wanting to regularly eat at nice restaurants or buy lots of foreign products might be surprised by how much they end up spending.
One area where ex-pats will be pleasantly surprised is property prices. It’s still possible to buy a two-bedroom house for under $90,000 in these parts. What’s more, buying property in Costa Rica is widely seen as a good investment, as house have remained steady or increased year on year as foreign money has boosted the overall market.
Below we’ve estimated what it costs to live in Costa Rica on an average lifestyle – easting out just a few times each month, some activities here and there, along with a night or two our. You can take this as a sort of baseline budget and then add on however much you might need for activities particular to your interests:
- Rent + utilities: $575
- Transportation (car + gas): $175
- Food (mix of local & international): $350
- Healthcare: $50
- Extras (small expenses): $85
- Mobile phone: $20
Costa Rica on a budget: Some extra money-saving tips!
Although Costa Rica is a relatively expensive destination, at least compared to other places in Central America and Latin America, we think that budget travelers should be able to survive on about $30-50 dollars per day. This should be easy enough if you follow some of the tips below…
1. Stay in dorms
Given how expensive accommodation is in Costa Rica, staying in dorm rooms will help you save a lot of money during your stay. Per night, it’ll only cost you around $10 to rent a bed. This can drop as low as $7-8 on the Caribbean coast. Although it might not be everyone’s idea of heaven, staying in a dorm room can be great fun and offers solo travelers a way to meet lots of new people.
2. Go easy on the alcohol
Many people might object to this rule, but there’s no doubt it’ll save you a lot of money. Alcohol is pretty expensive in Costa Rica: a bottle of local beer will usually set you back around $2.50. Stick to the tap water and you’ll have much more in your pocket for everything else.
3. Eat at sodas
As previously mentioned, sodas are local restaurants that serve cheap food. Given the disparity in price between local and imported goods, you are bound to get a good deal at a soda. They will also often serve tastier food than the more tourist-oriented spots you might come across. Look out for casado, gallo pinto or empanada on the menu if you want the best bang for your buck.
4. Skip the travel agent
Although travel agents can make booking a holiday more convenient, they’re usually an unnecessary expense for those on a budget. Instead of booking through a travel agent who will add money to the price of your hotel room, it is cheaper to go onto the hotel’s website and book it directly.
5. Drive carefully
If you hire a car in Costa Rica, be sure not to break the speeding limit. Police are always out looking for people committing driving offenses, and they are taken very seriously here. If you do get pulled over, the most important thing is to ignore the police officer who says they can take care of the ticket if you pay them upfront. Tickets must be settled at the Bank of Costa Rica, so don’t end up paying twice!
6. Watch out for scams
One main tourist scam you’ll find is the mysterious ‘extra’ item on your bill. Sometimes, enterprising cafe/restaurant workers might decide to add something you didn’t order to inflate what you pay. Check those receipts carefully.
Is Costa Rica expensive? Our verdict
We’d say that Costa Rica is a moderately expensive destination, especially compared to the likes of Nicaragua and Guatemala and other budget spots in Central America. However, it’s still not in line with the United States or Western European countries, so you can expect to spend less than you would there. As an average estimation for midrange travelers, we’d say a week’s trip costs $850-1,450, although you could spend a lot more than that by going luxury, or a lot less by going shoestring.