Most people feel like in order to have that tropical trip, they’re going to need to break the bank.
That’s just not necessarily the case.
Let’s start talking destinations with how to travel to Costa Rica on a low but efficient budget.
In college, I studied abroad in Costa Rica for 5 months in college (more on that here), and, it’s the place I’ve traveled to the most. It also happens to be my favorite place on the planet. I’ve returned 4 times since studying abroad, once on my own, twice with my now husband, and once bringing 10 friends. Every time was incredible.
In my opinion, Costa Rica should be on every traveler’s list, ESPECIALLY if you’ve never been to Latin America. The goal of this post is to give you enough information to take the plunge and go. Teachers are busy, so I want to make this easy (and cheap!) for you.
Why Costa Rica Should be on your List:
1. It’s absolutely gorgeous. If you’ve never been to a tropical country, prepare to be blown away. I am forever spoiled that the first country I visited was Costa Rica, because I’m not sure if any other beach will ever impress me more than las playas de Costa Rica. Though tourism is a huge industry in Costa Rica, they do have quite a bit of initiatives in place and growing to preserve areas of their beautiful country. The Manuel Antonio and Monteverde (which I talk about below) are spots that have preserved their natural beauty.
2. It’s affordable. Round-trip flights to Costa Rica from the States can run anywhere from $250-$700. If you don’t need too fancy of a place to stay, you can find places for under $15 a night. Food prices are comparable to what it is in the States. So that runs you anywhere from $600-$1500 for one person for about 10 days. Seriously, not bad for a tropical trip.
3. Pura Vida culture is life-giving. The slogan of Costa Rica, Pura Vida, literally means “Pure Life,” for which the closest true translation I can come up with is “Hakuna Matata.” Compared to harried teacher life in the States, Costa Rica is a 180. The culture is much more moment-oriented rather than time-oriented (don’t know what I mean? This is reason #856 we need teachers to go abroad. Check out page 5 of this core cultural value activity). We need big doses of this, teachers (I’m looking at you, Miss “2nd period starts at 8:44).
4. The wildlife is incredible. Costa Rica has something like 6% of the biodiversity in the whole world. For a country as teeny as it is, that is something CRAZY. In Costa Rica, you won’t just see monkeys, but animals, flowers, and trees you’ve never even heard of (even PLANTS THAT MOVE when you touch them #sensitiveplants). One of the biggest pluses to a biodiverse country? The diversity of fruits and vegetables it produces. You could spend your entire time eating fruit and vegetables you’ve never seen before. And they are SO. GOOD.
4. The weather is perfect. I’m from the midwest. Costa Rica is sunny and 78-82 degrees. It varies so little from perfection that when it was 76 degrees, my host mom would remind me to bring a scarf or sweater when I left the house because hace frío. Yes, please.
5. There are a million things to do. Love to hike? Climb the highest peak in Central America. Beach babe? Take your pick of some of the most gorgeous. Ziplining? It will spoil you as much as the beaches. Want to see a live volcano? Done.
6.The people are wonderful. Costa Ricans, self-named “Ticos,” value hospitality and taking time to enjoy life. Unlike some other places you might go, since friendliness and being present is a cultural value in this country, you can strike up some pretty great conversations with locals. Many Ticos will also be more than happy to help you find your way if you ask for some help.
7. Last and most realistic: you could meet your spouse. Ok, maybe this can happen anywhere, but it happened to me here. So, you never know.
Costa Rica Itinerary
Convinced? Great. Ok, so there are a ton of amazing places to go in Costa Rica, but I want to make things easy for you, if that’s what you need.
If you were my friend coming up to me and saying, I want to go! Plan my trip! This is the starter itinerary I’d give you for a 1-2 week trip. I hope to write a few more posts about some more out-of-the-way travel in Costa Rica for the more adventurous, like walking through San Jose, climbing Chirripo, or jumping off waterfalls in Nuayaca or Montezuma. But for now, these two towns will satisfy most Central America first-timers.
Monteverde – Cloud Forest
Monteverde is a town in the middle of a cloud forest, which means amazing views, awesome hikes, and fascinating wildlife. It’s located in the mountains, and within sight of Arenal, which is an active volcano in Costa Rica. When I was studying abroad, I even took a tour from Monteverde to Arenal via horseback, which was suuper touristy, but a blast. There are coffee farms to tour, hikes to take, and tons of ziplining that will put most other ziplining experiences to shame.
Stay in Monteverde:
My recommendations are hostels–so they’re basically a locked room with a bed and a communal kitchen. Usually you can get your own bathroom, too. If you’re not into that kind of thing, I recommend looking through Lonely Planet’s Costa Rica guide for other ideas. Out of all guidebooks I’ve tried, Lonely Planet has been the easiest to follow with the best ratio of text -> pictures (Kevin teases me about my need for pictures in guidebooks). I would suggest other places to stay here, but hotels are constantly changing so the most up to date look at Lonely Planet might be your best bet.
Regardless of where you stay in Monteverde, I do recommend staying in town (or relatively close to it) where you can find transportation easily to different activities, and also be in walking distance for many activities.
If you were my friend (and down with hostels to save that $$), I would recommend:
Every time I’ve gone to Monteverde, I’ve stayed here. It has a communal kitchen and basic rooms, and is clean. Best of all, it’s centrally located in town, so it’s easy to get where you want to go during the day. To be honest, there may be better hostels in Monteverde, but I’ve never tried them. If you find one better than Santa Elena, I do recommend finding one near to it.
$12/person – 6 person dorm
$36/person – 1-person room
$22/person – 2-person room
$18/person – 3-person room
$16/person – 4-person room
Manuel Antonio – Beach
Manuel Antonio is worth it for its National Park, which has THE MOST gorgeous beaches I have ever seen, which is why it made the cut. If you are going for gorgeous beaches, Manuel Antonio is where it’s at.
Since it’s a national park, the beaches are kept pristine and there are only a certain number of people on them every day. This also means there are no disgusting resorts on these beaches. Manuel Antonio does have a public beach as well, which is beautiful, too, but since it’s public, there are resorts, hotels, and littering humans all over the place. If you’re coming from midwestern America, though, it will still blow your mind. Entry to the public beach is free, and entry to the national park is around $25, I believe. The times I’ve gone, we’ve done public beach most days, and national park 1-2 days.
*Pro-tip: Manuel Antonio may not be your thing if you are not into being surrounded by tourists. Rule of thumb in Costa Rica for beaches: the farther you travel down the Pacific coast, the fewer tourists and resorts you’ll find. We did Dominical this winter break, which definitely was less touristy. We were able to find waterfalls and hikes that had MUCH fewer tourists. The worst tourists resort-centered beaches I’ve experienced were in Jaco and Tamarindo, which are farther north.
Stay in Manuel Antonio:
One thing to know about Manuel Antonio is that it is located on the bottom of a long hill. Places to stay at the bottom of the hill next to the beach are more expensive, but you don’t have to take transportation to the beach. I prefer places to stay up the hill because they’re cheaper and cleaner. There is a very easy public bus that runs up and down the hill all day that is super cheap to catch (maybe around $1?).
You can find other places that are not hostels in Lonely Planet, but if you were my friend, I would recommend:
hostel with dorm rooms and a public kitchen, but also reasonably priced double rooms and suites with private kitchens. Major plus: hammocks all over the place. I LOVED this hostel. Seriously. It’s beautiful and awesomely priced.
$12/person for 14-person dorm
$15-18/person for 4-person dorm
$50-$60 total for private room sleeping 3 people (so $18-30 if traveling with at least 1 other person).
When to Go:
Costa Rica has two seasons: Rainy and dry. The rainy season goes from about April-December, and dry goes from the second half of December-first half of April. For that reason, I recommend Spring Break for teachers for the best shot coming during the dry season–as well as the cheapest. You might have a shot at the dry season during winter break, too, but that’s also the most expensive time to go. Can’t make it during one of those times? No worries. Even during the rainy season, it usually rains for only an hour or two in the afternoon, but is dry and even sunny during the rest of the day. Totally workable.
How to Get Around
Public Transportation in Costa Rica
Now, there are local buses to get around, and I am ALL FOR taking public transport when you go to a foreign country. However, in Costa Rica, there are a ton of public transport companies, so schedules, pick-up locations, and bus colors change a lot. For that reason, I don’t feel comfortable giving you step-by-step directions on how to take it, because it will change in a couple months.
Is it possible to take public transport when you go? Absolutely! I would just recommend Googling it when the time comes, and realize that if something posted is more than a few months old, then you should take it with a grain of salt and be ready with a plan B, or have a personality that won’t freak out when you’re in the middle of a bustling city with no idea where to go.
I’ve never taken a public bus that was more than $8-9, even to travel across the country, so that’s a big plus. The task is getting to the public bus station, which is the middle of San Jose, which is about 45 minutes away from the airport. There are public buses that take you from the airport to San Jose which cost about $1-2. Then once you’re in San Jose, depending on where you’re going, you would go to the “Coca Cola station”, which is about a 10 minute walk from where the bus will let you off, or the Tracopa station, which I believe is more reasonably reached by taxi.
*A word about taxis: Outside of the airport, only take a taxi that is red with a yellow triangle on the side (the airport has their own official-looking green taxis). Red and yellow-triangle taxis are government taxis. Even when you take one of these in San Jose, be aware of where you are going. There are many dirty taxis in San Jose (piratas), and foreigners walking around with backpacks full of goodies are a jackpot for taxistas that are not actually in the business of taking you where you want to go.
Private Transport in Costa Rica
If any of that intimidates you, I recommend private transport–which if you have a group, doesn’t end up being that much more money and could save you a lot of time.
This past winter break, my husband and I (really, mostly my husband, because: school) planned a trip for 10 of our friends to go to Costa Rica together. Kevin found the company, Anywhere Costa Rica, which worked really well for transportation. It’s a company that contracts out work for private tourist companies in Costa Rica, and does the legwork of coordinating constantly changing businesses for you. Ideal for the teacher going to Costa Rica for a week or two and not up for making the transportation side of a travel an adventure, too.
If you’re traveling by yourself, it costs ~$50 to get to places like Manuel Antonio and Monteverde on a semi-private shuttle picking you up at the airport, or $185 for a completely private shuttle that can take up to 6 people, which you would up to about ~$215 after tip. Personally, if I had at least 4 people, I’d just go private. Might as well. With completely private, you can decide the schedule and request stops along the way as you go, and you know they wouldn’t leave without you. I’ve never heard of that happening with a semi-private, but still. You also have a little more security with your stuff, by nature of being the only ones in the shuttle other than the drive. That security is nice.
Estimate Cost of a Teacher-Budget Trip to Costa Rica?
High(er)-end budget: Here is a Costa Rica budget spreadsheet that my husband made while we planned our group-trip this past winter break, leaving from Chicago. It ended up being around $1500/person, and that was because it was the high season AND we ate out every day AND did a $50 activity every day (SO not necessary, but we had a lot of excited friends).
Teacher-Budget: If we had gone during low-season, we would have shaved off ~$200-$300 for plane tickets, $5-$10/night for hotels/hostels. We could have also eaten out a lot less than we did (what’s up, PB&J lunches and make-your-own breakfasts) and not done fancy activity tours every day, saving ~$350 more. If we had done all of these things, it would have been feasible to do a 10-day Costa Rica trip for under $1000. Feel free to use this spreadsheet to budget for yourself.
In Conclusion, Go.
I know that was a lot, but I still feel like I only scratched the surface. A trip to Costa Rica is so worth every penny spent. This post is by NO MEANS an exhaustive guide, so feel free to recommend other places and tips to readers below. If you have other questions, don’t hesitate to email me directly with questions. Happy planning!
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