The Question is often asked “How can I travel like a local?” As opposed to a tourist.
Being a tourist may mean a large camera hung from your neck, women with large straw hats and men wearing sandals with socks or perhaps wearing an undersized Speedo on the beach. But I’m always more than happy to answer your questions. The answer is not cut and dry since it all depends on how long you’ll be vacationing in Costa Rica and what areas of the country you’ll be visiting.
If your stay consists of only two weeks, it may be more difficult to accomplish the goal of living like a local. But if you are settling in for six months or more, you will quickly understand the ins and outs of everyday life in the areas you will be visiting. One of the most prevalent factors you have to consider is cost. Will you be staying in a ‘touristy’ area or on the outskirts? Living verses visiting a tourist area. If staying in Playa del Coco, Flamingo, Tamarindo, Manual Antonio etc. it will cost you 25% – 30% more than if you stayed in a mountainous town of say, Grecia or Alajuela. And if you’ll be shopping inside these beach towns that are so popular with tourism then it’s safe to say things will be more expensive. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still find great deals to help your pocketbook and therefore your experience as a whole. The only issue is that you need to save 25%-30% on these deals. More corners to cut. Ultimately, it may even mean giving up more things that you were used to in your country. But, no worries. You can still succeed in saving money by integrating a number of cost saving practices that I’ve learned in my travels over the years.
Renting a Condo, Hotel or Hostel Living
Let’s face it hotels are everywhere and easy to find. But most options are expensive, especially when looking at the long term. They run between $100.00-$250.00 /night for your average room with two beds, a bathroom, and a safe. It is a great option if you are traveling from town to town and only staying for a few days in each location. With ‘Hoteling’ the biggest expense is food. You now have to go out to eat for all your meals and that can quickly add up.
$$-$$$$- Vacation Rentals/Condos, Directly from Owners
This is my favorite way to save money over time. It is also the best way to integrate into the area and become a semi-local. You get to have all the comforts of home as most vacation rental owners have taken a great amount of time stocking their unit for you to enjoy. And they are motivated too! With today’s way of marketing your reviews mean a great deal to these people and their business. Most owners work hard for your Five Star Review. The pluses of renting a condo are long. It feels like home. You have a fully equipped kitchen and thus can save large amounts of cash by buying groceries and cooking at home for some or all meals. Drinking at home is also way cheaper! Don’t get me wrong, you can still go out for nightlife and fabulous food, but you don’t have to.
Another great money saving trick is to inquire directly to the owner and see if they offer long term rental deals. Often the day rate is cut by 30%-50% by renting long term. This will leave extra Colones* ($) for fun and sightseeing.
Hostels, as a money saver, is a great way to go as long as you like living in close quarters. You may be beside a Rastafarian dude who only bathes once a week, but you also may be pleasantly surprised and find a new best friend from Finland! On the plus side most hostels are centrally located and close to all the action. But it is good to remember that most people that frequent hostels are younger in age and often partake in the night life. So you may be up at night with that noise.
Automercado in Costa Rica is the cost equivalent to Whole Foods in the United States and Safeway in Canada. It carries many imported items from home that you can’t find anywhere else, thus being more expensive. But what a lovely store it is. It has air-conditioned aisles, a plethora of junk food and booze, and elevator music playing at a normal volume. There is a wonderful selection of cheeses you won’t find in the Tico Grocery stores. Most stores offer a very mild fresh cheese in Costa Rica. However, if you are like my husband and think that the kids should eat rocks before he should give up cheese, and by cheese he means good quality old cheese, than this is the only place to get a large selection of the strong cheeses you are familiar with. Be prepared though… with all this uppityness comes a price.
The Tico or local, less expensive grocery stores in the area may have products you will not recognize, like Costa Rican corn chips instead of Doritos. But the prices reflect the fact that it is a local product. Many of the locally owned stores have pretty good sale days so keep your eyes peeled. You can often find meat and poultry for half price on certain days, while on another day the sale will be for produce. This is a great way to avoid paying the higher prices at the ‘Americanized’ stores no matter how airy the air-conditioning is.
Even better, is to frequent a farmers’ market. You will find even bigger discounts and the product is straight from the farmer. If you don’t mind looking around a little deeper, and shopping around, you will save lots of your hard earned cash. And let’s face it if you save money on food then that money is available to use for a zip lining adventure! (or a case of beer)
Renting a Car, Catching a Cab, Gasoline and Walking
Another major part of a Costa Rican budget is anything to do with owning and operating a car. Take gasoline. You might be surprised at how high the price of gas is. It can easily be over $5 a gallon. Not to mention just buying a vehicle. Vehicles in Costa Rica are generally double the price of the same make and model back home. It is expensive here. You will often find many expats carpooling to accomplish all of their errands in the same day. Carpool shopping usually turns into a lunch and a few beers with friends. And that is a fabulous extra treat.
Sometimes friends send an email or text that they are going shopping the day before in case anyone needs something picked up. I only ever had one Eye Candy client call me regularly to see if I needed anything from town. (Hugs Kerry)
Renting a scooter could be a less expensive alternative when compared to renting a car. But it is low on trunk space. Many Ticos will use scooters and motorcycles for just about everything regardless of trunk space. I’ve seen two guys on a dirt bike with a bucket containing tools on the one side and a very long ladder on the other. Apparently they found a balance between the two.
Costa Rica offers very inexpensive and excellent public transportation. Locals usually do not drive more than they have to. There are two types of public transit. Both options are a bus system. There is the cheaper version which is much like our city buses back home. These buses don’t have air-conditioning and run all over the country. The price is a few dollars and they are generally on time but crowded. You should also be aware of your belongings on the bus. Don’t want your suitcase to grow legs.
The second bus system is one step up in comfort and class. The fares are higher but still affordable. These are used mostly for cross country travel not the intercity travel. They are very clean and comfortable. They have air-conditioning and are known for being on time. They don’t run as often as the first option so knowing the schedule is key to getting to your destination.
Eating out can be costly, especially if you want a fabulous steak dinner which I might add the beef here is to die for!
But for the budget traveler I suggest you frequent small mom-and-pop restaurants. They are called Sodas. They are not fancy and sometimes not much to look at, but trust me; I’ve had some of the best meals there. Tourists have a tendency to skip over these establishments because of their simple appearance. Don’t be fooled. They are easy on the wallet, have generous portions and are completely satisfying.
If you staying in one place for a while, you will find that the good ones usually fill up every day at lunch or dinner time. What they say is if it looks busy it must be delicious. Eat where the locals eat. While there may not be a fancy table setting or even waiters, the food is usually fresh and delicious.
On a funny note; some freinds, my husband Darren and I stopped at a hole in the wall Soda on the way to a beautiful Marina. We were in need of a little snack and a cold beer with lemon manadrino. (My favourite drink!) The little family run Soda was only serving two menu items that day. So we ordered both with our beer. The first dish was a fabulous fresh fish and shrimp Ceviche served with crackers. The second was deep fried hot dogs and French fries. ~ Below this a picture collage of that snack attack! LOL. Not your usual fair.
All things considered, eating out is a luxury and if you really want to save your money then cooking for yourself is always a cheaper option.
When we are in CR we tend to eat out only once a day at most. We also find that if you choose lunch as your meal out it is less expensive than a dinner out. Same goes for heavy drinking. One or two cocktails with lunch is affordable but several with dinner can empty your bank account.
One of our favorite ways to enjoy a good cocktail is to go to the Tico Grocery store and buy one or two beer (coolers) and enjoy them on the beach. We only buy a few as the heat warms them up awfully fast… Oh darn, I have to ‘enjoy my drink fast’. We also make sure to never leave a trace of our time on the beach. ‘Pack out what you pack in’ is the moto.
Pura Vida – The Good Life
While trying to figure out all of the ways you can save on your budget, one thing is profoundly true about becoming a semi-local in Costa Rica: The best things in life are free.
Sun shining on your face, listening to howler monkeys and birds cooing in the A.M., swimming in the ocean, time with new friends, and witnessing some of the most stunning sunsets are totally free.