My friend and I were two millennials with passports, flexible work hours, and the dream of exploring Central America. The only problem? We had a very limited budget. Then, while browsing Google Flights, we stumbled across a deal that sent us packing our bags: $238 round-trip tickets from Denver to Costa Rica. We quickly cleared our schedules, booked the flights, and started planning our itinerary. In two weeks, we managed to traverse the 20,000-square-mile country (often labeled the most expensive in the region) from north to south and coast to coast. Starting in the capital, San José, we headed to the Pacific beaches of Quepos, Manuel Antonio, and Puntarenas before going north to the volcanoes of Arenal and Cerro Chato. The trip concluded on the Carribean coast, where we explored Limón, Cahuita, and Puerto Viejo. Along the way, we lounged on immaculate beaches, spotted diverse wildlife, and scaled towering peaks, all for less than $500 each—including airfare. Rather than limiting us, traveling on such a tight budget meant we had better interactions with locals and found spots well off the beaten tourist track. Here’s how we did it.
The inexpensive flights, booked through budget-but-not-luggage-friendly Spirit Airlines, necessitated some creativity when it came to connections and packing. From Denver, we took a red-eye to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, followed by a quick layover and a three-hour flight to San José. Base fares from Spirit don’t include carry-ons, so to avoid the extra cost, we limited our luggage to one free personal item each. We fit everything into 40-liter roll-top backpacks by choosing versatile, packable synthetic clothing. In the end, we had one change of clothes and a bathing suit each, the bare minimum for both peak bagging and basking on the beach.
We decided to exchange time for savings, relying heavily on hitchhiking and Costa Rica’s robust bus system. Hitchhiking is foreign to most Costa Ricans, and many drivers responded to our extended thumbs with a similar gesture of their own. Despite this, we received numerous rides near the coast, usually from locals who had lived or traveled in other countries where the concept exists. From the town of Quepos, where we spent a day exploring Manuel Antonio National Park, and north to the small fishing village of Chacarita, a gateway to the surfing hot spot of Osa Peninsula, we pieced together a free 60-mile ride from an off-duty taxi driver on his way home with a 40-mile lift from a wealthy business owner who chatted and shared fresh fruit with us. From there, to get into the adventure-filled northern mountains, we rode 100 miles with a doctor who stopped at prominent locations in small mountain towns along the way, including magnificent churches and plunging waterfalls. In the more developed towns and cities, like San José, San Ramón in the Central Valley, and Puntarenas, a port town on the Gulf of Nicoya, we stuck to the bus system, with fares averaging around $3 apiece. The buses were surprisingly punctual, though rides often took longer than expected. On our five-hour trip from San José to the southeastern coastal town of Puerto Viejo, for example, the bus was stopped for 30 minutes at the port city of Limón while cranes moved shipping containers filled with bananas.
Upon arrival, we had no scheduled lodging, only a vague idea of our options from scouting Airbnb. Our $20-per-night budget severely limited our choices, so we kept our requirements simple: a kitchen and Wi-Fi. Communication issues further complicated our search—neither of us had switched our phones to an international plan, so we had to strategically work with hosts using limited connectivity in internet cafés, restaurants, and our previous Airbnbs. In Cahuita, a village on the Caribbean coast near the border of Panama, we arrived after a four-hour-long bus ride and waited for over an hour to get a response on directions to our cabina. In the end, though, Airbnb proved valuable for more than just lodging—it was a great way to connect with locals. Often we’d eat breakfast with our hosts, who would give us the lowdown on activities in the area. Without staying at our Airbnb in Quepos, we wouldn’t have known to stop at Crocodile Bridge over the Tárcoles River, where we spotted ten of the massive reptiles floating in the shallows.
Many of the well-known hiking opportunities in Costa Rica require entrance fees into national parks and preserves, ranging from suggested donations to $18. We were willing to pay at some places and not at others, instead opting for free alternatives that we found by talking to locals and diving deep into travel blogs. Instead of the Sloth Sanctuary near Cahuita, which would have cost $30, we hiked down a nearby abandoned dirt road that wound through a forest, offering views of both the Caribbean and a jungle bursting with toucans, monkeys, and sloths.
Despite our budget, we still managed to see some of the best the country had to offer. In total we visited three national parks (Manuel Antonio, Arenal, and Cahuita), one private preserve (Green Lagoon), and seven beaches, from Cocles on the Caribbean to Espadilla on the Pacific. The most expensive and beautiful of the parks was Manuel Antonio, which cost $18 to enter, more than half of our trip's activity budget. But it was well worth it. The park featured pristine white-sand beaches, with jungle stretching down almost to the water. Hiking through, we spotted three species of monkeys, giant green iguanas, and innumerable birds. Another worthwhile splurge was climbing the dormant volcano Cerro Chato in Arenal Volcano National Park ($10), in the north. We passed sloths and a six-foot pit viper on the way up to the summit, where we swam in a bright green crater lake.
Food was the easiest way to save money—and the most tempting way to spend it. After a few days of home-cooked pasta, one of our Airbnb hosts taught us the recipe for pinto gallo (rice and beans), and we quickly adopted it as a diet staple. Both ingredients were sold in bulk, and we added eggs, salsa, and seasoning for variety. We also put this hearty base on tortillas to make burritos, packing them in bags for a snack on the go. We did eat out to celebrate my birthday at a local soda (restaurant), a treat that came out to $3 each.