Shae, her sister (Auntie), Frugal Boy, and myself just returned from an 8 day trip to Costa Rica. We went horse back riding in the mountains, zip lined at 50 mph past a volcano, and forded a river in our 4×4. The frosting on the cake, we did it all for just $100! * Find out how at the end of this series.
* Auntie paid some of her share of the trip and that isn’t included in our Out of Pocket total.
A Primer of Costa Rica
Costa Rica is located in Central America, just north of Panama and south of Nicaragua. The capitol is San José and there is a second international airport located just west of the city of Liberia in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. An established republic, like the United States, Costa Rica is sparsely inhabited and has no standing army. Ticos, a colloquial term used to describe the citizens, have their own currency called colones. The USD -> CRC exchange rate was about 1:530. So one US dollar would get you about 530 Costa Rican colones. The official language is Spanish, although many Ticos have at least a transactional level of English proficiency. The country has a thriving ecotourism industry, exports about 1% of the total coffee production in the world market, and is an attractive place for international companies to set up shop.
Now that you have a working knowledge of Costa Rica, let’s go! Or as the Ticos would say, ¡Vamos!
Day 1 – Getting There
We chose to fly into Liberia airport, not the capitol, because it was closer to the activities that we wanted to do and it was slightly cheaper. Even so, flying from Chicago required about 7 hours of sitting on a plane. We had a layover in Houston that added some more time to our travel day. All-in-all, you can count on sacrificing an entire day just to getting there. Expense wise, tickets were about $500 per person round trip. Frugal Boy is over the cut off for ‘lap child’ so we had to pay for his very own seat.
He enjoyed watching Finding Nemo on the first flight, even without any sound.
Other large expenses that we budgeted for included a meal at the airport, approximately $45, parking for a week ($82), and checking one piece of luggage roundtrip ($50). We saved money by bringing our own snacks from home, packing as lightly as possible to avoid more baggage fees, and booking our airfare well in advance.
An unexpected expense on day 1 was a $10 taxi fare from the airport to our hotel upon arrival. We were expecting a complimentary shuttle to be available, but couldn’t find it and I was feeling extremely unwell at the time and didn’t want to deal with one more thing.
Day 2 – Hitting the Road of Adventure
The first goal of the day was to use the ATM in the lobby to get native colones. Our primary bank refunds ATM fees, and you usually get the best exchange rate by using an ATM instead of a money exchange. Shae withdrew 250,000 colones ($470.06). The second goal of the day was to pickup our rental car. I chose Dollar Rentals because they had some of the best pricing, were off airport (not subject to extra taxes), and had the most transparency about insurance and coverage on their website. The morning’s challenge however was in getting over to their rental office which was about 2 miles away. Both Auntie and I needed to go because we were both going to be drivers. I asked for a ride from the hotel shuttle, and they said they only went to the airport. I tried calling the rental office and no one picked up. Thankfully, I saw a Hertz representative and he agreed to drop us off because their offices were right next door to one another. Yay Hertz!
Once we got there, it was a very easy checkout process. I don’t think I’ve had a checkout be so easy before. I did have a moment of weakness and switched from bare insurance coverage to full coverage. It was $90 more for the week, but after spending a night curled up to the porcelain throne, I wasn’t ready to take any more risks on this trip. For $414.15 we had a 4 wheel drive SUV that comfortably seated all of us and our stuff.
Back at the hotel, we loaded up all of said stuff and remaining passengers and hit the road for the city of Liberia to the East. We made a quick stop to load up on groceries before traveling south on the Pan American highway #1.
I had read about a local swimming hole that was just off the highway called Catarata Llanos de Cortes.
It proved to be a wonderful stop and Frugal Boy was very excited to play in the water.
It was 2000 CRC to park, and we made a donation of another 1000 CRC to two nice abuelas at the entrance who were collecting money for something or another. Finding the local spots is a great way to see the country and save money. We visited several other waterfalls during this trip and they were aimed more at the tourists and our wallets felt that in a big way.
After we had our fill of swimming, we decided to try and find a place to eat lunch in the nearby town of Bagaces. Bagaces was not a tourist town, but I was on the hunt for a local eatery. As Auntie drove farther into town and clutched the steering wheel harder, I spotted the Bar Renur Restaurant with several people inside (always a good sign).
The three women behind the bar greeted us with typical Tico hospitality. They especially loved Frugal Boy and even turned on some cartoons for him to watch while we ate. They didn’t speak any English, but our Spanish has improved a bit from our January Mexico trip, so we were able to interact just fine. Auntie and Shae both ordered lunch, I was still feeling a bit nauseous from the previous day so I just snacked on a banana. The lunch bill was a very affordable 5800 CRC (about $5.50 a person). One thing that surprised Shae and myself were the Costa Rican prices. We had heard beforehand that Costa Rica was an expensive country to travel, but as we later learned first hand it really is on par with USA prices. Really getting off the tourist path and eating like a local was still a pricey meal in comparison to our Mexico trip. Costa Rica would not have much of a geographic arbitrage advantage for retirement purposes.
From lunch, we continued down highway 1 until our turnoff at Las Juntas so we could get to Monteverde in the mountains.
On the drive up into the mountains there was a pull off that had a great view of where we had come from. You can easily see the Nicoya gulf that connects up to the Pacific ocean.
Finally, the winding, bumpy mountain roads delivered us to Monteverde, our first destination of our week long trip.
Monteverde is world famous for being a cloud forest. The elevation was around 5200 ft, making it pleasantly cool, and true to its name, enveloped in clouds more often than not. The last bit of driving was up a very steep and rocky road.
And then we were at our first Airbnb rental house!
For $246 we had a two bedroom house all to ourselves for two nights just minutes away from some of the best attractions in the area. I have yet to have a bad experience with Airbnb. The hosts lived in a house on the same land and they had two energetic little boys that made Frugal Boy light up.
I knew beforehand that the woman host was an ex-pat from the Boston area, so we brought a jar of pure maple syrup as a gift. Of course we bought it at Aldi for $6.50. She was ecstatic to get it and told us that pure maple syrup cost around $40 locally for a similar sized container. We also found out that peanut butter was around $6.60 a pound in Costa Rica.
If you were planning on eating peanut butter in Costa Rica, you might want to bring it from home!
Here is one more photo of our rental house in Monteverde.
After settling in, our host helped us make a reservation for a guided night walk to try and see some of the wildlife. The major tourist draw of this area is the biodiversity.
Standing in the parking lot of the Curi Cancha biological reserve, Shae told Frugal Boy to take a picture. He happily obliged, camera need not apply.
I don’t have any good photos from our night walk. It was about 2 hours long and our guide Adrian tried to spot critters for us. We heard plenty of birds, frogs, and bugs. Highlights included seeing a giant tarantula, nectar drinking bats, a phosphorescent scorpion that shone under a black light, and a Keel-billed Toucan. The latter of which, I learned is an omnivore instead of a herbivore and is not very popular with other animals because it will eat their young.
It’s worth noting that because Costa Rica is so close to the equator, they have 12 hour days year around. That means that it is dark by 6pm. This combined with the switch to mountain time, really screwed up our internal clocks. Shae and I both learned that living near the equator, probably wasn’t for either of us. We like having sunlight in the evening (at least until 8).
With the tour concluded, we were hungry (even me!) and decided to follow the recommendation of our host for an Italian place (Tramonti’s) just down the driveway. We ordered a pizza (5000 CRC) para llevar and enjoyed it back at the house.
Continue reading part 2 here.