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  • Total days on the road: 586
  • Currently in: USA
  • Miles Driven: 36821
  • Countries Visited: 17
  • Days Camping: 389
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Costa Rica Budget Recap

Written by Jared on June 5, 2012

This article is part of our Budget and Money Report series.

Our per diem expenses cover food, lodging, gas and other supplies and travel costs for three people. We travel in a 1997 Toyota 4Runner, tent camp in paid facilities roughly 70% of our nights and eat less than 10% of our meals in restaurants. This budget does not reflect personal spending money, which is mostly used to buy souvenirs and booze. We don't track this money, but we do know we have not come close to spending our budgeted amount of $10 per person per day.

Hooray, you've gotten to go at least six weeks without reading one of these! This time we're in Costa Rica, the most expensive country we've been in since leaving Mexico.

We set an aggressive per diem of just under $70 per day to cover food, gas, lodging and supplies. We had to work very hard to stay under this amount, but in the end we pulled it off. Just barely.

It's worth mentioning that a big reason we kept our per diem this low is that we had ten days of lodging paid for while our parents came down for a visit. We still paid our share of the groceries and gas, but for more than a quarter of our time in Costa Rica we had a free place to stay.

Budget Recap

Number of Days in Costa Rica:  36
Average ATM Exchange Rate
(Colones per USD$):
Budgeted Per Diem:  $69.26
Actual Per Diem:  $66.03
Total Spent:  $2,377.26
Total Budgeted:  $2,493.36
Costa Rica Balance:  +$116.10

US dollars are accepted in many places in Costa Rica, and most tourist locations quote prices in dollars. When prices are in dollars the exchange rate is usually 500:1. Some ATMs will allow you to withdraw dollars or the local currency. We stuck with colones as we knew they'd spend everywhere.

In the end we managed to eek out nearly $120 dollars in savings, meaning we've re-couped about half of what we went over budget in Guatemala during the last two months in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. If we keep this up, we're a country or two away from being back in the black.

Per Diem Breakdown

Groceries:  $854.24 37.20%
Lodging:  $451.18 19.65%
Gas:  $404.89 17.63%
Eating Out:  $160.57 6.99%
Park Fees:  $144.16 6.28%
Entertainment & Tours:  $98.29 4.28%
Supplies:  $58.34 2.54%
Coffee & Booze:  $41.02 1.79%
Laundry:  $33.30 1.45%
Tolls & Parking:  $21.26 0.93%
Phone & Internet:  $20.06 0.87%
Gifts:  $9.03 0.39%

Groceries set a new record in Costa Rica at over one third of our total expenses. Part of this is because of the time we spent in the vacation home, but it truly is representation of the huge increase in the cost of food in Costa Rica vs the rest of Central America. A trip to the grocery store for three days worth of food would cost us $30 in Nicaragua, it's easily double that in Costa Rica.

We offset the crazy cost of food by camping almost every night and only eating out a handful of times. Without that we would have been WAY over budget. It's easy to bleed money in Costa Rica, but it's also easy to save money if you have the means to camp and cook for yourself.

Note that our Coffee & Booze category is now mostly just coffee. We've been buying booze out of our personal money, which we don't keep track of here. It's safe to say you could up our per diem by at least $5 per day if we included alcohol.

Food & Lodging

  Budget Actual Difference
Percent Time Camping:  50% 77.27% +27.27%
Average Camping Cost:  $15.00 $14.34 -$0.66
Average Hotel Cost:  $25.00 $43.90 +$18.90
Daily Food Expenses:  $25.00 $28.19 +$3.19

Costa Rica is fantastic country for camping. National parks, hostels, and backpacker campgrounds can be easily found in every popular tourist destination. In many places camping on the beach is free and safe. We camped for free five nights out of 17, which is no easy task considering we need space for two tents and an area to cook.

On the other hand, hotel prices are very high. Even a night in a dorm can run upwards of $15 per person. You will be lucky to find a single for under $25 and a double for under $35 at popular destinations.

So why did we budget $25? It goes back to the 10 nights we stayed for free while are parents came to visit (thanks again guys!) To keep things simple, those nights do not factor into the above numbers. We spent 17 nights camping, five in hotels, and the rest in a vacation home and hotel we did not pay for.

As I said before, food prices were off the charts. We stuck close to budget by eating out only nine times and only once for dinner. Cheap meals can be found in Costa Rica, but you have to work for it. We eat out because we're lazy, tired or just don't want to think about procuring food which is not conducive to saving money in Costa Rica.


  Budget Actual Difference
Average MPG: 13 15.68 +2.68
Average Gas Price $USD/Gallon: $5.00 $5.66 +$0.66
Miles Driven: 800 983 +183
Total Spent on Gas: $307.69 $322.45 +$14.76

Costa Rican gas prices were the highest we'd seen since Belize (where we only bought five gallons of gas). Prices are federally controlled, they aren't posted at gas stations because they're the same everywhere. We paid exactly $5.66 a gallon for premium gas for five stations on opposite corners of the country.

We drove a bit more than planned, and gas cost more (which we expected) but our better-than-anticipated fuel consumption continues to balance out the equation.

Lessons Learned

  • Stock up on supplies and basic food items in Nicaragua or Panama before crossing the border. No fruits, veggies or meat - just stuff like pasta, rice, canned goods, condiments, paper towels, tin foil, drinks etc. Food (and alcohol) prices are double in Costa Rica.
  • Costa Rica is all about campin'. Bring your tent, bring your rain gear, bring your sleeping bag, enjoy some spectacular nature and save money.
  • If you can sleep in your vehicle there are plenty of free places to stay. If you are tent camping, check out the beaches. Most are public land and are free to camp, ask the locals if it's safe and don't expect many facilities. Also, pack out your trash!
  • Costa Rica is also a great country to have friends and family come to visit. It's easy to get around, English is commonly spoken and if you're lucky you'll get to stay a week or two in a super-nice vacation home.
  • Beware of the gringo isle in the supermarket. Costa Rican supermarkets are tempting because you can buy lots of stuff you haven't had in months, but on the other hand you're also going to pay way more than you would back home.
  • Produce is expensive in supermarkets. Look for roadside stands to stock up on fruits and veggies. There aren't many small shops in Costa Rica, unlike other Central American countries, so shopping around is a good idea.
  • Avoid eating at restaurants at all costs. Look for small places called "sodas" for some local flavor (rice, beans and meat), but still expect to pay at least $5 a plate.

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