Costa Rica is a great place to visit regardless of the type of traveling you enjoy. Whether you’re a high-end luxury traveler or a budget traveler. Costa Rica has something for everyone’s pocket.
Although many people want to travel to Costa Rica, there is a large population that is drawn to backpacking, not only as a way to save money but also to experience the country in a more local and authentic way.
Costa Rica is a wonderful country for backpackers, be it for those who love traveling solo or in a group. There are lots of hostels, and opportunities to explore on your own, to get off the beaten path and experience countless beaches, waterfalls, and rainforests across the country.
So, in this article, we wanted to provide some information for those planning to set off backpacking in Costa Rica.
Ultimate Costa Rica Backpacking Route
If you don’t have a lot of time or money and wish to spend 2 weeks or less backpacking in Costa Rica, consider following this backpacking route.
Since most flights arrive in San Jose, it makes for a perfect starting point for any backpacker arriving in Costa Rica. From there, backpackers, usually follow this route in a clockwise direction, visiting all or some of the destinations along the way.
If you’re planning on backpacking in Costa Rica for a longer period, let’s say one or two months, you can still take this route. However, you’ll be able to take your time and visit a couple more sites around the country. You can add destinations like Tortuguero, Monteverde, or even travel to the Caribbean coast to visit Limon and Cahuita.
Popular Destinations for Backpacking in Costa Rica
If you are planning to spend 2 weeks in Costa Rica, seeing about five different places will make for a fast-paced experience, but you’ll fill every day with epic adventures and great memories.
If you’re landing in San Jose’s, Juans Santamaria International Airport, you can begin your journey here. San Jose is a big city with lots to offer. The architecture of the city is great, and it’s always trying to improve itself and its surroundings. San Jose is not only the capital of the country, but it’s also the largest city, home to over 2 million residents. Spend a day here to get the feel for how 70% of Costa Ricans live.
San Jose is broken up into many different neighbourhoods, but the majority of backpackers stay in Downtown San Jose, close to the main transportation hub.
Jaco Beach, Costa Rica’s popular resort town is the next stop for backpackers in Costa Rica. Here you’ll find lots of waterfalls, great beaches for surfing, and even some Nature Reserves where you can spot lots of unique animals, including the Scarlet Macaws, as well as other creatures like monkeys, frogs, and snakes.
Jaco also has lots of party venues, bars, clubs, and even a casino. You can party all night if that’s what you want to do.
Day Trip to Manuel Antonio National Park
It is possible to organize a day trip to Manuel Antonio, one of Costa Rica’s most popular National Parks, where you can enjoy beautiful beaches with coral reefs, bordered by abundant vegetation, and experience a true tropical forest.
From Jaco, backpackers work their way up the coast. You can head to Barranca, which is another city in the Province of Puntarenas. Barranca butts up against the shoreline. Here you’ll have access to brown sand beaches. You’ll also get a sense of how the locals live. You’ll learn about the local culture, and you’ll see nature in forms of rock formations, trees galore, and white-faced monkeys, to name a few.
Day Trip to Isla Tortuga
If you keep going up the coast from Barranca, you’ll eventually arrive in a small sandbar called Puntarenas (just like the province). This cute port town is about four blocks wide at its widest point. There are several restaurants on the beach, but it mostly consists of local houses as well as cheap accommodations.
This small sandbar acts as a vital link offering ferry transfers to the Nicoya Peninsula, where most backpackers head next.
The ferries departing from Punta Arenas will take you to Ferry Paquera. From there you need to take a cab ride over to Curu Wildlife Refuge. Taxis line up at the Ferry terminal. They’ll drop you off on a field of cows. Walk through the fields of cows until you get to the beach. Don’t be alarmed. You might be the only person at this beach.
There you’ll find a shack where you can buy snacks and ask about the boat to Isla Tortuga or Turtle Island. The boat only holds a couple of people. You can spend the entire day at Isla Tortuga. It’s incredibly picturesque. The water is clear as daylight. It will be everything you’ve imagined a Costa Rican island to be!
Isla Tortuga is a remote and deserted island with absolutely no accommodation or restaurants. It’s entirely uninhabited and kept as natural as possible. People love coming here because it reminds them of what Earth would look like if left to its own devices.
If organizing a trip to Isla Tortuga on your own sounds a bit too difficult, consider joining an organized tour to Isla Tortuga from Jaco.
The tour will allow you to remain on the island for approximately four hours and to enjoy different activities such as the Canopy tour, kayaking, snorkelling, swimming, or simply relaxing on the beach while the crew prepares an exquisite buffet lunch.
A popular stop for backpacking in Costa Rica is Montezuma, a small hippy town with a long stretch of beautiful white-sand beaches. The town is located near Romelia Wildlife Reserve and is home to some great waterfalls, including the Montezuma Falls and El Chorro Waterfall.
Montezuma is an essential beach in Costa Rica because it is one of the spots on Nicoya Peninsula that is known for turtle nesting. You can volunteer at the Sea Turtle Volunteer ASVO and help keep these cute turtles from becoming extinct or poached.
Santa Teresa is another popular backpacking destination that can be easily reached from Montezuma. Santa Teresa is known for great surfing and a laid back hippy vibe. Popular day trips from Santa Teresa include Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve and Curú Wildlife Reserve.
Santa Teresa is easy to explore on foot and has lots of great restaurants and laid back bars.
The last stop on the Pacific Coast is Tamarindo, a popular backpacker town known for its incredible beach, great vibes, and tons of nearby activities.
Tamarindo is much more developed than Santa Teresa, but not nearly as seedy as Jaco, so it strikes the perfect balance between fun and lively while still being very safe and enjoyable. During the high season, Tamarindo can get VERY busy, making it harder to find affordable Tamarindo accommodation in town. So if you are planning on visiting between December and April, we recommend booking your accommodation in advance.
READ NEXT: Best Beaches in Costa Rica
The last stop on our suggested itinerary for backpacking in Costa Rica is Arenal Volcano, located in the town of La Fortuna about 3.5 hours away from Tamarindo. Arenal Volcano is the main drawcard of this area, but La Fortuna town offers backpackers lots of other activities and reasons to extend their stay by a few nights.
The La Fortuna waterfall and hanging bridges make for a popular day trip, as does a rafting adventure on Rio Tenorio. There are also many great hot springs in town. From Arenal, it’s a direct 3-hour bus ride to get back to San Jose where our suggested itinerary for backpacking in Costa Rica ends.
Where to Stay in Costa Rica on a Budget
It’s no surprise that you can find tons of hostels in Costa Rica. Every town and every destination recommended above has its fair share of hostels. Most are great, but some are pretty terrible, so be sure to look at reviews before you book.
Cute little hostel in Monteverde, Costa RicaThere are also some pretty unique properties around the country. Here are some of our favourite hostel recommendations:
- San Jose: Selina Hostel is a great budget option for a centrally located hostel in San Jose. The hostel is trendy, clean, and is located in the centre of Barrio Otoya’s historic neighbourhood, walking distance to some of San Jose’s main attractions. The hostel features a sweet rooftop deck where travelers can enjoy yoga in the mornings and music jam sessions in the evenings.
- Jaco: Jaco Inn is in downtown Jaco. Surrounded by a lush Costa Rican garden. It’s steps from the beach. You can walk to nearby bars, restaurants and nightclubs if you want to party. The hostel has a great open-air yoga studio. It also holds Jaco’s only micro-roaster coffee shop, Cafe Bohio. The rooms are modern and clean. It’s the perfect location for partiers and yoga aficionados.
- Tamarindo: Dreamsea Surf Camp is a budget hostel with a series of elevated yurts. This hostel is within the jungles of Tamarindo. They include breakfast, and it’s also pet-friendly. If you’ve ever been interested in “glamping,” now is your chance.
- Montezuma: Howler Monkey Hotel is a loft inside a cabin. Each unit has a porch with a hammock. They offer BBQs, bike rentals and tour groups. You can walk to the beach or swing in your hammock and watch the wild howler monkeys come and go.
- Barranca: Stay at a local’s house in Barranca. The Villa Guarias is located inland, further away from the beach. But, if you’re passing through and have a need to stay the night, this cute house is perfect. Not only is the home comfortable, but it’s also clean with lots of space. It has an open-air living room and kitchen. The first floor has a view of the garden while on the top floor, you can see far into the distance.
- Isla Tortuga: There is no accommodation on Isla Tortuga, but if you need to stay nearby, you can stay in Montezuma or Paquera.
- Paquera: If you want to stay in Paquera before heading to Isla Tortuga, Cabinas Naomy Paquera is budget-friendly. It’s off the main road, west of the Paquera ferry terminal. Even though Cabinas Naomy Paquera is a traditional hotel, it’s budget-friendly prices are good for backpackers. They also have a restaurant on-site, Wi-Fi and shuttle service.
READ NEXT: Best Places To Stay In Costa Rica
Getting Around Costa Rica on a Budget
Costa Rica’s transportation system is one of the biggest downsides of the country. There is a well-developed bus system across the country, connecting big towns and important hubs across the country. Unfortunately, some of Costa Rica’s best backpacking destinations are located far away from these hubs, which makes it a bit of a pain to get around Costa Rica using the public bus system.
Unfortunately, some of Costa Rica’s best backpacking destinations are located far away from these hubs, which makes it a bit of a pain to get around Costa Rica using the public bus system. Along the road in Santa Elena, home to the Monteverde Cloud Forest
So if you are planning to navigate the country without a car, consider the following tips:
- Plan your backpacking route based on bus schedules. Some destinations that look close may actually require 2-3 bus changes and require an entire day in transit. If you don’t have a lot of time. plan your route based on direct bus routes in and out of each city.
- Plan for any journey to take 1-2 hours longer than estimated. The roads in Costa Rica are narrow and often have potholes. Many highways only have one lane in each direction, and many times the main road is the only way into a specific part of Costa Rica. In other words, if there’s a car accident, traffic jams last for hours.
- Keep in mind that shuttle busses can be a great alternative to public buses. Shuttle buses are a lot more expensive ($50 each way compared to $10), but they often run between popular destinations and can cut your travel time/distance in half. You can use Greyline, a carbon-neutral Costa Rican shuttle company to book private and shared shuttle all around Costa Rica. You can also try booking tours or renting other shuttles from Costa Rica Shuttle services.
- For busses, use services like Rome2Rio, a bus mapping system to plan bus routes and schedules. Another good resource is The Bus Schedule.
- Costa Rica also has its fair share of ferries. For a schedule of certain ferries check out the Nicoya Penisula Ferry website. You can also check out Montezuma Beach’s website for bus schedules, ferry schedules and more.
Getting Around Cities & Towns in Costa Rica
When planning your stay in each destination on your itinerary, consider how you are going to get around town without a car. Some towns, like La Fortuna, are fairly compact and are easy to explore on foot, but others, like Santa Teresa, for example, are spread out along 4-5kms. Here are some helpful tips for getting around towns in Costa Rica.
- Book a hostel that offers free bike rental and use the bike to get around town. Alternatively, book your accommodation close to the city centre.
- If you end up renting a bike, keep in mind that one of the biggest crimes in Costa Rica is bicycle theft. Make sure you always keep an eye on it or rent a suitable locking mechanism to lock it properly.
- Note that pedestrians do not have the right of way in Costa Rica, always be careful when crossing the street or riding a bike.
- Inner-city buses and Uber can provide an alternative option for getting around some towns and can to plan day trips.
- Driving in Costa Rica can be stressful and can add a lot to your tight budget. Car rental also has a huge carbon footprint which will make a much bigger environmental impact on your trip. Avoid renting a car if you can.
- We don’t recommend ATV rentals, although they are popular in many towns in Costa Rica. Not only are they terrible for the environment but they are also known to cause a LOT of accidents. So don’t run the risk and opt for a bicycle instead!
Eating on a Budget in Costa Rica
Although it is possible to backpack around Costa Rica on a budget, eating out can really make a dent in your budget, as most restaurants in Costa Rica charge around $10/meal.
The best way to save on food while backpacking in Costa Rica is to buy your own groceries and cook your own food. Farmers’ markets are easy to find all across Costa Rica (after all, that’s where many locals shop), and offer cheap prices on fruits, vegetables, and Costa Rican staples like rice and beans. Eating a vegetarian/vegan diet in Costa Rica is not only easy but also VERY affordable!
Costa Rica does have some fabulous restaurants around the country, so if your budget permits, do check out some local spots where local ingredients and flavours are expertly combined with international trends to create an amazing fusion of delicious healthy meals! Our favourite dish at La Vida Buena restaurant in Playa Avellanas, Costa Rica
Authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurants, known locally as “sodas” and beach shacks are all pretty inexpensive and very tasty. They are also owned by locals who we love to support when we travel around Costa Rica.
Overall Budget for Backpacking in Costa Rica
If you’re planning on backpacking in Costa Rica for a month or more, budget about $1500 USD per month or $50 USD /day. It’s a safe amount of money that will cover all lodging expenses, food, and some tours and activities. That amount will also cover transportation and entrance to nearby National Parks.
If you are looking for more tips on how to budget for your trip to Costa Rica or save while you are there, check out our article: Everything You Need to Know to Plan Your Costa Rica Travel Budget
Backpacking in Costa Rica is fantastic. You can do it for a couple of weeks or a few months. There are so many different ways of experiencing a country as diverse and beautiful as this one.