© 2018 YaninaTravels
On my 6-day (4 full days) trip to Costa Rica, I decided to get a taste of the country by being based in San Jose and taking day trips to various places. My goal was a budget-friendly trip, mixing my desire for comfort and adventure, jungle and beach.
Part of the Costa Rica’s vocabulary is the phrase ‘Pure Vida’, which means ‘pure life’ or ‘simple life’. Costa Ricans (Ticos) use this phrase to say hello, goodbye, or as an expression that everything is great. In a country named one of the happiest countries in the world, ‘Pura Vida’ is a way of life for the Ticos, who enjoy the moment, don’t stress much and are thankful for what they have.
MY BUDGET & COST BREAKDOWN: (6 days/5 nights) $870
RT Flight: $155 (used 30,000 American Airlines bonus miles)
Uber to/from airport in the US: $100
Hotel: $0 for 5 nights (used 50,000 Holiday Inn bonus points)
AirBnb in Monterverde: $30 for 1 night
Car Rental: $365 for 6 days ($60/day with a full protection package)
Toll Road: $20
WHAT TO BRING
Read my other post Traveling with Less: Travel Gear Guide
BEST TIME TO GO
The dry season in Costa Rica starts from mid December and ends in April, which makes it the most desirable but also the most expensive time to visit this country.
HOW TO GET THERE
Finding a convenient flight to San Jose, Costa Rica from United States’s East Coast is quite challenging. There are two main international airports in Costa Rica. Depending on your travel plans, you can fly to San Jose Airport (SJO) or Liberia Airport (LIR). I spent lots of time looking for the best flights. There are many flights to SJO, offered by American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and Spirit Airlines, however all of the flights are connecting with 1 to 3 stops.
My round trip to Costa Rica cost me only $155 since I used 30,000 American Airlines bonus miles. I earned them by applying for their American Airlines Citi Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. If you apply for it, spend $2,500 for the first 3 months, your annual fee will be waived for the first year and you will earn 50,000 bonus points. Those bonus miles will be good for 2 domestic round trips and for at least one international trip. To learn more about flying with bonus miles, you can read my other article How to Earn Air Miles and Points for Free Flights.
There is something new I learned about American Airlines’s Rewards Miles rules. If you book an award ticket 21 days prior to your trip, you will be charged only $80 processing fee. However, if you book it less than 21 days prior to your travel dates, you will need to pay an additional expedited fee of $75. I never had to pay an expedited fee for any of the other air miles and points programs I’ve been enrolled to.
The national currency is the Costa Rican Colon (CRC). 1 US Dollar equals about 560 Costa Rican Colones. There is no real need to bring US Dollars in cash, since you are not going to get a good exchange rate. You should get Colones by going to an ATM and using your debit card. The bank exchange rate is the best one you can get. US dollars are accepted, however if you choose that payment method, you will always end up overpaying. Also, every time you pay with a credit card which has no transaction fees (all good travel cards don’t have those fees), ask the cashier to charge your card in Costa Rican Colones, rather than in US Dollars. This money saving rule applies every time you travel abroad.
I barely spent $50 for food for my 6 days trip in Costa Rica. I had a free healthy breakfast every morning since I stayed at Holiday Inn Express San Jose Forum. The rest of the day, I was eating fruits, nuts and sandwiches. There is an amazing variety of exotic and organic fruits in Costa Rica. Their tomatoes taste pretty good too! You can purchase fresh fruits and veggies from the street vendors.
The first time I went out for dinner was at Monteverde’s restaurant Sabor Tico where I had fish ceviche and typical Costa Rican meal with fried fish, rice with black beans and fried plantain, while watching the sunset. On the next day I had the most spectacular breakfast ever at Cafe Y Macadamia, overlooking Lake Arenal, which was the highlight of my Costa Rican’s experience!
Many travelers on a budget, eat at the Costa Rican’s ‘Sodas’. Those are family run small restaurants, serving typical Costa Rican cuisine. You will see them everywhere along the roads, while exploring the country.
Here is my 6-day Costa Rica itinerary that will give you an excellent taste of this Central American country. I was based in San Jose, taking day trips, besides the third evening when I spent the night in Monteverde.
DAY 1 Flying in San Jose
Rent a Car
I rented a car through Alamo. I made a reservation on their website a week prior my arrival. It cost $365 for 6 days rental of Compact SUV 4WD with their full protection package included. Alamo’s customer service at their airport location was excellent.
Settle at Your Accommodation
I stayed at Holiday Inn Express San Jose Forum. I loved that hotel in terms of location, customer service, cleanliness, property quality and amazing free breakfast. I didn’t pay anything for 5 nights of stay at that hotel since I used 50,000 Holiday Inn bonus points ( 10,000 points/night). I earned the points by applying for their IHG Rewards Club Credit Card. If you apply for it, spend $1,000 within the first 3 months, the annual feel will be waived for the first year and you will earn 60,000 bonus points.
DAY 2 San Jose - Tortuguero - San Jose
Drive to La Pavona
The drive to La Pavona is about 3 hours long and it’s a challenging one. You will be fighting traffic in San Jose if you don’t leave before 6 am. Also, expect construction work along the road, which will slow you down as well. Expect lots of people, animals and bicyclists on the unpaved and narrow roads. There is a parking lot at La Pavona which costs $6 for the day and $10 if you are planning to spend a night in Tortuguero and pick up your car on the next day. Keep in mind that this trip to Tortuguero takes total of 6 hours driving round trip and 2 hours on a boat.
Get on a Boat Tour to Tortuguero
Tortuguero is a village in Limon Province on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, accessible only by boat or plane. If you are traveling on a budget, you don’t need to book a tour to visit Tortuguero. Just get on their public boat, which costs only $10 round trip per person and leaves 4 times a day (7:30, 11:00, 1:00, 4:30). You can do Tortuguero as a day trip as I did, however in order not to rush and fully enjoy the area, I highly recommend you to spend a night there. You can make your accommodation reservation through AirBnb.
Hike in Tortuguero National Park
Part of Tortuguero National Park it’s on a rainforest-covered sandbar, whose beaches are a major nesting site for green turtles.
DAY 3 San Jose - Monterverde
Drive to Monterverde
Monterverde is a town in mountainous northwestern Costa Rica. Driving to Monterverde is challenging since half of the road is curvy and unpaved, running through the high mountains. Route 606 is so beautiful, however since January of 2018, there is an ongoing construction work to pave the rest of the road, which will continue for the entire year. The road is open only between the hours of 10-10:30 am, 12:30-1pm, 3-3:30pm, 5pm-7am. I arrived at 10:45am and had to wait in the car for almost 2 hours for the road to open. Driving back and coming back later is unpractical since you have to drive all over again on tough road conditions. You should time your arrival right in order to avoid long waiting.
Settle at Your Accommodation
For my entire trip, I spent only one night at AirBnb accommodation and that was in Monterverde. If you’ve never used AirBnb before, you can accept my invite to join and get $40 off towards your first trip.
Hike in Monterverde Cloud Forest Reserve
The famous Monterverde Cloud Forest features marked trails, waterfall and hanging bridge. I hiked in the reserve for about 3 hours and enjoyed the tranquility.
Have a Dinner in Town
I went out for dinner at Monteverde’s restaurant Sabor Tico where I had fish ceviche and typical Costa Rican meal with fried fish, rice with beans and fried plantain, while watching the sunset.
DAY 4 Monterverde - Arenal - La Fortuna - San Jose
Have Breakfast by Arenal Lake
I had the most spectacular breakfast ever at Cafe Y Macadamia, overlooking Lake Arenal, which was the highlight of my Costa Rican’s experience! You can’t beat the combo of amazing view and amazing food!
Hike in Arenal Volcano National Park
Travelers on a budget can possibly save $15 on entrance fee at the park. You can enjoy the view of the volcano and take photographs from the side of the road. Paying the entrance fee and getting in the park is not giving you a better view. Actually the views of the volcano are better from the road. If you still decide to get in the park, you can have about an hour long peaceful hike.
Visit Arenal Hot Springs
Because of Arenal Volcano’s activity, there are lots of natural hot spring in the area. In order to visit a hot spring in Arenal, you either have to stay at an expensive hot spring resort or pay a day pass entrance fee in between $45 – $94, depending on the resort. For travelers on a budget, you can visit the Free Hot Springs (Scratch River), which is next to Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort.
Hike at La Fortuna Waterfall
You have to hike 480 step trail in order to see the waterfall. You can swim in it, while fish is swimming in your feet. The entrance fee is $16 per person.
DAY 5 San Jose - Manuel Antonio - San Jose
Drive to Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is on the central Pacific coast. It’s a beautiful and scenic drive along the ocean. I passed by several beaches and Playa Jaco was the prettiest looking.
Hike at Manuel Antonio National Park
The park offers short trails and two pristine beaches. The entrance fee is $16 per person. You can see raccoons and white-faced capuchin monkeys playing around.
Spend Time at the Second Beach in the Park
You should go early in the morning, bring some food and drinks in a cooler and spend the whole day at the beach. Keep in mind that the park closes very early – they want you heading out at 3:30 pm. I visited in March and the sea water was incredibly warm. The warmest water I’ve ever swam in.
DAY 6 Flying back to the US