Being able to take myself on an extended international vacation this year was one of those things I never thought possible. I always had this notion that international travel was way too expensive and not for me, but I did it! I spent 10 days in Costa Rica, and you guessed it- I am now hooked.
Truthfully, I could not have done this trip without a girlfriend (especially one who speaks way better Spanish than I do), so I would like to take this minute to give Noelle a HUGE shout out for being a great Partner in Travel.
While I’m not a certified travel planner by any means, I think we spent our 10 days pretty wisely (And cost-effectively) so I’m breakin’ it on down for you guys in case you want to take a trip to the Land of Pura Vida yourself. We each spent around $1.5k on airfare, hotels where we had private rooms (and our own beds), food, drinks, and excursions. If you opt for hostels your cost can go down dramatically. Keep in mind, however, that cost of living in Costa Rica is not much cheaper than the U.S, so this is may not be the destination for you if you are wanting a “budget” trip. The cost of everything definitely threw me for a loop at first.
When we booked our trip, we SCOURED the Internet for the cheapest flights possible. We ended up flying with Interjet, and booked our flights out of Tijuana. Now, when I told my Mom this she thought I was crazy. But here’s the thing: The flight roundtrip cost us about $370. And, the Cross Border Xpress (CBX) is a bridge in San Diego that you can cross that takes you straight into the Tijuana Airport for $30 roundtrip. Super safe and simple. Interjet also serves free alcohol on their flights, so I will definitely be flying with them again.
Instead of flying straight into Costa Rica, we took a long layover in Mexico City. We stayed at the Hampton Inn in the Historic Center which was walking distance from the absolutely breathtaking Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. We made stops for the most delicious and cheap al pastor tacos at Taqueria Arandas (less than $8 for three tacos and two beers), and had a nightcap at a cute little Mezcaleria, La Botica.
Yay! Our first day in Costa Rica! We decided to spend it in San Jose, the bustling capital of the country where the airport is located. Once we landed, I immediately exchanged my currency at the airport, which was a bit pricey (I think they charged me about $14…ouch) but that was really the only option I had at the time. Noelle’s phone was unlocked, so she was also able to grab a SIM card that allowed us to use GPS during our travels.
We took an Uber (technically illegal…) to our room for the night at Hotel Presidente. This was a cute hotel with a hipster edge that was located in the heart of Downtown San Jose. It was walking distance from, in my opinion, everything you could want to fit into 24 hours in San Jose. During our time here, we walked the Plaza, stopped at Downtown Coffee Roasters for our first taste of Costa Rican caffeine, and then had rooftop drinks and apps at our hotel’s restaurant, Azotea Calle 7. It’s important to keep in mind there are A LOT of people walking the Plaza, so make sure to purchase a secure cross body bag to prevent from pickpockets. I LOVED my Baggallini Crossbody Bag for this reason (click here to check it out).
The next leg of our trip was spent in La Fortuna which is about a 3 hour drive away from San Jose. There are a couple different ways to go about transportation, but Noelle and I decided to rent a car through Enterprise. We are both experienced drivers, so to us this was an obvious choice, but keep in mind that many Ticos are impatient drivers and will often race to get in front of you on a two lane road… even when you’re above the speed limit. Many roads were also in less than stellar shape, but if you can handle driving in LA- you can handle driving in Costa Rica. For the entirety of our trip, the rental car was about $200 between the two of us, and we only had to fill up gas once.
Once in La Fortuna, we arrived at our hotel, Mountain Paradise Hotel & Spa. It had a gorgeous view of the Arenal Volcano (ask for room 103), an onsite spa, restaurant, and heated pool with a swim-up bar. We booked an excursion through them that consisted of a hike at the Arenal Volcano, a swim at the La Fortuna Waterfall, and then a nighttime hike around our hotel’s expansive property. The excursion package was about $115 a person, and admittedly we went through with it because we were also promised an 80 minute full body massage.. that ended up actually only being a 30 minute foot massage. *Cue the tears*. So- be wary when something sounds too good to be true, and make sure to get everything you’re promised in writing. These are excursions that you could definitely opt to do on your own for cheaper, but nonetheless it was nice getting a guide to tell us some insider info about the area. We also got to see sloths, frogs, lizards and snakes, which was absolutely amazing.
While in La Fortuna, we ate meals at Soda Viquez (typical food) and the La Fortuna Pub (bar food and an exceptional craft beer menu). Our hotel had included breakfast which was a good (light) start to the day, but it was pretty mediocre so we ate off-property for lunch and dinner. La Fortuna was the city with the best souvenir shops too, so I would definitely recommend grabbing your gifts here before moving on. Also make sure to stop at the chocolateria, Chocolate Fusion, for some of the best truffles ever. And when I say best…I’m talking about lavish goodness like dark chocolate infused with red wine.
Our next leg of the trip was to the beachside town of Jaco! This is a stop I wanted because it was known as the “party” town of Costa Rica, and this girl loves her nightlife. However, let it be known that with that nightlife comes prostitution too. Apparently it’s a pretty big industry in Jaco because of the “wealthy” tourists coming through. Now, I never felt “unsafe”…but it is definitely prevalent.
Jaco was a relatively easy three hour drive away from La Fortuna. Our hotel for this stop was Hotel Perico Azul, which was a cozy hotel that actually functions primarily as a surf camp. The owner, Mike, was an amazing host who even took everyone staying there on a jungle hike one afternoon. It was a very laidback hotel that had a community kitchen and coffee made every morning.
While in Jaco, we spent a lot of time hanging at the beach and sipping on Imperials. Jaco is known for being a surf town so that is where most people actually were during the day. We really only left our beach chairs to eat and shop. Taco Bar is a Jaco must-eat, as it’s a restaurant where you can order any type of taco under the sun (I highly recommend the grilled coconut fish), and then go to the taco bar to customize with salsas, toppings, and sides. We also splurged on bikinis at Marveca Beachwear– a bikini shop where you can actually get a swimsuit made perfectly for your body. Highly recommend this if you are a self-proclaimed sun bum like me.
Once nighttime hit, we headed to the Puddlefish Brewery to start the night. Totally a brewery designed for the tourists of Costa Rica…but doesn’t take away from how good the drinks and entertainment were. Definitely try the tropical sangria while you’re here. We made friends with a few of the locals, and then headed on over to Orange Pub with them. This is not a pub, per say, but more of club a with go-go dancers, dj’s, and lots of dancing. I found it was a really cool mix of locals and tourists, too.
For the tail end of our trip, we decided to spend four nights in Manuel Antonio. Manuel Antonio was only about an hour from Jaco, so a pretty effortless drive. Our chosen hotel for this leg was the Millenium Hostel. Now, the location of this hostel was perfect- literally a two minute walk away from the gates of the Manuel Antonio National Park. However, the place was insanely loud. Each morning at about 7am we were woken up by the sounds of construction, cleaning, or the vendors hustling their goods outside of the park. Unless you’re a happy early riser, I would opt for a different place to spend your time here.
Manuel Antonio offered us the most diverse experiences of our trip. Our first day, we got hooked up with a guide who took us through the park for about $20 a person, on top of the $16 entrance fee. If it’s your first time to the park, defintely get a guide, because they can point out wildlife hiding in the trees, and have telescopes to help you see it all. There are plenty of guides waiting outside of the park, or you can ask your front desk for recommendations. Going into the park is necessary because this is where you will get to experience all of the cute little monkeys your heart could desire.
Down the street from our hotel was a simple restaurant called Costa Linda that offered a “big breakfast” each morning for 2500 colones (which equates to about $5 USD). They also offered lunch and dinner, and were definitely the cheapest meal option in Manuel Antonio. Their menu wasn’t anything special, but you can get smoothies with fresh fruit for under $2 USD, which you have to try. However, when we decided to splurge a bit on food, we opted for Emilio’s Cafe that had some of the best Eggs Benedict I have ever had. For our one dinner splurge, we decided on Agua Azul Cafe. The oceanviews at both restaurants are absolutely spectacular.
Most of my time in Manuel Antonio was spent reading on the beach (Don’t Just Sit There by Biet Simkin is the perfect vacay read BTW). However, on the day Noelle opted to go zip lining (which cost her about $75) I treated myself to a spa and yoga day at Holis Spa. My spa day was boujee (Read: expensive)…but worth it. If anything, I recommend at least taking a yoga class there, which was $15 for a drop in. It was the ideal end to the perfect getaway.
To save us a grueling drive to the aiport at 3am, we got a room at the Doubletree in San Jose to get as much sleep as possible before a long day of travel. It was only about 10 minutes away from the airport and added so much ease to the next day. And after a five hour layover in Mexico City, we returned to Tijuana, crossed the border into San Diego, and then attempted to acclimate back to the “Real World” as best as possible.
Hopefully this is a good jumping off point for you if you have been debating a trip to Costa Rica! Before I went, I made sure to download a translation app that worked offline (iTranslate) and a currency exchange app (Currency) which made day to day life simpler. We also looked for hotels that included free breakfast (there are MANY) to cut down on some food cost.
I think Costa Rica is the perfect destination if you are wanting a balanced mix of adventure and lounging among breathtaking scenery. Make sure to make friends with the locals while you’re there- it will change your entire trip. If you have any questions or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to comment or email!