I went on a two-week trip to Costa Rica in June of 2018 and had a blast traveling on a budget and without an itinerary.
You Must Plan for the Unplanned
Taking a trip to another country with no detailed itinerary or schedule can be a bit intimidating. But for those who want to get away from their daily routine and experience tons of freedom, traveling without a set schedule can be extremely rewarding. While the goal is to not have a plan, it will pay off to do a bit of "planning" for the unplanned.
I spent two weeks traveling Costa Rica with no itinerary, which allowed me to visit random volcanoes, stumble upon local food festivals, and hike to waterfalls that a local told me I should visit.
Still, had I known just a few things before I took the adventure, I would have saved time figuring out logistics and had more time exploring. And for those who are budget conscious (if you are like me, you definitely need to watch the money) I have included my personal expense list to help you plan.
Renting a Car Is a Must
Costa Rica is not New York City. While many Costa Rican cities do have excellent transportation systems, if you want to have the freedom to explore outside of one specific city and you only have about two weeks to explore, you will definitely want to rent a car. Renting a car is easy and will allow you to make the most of your freedom as you travel throughout the beautiful country.
- $50-60/day: I found that renting a car did not break the bank.
- Easy to Navigate: Most roads are well paved and easy to navigate, and most rental companies include a GPS.
- Freedom to enjoy breathtaking views: Do not let something beautiful pass you by!
You can always choose to save money by eating cheaply or staying in a low-cost hostel. Bottom line, being able to explore when and where I wanted to was amazing in the beautiful and lush country of Costa Rica.
On one of the last days of the trip, a local told me to definitely check out the Nauyaca Waterfalls. With my rental car, I was able to drive 10 minutes up the road and see the amazing waterfalls all before nightfall, whereas local transportation would have taken too much time to allow for that kind of freedom.
Note: Costa Rica is full of must-see waterfalls, so don't miss a chance to visit at least one while you're in the country.
Buy (or Find) Lots of Fruit
One of the biggest benefits of being in Costa Rica is that you will encounter multiple fruit stands no matter where you go. This makes planning for food a piece of cake . . . or maybe a piece of mango!
There are mangoes throughout the region, and you can typically find them on the ground as you walk. They are delicious and surprisingly filling. While a fruit stand will bring a bunch of fruit together in one place, you would be surprised at how much you can eat by just keeping your eyes peeled for mangoes you walk.
Getting fruit on the journey was amazing as it was easy to transport in my car and did not go bad. Most towns will have cheap options for food as well should you get a little tired of mangoes. The monkeys all loved mangoes, though, so when in Rome . . .
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What Region Should You Visit?
You really have two options when your trip is only two weeks long: Pacific or Caribbean.
Costa Rica is surrounded by ocean with mountains running through the center. There is the Pacific coast (on the west) and the Caribbean coast (on the east). I decided to take the Pacific route for no other reason than that someone native to Costa Rica told me to do so.
Most people who have spent a significant time in Costa Rica have told me that the Pacific side allows you to experience more of the local life. Regardless of whether this has any truth to it, the Pacific coast served me extremely well as I was able to see beautiful beaches, rugged surfer beaches, mountains, waterfalls, and volcanoes all on my two-week trip.
Visit Beaches, Mountains, Waterfalls, and Volcanoes in the Pacific Region
Again, with a rental car, you will be able to hit each spot in two weeks with enough time to catch your flight home. Here is a short list of some of the places I visited:
- Manuel Antonio: This is a tourist beach for a reason. It was absolutely stunning. I stayed in a cheap hostel that was a stone's throw away from arguably one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica.
- Dominical: Continue south along the Pacific coast and you will reach the surfer town of Domincal—a rugged beach with massive waves and a small town with lots of organic food. Apparently, John Mayer lives here if you are into his music (locals say he can be seen hanging out in town).
- San Gerardo de Dota: Head straight up and into the mountains (it got down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night!) and you will find yourself in the clouds . . . literally. It was unlike anything I had seen—tropical in the mountains.
- Irazú Volcano: While heading back from the mountains to San José, I made a stop at the beautiful volcano just north of Cartago. The soil is rich and so the farmland was scattered all along the mountain.
How to Do It All for Only $120/Day
As I mentioned above, if you rent a car you'll be paying about $50–60/day. The other categories you will want to budget for are:
There are plenty of options in Costa Rica for lodging, and they can run you anywhere from $20/night to $500/night. It really depends on the level of comfort you want and whether or not you want to have some isolation or to meet some fellow travelers or locals. Generally speaking, hostels will be better for meeting locals and Airbnbs will be better for isolation.
- Lodging: I stayed in a hostel just steps from the beach as well as an Airbnb casita (a.k.a. "tiny home") in the mountains. The hostel was only $20/night while the house was about $86/night. There were a few other places I stayed in that fell somewhere within that range.
- Food: Most of the money I spent was on little food stands I found along the way or at local, organic grocery stores. I was able to keep it under $20/day by eating as much fruit as possible and eating at cheap local restaurants.
- Activities: Costa Rica has countless activities like ziplining, parasailing, surfing, etc. I chose to make my own fun by enjoying nature, swimming, and visiting the national parks and waterfalls. I probably did a bit less than your average traveler and was able to keep my cost to about $5/day.
See below for a simple budgeting table or check out my more detailed expense list.
Budget for 2 Weeks in Costa Rica
|Total Trip||Per Day Cost|
Entire Cost of Trip (excluding airfare)
Free Yourself From the Itinerary
With just a little planning, you can make the most of your itinerary-less adventure to Costa Rica.
The trip does not have to be expensive because you did not schedule an itinerary, in fact, it can be a lot less expensive since you can take local advice when you are on the ground! You will love stumbling across random festivals and events that you would have otherwise missed had you needed to catch a flight or do something else you had planned. Happy adventuring!