Let’s Go Exploring! Costa Rica: The Good, the Bad, and the Terrible

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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Hot rivers are hot springs on steroids. Fast, furious, and so addictive it should be illegal. The very fact that they exist kind of boggles my mind. I mean, isn’t it cool enough that naturally hot pools of water exist? But entire RIVERS that heat themselves with the power of volcanoes? Wow. Props, Mother Nature. Props.

You haven’t lived if you haven’t sat under a hot stream of river water, breathing in the steam, while letting the flowing water massage your back.

This is what you will experience if you go to La Fortuna, Costa Rica.

Oh and did I mention that as soon as you look up, you’ll see spider monkeys swinging from branch to branch and hear prehistorically sounds of creatures in the jungle?

No wonder Michael Crichton decided to set Jurassic Park here. Take one walk through the Costa Rican forest and you’ll hear what he heard when he envisioned a prehistoric world where dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Wanderer, getting his Velociraptor on.

We climbed a volcano, trekked through a rainforest, and relaxed in a hot river. And I’m not even that much of a nature person! I’m more of a food person.

But in Costa Rica, I didn’t need food to nourish me. My brain was on hyper drive from all the dopamine hits I got from all these fascinating nature experiences.

Volcanos:

Like this trek towards the Arenal volcano (you can actually see the smoke rising up inside the peak):

 

Rainforests:

Or this trek through the rainforest:

 

Waterfalls:

Or this visit to the most photogenic waterfall:

 

Beaches:

Or this visit to the beach at Puerto Viejo:

 

Before coming to Costa Rica, we had heard rave reviews from friends, but one of the things everyone agreed on is that Costa Rica is THE MOST expensive country to visit in Central America.

That didn’t stop us though. I may be an Optimizer with an unhealthy spreadsheet obsession (or as Wanderer likes to call it, “INSANE”), but I’d never let expenses deter me from going to a place. Especially after going to Switzerland, one of the most expensive places on Earth, and realizing it was the best money I’d ever spent.

And after travelling the world for $40K Canada (30K USD) a year, I’ve realized that going to expensive places don’t really affect your budget that much. All you need to do is just add inexpensive places (like Southeast Asia, Mexico, South America, etc) to balance it out and you’re good to go.

Since I had been in Mexico and Panama for a few months before coming to Costa Rica, I had enough “cheap countries” averaging my cost down enough to counteract any sudden spike in expenses, so the rise in cost didn’t impact our budget much at all.

Sure, you had to pay to see a waterfall. Or had to rent a car because public transportation in La Fortuna was pretty much non-existent. But because experiences like the hot river (which ended up being my favourite experience there) was completely free, it all totally worked out in the end! I was so glad we didn’t end up going to Tabacon, which is the fancy resort charging $90USD – $150USD a day, when it uses the EXACT same water and is actually across the street from the natural hot river.

If you’re picky, Tabacon might be a better choice, but for someone like me, the free hot river across the street was exactly what I needed. And we got to drink beer and chat with locals, which I consider a much bigger draw than being at a touristy spa.

Now as much as I loved Costa Rica, there is one thing about Costa Rica that made me want to tear my hair out.

Buses.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The buses that ran within a city were fine, but the second you try to find a long-distance bus going from San Jose to La Fortuna, it’s a whole different story.

We’ve taken buses all over Europe, Mexico, Panama, and some places in South East Asia, and by far the worst were the buses in Costa Rica.

Are you a fan of sitting with your knees touching you ears? Can you deal with having NO air con in sweltering heat? Would you prefer your bus windows to open? Do you expect a 3 hour ride to take 7 WHOLE HOURS?

No? Then don’t take the Costa Rican bus! I’ve ridden buses in rural China that were in  better condition. And that’s saying a lot.

When travelling between cities in Costa Rica, fly or drive instead.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find a first class bus or anything that offered more comfort for more money. I have no idea why the buses in Costa Rica suck! It’s the most expensive city in Central America for chrissake!

If you HAVE to take a bus between cities in Costa Rica, make sure you

a) take the expected arrival time and double it

b) pick a seat at the very front, right behind the luggage holding area, or at the very back because those are the only seats with leg room.

Since there are very strict rules on building roads in Costa Rica to protect nature, whenever there’s road construction, you will be stuck for HOURS as they block off one lane completely.

On the plus side, this fierce protectiveness of nature has allowed Costa Rica to not only do a great job preserving their lush rainforests, they’re also pledging to become carbon neutral by 2021. How cool is that?

So even though compared to other Central American countries, Costa Rica is on the pricey side, and the places we visited, La Fortuna and Puerto Viejo, was on the touristy side, I REALLY enjoyed the lushness and incredible nature experience that Costa Rica had to offer. The food was great too! (better than Panama, in my opinion)

One of the juiciest pork chops I’ve ever had. Yum!

 

Salad made a prominent appearance as a side here. YAY!

Just don’t take the intercity buses. Unless you want your spirit to be crushed into tiny little smithereens and then set on fire.

“Oh hi there. I’m here to crush your spirit…and also your legs.” Photo credit: Galeria de Fan Bus @ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0

Here’s how much we spent in Costa Rica:

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $35 USD/night $43 CAD/night We stayed in a hotel called Vagabond in La Fortuna, which included breakfast, aircon, and pool for $49.50CAD/night that we found on Booking.com. In Puerto Viejo, we broke our rule of not staying hostels and stayed in a hostel with an INCREDIBLE pool and walking distance to the beach. The room was the smallest room I'd ever been in in my life. Seriously, I'd imagine this is the type of room that dreams of growing up to become a closet. Never again. Even for $54CAD/night, it STILL wasn't worth it. We also stayed 2 nights in Alajuela, in an Airbnb near the airport for a ridiculously cheap $15-$24/night. So for the 8 days we were in Costa Rica, costs for accommodations averaged out to be only $43 CAD/night. Woohoo!
Food: $14 USD/day $18 CAD/day ($11/day for eating out, $7/day for groceries) Food was inexpensive because we mostly cooked, save for a couple of dinners here and there. Even thought I liked the food in Costa Rica, I did NOT feel it was worth it to eat out everyday, especially in Puerto Viejo where everything was touristy and overpriced.
Transportation: $17 USD/day $22 CAD/day Even though we saved a buttload of money because we were able to cross the border from Panama to Costa Rica on foot without having to fly, the cost of transportation was still inflated by having to rent a car (around $67/day USD, after gas and taxes) in La Fortuna due to the lack of intracity public transportation. Intercity buses going from La Fortuna to San Jose were cheap, at around $15-$20 USD per person but SO NOT worth it. I would've happily paid more to upgrade for a more comfortable experience but I didn't have the option.
Entertainment: $10 USD/day $12 CAD/day Puerto Viejo is a beach town so pretty much everything was free in terms of activities. La Fortuna had activities where they charge for things you never expect to pay for–like a waterfall or entry to a rainforest, but since we also did free activities like the hot river, it ended up only average out to $10USD a day over 8 days. If you end up doing nature tours in La Fortuna, I found that tour company with the best value is the one in the Regina Hotel. They had Spa packages for Tabacon for $79 USD person, including dinner when the full price on the website was $150 USD (PROTIP: If something is priced in USD even though that's not the local currency, you're paying tourist prices). We also got the waterfall tour for $38 USD for 2 from Adventure Mundo including transportation, suspension bridge, and butterfly farm, which was a sweet deal considering how you'd normally have to pay $15 USD/person just for entry to the waterfall plus the taxi ride there and back)
Total: $76 USD/couple/day $95 CAD/couple/night This is considered really LOW cost for Costa Rica. You could easily spend double what we spent. I knew Costa Rica was high cost for Central America, going in, so I compensated by avoiding flights, cooking a lot, and doing free activities. No regrets (except for the awful buses)!

If you like waterfalls, volcanos, hiking, hot rivers, and beaches, you’ll LOVE Costa Rica. Of all the places we’ve travelled to, and all the hot springs we’ve visited, we’ve never once come across a hot river. Now I’m a big fan, and will be on the look out for this weird phenomenon going forward. If you come across any hot rivers in your travels, let me know!



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36 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Costa Rica: The Good, the Bad, and the Terrible”

  1. I’m convinced! My wife and I are planning on Costa Rica from Toronto next year and we didn’t even know there was such a thing as a hot river. Thanks for the travel tips and the cost comparison 🙂

  2. OMG I loved Costa Rica when we went like 5 years ago (stayed at the Rio for a wedding, but super expensive, but when you are going to a wedding not a lot of choice…) but we had really good food – people there were just so nice!!! We did a tour which included the whole volcano mud baths with three hot tubs to slowly cool off (unlike the rip-off tour where others in the wedding went where they gave them provided buckets of mud and big spoons, while my husband and I got to roll around in hot mud like piglets), and rented ATV’s one day as well.

    So glad you guys went there! It’s actually where I’m way less concerned (now) about taking the kids from a safety perspective (back when we went they didn’t have all their immunizations yet). Good to know about the buses for when we finally make it back there… I’m planning on trying to convince the extended family to go back as a family group trip (but renting a house or something for ideally a month rather than staying at crazy expensive all inclusive for just a week)…

    1. “while my husband and I got to roll around in hot mud like piglets”

      Sounds like a rip-roaring good time! Hopefully you’ll be able to get the extended family to go with you. I would say renting a house would work out well. Airbnb probably has some good ones.

  3. Thanks for the tip on the bus! Do you have a picture you could add about the interior?

    I was on the worst bus ride of my life in China when it was like 95° and we were in Chong Qing during the summer and I had to go. Hours of pain! Food there is way too spicy And I thought I could handle it.

    1. Oh man, I should’ve take pictures, but I was too busy trying not to pass out from the heat. The camera probably wouldn’t given up and gone “nope”.

      And yeah, Chong Qing is insanely hot in the summer. I remember regularly seeing men eating hot pot with their shirts off, soaking up the sweat on their foreheads with a rag.

  4. Great post. Nice shots of you and Wanderer at your best. Just finished 6 weeks living on the shore of Lake Arenal on the ultimate hack – – housesitting. Great place, nice people and … oh, those monkeys! Thanks for choosing CR for your post today! Check out the November 2007 National Geographic. Article on Happiness and CR featured as one of the happiest places on earth.

    1. This is my ultimate retirement dream!! Housesitting in Costa Rica… or pretty much anywhere warm. Any good websites to check out? Don’t worry, according to FIRECracker I am still at least 10 years off, so no immediate competition 🙂

    2. Wow, had no idea it was chosen as one of the happiest places on earth! I can why though because the nature is spectacular.

      Super cool that you got to do housesitting! Which website did you use to find it?

  5. Great trip report! It does seem a touch expensive, but those experiences also seem pretty worth it….a hot river? Fricken cool!

    After having been to so many countries in South/Central America, which would you say is the best (of those you’ve visited)?

    1. Hm…good question. Of the Latin American countries we’ve visited…hmm, it’s really hard to say. Mexico was best for price, food, and convenience. Ecuador is the most beautiful in my opinion but harder to get to. I also LOVED Galapagos for the animals.

      If I were to pick one to go back to, I’d probably go back to Mexico. We didn’t get a chance to check out San Miguel de Allende, so we’d probably go there because of the expat community.

    1. The water is naturally hot because of the volcano and I think it’s like that all year. But I’d have to ask a local to know for sure.

  6. I loved loved LOVED this post, but Jurassic Park was filmed in Kauai, not Costa Rica. Since that tidbit of misinformation was at the top of this post, it was niggling my brain the whole time I read it.

  7. We where thinking Costa Rica for early 2018. Thanks for the bus tip,we will rent a car. La Fortuna is one place we want to go. Great Photo’s and cost breakdown.

  8. Very timely post 🙂 my partner and I are also planning a trip there next year. Basically the same trip, except we may just stick to Puerto Viejo. I’ve been banned from planning overly ambitious adventures this time around.

    Did you look into the tourist buses? We were planning on doing something like the link below, where they also take you rafting in between point A and point B. The adventure option costs $100 USD, the non-adventure option is $50 USD. I would be curious to hear your thoughts.

    https://www.caribeshuttle.com/daily-shuttles-san-jose?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIguT7sbfG1wIVj7fACh0cHQ3eEAAYAiAAEgKAW_D_BwE

    1. Puerto Viejo is nice. Very pretty beaches.

      I haven’t used Caribe Shuttle myself, so can’t say from experience, but their reviews on Trip Advisor look good. I also like how they respond to negative comments in a professional way.

      If you’re staying in Puerto Viejo, you may want to check out Bocas Del Toro, which is across the border in Panama (they’ll probably have day trips). The Starfish beach in Bocas is one my favourite beaches of all time. Just make sure you bring lots of bug spray for the sand fleas.

    1. “Steam Valley”. Well, how could I possibly say no to that? Iceland is a destination we’ve consistently been hearing rave reviews about. It wasn’t really on my radar before since I’m more of a food person than nature person, but after Switzerland, Greece, and the hot river in CR, I’m totally falling in love with nature and will add Iceland to my list!

  9. Oh my gosh. My roommate is from Arenal! How has she never told me about the hot river?? We are going to have a serious discussion tonight… about when I’m going to go visit her family. That sounds lovely.

    1. She’s been holding out on you 😛 Guess the locals want to keep that secret to themselves. Oops. (hopefully I won’t be banned from Fortuna for spilling the beans!)

  10. Fyi….fortuna and the northwest (where the all inclusives are located) are all tourist traps. If you want to see real costa rica then the east coast (tortuguero) and southwest (osa peninsula) is much more fun for wildlife viewing. Dependa what your into…and your prices seem very conservative even if it is in the off season. Holiday season in CR is just as expensive as Hawaii or other major beach destination (unless you are staying in hostels or very low budget places). After spending time pretty much everywhere throughout CR in a few different trips. You can definitely get deals but it is not a “budget friendly” destination.

    1. Well, I wouldn’t say they’re ALL tourist traps. If you end up staying at an all inclusive resort and going to spas all day, then yes, it would feel like a tourist trap.

      Compared to Mexico, Panama, and Ecuador (with the exception of Galapagos), CR is definitely way more expensive. BUT, if you can still find deals and lots of free things to do, if you don’t just turn off your brain and buy a vacation package.

      I’ll have to check out the east coast and south west the next time we’re back.

  11. hey firecracker
    I read on this blog somewhere that when you guys were saving up for FI, you still travel as rewards. How did you set up periodic goals to motivate yourselves (every 100K, something else)? I would like to copy your approach.

    My current dilemma is that every dollar I spend on travel (each trip would be 1K to 3K) reduces the amount of $$ I throw into my mutual funds. I am torn… I have cancelled a couple trips in the past few years with lame work related excuses.

    The ultimate money saving idea is that I don’t travel until I’m FI with a ridiculous amount of 1M div but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Looking for the middle ground.

    thanks for your advice.

    1. Hi Coco,

      Do you mean this post?
      https://www.millennial-revolution.com/build/stay-motivated-on-your-way-to-financial-independence/

      Yeah, we motivated ourselves by breaking down down the goal into more measurable chunks (like celebrate with a trip every time we saved $100K). I think if you end up cutting all your expenses without any room for things that you enjoy (like eating out or travelling), it would be really hard to sustain for years. In our case, I prioritize travel and cut everything else down (like rent, eating out, shopping), so we still made our goal despite the $5000/year – $6000/year travel spending. It’s gotta be a balance and you need to celebrate milestones along the way. That’s how you keep going.

  12. Hi FIRECracker and Wanderer! We enjoyed meeting you both last week in Starbucks. Just picked up the book you recommended from the library, Travel the World on $50 A Day … and started reading a few minutes ago!

    Love reading your blog … and found the comments from Wanderer’s Frugal Hookups so entertaining lol. It really does make a difference when both you and your spouse are on the same page 🙂

    Hopefully, we will meet again soon!!

    A+L

    1. Had a blast chatting with you too! It’s always a pleasure to meet fellow FI peeps 🙂 Hopefully the $50 a day book will help you guys plan for your future trip and we’ll see each other somewhere in the world soon!

  13. Hi from Kalymnos!

    “If something is priced in USD even though that’s not the local currency, you’re paying tourist prices”: maybe that’s true, or might as well be, if something is priced in USD and it is the local currency! (Although I’ve been feeling that e.g. Calgary is more expensive than many places in the US these days, and it’s not true for more isolated parts of the US).

    Hasn’t everyone but me been to Iceland in the past 3 years?

  14. a friend and i went to santa cruz, bolivia in 1998 to visit another college friend who was living there at the time. the bus situation was the same at the time but the local guy had the local knowledge (i wonder why the call it that?) and instead of a bus we took a taxi to the jungle from the city which was still dirt cheap for a 1 hour taxi each way. we walked across a muddy river in our sneakers and shorts never stopping to consider things like crocodiles, piranhas, snakes or leaches, but made it out alive. the buses in rio de janiero up to the big ol’ jesus statue were nasty and hot as hell too.

    hot river sounds sweet!

  15. New Zealand also has hot rivers. We found a couple in the Rotorua area. One has a big pool where a hot river meets a cold river, and the other is a big pool with a waterfall. For the one with the waterfall, if you don’t mind being gated in all night, you can camp there in a Van and set up candles and have it all to yourself. The tourist info centres won’t tell you where they are (they only direct you to “pay” attractions), but locals may. Or email me directly and I can point out exactly where they are on a map 😉

  16. Great trips. I would like to also go there. I noticed you went on November. Based on my research ,November is one of the most rainy months of the season and one of the cheapest one. I read it rains almost everyday. Did it rain everyday while you were there? Why you went on Nov and not other month?

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