Why Backpacking Costa Rica Is So Difficult + 5 Pro Tips To Do It Right

The beautiful country of Costa Rica – Home to the largest density of biodiversity in the world, paradisiac beaches, tropical experiences and Instagramable sunsets. A place where adventure never lacks.

I’m sure you’ve had this country in your bucket list before. How can’t you, after seeing all those amazing stories on Social Media? Naturally, if you are planning a backpacking trip through Central America, you may be planning on visiting Costa Rica too. 

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
Photo of a colourful sunset in Costa Rica showing surfers holding their boards near the shore in Jacó
Jacó, Costa Rica

At least, that’s exactly what we did. We were mesmerised by the incredible photos we had seen of Costa Rica, so how could we miss it during our backpacking trip through Central America?

So, Costa Rica we went. But, once there, we came to the realisation that all those things that make this country so beautiful and interesting don’t necessarily make it backpacker-friendly.

Think about the things that makes a country good for backpacking: Affordable, easy to get around, with accessible activities, and most importantly… Available! (As in, not full of tourists) 

Unfortunately… Costa Rica ticks none of those boxes.

5 Reasons Costa Rica is not a good country for backpacking:

  1. It’s just too expensive. Not in comparison to Europe or USA, but to other Central and South American countries, or other popular backpacking destinations. Our daily average cost was $40 USD higher than in Mexico, for two people. If you times that a couple of weeks, it becomes a significant amount. In Costa Rica, you look at private transports or tours that start at $100 USD. Even shared shuttles are $50 USD and upwards!
  2. It’s hard to get around. We have already mentioned how expensive transportation can be in Costa Rica. But this is not the only issue with getting around. Transportation for backpackers in Costa Rica is a logistical nightmare! Buses only leave a few times a day and are only reliable when taken from bus stations. Shuttles need to be booked in advance, and there’s only a few companies that offer this service. There’s not that many routes available, so sometimes you can’t get to where you want from certain locations. And to add to that, the Costa Rican roads are horrible! There’s no highways and getting everywhere takes forever. Even if you have a car (which is a whole other thing), you can expect to be stuck behind a truck for hours without being able to overtake, and to have to drive through some very bumpy roads. 
  3. It’s a hard country to travel. The reason for this is that there is no straight-line route to see all the hot-spots, or a common travel itinerary. Usually, in other countries, there is a known backpacking trail. But in Costa Rica, the best spots to visit are dotted all around the country. If you want to see everything, you’ll most likely end up going in circles around the capital of San Jose, since the roads are built around it.
  4. You have to plan in advance (VERY IN ADVANCE). Because Costa Rica has become a more and more popular destination over the years, you have to plan in advance if you want to find good deals and go where you want. This is because the best places and the best prices go out fast. The later you leave things, the more expensive they become as availability shrinks. Plus, because the country is so difficult to travel, you have to know in advance what it is that you want to do and see, or you’ll be left confused and without options when you arrive. Car rentals and accommodation are some of the top things that need to be looked at fairly ahead of your trip to secure good & reliable bookings.
  5. The backpacking vibes are not there. Due to it’s growing popularity, and the fact that Costa Rica is the safest country to travel in Central America, there is a lot of family and wealthy tourism in the country. This has caused for the tourism infrastructures to be set up for such visitors. Hotels, restaurants, activities, tours… Only a few popular locations like Santa Teresa or Puerto Viejo have more hostels, bars and backpacking activities. The rest of the famous locations in the country just don’t have this vibe.

After backpacking Costa Rica for 10 days and visiting 4 different locations, we have gathered some essential survival tips we wished we would have known before backpacking this country.

5 Pro Tips for Backpacking Costa Rica

1. Plan in advance. Figure out what it is that you want to see, and where you want to go; you wont be able to see everything, and you need to get things reserved before they book up. You can start by mapping out your top priorities (what are the things you definitely don’t want to miss out on?) and build your itinerary from there.

2. Think about your transport ahead. Because getting around is so difficult and expensive, be prepared to go from location A to B to Z in your itinerary. The transportation options you have are the following:

(a) Renting a car: If you decide to rent a car, make sure to do so a few months in advance to get a good price, as this fluctuates based on demand and availability. 

(b) Private Transfers: You don’t need to book these in advance, but be prepared to pay steep prices, from $100-$500 USD per trip depending on where you are going.

(c) Shared Shuttles: A very good option for solo backpackers or small groups is to take shared shuttles. However, these often need to be booked in advance and you need to check if they operate the routes you want. During our time in Costa Rica we used Caribe Shuttles, which we cannot say enough good things about. They were always on time and helpful whenever we had questions. You can book everything via their website here.

(d) Taking public buses: These are difficult to find, but they are super affordable (roughly $10 USD). They are not public per se, as they are privately own. Note that there is more than one company so you’ll often need to combine buses depending on your route. They are most reliable when taken from bus stations, so if you can, buy your tickets there. Try to do so in advance (one day should be enough) as they often sell out too. Here’s the locations of some of the most popular bus stations:

3. Be careful with accommodation. Because of the high demand, finding nice hotels/hostels for a fair price can be tricky in Costa Rica. However, if you are picky with accommodation you may want to consider spending a little bit more cash on hotels. The reason for this is that Costa Rica has a lot of animals, and no doubt they will be trying to get into your room! During our time there we had issues with insects and rats. If this can bother you, make sure to choose your accommodation carefully and well in advance.

4. Go with a return flight ticket. To enter Costa Rica, you may need to provide proof of exit at Immigration. Whilst many say that a bus ticket, or proof that you’ll exit through the land border, is enough, some airlines only accept flight tickets as proof. When we were flying from Guatemala our airline wouldn’t let us check into our flight because we had bus tickets as proof of exit and not flight tickets, so we had to buy one on the spot to be let onto the plane.

5. Look for local options. Local places like restaurants may be difficult to find in the most touristic areas, but ask around and explore the surroundings further away from the touristic squares to find cheaper, local options. This is always a better way to save money, support the local communities and meet people.

We hope that this information helps you make an informed decision on whether you want to backpack Costa Rica. By all means we encourage people to travel this beautiful country!

I’m curious, will you be visiting to Costa Rica after reading this? Let us know in the comments!

If you are not too convinced, make sure to check out other LATAM itineraries in our blog:

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