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Costa Rica: No artificial ingredients and no stress on the budget

Sixty percent of you voted for me to head to Costa Rica for my winter escape. And with this Carolina-sized country working its way up “top destination” lists, it’s no wonder. Even though the thought of lush green scenery, pristine beaches, and intense biodiversity will excite you, you’ll be more pleased to learn that doing this trip for under $500 was no challenge at all.

What’s the deal?

Staying under budget in the winter high season took little more than finding a reasonable airfare and pairing it with an affordable activity-pumped hotel. Luckily for me, there were many easy-to-find options to choose from. The best part is knowing that had I traveled in the low season, known as the “green season” (from May through November), I could have taken the same trip for under $400.

Getting there

Despite Costa Rica’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination, airfare still remains relatively low, even for high-season travel. For a February trip, prices from Boston (my hometown) to San Jose hovered between $300 and $400 when I researched fares about two months in advance. Not wanting to spend much more than $300, I jumped when I saw a fare on Expedia for $301.50. In the weeks after booking, fares dropped as low as $268 including taxes. (Drat, had I waited a little longer, I would have been able to get that massage…)

Indicative of recent trends, here are a few fares (including taxes) from other cities at the time I was booking:

  • $214: Miami
  • $299: Houston
  • $302: New York
  • $304: Chicago, Los Angeles
  • $330: New Orleans
  • $339: Denver

Airfare strategy for Costa Rica is quite simple: Because most major U.S carriers (and a few others like LACSA and TACA) fly into San Jose, prices remain competitive, making it easy to snag a good fare. The key is to set a benchmark and monitor fares until you see one that hits your number or falls below it. Don’t be afraid to wait a little; the low prices will come around.

When it comes to flying, note that the Costa Rican government imposes a departure tax ($26) that you must pay at the airport before you check in for your departing flight. You’d see the same thing with many Caribbean islands and other Latin American destinations. The cost isn’t intrinsically prohibitive, but it’s good to keep it in mind when setting a budget for your trip. Also, it’s best to set aside some cash, because the only other way to pay is by credit card via cash advance, which is ultimately costly.

Getting around

For many trips, I’ve come to regard airport transfers as a thorny nuisance. They always add a little stress and annoying logistical hiccups to what otherwise would be smooth planning. In the case of flying into San Jose, there are several air-hotel transfer options with varying degrees of cost. And once I sorted them out, they seemed pretty basic, and I even enjoyed the ride through the mountainous highlands.

The first, and my favorite, is the bus. A one-way ride to and from my resort cost only $2.33 (1,080 colones), keeping me well within my budget. The drivers were scrupulously on time. However, with no guaranteed seats or air conditioning, you’d certainly be roughing it. On the plus side, it’s a good way to get a glimpse of local color, as it’s generally the transportation of the Costa Ricans, or Ticos, rather than tourists. The bus driver might even stop by a local grocery store for a few minutes in case you get hungry or weary along the way. I highly recommend contacting your hotel about bus stops and schedules before you arrive. If you are like me and find bus systems convoluted and generally incomprehensible, you’ll appreciate this advice.

Other transfer options are a bit more costly (too expensive for the purposes of this column), but much more comfortable and private. A taxi to my locale cost $70 per cab, not per person, and no tipping is required. Drivers will often play the role of tour guide, pointing out volcanoes, waterfalls, and other points of interests along the way, while also stopping on the roadside to view basking crocodiles. To make sure you get a fair price, go to the airport taxi desk and request a ride from there; they’ll even escort you to your driver. Your hotel will be able to assist you on the return trip.

A final option is semi-private mini-bus transportation via a tour operator like Grayline, which costs between $20 and $25 one way.

Where to stay

Because I only had a few days, I wanted a hotel that would be easy to get to from San Jose and that would epitomize what Costa Rica is known for: great beaches, rainforests, and ecological sustainability. I preferred a resort, opposed to a regular hotel, in hopes of having affordable activities and food onsite, so I wouldn’t have to waste time getting around while I was there.

Hotel Punta Leona, located 90 minutes from San Jose on the Pacific Coast province of Puntarenas, was the perfect choice. For just under $100 per night including all taxes ($292.68 for three nights for two people), I received basic accommodations with a full bathroom and air-conditioning. If booked through the hotel directly, it would have cost $304 total, but I was able to shave a few dollars off by booking through Travelocity. Green season rates were about 24 percent lower.

Set in 750 acres of rainforest, the resort itself had much to offer, including three restaurants and several snack bars, three pools and two beaches, and a mix of independent and organized activities. There was also a boutique where I picked up a much-needed pair of sunglasses for $10, and a small grocery store where I bought bottled water for hiking. Some of the rooms came with kitchenettes, in case you want to cut costs further by cooking your own meals. Once inside the resort, I never had to leave. And despite its sprawling size, shuttle buses conveniently scooted guests around who didn’t want to walk. The crowd was a mix of international guests and Tico families.

What impressed me the most was the resort’s commitment to ecological sustainability. Although Costa Rica has a reputation as an eco destination, mass tourism expansion has caused several hotels to fall off the wagon. Punta Leona, however, maintains Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST), meaning that it preserves conservation, consumes natural products and recycles, and honors local integrity, among other things. It has also won an Ecological Blue Flag for keeping its beaches environmentally sound. My biggest pleasure was learning that the breakfast restaurant, which rests in a relatively untouched natural forest setting, was made solely from fallen trees.

In general, hotels across Costa Rica remain affordable. The CTS website allows you to search for certified hotels, and has an extensive general listing of properties and price ranges sortable by interests and activities.

Affordable activities

The resort offered a host of activities, most of which were free, such as hiking trails in the rainforest (to do with or without a naturalist guide), a butterfly farm (the only free one in the country, according to my guide), and several beautiful beaches. Because of the location’s dense vegetation, the opportunities to spot wildlife were first-rate. At breakfast one morning, I found a white-faced monkey sucking on its thumb and dangling from a tree by its prehensile tail. While hiking deep in the forest and even just by walking around the grounds, I encountered coatimundi, a native mammal with a long tail and snout; a three-foot long iguana; and many varieties of butterflies, birds, and lizards.

I also partook in several organized resort activities like yoga (though quite watered-down) and nightly entertainment (which featured sizzling Latin dancers and a Costa Rican band). Snorkeling for a half day cost me only $5 for the rental equipment.

For a little extra, depending on budget, the resort also offered 45-minute massages (often lasting an hour) for $25, about one third the price of a typical U.S. city massage. And for thrill seekers, zip line tours through the rainforest canopy—an essential must-do for most tourists—cost $35.

Although I don’t include food in my $500 budget, I’d like to mention just how cheap it is to eat in Costa Rica. For example, a full lunch of arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) with fries came to $3. Bar drinks cost less than $2 each, shocking compared to my usual $8 Boston cocktail. Breakfasts ($8) and dinners ($9) were relatively more, but they are often all-you-can-eat buffets.

Out of all the Escapes Under $500 I have done, Costa Rica is the easiest to duplicate, with the strategy I’ve outlined above or others. For example, when I tested air-hotel vacation packages on Travelocity and for my travel dates, I got about a dozen results for under $500. I also tested other U.S. departure cities and found similar prices. Several months later, the results remained consistent across the board.

While I’ve proven than anyone can have an enjoyable Costa Rican escape for under $500, keep in mind that to really see the country in its entirety, you’ll need more than a couple of days. For just a few hundred dollars more, you can double your vacation time. For me, that would have meant a chance to leave the resort for a day or so and explore some of the nearby national parks and nature reserves. Considering the beauty of this country, and the extra relaxation you’ll receive, that option is well worth considering. You might even see an extra monkey or two.

Don’t forget to vote for my next escape destination!

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