Is Costa Rica expensive? Yes. It is the most expensive country in Central America.
Is Costa Rica cheap? Yes. The average cost-of-living is 30% less than the United States.
If you are considering visiting Costa Rica for any substantial amount of time, the cost-of-living is an important subject. Perhaps you are a retiree considering relocation, or a student planning a semester abroad, or maybe you have the great fortune of an impending sabbatical year. In each one of these situations, it would be nice to be able to estimate your expenses and maybe even save a little money.
According to data from the OECD, IMF, and Eurostat, the overall cost-of-living is Costa Rica is 30% lower than that in the United States, and 24% lower than that of Canada.
Does that mean that everything in Costa Rica costs 30% less than it would in the United States? Absolutely, not! In fact, many products that you may enjoy in North America, are more expensive in Costa Rica.
I will explain.
Three rules-of-thumb regarding the cost-of-living in Costa Rica are:
Imported products are expensive and locally produced products are inexpensive
Energy (like gas for your auto, and electricity) is expensive and labor is inexpensive
Luxury items are expensive and basic necessities are inexpensive
Duties on imported items can sometimes push final consumer prices to almost double of what you would pay in North America for the same product.
This reality hit me in the face the first time that I purchased shaving cream in a grocery store in Costa Rica. My normal, familiar North American brands had a price tag of 5,000 colones or almost nine dollars. However, the shaving cream produced locally was only 800 colones, or about $1.50.
I probably don’t have to tell you which shaving cream I chose.
Sure, the local brand was a little different than my usual brand, but it worked fine, smelled nice, and I bought it with pocket change.
Legal Resident or Long-Term Tourist
Your immigration status in Costa Rica will make a difference in your individual cost-of-living. Having legal residency as a pensionado, rentista, inversionista, or other programs, makes it cheaper to live. Health care is less expensive. It is easier to rent an apartment or home. However, there are financial requirements for each of these statuses, and it can cost a lot of money and take many months to complete the process.
Most travelers from North America and other such countries qualify for a 90-day tourist visa.
For most people that plan to stay a year or less in total in Costa Rica, residency doesn’t really make sense. By the time the process was complete, your stay may be close to over. The most common choice is to split up your stay into four parts of less than 90 days.
As your visa is about to expire, make a so-called visa run to Panama or Nicaragua, when you can spend at least three days. Then, come back and get another 90-day visa.
Cost of Transportation in Costa Rica
Cars are Expensive
The price for a 2019 Honda Accord in the United States starts at approximately $24,000. In Costa Rica, the same model starts at almost $50,000!
You would pay almost $4 per US gallon to fill up your new Honda Accord.
Public Transportation is Inexpensive
While everything associated with cars is more expensive than North America and most of Europe, public transportation is dirt cheap. In fact, one of the easiest ways to travel Costa Rica on a budget is to ride the bus.
The country is crisscrossed by inexpensive bus routes. While these buses are operated by private companies, the industry is heavily regulated by a government agency known as ARESEP.
As of March 27th, the least expensive bus rides cost 75 colones or about 13 cents in USD. These are mostly short trips in rural areas. Among the most expensive bus fares is the 8,415 colones or about 15 USD, to travel the almost 350 kilometers between San Jose and the border with Panama at Paso Canoas.
Here are some other popular routes:
San Jose to Atenas, which is a popular expat city, 765 colones
San Jose to Playas del Coco, 5,035 colones
San Jose to Quepos, 3,820 colones
San Jose to Manuel Antonio, 4,935 colones
San Jose to Tamarindo, 5,290 colones
San Jose to Poas Volcano, 1,895 colones
Liberia to Playa Flamingo, 1,475 colones
Taxis & Uber Can Be a Value
As of March of 2018, the proscribed rate for regular taxi service (red taxis) is 645 colones per kilometer or a little more than one US dollar. Taxis from the airport (orange taxis) are 955 colones per kilometer or $1.61.
There are approximately 25,000 Uber drivers in Costa Rica, serving the Central Valley. In April of 2019, the ride-sharing service launched in Liberia, Nicoya, Manuel Antonio, and Jaco.
Prices for Uber in Costa Rica are lower than in the United States. The base fare is about half of Chicago’s.
Cost of Housing
The cost of housing in Costa Rica can be significantly lower than that in North America. However, in order to get the best deals, you have to accept that the homes and apartments will be of the local standard, which is different than what a typical North American might be accustomed to.
Like real estate is just about anywhere, the price is usually influenced by location, size, and amenities.
If you have modest needs then the cost of housing can be shocking low; however, if you like luxury, it will come at a cost.
Cost of Short Term Rent
If you are only staying for a few months, your best bet is to look for short-term rental situations. Airbnb is a great resource for that. If you don’t already have an Airbnb account, it is easy to sign up.
On Airbnb, you can get a private room in a home or budget hotel for as little as $10 per night.
Hostels are another option.
A third option is to reserve an Airbnb or a hostel for the first few weeks of your stay in the country. Once you arrive, look for rental opportunities on the ground, in the country. It is common to see se alquila (for rent) signs in the windows. This is often the best way to get a good deal.
Cost of Long Term Rent
You can find basic apartments for rent in places like Atenas, for 160,000 colones or about $270 dollars per month. Such an apartment will be older construction; with no air conditioning; you provide the refrigerator; hot water only in the shower via an electric showerhead; and, no washing machine or dryer. But, if your monthly budget is limited and you don’t need such luxuries, this kind of an apartment would fit the bill.
On the other hand, this 2,660 square foot apartment, with luxurious amenities including a sauna, is listed at $3,600 USD per month!
As of July of 2019, the government is charging a 13% tax on rentals that exceed 1.5 times the government set “basic salary,” which is 426,200 colones. That means that any monthly rental that costs more than 639,300 colones (which is approximately $1,070 at the time of writing) will incur a 13% tax. So, this lovely apartment will run you $3,600 plus an additional $468 in taxes that payed by the owner.
Cost of Buying
This rural home in Nandayure Guanacaste, measuring 1,500 square feet, is listed for sale at $85,000. The nearest beach is approximately 1.5 hours away.
On the other extreme, this home, overlooking Playa Carrillo, and measuring a whopping 13,300 square feet is listed for 2.35 million dollars.
Cost of Food
The Costa Rican government pays close attention to the prices of items in La Canasta Basica Alimentaria, which is food and other necessities such as hygiene products and cleaning supplies. In fact, the government directly controls the price of rice. A kilogram bag of this basic component of tico food sells for 621 colones or just a bit more than one US dollar.
The easiest way to save money while food shopping in Costa Rica is to start at the local central markets and farmers’ markets; and, then only get what you have to at the grocery store.
Central markets feature local vendors selling fresh produce, meat, fish, and other products. Prices are usually low.
The largest central market in Costa Rica is in San Jose. It spans an entire block and houses more than 200 vendors.
There is another, smaller market in San Jose called Borbon Central Market, that is worth a visit. It is located just three blocks from the main market.
Heredia’s central market is one block to the east from Los Angeles Church and adjoining park.
In Atenas, the Mercado Municipal de Atenas is just two blocks northeast of the town park.
Most large towns have a central market. These markets are usually located near a church and a park. These three pieces often serve as the civic center of community life. If you find yourself in an unfamiliar town in Costa Rica, the easiest way to find the local market, is to look for the nearest church steeple and/or public park.
The very best values on food in Costa Rica can be found at a farmer’s market, referred to locally as una feria del agricultor. Almost every city and little town has at least one farmer’s market that operates on Saturday morning.
These markets are great for buying produce directly from the farmers that cultivate it. You can get fresh vegetables and fruit, including delicious items that usually aren’t available in much of North America.
The Saturday morning farmer’s market in Heredia runs down Avenida 14 for almost a kilometer! It is huge.
The farmer’s market in Alajuela is located two blocks west of the Santa Anita gas station. It operates both Friday and Saturday.
Atenas is odd in that the farmer’s market is on Friday. You can find it a block south of the town’s central market.
In the wealthy suburb, Escazu, you will find the farmer’s market on the south side of the Catholic Church, on Saturday.
In Jaco, the nearest beach town from the Central Valley, the farmer’s market is on the south side of the stadium on Saturdays.
The Salon Comunal de La Fortuna hosts the farmer’s market on Friday, in the popular La Fortuna area, near Arenal volcano.
Sometimes you just want to eat out. Fortunately, there are a variety of restaurants, including inexpensive ones, in Costa Rica.
In rich suburbs such as Escazu and Santa Ana, you will find fine dining with accompanying prices. For example, at Doris Metropolitan, you can enjoy a porterhouse steak for 34,900 colones or almost $60 USD.
The word to remember when you want to eat out for little money is: soda.
A soda in Costa Rica isn’t a carbonated beverage. It is a mom-and-pop restaurant that usually serves basic local food, or comida tipica, for a low price. Sodas are everywhere in the country.
They usually serve eggs, bacon or sausage, and gallo pinto in the morning. For lunch and dinner, you can get a casado, which is a standard meal plate consisting of meat, a vegetable or salad, with beans and rice. You can wash it down with an agua fresca (fruit water).
A meal with drink at a soda usually goes for around 2,500 to 3,500 colones. That works out to between $4 to $6 US dollars.
Cost of Medical Care
Medical care is significantly less expensive in Costa Rica than in the United States. However, that isn’t saying much because the US leads the world in expenditure per capita. In fact, the average US citizen spends more on healthcare in a year than the average Costa Rican earns in a year.
Public Healthcare System
Costa Rica has universal healthcare that is delivered through a public system, called Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, or simply the Caja. Citizens and legal residents pay a percentage of their income, on a sliding scale that runs from 5.18% to 10.69%.
A retiree that draws $1,400 per month in US social security benefits would pay 6.24% or $87.36 for 100% public health coverage for himself or herself, spouse, and family.
While the public system healthcare is generally regarded as high quality, there are often long waits for service and little opportunity for patients to choose providers.
Private Healthcare System
There is a private health insurance market that many foreign residents and wealthier citizens utilize as a supplement to public coverage.
The government-owned Instituto Nacional de Seguro, or INS, offers private health insurance for monthly premiums ranging from $40 to $300, depending on your specific situation.
If you are planning on spending an extended amount of time in Costa Rica, but not quite enough to become a legal resident, you might consider travel medical insurance.
This kind of insurance will pay for emergency medical service in Costa Rica, as well as, the cost of a medical evacuation. Policies can run as little $60 per month or less.
Cost of Fun
If you are planning on taking some extended travel in Costa Rica, you clearly will want to have some fun!
There are a whopping 28 national parks. Entrance fees to these parks range from five US dollars up to $50 (for Isla del Coco National Park) plus a 13% tax. Often, Costa Rican citizens enjoy a discount, and in some cases free admission, a foreigner is bound to pay the full price.
At the various national parks, activities include hiking, horseback riding, viewing wildlife, beach-going, and canopy tours.
Day trips from the Central Valley to many of the popular day tour locations, such as Poas volcano and the hot springs at La Fortuna, can cost $100 or more per person from a tour operator.
If you have a group, you can save significant money by renting a car for a day, and driving to your destination. Or, even cheaper, take the bus.