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The beach at Playa Manzanillo was stunning and we practically had it to ourselves. (Image: Julie Gallagher)
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How to spend a week in Costa Rica for $700

Traveling can be so expensive, especially when you are on a young professional's budget, like me. Costa Rica has been at the top of my dream travel list for a long time now, what with its gorgeous beaches, hiking, sloths etc. So, last month my friend and I decided to take our dream trip, but stay within a strict budget.

We went Costa Rica for six days for about $700, and you definitely can, too! Here’s how we did it:

We monitored flight prices using the app Hopper. Select where you want to go, what airport(s) you are willing to fly out of, your travel dates and whether or not they are flexible, and then the app tracks any increase or decrease in airfare and gives you a notification when there is a good deal. We snagged round-trip airfare for $280 with Spirit Airlines from BWI to San Jose, with a layover in Ft. Lauderdale both ways. These prices are fairly consistent during this time of year -- currently November flights are around $330.

Airfare is generally less expensive this time of year because it is Costa Rica’s rainy season, aka the "off-season." Fortunately, Costa Rica has several micro-climates, and Puerto Viejo, where we planned to spend the bulk of our trip, was experiencing it's drier season August-October. Puerto Viejo is a little beach town on the Caribbean side of the country full of beautiful beaches, wildlife, hiking trails, good food and fun. Lesson learned is a little research can save you a lot of money.

MONDAY

We landed in San Jose around 12:30 p.m., and our hostel, Costa Rica Backpackers, offered an airport shuttle for $26 total. We stayed in a six-person female dormitory, since we were looking to save money where we could, and one night cost us $11 each. We booked our hostels a few weeks before we left using Hostelworld.com. There was a pool, outdoor seating, happy hour with discounted drinks at their little bar and other events and amenities available throughout the week. We walked around San Jose somewhat aimlessly during the afternoon and evening. The only thing on our list to check out was the Mercado Central, and then we had dinner at a local brewpub, Costa Rica Beer Factory. After that, we went back to our hostel for a much-needed sleep before our adventurous Tuesday.

Total Spent: $56

TUESDAY

The trip from San Jose to Puerto Viejo is about five hours, but thankfully we were able to make an adventure out of it! Booked through Gecko Trail, we went white-water rafting on the Pacuare River. The trip cost $99 per person, but included hotel-to-hotel transportation, breakfast, lunch and rafting. Paddling through the rapids was quite the workout, but so much fun, and I still can't get over the views of the rain forest, the waterfalls, the wildlife, the beauty of the canyons we passed through and how fun our tour guide made the experience for us. After about three hours of paddling, we stopped at a halfway point on the river for lunch. Once we got back on the river, the rapids intensified but at that point I felt like we had all gotten the hang of it (despite some doubts in the beginning) and paddled through even more beautiful scenery for about another hour. We ended our trip at the place where we ate breakfast, changed into dry clothes and went on our way to Puerto Viejo. We arrived in Puerto Viejo exhausted and hungry at about 7 p.m.

We stayed at the hostel Playa 506 in Puerto Viejo, and I cannot recommend it enough! It was like a resort, and we stayed in a private room for three nights for $75/ per person total. The hostel is right on the beach, complete with hammocks, an outdoor restaurant and a bar on site. When we checked in, the receptionist informed us that we were just in time for free pasta night, so our dinner was included, too! The only money we spent that day that wasn’t already accounted for was on two cocktails each, which brought us to about $15 per person.

Total spent: $114

WEDNESDAY

After an intense Tuesday, we were ready to chill on Wednesday. We woke up to see the sunrise and then napped the rest of the morning in the hammocks. Free breakfast was served daily from 7:30 a.m to 10 a.m. Rice and beans, scrambled eggs, papaya, pineapple, rolls, coffee and tea were always available.

After breakfast we hung out on the beach at the hostel. In the afternoon, we rented bikes from the hostel for $10 each (for 24 hours) and rode into the main part of town, full of restaurants, bars, cute touristy shops, tours and rentals, etc. We rode to the other side of town and stopped at a beach that had black sand. We swam and sunbathed there and then biked to a restaurant to have some lunch. It had all-day happy hour with 2 for 1 cocktails. Our total spent at lunch was about $16 each.

For dinner, we went to a “soda,” which are local little restaurants. It was the best meal I’ve probably ever had in my whole life: arepas as an appetizer and a chorizo and fruit salsa sandwich for the entree. Our hostel had 2-for-1 happy hour on Wednesday night, too, so we chilled in the hammocks and had our drinks.

Total spent: $127

THURSDAY

After our delicious (and free) breakfast, we rented our bikes for another 24 hours and biked five miles to Playa Manzanillo. It was stunning and we practically had it to ourselves. The water was perfectly turquoise and the palm trees provided some much-needed shade from the cloudless sky. We spent about two hours swimming in the waves, and went to a little supermarket up the street for ice pops.

We then biked back another five miles just in time for a tour at Caribeans, a coffee shop, cacao farm and chocolate factory. The tour cost $28 for three hours. The owner gave the tour, which included a short uphill hike through the farm, a chocolate tasting at the very top of the mountain overlooking the rainforest and a tour through their factory explaining how the chocolate is made. We sat and had iced cappuccinos and chocolate strawberry muffins at the shop after the tour concluded -- and you can bet we bought some chocolate bars to bring home!

After the tour and our long day of biking, we decided to eat dinner at the hostel. It was also ladies’ night, with free happy hour, live music, an open mic night and a bonfire on the beach. We fell asleep pretty early since we were sunburnt, sore and tired.

Total spent: $48

FRIDAY

Our last morning in Puerto Viejo was blissful. After breakfast (and a stop at Caribeans for iced coffee) we took the bikes into town and walked around, poking in and out of shops. After soaking up the last bit of beach time in town, we went back to the hostel for our final naps in the hammocks. We had booked a shuttle back to San Jose through our hostel that cost $55 each. It was was supposed to be a five hour trip, but because of some confusion between the hostel, us and the shuttle company, our ride was roughly eight hours. When we finally arrived back at Costa Rica Backpackers in San Jose, we paid for our $11 room, booked our shuttle to the airport for $26 total, and headed to an Irish pub across the street. It was packed with people enjoying a night out, and we sat silently in the corner scarfing down our burgers -- I think that’s how I want to spend all of my Friday nights from now on!

Total spent: $91

SATURDAY

Our final day in Costa Rica! We had free breakfast at the hostel (pancakes, fruit and coffee), packed up our stuff and headed to the airport.

GRAND TOTAL: $716

Do you want to go to Costa Rica, too? Here are my tips for experiencing that Pura Vida life on a budget:

  • Track flights through Hopper
  • Go to Costa Rica during rainy or off season (but research the climates and weather for the places you actually plan on visiting)
  • Consider flying Spirit Airlines or another discount airline
  • Stay at hostels, which are extremely common in Costa Rica and often have great perks
  • Take advantage of free meals
  • Eat at “sodas” for local, inexpensive cuisine
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