Explore Costa Rica
Most towns in Costa Rica have a wide range of places to stay, and even the smallest settlements usually have basic lodgings. Prices are higher than you’d pay in other Central American countries, but they’re by no means exorbitant, and certainly not when compared with the US or Western Europe. Budget accommodation runs the gamut from the extremely basic, where $20 will get you little more than a room and a bed, to reasonably well-equipped accommodation with a clean, comfortable en-suite room, a fan and possibly even a TV for around $30 a night. In the middle and upper price range, facilities and services are generally of a very good standard throughout the country. When considering the cost, remember that not all hotels list the hotel tax in the published price, which is thirteen percent.
The larger places to stay in Costa Rica are usually called hotels. Posadas, hostals, hospedajes and pensiones are smaller, though posadas can sometimes be quite swanky, especially in rural areas. Casas tend to be private guesthouses or B&Bs, while albergues are the equivalent of lodges. Cabinas are common in Costa Rica, particularly in coastal areas: they’re usually either a string of motel-style rooms in an annexe away from the main building or, more often, separate self-contained units. Usually – although not always – they tend toward the basic, and are most often frequented by budget travellers. More upmarket versions may be called “villas” or “chalets”. Anything called a motel – as in most of Latin America – is unlikely to be used for sleeping.
Few hotels except those at the upper end of the price range have double beds, and it’s more common to find two or three single beds. Single travellers will generally be charged the single rate even if they’re occupying a double room, though this is sometimes not the case in popular beach towns and at peak seasons.
Incidentally, wherever you’re staying, don’t expect to get much reading done in the evenings – light bulbs are very wan, even in good hotels. Also bear in mind that in Costa Rican hotels, the term “hot water” can be misleading. Showers are often equipped with squat plastic nozzles (water heaters), inside which is an electric element that heats the water to a warm, rather than hot, temperature. Some of the nozzles have a button that actually turns on the element. Under no circumstances should you touch this button or get anywhere near the nozzle when wet – these contraptions may not be quite as bad as their tongue-in-cheek name of “suicide showers” suggests, but there’s still a distinct possibility you could get a nasty shock. The trick to getting fairly hot water is not to turn on the pressure too high. Keep a little coming through to heat the water more efficiently.
Costa Rica’s hotels tend to be chock-full in high season (Nov–April), especially at Christmas, New Year and Easter, so reserve well ahead, particularly for youth hostels and good-value hotels in popular spots. Many hotels, even budget ones, are online, so the easiest and surest way to reserve in advance is with a credit card by email. Once on the ground in Costa Rica, phone or email again to reconfirm your reservation. Some establishments will ask you to reserve and pay in advance – the more popular hotels and lodges require you to do this as far as thirty days ahead, often by money transfer.
If you prefer to be a little more spontaneous, travelling in the low season, from roughly after Easter to mid-November, can be easier, when you can safely wait until you arrive in the country to make reservations. During these months, it’s even possible to show up at hotels on spec – there will probably be space, and possibly even a low-season discount of as much as thirty to fifty percent.
Pensiones and hotels
When travelling, most Costa Ricans and nationals of other Central American countries stick to the lower end of the market and patronize traditional pensiones (a fast-dying breed in Costa Rica, especially in San José) or established Costa Rican-owned hotels. If you do likewise, you may well get a better price than at the tourist or foreign-owned hotels, although this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Though standards are generally high, you should expect to get what you pay for – usually clean but dim, spartan rooms with cold-water showers. If you think you might have a choice or want to shop around, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask to see the room first.
The majority of accommodation catering to foreigners is in the middle range, and as such is reasonably priced – although still more expensive than similar accommodation in other Central American countries. Hotels at the lower end of this price category will often offer very good value, giving you private bath with hot water, perhaps towels, and maybe even air conditioning (which, it has to be said, is not really necessary in most places; a ceiling fan generally does fine). At the upper end of this price range, a few extras, like TV, may be thrown in.
Resorts, lodges and B&Bs
There are many resorts scattered throughout Costa Rica, ranging from swanky hotels in popular places like Manuel Antonio to lush rainforest eco-lodges in areas of outstanding natural beauty – the sort of hideaways that have their own jacuzzis, swimming pools, spas, gourmet restaurants and private stretches of jungle. These rank among the finest – and most expensive – places to stay in the country (For more information, see Top 5 eco-lodges for a few of our favourites), though prices can fall dramatically out of season, when you might be able to get yourself a night or two of luxury for as little as $150.
A new breed of B&Bs (often owned by expats) has sprung up in recent years, similar to their North American or UK counterparts, offering rooms in homes or converted homes with a “family atmosphere”, insightful local advice and a full breakfast. As well as those listed in the Guide, you can search online for Costa Rican B&Bs at w www.bedandbreakfast.com/costa-rica.html.
Though camping is fairly widespread in Costa Rica, gone are the days when you could pitch your tent on just about any beach or field. With the influx of visitors, local residents (especially in small beachside communities) have grown tired of campers leaving rubbish on the beach – you’ll have a far better relationship with them if you ask politely whether it’s OK to camp first.
In beach towns, you’ll usually find at least one well-equipped private campsite, with good facilities including lavatories, drinking water and cooking grills; staff may also offer to guard your clothes and tent while you’re at the beach. You may also find hotels, usually at the lower end of the price scale, where you can pitch your tent on the grounds and use the showers and washrooms for a fee. Though not all national parks have campsites, the ones that do usually offer high standards and at least basic facilities, with lavatories, water and cooking grills – all for around $2 per person per day. In some national parks, you can bunk down at the ranger station if you call well in advance; for more details, For more information, see National parks and reserves.
There are three general rules of camping in Costa Rica: first, never leave your tent (or anything of value inside it) unattended, or it may not be there when you get back. Second, never leave your tent open except to get in and out, unless you fancy sharing your sleeping quarters with snakes, insects, coati or toads. Finally, take your refuse with you when you leave.
Costa Rica has over two hundred hostels and backpackers’, offering dorm beds for as little as $5 a night; most have a range of double, triple and family rooms, and many offer additional services including internet access (often for free), laundry and luggage storage. Bed linen, towels and soap are generally included in the price. There are only four official youth hostels affiliated with Hostelling International – Jardines Arenal in La Fortuna, Vista Serena Hostel in Manuel Antonio and Hostel Casa Yoses and Mi Casa Hostel in San José – which cost around $11–14 per night. As with all accommodation in Costa Rica, bookings should ideally be made several months in advance if you’re visiting in high season.Read More
Staying with a Costa Rican family
Staying with a Costa Rican family
There’s no better way to experience life off the tourist trail and to practise your Spanish than staying with a Tico family. Usually enjoyable, sometimes transformative, this can be a fantastic experience, and at the very least is sure to provide genuine contact with Costa Ricans.
Most homestay programmes are organized by the country’s various language schools and cater mainly to students. However, some schools may be willing to put you in contact with a family even if you are not a student at the school in question. The Ilisa Language School (t 2280-0700, w www.ilisa.com), one of San José’s largest, is particularly helpful in this regard. Stays can last from one week to several months, and many travellers use the family home as a base while touring the country. You’ll have your own key, but in most cases it would be frowned upon if you brought someone home for the night. The one rule that always applies is that guests and hosts communicate in Spanish. Costs, which include meals and laundry, average about $840 a month.
For a non-study-based option, try Bells’ Home Hospitality (t 2225-4752, w www.homestay-thebells.org), run by a long-time resident of Costa Rica, Vernon Bell, and his wife Marcela, who arrange for individuals, couples and families to stay in private rooms in a family home, with private or shared bath; singles cost $30, doubles $50. Breakfast is included in the price, with evening meals available for an additional $9. Another recommended organization is Monteverde Homestays (t 2645-6627, w www.monteverdehomestay.com), which offers accommodation in a range of family homes near the Santa Elena and Monteverde reserves for $25 per night including breakfast.
Other points of contact for homestays as well as longer-term apartment rentals and houseshares include adverts in the Tico Times (although homestays and flats listed here tend to be expensive), the (Spanish) classifieds in La Nación and the notice boards of hostels and guesthouses.