Costa Rica on a Budget

You want the Costa Rican sun. You want the powder puff sand. You want the yellow, festive drinks, full of confetti and streamers, but you don’t want to spend a fortune. A holiday in the coastal town of Tamarindo, in the Guanacaste Province, on the Pacific Coast side of the country, can give you all that and more and still be within many people’s budget.

Fruit Market in Costa Rica © Rina Nehdar

Fruit Market in Costa Rica © Rina Nehdar

One way to save money on activities and food is to stay at an all-inclusive resort. That may sound financially daunting, but, when you break down the amount you’d spend on food and drinks and all the sporty stuff you want to do, it would add up to more than the daily fee of an all-inclusive. Well, unless you’re abstaining from having fun on your trip, but who wants to do that?

We stayed at the all-inclusive Occidental Tamarindo, located right on the beach of Playa Langosta. There are 198 rooms renovated in 2010, two restaurants and two bars. It’s not super fancy but it’s the only all-inclusive in the area and you’ll definitely get your money’s worth and have access to the gorgeous, laid-back town of Tamarindo. You can save a ton of money by eating all your meals at the hotel, having some drinks and then going out. They have live shows nightly, so really, if all you want to do is hang out at the beach, eat, drink and be entertained, you’re done. You’ve found your spot. There are rooms at the Occidental Tamarindo in April, May and June at $98 per person, per night and that includes all your food, many types of alcohol, non-motorized sports, like boogie boarding, kayaking and surfing, and a room a short walk to town.

Surfing © Rina Nehdar

Surfing in Costa Rica © Rina Nehdar

A little more affordable, not all-inclusive, but still including breakfast, is the Seis Playa Hotel, where you can get a king-sized bed for $108 and still walk to town and the beach.

If you’re super laid-back and don’t mind sharing your vacation space, you might consider staying at a hostel and really saving money. Some that look good are La Oveja Negra Tamarindo Surf Club, where rooms starts at $24 per night, or Tamarindo Hostel Resort, on the beach and with rates that start at $25 for bunk beds but have other room type options, too.

Market in Costa Rica © Rina Nehdar

Market in Costa Rica © Rina Nehdar

Once you’re ready to explore food venues around town, we really liked the variety and budget-friendly options of the food court called El Mercadito de Tamarindo, with lots of different food ethnicities to try and a wonderful ice-cream shop called POPS. We discovered the hip and modern food court while eating dinner at next door Patagonia Argentinian Grill and Restaurant, a steakhouse, and, even though we don’t really eat red meat, we ate the red meat and it was worth every well-seasoned and blackened bite. While we ate, a couple street performers put on a fire show right outside the restaurant. They threw torches into the air and caught them behind their backs and slid the burning rods into their mouths and the whole thing gave me chills and, as a mom, I worried for their safety. My husband went out and put money in their jar and, after the show, the pair, 30-year-old brave Manfred and 20-year-old super-talented Brian, came inside to thank us and wish us a wonderful stay in their country. They also apologized because their music speaker kept cutting out.

NOI Bistro © Rina Nehdar

NOI Bistro © Rina Nehdar

Really, we didn’t eat a bad meal in Tamarindo. There were many expatriates there living their life to the fullest on a wonderful exchange rate (about 600 colo’n for each U.S. dollar). A few more standouts were NOI Bistro, which had the best breakfast. We couldn’t decide so we ordered three things and shared. I got the AvoSmash, avocado on homemade bread, sunny-side up egg, arugula and seeds. Mmmmm. My husband got the Chia seeds, yogurt and fruit platter and we split the banana pancakes. A cappuccino and limonana later and we were paying about $20. Also, wonderful and affordable for breakfast was all-organic La Bodega.

Surfing Costa Rica © Rina Nehdar

Surfing Costa Rica © Rina Nehdar

For dinner, our favorite was Dragonfly Bar and Grill. One thing we loved about eating in Tamarindo was every restaurant embraced the area’s comfortable beach climate and offered a huge outdoor seating area. We started with a fresh-from-the-sea tuna tartar in a cylindrical presentation with mango, avocado and crispy wontons. Then I had the seafood linguine with shrimp, mussels, calamari and clam in a garlic rose sauce. My husband had red meat again. We are normally fish eaters who may order a Buddha Bowl in a steakhouse but because the food looked so good here, we were ready to party. Fiery Thai beef with chili-lime marinade over cold rice noodles was worth every concern he might have had later about eating too much red meat. We splurged on all that, plus two beers, for $42.

At night, we enjoyed the mellow Longboard’s BBQ Bar and Grill, where locals mingled with tourists over a wide selection of craft beers. Also great was Lizard Lounge, a little more upscale but still Costa Rican friendly on the pocketbook, with a live DJ for dancing.

If you’re going to learn to surf, a good place to do that in town is Witch’s Rock, set in front of a wide beach with a shop that offers lessons. Easy, chill waves in warm water will be your motivating factor and the sun kissing your face won’t hurt either. They also have an 18-room beachfront hotel and offer packages that involve lessons for all skill levels and ages, rentals and breakfasts for $148 a day.

Lola's © Rina Nehdar

Lola’s © Rina Nehdar

If you’re feeling adventurous and don’t mind a ride that involves unpaved, pitted roads toward the end of your journey, you could drive 11 miles, about 40 minutes, to visit Playa Avellanas, a spot for the true surfer. If you happen to be tagging along with that true surfer, you can bring your book and camera and hang out at newly remodeled, outdoor Lola’s right in front of a great break. If you don’t want to drive, you can take the Avellanas Express shuttle from Neptuno Surf Shop, which costs $6 each way and stops at three beaches or a taxi for about $25. If you do drive, you can pay a couple bucks to the guys sitting in the dirt lot wearing traffic vests to “watch your car.”

Finally, bargains can be had from the usual street vendors wearing their wares over every inch of their bodies. Tamarindo also has wonderful, holistic shops and undiscovered designer gear made by those who may have come there looking for a more affordable way of life and just happened to stay.

Shops in Costa Rica © Rina Nehdar

Shops in Costa Rica © Rina Nehdar