Is Costa Rica a good spot for Digital Nomads?
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
Sorry to say but I vote No, and here is why...
A Bit of Background on Why Costa Rica
After living in Bali for a year in 2021, Andres and I traveled to Central America to see if we could find something "Bali-like" closer to our family in California. I was curious to see if we could fall in love with a beautiful surf-town somewhere in Central America that would be easier to visit family from. Yet was still a lush, green area with great surf, a lower cost of living compared to the States, and a spiritual/yoga community. We decided to start in Costa Rica and work our way around Central America from there. I want to give you this background because I didn't travel through Costa Rica as a backpacker nor on a family vacation, I traveled looking for a home base. So the main perspective I have written in is looking for a Digital Nomad home base, but I do touch on backpacking and full-blown nomading too :)
Arriving in Costa Rica
Immediately when we landed in Costa at the end of February 2022, I was shocked at how brown it was. I had been once before, and I remembered it being lush and green. Little did I know that Costa Rica (and a lot of other countries in the area) have OMEGA dry seasons. Where huge areas turn extremely dry and dusty, when the trees hibernate, and the overall color palette is shades of brown. There were also wildfires every day while I was there. You could see them burning on the ridgelines each day, and when I drove around the country we actually passed two very large fires that had come up to the sides of the road.
I had heard of the dry and wet seasons of course, but having come from Southeast Asia I thought that just meant, loads of rain, and not so much rain. But that is not the case in this area. Here "dry season" means zero rain and a very dry desert-like atmosphere. So please note if you are looking for a lush green Costa Rica go during the wet season, or immediately after the wet season if you plan on visiting any of these areas circled below.
We started our stay in Tamarindo on the Guanacaste peninsula. The Guanacaste peninsula is known for being more expensive than other parts of Costa Rica for a few reasons. 1) It is quite far away and I think it costs more money to bring supplies out to this otherwise sparsely inhabited area 2) It now has a huge reputation for vacation travel from the USA and Canada creating huge price gaps between tourists or "gringo" prices and local prices. 3) There are a lot of resorts here, so I think that aids in reason number two also.
We decided to start in Tamarindo anyways because we were looking for a surf town that was built up enough to have luxuries like nail salons and great wifi, yet wasn't quite so much of a tourist destination like Jaco for example.
When I was doing research it looked like Tamarindo is the next most built-up town behind the Jaco area. Plus Tamarindo was said to have good surf for intermediate and advanced surfers close by.
In hindsight, I wouldn't recommend traveling to the Guanacaste peninsula unless 1) you are a group of backpackers traveling and can split transportation costs, because it costs around $50-150 USD to get from town to town 2) you are a well off family on vacation and don't mind spending $2,000 - $5,000 for a week or two vacation and want to experience this side of the country among others during your stay.
Why is transportation so expensive?
That's a great question, after asking around I have come to two conclusions. First, there seems to be a unionized pricing structure here for certain things. For example, taking a shuttle from San Jose to Tamarindo (which is only 150 miles) takes 5 hours and costs a min of $220 USD to up $270 USD. Any driver you call or ask will charge you the same amount. Secondly, there is a shortage of vehicles in the country. Several ex-pats and long-term residents of Costa Rica explained to me that since COVID, transportation and car rental prices have gone up even more because there is a shortage of vehicles in the country. The car rental companies can't get their hands on more vehicles because of all the shipping issues in the world right now.
Andres and I did try and rent a car for the month we were there but the car rental places were sold out. They did give us a quote of $1,500 for one month if you are curious about how much it would cost if there was a car available.
And thirdly, it is hard to get around the country. Costa Rica is lacking infrastructure very badly. It takes 5 hours to go 161 miles. There aren’t freeways, there’s lots of traffic, the roads are small and you travel at an average of 30 miles an hour. Also, there aren’t direct routes to the main places most people want to travel to, so you have to loop around a lot. For example, we wanted to travel down to Santa Teresa to check it out, but once we mapped it out and got pricing for it we realized it definitely wasn’t worth it. Here is what it would have cost:
Transportation to Santa Teresa: $150 USD + 4 hours of driving
Hotel or AirBNB rental for 4 nights ($105 USD per night): $420 USD
Transportation to San Jose Airport: $250 USD + 6 hours of driving + ferry ride
4 NIGHTS + TRANSPORT: $820
If you were going to make Costa Rica your home base you would have a couple of options for transportation. The best option would be to buy a car, you could rent a car but would need to plan far in advance, you could rent a quad but those are also around $1,000 a month, or you could take the bus.
This was also extremely high, I can only speak to pricing in the Guanacaste peninsula because that is where I stayed and where I was actively looking up pricing to move around to when decided where to go after Tamarindo.
The hotels and hostels seem to be set up for - either family tourism who are okay to spend $1,000 – $3,000 USD a week for accommodation, or for backpackers who spend $400 USD a month to sleep on a bunk bed with no air conditioning in a room with 4 to 8 other people. There isn’t really anything in-between.
Where I stayed for two weeks in Tamarindo, it was the most in-between I found. It was $68 a night and in the heart of Tamarindo. But for the $68 USD a night you get surprisingly little, and for $50 USD a night much much less. For the $68 USD a night we had a room with A/C that worked but made very loud noises all through the night that would wake us up if we didn’t wear earplugs. The shower was PVC pipe coming out of a hole in the wall with a showerhead glued on the end. The bath towels seem to be at least 15 years old, and the bed was a full-size bed with two flat pillows and a sheet. Now if you drop that down to $50 USD a night you get everything described above but the room was very tiny, with only about 1.5 ft of space around the bed, a bathroom so small your knees touch the opposite wall, no hot water, and no air conditioning.
You may be thinking, "Well you are only paying $50 USD for a hotel," but what doesn’t add up is that for that same price in all the neighboring countries you would have decent accommodation. The prices in Costa Rica are extremely inflated, and being a world traveler with a lot to compare it to, I just can’t help but feel gouged and unfairly charged for little value in Costa Rica.
Wifi and Places to Work
Luckily our Hotel has good enough wifi for us to work from there. There was one other cafe in town called Nordico, that was good to work at, but it only had about 10 seats and it would be completely full by 10 AM so if you missed your window you were out of luck. There is a Selina in Tamarindo, however, it isn't a very comfortable place to work from. You are outside under a shade structure, with no A/C, and you are sitting on picnic bench-style seats which don't feel great for me after a few hours of work.
What about food?
The cost of food was very high at the restaurants and cafes. Especially in Tamarindo at the beachfront spots. For example, we ordered two mojitos and chips with dip and it was $45 USD. There are cheaper places to eat, and I highly recommend trying the food the abuelas serve out of the back of their cars, it's about $2 USD per plater and very delicious. If you eat at a local soda (Sodas are local Costa Rican cuisine small simple restaurants) that will cost around $8- $10 per person (for rice, beans, plantain, and chicken). If you would like to eat at a restaurant that will cost between $16 - $25 per person (for regular food, nothing fancy).
Ease of Living at a High Cost
In Tamarindo, there are nail salons, hair salons, and ease of access to things like that, but the cost is the same as in California. So $50 USD for a manicure with gel, $150- $250 USD for getting your hair colored, etc. On the positive side though, Costa Rica does have a lot of American brands available for reasonable prices. Like Pantene shampoo for $3 or Tropicana sunscreen for $10. Where as those items in Bali are 5x that price.
The beach towns are either extremely small or extremely touristy. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. In the more built-up beach towns (the extremely touristy ones) they do have more of the daily living amenities available but they are quite expensive considering.
The smaller beach towns are much more rural. With dirt roads, spotty internet, and a handful of restaurants.
I was surprised to find we were completely skunked on the surf in Costa Rica. We arrived at the end of February and stayed until mid-March and didn't have a single swell roll through the Tamarindo area. Since Costa Rica is famous for its surf I was pretty disappointed with this.
Did you like Anything about Costa Rica?
Yes! The nature in the mountains is INCREDIBLE. We took a trip to the Parque Nacional Volcán Poás area and it was amazing. First, Bajos del Toro, also known as The Blue Falls of Costa Rica, is a 4-hour drive from Tamarindo and is stunning. It is in the town of Bajos del Toro in the Alajuela province. The bright blue waterfall was so incredible, and the tropical weather there and the rainforest were what I had been imagining for my trip to Costa Rica. I highly recommend taking a trip to this part of the country. We also explored some of the rainforests and got to see sloths, colorful frogs, and tucans. I will say Mother Earth is epic and so are the animals in Costa Rica.
Comparing around the World
Several people have mentioned to me that I simply can't compare Asia to Central America. That they are simply not priced the same, that Asia is much cheaper and you won't ever find something similar in Central America. I have personally found this to be true, but I am comparing them anyways because as a Digital Nomad I can live anywhere in the world and I would like to compare all my options.
For me, these are the things that I look for in places we want to live:
- Cost of living – goal: $2,000 - $3,000 per month per person
- Ease of Transport
- Ease of living – amenities, house cleaning, nail salon, etc.
- Weather/Terrain – jungle, lush, green, hot, tropical, warm water
- Spiritual Community
- Digital Nomad/Expat Community
- Local Culture- food, rituals, traditions, uniqueness, presence of the culture
How I would rate Costa Rica: ( 1 bad, 2 okay, 3 good, 4 great)
How I would rate Floripa, Brazil: ( 1 bad, 2 okay, 3 good, 4 great)
How I would rate Bali, Indonesia: ( 1 bad, 2 okay, 3 good, 4 great)
All in all, Costa Rica can be a beautiful place to take a family vacation or backpack. But living there for a couple of weeks/months as a digital nomad or creating a home base there doesn’t seem like a good fit. Not for the way that I like to live. There are other countries that offer much more and for a better price and ease of life. Financially speaking Costa Rica is only a fraction cheaper than living in southern California and to me doesn’t seem worth it.
I hope you find this helpful in deciding you'd like to make Costa Rica a stop on your Digital Nomad journey!