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Costa Rica: Money Saving Tips on Dining Out

costa rica dining tipsWhen we first made a trip to Costa Rica, we had known it is was one of the more expensive Latin American countries but we were still surprised how expensive it was to dine out. I mean, we were paying Vegas prices and Vegas isn’t cheap anymore.

Until we figured out the five tips below, we were spending as much as $50/ each meal for the two of us – ouch!

Now, if you’ve been living in Costa Rica for a while or have made several trips, you already know most of these tips but for the fellow GenX-ers out there who are just starting to investigate where they might want to retire, these should help you stay on budget whether you’re there for a short trip or a long stay.

1. Avoid the tourist areas and chains

I know what you’re thinking…. Well, duh!

I know it is just common sense but sometimes after a few too many cool tropical drinks; while laying on a warm beach, you start making decisions you might not have made if you were somewhere else. So, before you start drinking, figure out where the nearest good Tico (Costa Rican) restaurant is located, so you can go there when you get hungry. It might be a bit of an extra walk but it’s a tropical paradise, so enjoy it!

2. Ask the locals

This one kind of goes in the same category as the one above but if you know some folks in the area, ask them where the best places to eat for cheap can be found. If you’re staying in a hotel or a B&B ask at the front desk. We found that everyone was very nice and eager to help.

3. Sodas are your friend in Costa Rica

Sodas are small local diners. They range from cafeteria style, sit-down places to a simple 4 stools and a bar type eatery. The common thread among them is that they are simple. Both in style/decor and menu selection.

Don’t mistake simple for bad or plain – it’s not. Some of the best/most flavorful meals we found in Costa Rica were when we tried a new Soda and got a Casado and at between $4 to $6, they barely made a dent in our wallet.  Often, they were better than any of the “fine dining” places we tried for 10-times the price.

4. Bocas and Beer

Bocas means “mouths” in Spanish but in this context, it means small snacks. Sometimes they’re referred to as boquitas. It used to be that you could go into bars and get bocas while you were drinking for free. Sadly, those days seem to be over.

However, bocas are still pretty cheap in most places (especially if you’re drinking since they give you a price break) and they’re small (think appetizer) so you can try a few of them together to make a meal. We saw them as cheap as $0.50 a serving. So, for just a few bucks you could try 4 small plates and wash them down with a cerveza fría (cold beer). Tasty, refreshing and filling.

5. Don’t Overtip

When you’re dining out in Costa Rica, be sure to check your bill before you tip. All restaurants in Costa Rica add a 13% i.v.i tax AND often a “service tax” of 10%. Yes, you read that right, that is a total of 23% in addition to your bill. So, if you had a $40 dinner, you’re now paying $49. A lot of gringos (foreigners) are used to tipping 15% to 20%, so they add that on top, assuming their bill was $49. Although, the 10% service is not exactly a tip, as a general rule Costa Ricans do not tip. Now, don’t get me wrong, Ticos work hard for their living and tips are still appreciated. So, if you get exceptional service and want to leave a little extra, tipping 5% to 10% is always nice.

Just by following these three simple tricks, your stay in Costa Rica can be quite a bit less of a hit on your wallet.

Hope you found this helpful and if you have something to add, please leave a comment.

You may also like our posts: Costa Rica Coffee Anyone? and Traveling to Costa Rica with IBS.


About Tim

is a professional geek. He is a founding partner of JTR Tech and enjoys all things technology. He and his wife Joanna started AbroadDreams.com to help them plan and solidify their dream of moving abroad. After two years in Puerto Rico and Europe, Tim and Joanna are now back in the USA and exploring the American Southwest.

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  1. Hi guys,
    Nice article. Good to see some younger people wanting to move abroad. My wife and I just moved to Grecia in June. We are both in our early 40’s and are loving early retirement.

    Here in Grecia, the soda is the way to go. For $14 we can get 2 huge meals and a couple of beers – you really can’t beat it.


    • Hi Greg,
      Thanks for commenting. I totally agree: Sodas are the way to go. How do you like Grecia? I would love to hear more about your experience, especially with getting housing and healthcare set up.


  2. I do customized vacation itineraries to Costa Rica. I live there part time and lived there full time for 8 years. I have seen CR become gradually more expensive. But yes the “sodas” run by locals are cheaper places to eat. And “non tourist restaurants” The 13% sales tax adds a lot to the bill plus there is a 10% tips already on the bill when you get it.
    Over all I find eating out is about the same cost as eating out in Atlanta, Georgia (where I live in the USA)
    However if you venture into Nicaragua or Panama you see prices drop drastically.
    anncreed23@gmail.com http://www.costaricalearn.com

    • Hi Ann,
      Everyone we’ve talked to has said the same thing: CR used to be cheap… We are also considering Panama as a possible retirement destination 🙂

  3. Thanks for the great suggestions. We have found the restaurants in Costa Rica to be expensive. We will have to look for more of the local Sodas and keep an eye on our tipping to try and keep our costs down.

    • Glad the suggestions helped. The service tax seems to be one of those things no one tells you about. Just remember to make sure they got their service tax before you decide on their tip. You don’t want to short someone if it wasn’t included.