Fab, cheap, and (just) in control in Costa Rica

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      It's the rainy season and you're roughing it, but scorpions and tropical storms can't spoil the banana drinks, white beaches, and monkeys.

      Two summers ago, my boyfriend and I attempted what seemed the impossible. We aimed to travel to and through Costa Rica for two weeks and spend only $1,000 each, including airfare.

      It all started when I quit my job. With no savings and no employment prospects, shelling out for a vacation was the last thing I should have done. But that was the only time my boyfriend could get off work, so when he found two round-trip tickets to Costa Rica for only $1,000, including taxes and fees, we went for it. Lying on a beach was surely the therapy I needed to relieve the stress I felt over my bleak future.

      The plan was to bring our camping gear to spend as little as possible. Sure, the flight left from Seattle and it was the rainy season in Central America, but those were minor details. I'd been to Costa Rica in the summer before and I didn't recall it being too cold. The storms were refreshing, I told Gerry, temporarily forgetting that the previous time I'd gone south, Mommy and Daddy had paid for everything, including a rental car and hotels that overflowed with hot water.

      Regardless, I was an experienced traveller. And I was good at being cheap. I wasn't worried, and I told my boyfriend, who had never left North America before, not to worry either. And he didn't–until we got there.

      The bus ride to Seattle was a breeze, as was the flight from there. We were excited, already taking photos every step of the way. Then suddenly we were in a muggy airport, everything in Spanish, and stuck fending for ourselves. Within minutes of the bags hitting the carousel, the passengers from our plane disappeared into taxis or shuttle buses into San Jose. We considered grabbing an easy US$20 cab ride downtown. But we stuck to our guns. We were here on a budget, and that meant public transportation all the way, baby.

      I dragged Gerry outside and not five minutes later we were on a bus headed for the central station. Not knowing the fare, I flashed the driver two US$1 bills. (We didn't change money at the airport because we figured the rates were better in town.) The driver gave me some change in colones, and we were on our way.

      Once in downtown San Jose, we wandered the streets for almost two hours looking for a cheap place to stay. We refused to let our 18-kilogram backpacks and flimsy flip-flops deter us from finding the lowest price. To our disappointment, though, we ended up spending $50 on a room that night, almost three times what I was hoping to spend. Es muy caro, very expensive, but we couldn't find anything else. The room was also directly above the hotel's noisy, smoky bar, and had grates in place of windows. We didn't sleep much that night.

      The next morning, we bought fruit and pastries from the local market for breakfast. That filled me up fine, but Gerry, who is a vegetarian, lost his appetite after walking by the pig heads in the meat section. No problem though–less eating meant less cash spent.

      Our destination that day was Santa Teresa, a relaxing surf town on the Nicoya Peninsula in the northwest. Since Costa Rica's bus system is well organized, the trip was easy. After hopping on a bus, a ferry, and then second bus, we were finally dropped at the end of a long sandy road running parallel to the ocean. That road, fitted here and there with houses and hostels, constituted Santa Teresa.

      We asked the clerk at a corner store for the whereabouts of the nearest campsite. He looked at us as if we had gone mad. He pointed far down the road and warned, "It is the rainy season, you know." "We know," we answered, and for the second of many times to come on this vacation, we huffed it on foot to find a place to sleep that night.

      We bargained the owner of Zeneida's campsite down from US$15 to US$10 a night. (Though most transactions are in colones, some prices are still marked in U.S. dollars.) That price covered a place to pitch our tent, and access to a toilet and a cold shower. Perks included privacy–we were the only ones there, surprise, surprise–and the company of hundreds of scuttling purple and orange crabs with large beady, black eyes. Two stinky but irresistible dogs were also part of the package as well as a funky-smelling mattress lent to us by the groundskeeper for free.

      Our time in Santa Teresa didn't cost much because we didn't do much. We slept, read, napped, ate, dozed, snacked, played cards, soaked up the heat, and strolled the beach. A couple times a day, we'd venture down the road to the happening area of town, which consisted of the corner store, a small local restaurant, and a pizza joint. We'd suck back batidos, a simple but delicious banana-water-sugar concoction, drink Imperial beers, and munch on pizza or gallo pinto, the local rice, beans, and meat dish. It was heaven.

      One night, after one of those freak 20-minute tropical storms, we came home to half a metre of water flooding the campground. With a weak flashlight and a beer buzz, we searched for our tent, certain it had washed into the ocean. But there it was, high and dry. Them's the perks of being the only campers in the rainy season: you're allotted the best spot on the site, meaning the highest ground.

      We felt victorious until the next morning, when we woke up to a scorpion clinging to the tent's thin nylon wall directly above our heads. The little guy had obviously climbed inside to survive the storm. Sadly he died–death by shoeing–soon after.

      The following week, we saw more of the country. We visited Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast, a luscious nature reserve with white beaches, monkeys, and throngs of tourists. Most tourists choose the hotels outside the park, but to save money we stayed in Quepos, a small town only seven kilometres away. Next, we bussed across Costa Rica's narrow girth to the east coast, better known for its Rastafarian vibe than its beaches. Wimping out slightly, we stayed in hostels there, but the rooms only cost a couple dollars more than camping.

      We spent a day in Cahuita National Park, checking out more monkeys, beaches, and ocean. The day after, we splurged on a US$20-each snorkelling trip. I don't remember the fish we saw, but it was well worth the expense just to watch our stoic guide Roberto repeatedly save our boatmates from drowning.

      We flew home sun-kissed, relaxed, and smug. We'd spent only $1,000 in two weeks between the two of us on the food, accommodation, and fun. And to top it off, American Airlines put us up for a night in Dallas, then flew us directly to Vancouver because of a mix-up. And I got a new job within a week of being home.

      ACCESS: To find a cheap flight to anywhere, check the Specials section of different airline Web sites. See what flights are on sale, then pick your destination based on interest and price. Costa Rica's off season is its wet season from May to November, so that's when you can get cheaper flights and deals on food and accommodation. Once you are in a country, saving money takes effort. Shop around for everything. Ask a few taxi drivers the cost of the same ride. Check out several hostels before you commit. And walk as much as you can. We found the best way to limit spending was to stay in one place longer. That saved on transportation costs and let us get to know and frequent the best deals in town for restaurants and entertainment.