By Ashley Harrell
August 12, 2014
Whit Richardson / Alamy

An increasingly expensive destination, Costa Rica often sends backpackers hitchhiking for cheaper meals and stays in Panama and Nicaragua. Still, a few budget holdouts continue treating the not-so-well-heeled to enlightening, delicious, and fun experiences.

Some of these are hostels found in all the guidebooks, others are small B&Bs hidden in popular beach towns or dangling off remote peninsulas. In many cases, the creative and worldly owners have fixed up modest digs into hubs of art, culture, and international bonding. These owners are chefs, surfers, teachers, artists, and bartenders by trade, but they’ve all got something in common: they built the places they always dreamed of staying in.

I may be a sucker for the modern comforts, but I can also appreciate a great hostel or small hotel that makes me feel at home. Without a doubt, I’ve met some of my most interesting travel companions while staying at these places.

Rancho Armadillo

Hidden in a low-key neighborhood a ways off the beach, this B&B is run by Rick Vogel, an expat from Detroit who might be the nicest person in the country. Rick, who used to teach at a culinary school, will make you delicious piña coladas, not to mention a special five-course meal. He’ll also show you the stars through his telescope and drive you to the bus.

Rancho Burica

At the very end of civilization on the remote Burica peninsula, 27 Dutch people own and operate this charming oceanfront lodge. Although it’s been years since the group bought the property and set it up as a surfers paradise, the cabinas remain comfy and the communal meals are super tasty.

Rockin’ J’s Hostel

In the country’s best backpacker town (Puerto Viejo), this is the best backpacker crash pad. People call it “the vortex,” because thanks to the chill atmosphere, amazing art-covered walls and reasonably priced but delicious restaurant, nobody ever seems to leave. Hammocks, private rooms, and dorm space are all available. Staying here means the party comes to you.

Flutterby House

Just a few minutes from Playa Uvita on the southern Pacific coast, this upscale hostel features tree houses and private cabinas alongside its open-air dorms and tent space. Everything was constructed with local hardwood, and brightly colored art and hammocks abound, making this place feel like a distinctive little slice of paradise. Also, there’s ping-pong.

Hostel Pangea

In downtown San José, this is the hostel everyone will tell you stay in. And for once, everyone is right. Attractive murals adorn the walls in this backpacker Mecca, and a refreshing swimming pool beckons outdoors. Upstairs, a delicious café serves three meals a day to those who are booked for the evening.