This question has been asked to me a million times. And my regular answer will be “well it all depends on your lifestyle!”.
Yesterday while shopping at a local supermarket, I had an American lady before me paying at the cashier. Her shopping was around US$200, her car was full of mostly imported non-healthy items. I carefully watched the cashier trying to pick what it has must be going on in his mind, as that amount should be around his entire monthly income.
Costa Rica is known to have a very productive ground. Fruits and veggies are locally produced and offer a huge variation. People grow fruits in their garden, which is easy to maintain during the rainy season, but costs a lot in water during the dry period.
The prices of the local products are low. Let me give a practical example:
For a papaya you pay by weight; for a whole one like this one in the image, I paid around 800 colones (about US$1.60)
For a whole pineapple 600colones (US$1.20)
For a banana 85colones (US$0.20)
For a bag with 10 to 15 oranges 1000colones (US$2)
And so it will be with most of the locally grown vegetables. Every Friday I attend the local market to do my groceries and spend no more than 25 box for 3 bags full of fresh items that keep my family of 5 satisfied till around Monday or Tuesday.
I try to visit the supermarket once a week, just to stay away from attractive but unhealthy imported and expensive products. We can surely live without them! You can find just about anything you need, but due to shipping, Import and duty fees it may be double or even triple the price of what you are used to in the US or other countries (even from a Caribbean island, were we lived and I thought to be expensive!). Sometimes my kids just want to eat an apple. Well a bag with 10 little red apples will easily cost around 6US$. A big green Golden Smith is like a fortune! But again…15 eggs (they don’t do it by the dozen) costs about US$3-3.50.
We travel once a month/two months to San Jose’ to the Price Smart (a supermarket with membership) to buy big box of toilet paper (20 rolls for 12US$ otherwise it will be much expensive anywhere else!!), peanut butter (US$7 for a jar), olive oil, marmalade, Lysol, etc. and eventually also visit the Walmart in San Jose’, just to have more choice.
In Jaco there is a wide choice in supermarkets: the less shiny but cheaper Maxi Pali’, the more confortable Mas x Menos (which is part of Walmart Group), some others in between, and the most expensive but with good product choice Automercado.
Alcohol is also quiet cheap. I’m not a beer lover, so I have no clue how much that cost. But for a Smirnoff Vodka bottle you may pay around US$14. And to make a drink cheaper and healthier I always surprise friends with a fresh Pina Colada or call it Watermelon Colada, or a fresh strawberry Daiquiri. It makes it tropical! Wines are not cheap at all, probably again due to the high import taxes. Chile and California are not that far! It is normal to pay around US10-12 for a simple bottle.
So, is Costa Rica expensive?
It really depends on you! It probably would be for that lady that did her grocery with 200US$. When in a new country be enough imaginative to mix your new and old culture and watch how locals do.