Mexico or Costa Rica – it’s not an easy one, eh? These two countries burst with character and culture, come laden with jaw-dropping sands, topped by smoking volcanos, and washed by shimmering seas in both the Pacific and the Caribbean. We’d 100% say visit both. But what if you can only visit one?
Cue this guide. It will compare both these Latin nations to help you decide where’s best for you this year. We’ll weigh up the difference in price between the two countries, see which one is top for beach lovers, where has the most happening nightlife and the tastiest food.
Like we said, it’s not going to be an easy one! This is a competition between the taco-scented colonial towns of Mexico, where you’ll surf perfect waves and taste tequila between the canyons, and Costa Rica, the home of ecotourist where you can shorten the bucket list by meeting three-toed sloths. Let’s begin…
Mexico or Costa Rica: Prices
Mexico is a very good choice for budget travelers. Yes, you can splash oodles of cash here on the biggest, most luxurious hotels on the shoreline of Puerto Vallarta or Cancun. They might cost you $300/night. However, average backpacker budgets are much lower than that, at around $30-40/day. Food is very cheap in Mexico – we recall paying about $1 for a taco and access to the adjoining salad bar – and flights to the country from the US and Europe are generally cheaper than to Costa Rica.
Costa Rica actually has a reputation for being one of the pricier places in the Americas. It’s not up there with New York or London, don’t worry about that. However, average estimations for daily costs in this part of the world are about $50-60 for a backpacker and up to $200 for a luxury traveler. That probably eclipses Mexico, especially when it comes to food (which is almost always a little more per dish) and flights (which cost more because there are generally fewer flights to fewer arrival points and the trip is longer).
Winner: Mexico, by quite a long shot!
Mexico or Costa Rica: Food
Mexican food is perhaps one of the most famous and popular cuisines of the world. This is where you’ll taste the likes of tacos, enchiladas, and burritos, along with all manner of regional cuisine, from Oaxacan cheeses to Michoacán sweets. We love dipping into a local taqueria (a taco joint) in Mexico City. They serve up corn fritters with pulled pork and even vegan tacos for under a dollar a pop. The coast – in Cancun and around Puerto Vallarta and Sinaloa – is more famed for its seafood, while northern Mexico offers chilis and Tex-Mex cuisine. Foodies will love it.
Food in Costa Rica often incorporates a mixture of comfort food and traditional family dishes, all showcasing a reoccurring theme of exuberant Latin American flavors. These often include a combination of rice and beans, making it extremely veggie-friendly. The most popular places to eat are known as sodas. They’re small, family-run restaurants where you’ll often find locals chatting over big lunches. Sodas are great for trying traditional dishes and are usually a lot cheaper in price in comparison to restaurants. Don’t expect menus. The food is usually presented buffet style for you to help yourself.
Mexico or Costa Rica: Beaches
There is over 6,000 miles of coastline across Mexico. That means there’s no shortage of white sand and blue sea to get stuck into. Perhaps the most beautiful stretch of beaches lies on the popular Yucatan Peninsula. That’s the coastline running down from Cancun through Tulum and Playa Del Carmen. Famous spots there include Akumal Beach, where you can swim with sea turtles and Cancun Beach, dotted with an extensive range of bars and restaurants. Then you’ve got the wilder Pacific side of the country, a region blessed with epic surf and some lovely but untouched bays on the Riveira Nayarit and in Oaxaca.
Costa Rica itself is home to over 300 beaches, so you will always have plenty of options when it comes to vacays on the sand. The coastline of Costa Rica is bordered by both the Caribbean and the Pacific. We’d say that the best beaches are found in the latter, up in the northwest. However, it’s also hard to ignore the draw of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the Caribbean Sea when it’s in season. Manuel Antonio is a noteworthy beach area, bordered by a famous national park where sloths clamber in the coast trees. Further north comes the Nicoya Peninsula, where long, wave-blasted sands draw surfers.
Winner: Draw – there’s just too much quality in both places!
Mexico or Costa Rica: Things to do
Mexico is a great spot for adventurers. You can scale mighty volcanos like Popocatépetl (expert mountaineers only!) or hike jungle trails in the Sierra Madre. In the sea, activities can involve swimming with whale sharks, spotting crocodiles, and releasing sea turtles. The popular holiday area of the Yucatan also touts cenotes – underground swimming spots in long-lost caves – along with the rich history of UNESCO-tagged Chichen Itza. Others might prefer to get lost in the charming colonial towns of Morelia or San Miguel, while others might choose to hit the distilleries to taste tequila and mezcal.
Similar to Mexico, there are plenty of animals to see in the Costa Rican jungles. In fact, this nation is said to be one of the most biodiverse on the planet. Manuel Antonio and Corcovado National Park are two of the leading places. You can hit them to spot monkeys, sloths, and even jaguars. Costa Rica is also often referred to as the Adventure Capital of the Americas. Popular activities include kayaking, ziplining, whitewater rafting, exploring volcanoes, and horse riding. Oh, and it’s a surfer’s mecca, with more stretches of wave-lined coast than you can shake a stick at.
Winner: Costa Rica. Probably. But just.
Mexico or Costa Rica: Nightlife
Mexico has plenty of nightlife to keep you entertained, but it does vary a lot across the massive country. There are dimly lit mezcal bars in CDMX (that’s Mexico City, for example) but full-on mega clubs in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Talking of Cancun…that’s the nightlife mecca of the Caribbean region. It’s the hub of the so-called Riviera Maya, a whole stretch of resorts that get positively pumping when spring break is on, and at any other time of the year for that matter – think clubs like the infamous Coco Bongo! There’s also a wild nightlife scene in Cabo San Lucas and spots like Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific, where you can also escape to smaller surf towns for something a touch more chilled.
The Costa Rican nightlife offers something for everyone, but it is noticeably more relaxed than in Mexico. The beach towns of Santa Teresa and Mal Pais are all about reggae nights and karaoke bars. San Jose is the capital city of Costa Rica and a popular hotspot for sampling the nightlife in more local venues. But the real capital of partying in this wild nation is Tamarindo. Once a sleepy fishing town, it was made famous by its waves, and now hosts all manner of bumping all-nighter bars that burst with gringo dancers and drinkers fresh off the surf.
Mexico or Costa Rica: Climate and weather
Due to its size, Mexico experiences a variety of climates. In general, the temperature tends to increase as you move from north to south, while the whole country enters into its rainy season from May through to October. The popular Yucatan Peninsula has a tropical climate and sees average high temperatures of 90 Fahrenheit, with the atmosphere remaining humid throughout the year. The best time to travel to that part of the country is usually between December and April, but beware of a crossover with the notorious spring break in the US, when Cancun et al will get busy! The western side of the country is also great between November and March, while inland the winters can be cooler because most towns are pretty high up.
Costa Rica has built itself a reputation for year-round warm weather, with an average annual temperature of between 75 and 90 Fahrenheit. This temperature can differ based on where you are, with the coast often slightly warmer in comparison to the inland jungles. The reason for this continuous heat is Costa Rica’s proximity to the equator. But it’s the rain that influences the seasons the most…December to April is the dry season and the most popular time to visit Costa Rica. May to November is the wet season, however it may just rain once a day then, and the month of July is even often referred to as “Little Summer’” because there’s usually a break in the downpours.
Winner: Costa Rica.
Mexico or Costa Rica: Relaxation
If you come in search of R&R then Mexico won’t disappoint. This country hosts some of the most stunning beaches in Central America. Many of those are backed by seriously high-class hotels that flaunt the full five stars – check out the likes of Riu Palace Peninsula ($$$) and the Atelier Playa Mujeres ($$$). But relaxation doesn’t have to cost loads of pesos in Mexico. You can escape the buzz of the big city to small towns like San Pancho (a chilled surf mecca) or Yelapa (a beach haven), head to long-lost colonial centers like Morelia, or choose a jungle escape in
Chilled trips are what Costa Rica does best – it’s not for nothing that this country was consistently named the happiest on the planet for several years in a row! There are some areas that really stand out from the crowd if you’re looking to slow down the pace. Number one: The Nicoya Peninsula in the northwest, where long, palm-threaded beaches host coconut sellers and surf shacks. Number two: The Costa Rica Caribbean, a reggae-infused land of fish filled reefs. Stay in either of those and you can’t help but unwind.
Winner: Costa Rica.
Mexico or Costa Rica: Hotels
There’s no shortage of hotels on offer in Mexico’s famous resorts. Cancun has a whole neighbourhood called the Hotel Zone! It’s packed with all-inclusive resorts that spill right down to the side of the turquoise sea. That trend continues on all down the Riviera Maya and over in Pacific resort towns like Puerto Vallarta and Cabo, while chain hotels aimed at business travellers await in Mexico City and Guadalajara. All that aside, the places we loved the most in Mexico were probably the little casitas and surf shacks between colonial getaways like Morelia and the beach towns of Nayarit and Oaxaca. Here’s a taster of what’s on offer:
- Morazul Hotel Boutique ($$) – We really liked this charming boutique stay on the edge of the Querétaro old city, with its hidden interior patios and water features.
- Casa Tepozanes ($-$$) – A charming little bolthole hotel overlooking the incredible colonial city of Guanajuato.
- Zoetry Casa del Mar Los Cabos ($$$) – This hotel is quintessential resort stuff, with a huge pool and direct access to the beaches of Los Cabos.
Costa Rica is known as the home of the eco resort. It really all began here with carbon-neutral hotels that are supposed to merge seamlessly with the jungles and the rainforests. You’ll find loads of those – and surprisingly luxurious ones at that – up in Monteverde and around Arenal. The Nicoya coast and the Pacific generally is now a major hub for surf travelers, so there are budget hostels right up to chic surf camps in those parts. Check out these top places to stay:
- Maquenque Ecolodge ($$) – You won’t have to move a muscle to observe the resplendent quetzal and the slow-moving sloths from this incredible eco lodge.
- Dreams Las Mareas ($$$) – A private beach, a backing of jungles, all inclusive – this is the sort of honeymoon hotel that Costa Rica can offer.
- Sonora Jungle & Yoga Retreat ($$) – A yogi’s getaway with relaxed vibes on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Very cool style.
Winner: Costa Rica, but only because it’s the veritable home of the eco resort.
Mexico or Costa Rica: Surf
The surf is one of the main reasons why folk travel to this wave-blessed corner of the world. Both countries offer epic conditions, too. Mexico has some scorchers: Think the XXL shorebreaks of Puerto Escondido’s Playa Zicatela, the hidden right-hand points of Oaxaca, and the glassy waves that string along the south side of Los Cabos. The main surf season here is summer but there are suitable conditions virtually all year round.
Still, Mexico doesn’t quite have enough to beat Costa Rica to the top of the list when it comes to surf. Nope, the land of the rich coast is rich indeed in waves. Legendary locations like Jaco and Tamarindo are the mainstays, with reef breaks for pros and beach breaks for beginners. The consistency is unquestionable as you move to more upcoming surf areas like Santa Teresa and Mal Pais, and there are even world-class barrels on the Caribbean side of the country that work when the Pacific swells shut off.
Winner: Costa Rica, but that’s saying something because Mexico certainly isn’t bad!
Mexico or Costa Rica: The Conclusion
Mexico and Costa Rica are both beautiful and exciting countries in their own, individual ways. Mexico is MUCH larger, which means you get a bigger variety of places, people, climates, and cultures, ranging from the mountain towns of Oaxaca to the dusty deserts of Chihuahua. We’d say it really stands out for foodies – just think: Tacos! – and for history buffs – great pyramids and Mayan temples abound. Costa Rica is more chilled and relaxed, offering superior surf (sorry, Cabo!) and more natural wonders in the form of sloth-filled forests and whale-filled bays.