If you’re planning on traveling to the region around Central America, you might be torn between visiting Mexico or Costa Rica. After all, both of these countries have a lot to offer in terms of tourist attractions, great food and culture.
In an ideal world, we think everyone would benefit from traveling to both Mexico and Costa Rica, but if you only have time for one destination on your trip, you’ll have to choose between the two.
This guide is designed to help you choose whether Mexico or Costa Rica will best fulfill your travel needs.
We’ll be comparing these two incredible countries based on things to do (both during the day and at night), the food, the culture, budget, and tourist safety.
By the end of this travel guide, you should have a clear idea of whether you’d prefer to visit Costa Rica or Mexico.
An Introduction To Mexico
Mexico is in North America, but it’s toward the South of the continent. It borders the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
Since Mexico borders two bodies of water, part of the appeal of this country is its proximity to the sea and, specifically, its beaches.
With that being said, Mexico also has thriving metropolitan areas as well as stunning natural landmarks, including mountain ranges, volcanoes, deserts, and canyons!
This all means that Mexico is the perfect travel destination if you’re looking for an adventure, especially if you enjoy immersing yourself in both the natural world and the city.
Introducing Costa Rica
Costa Rica is further South than Mexico, so while it’s still not considered part of South America, it is in the region widely known as Central America.
Much of the appeal of Costa Rica is tied into its tropical climate. If you’ve been dreaming of a vacation filled with sea, sand and sun, Costa Rica will be perfect for you.
However, a vacation in Costa Rica doesn’t have to be all about the beach. This is the ideal destination for keen explorers since the jungle has so much wildlife and stunning sights to take in.
Compared to Mexico, Costa Rica doesn’t have as much of a metropolitan scene, so it’s not the best option if you’re planning to do a lot of shopping, for example, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit Costa Rica, as we’ll see shortly.
What To Do In Mexico
From water-based activities to busy bars and restaurants, every day and night of your stay in Mexico can easily be filled with fun. Here just some examples of how you could fill your time in Mexico:
Depending on whether you prefer very hot climates or cooler weather, you might prefer to spend most of your time either on the Caribbean side of Mexico or on the Pacific side.
Whichever you choose, you’ll have plenty to do, but the Pacific side of Mexico is largely regarded as the most scenic, especially in terms of the beaches.
With that being said, if you’re planning on doing a lot of swimming and snorkeling, you might prefer to stick to the Caribbean side of Mexico since the waters are calmer overall.
If your intention is to go to Mexico for a mostly beach-based holiday, we recommend Los Cabos or Sayulita on the Pacific side of the country, whereas our favorite beaches on the Caribbean side are Playa del Carmen or Cancun (see also ‘How To Get From Cancun To Tulum‘).
We recommend branching out of the beaches and seeing as many sides of Mexico as you can during your stay. That’s because Mexico simply has so much to offer that it would be a shame not to see as much of it as possible.
Cabo Pulmo National Park, which is located on the coast of the Pacific side of the country, is a hot spot of wildlife-spotting.
You can see whales, sea turtles, and a wide variety of fish from here, especially if you get yourself an underwater camera!
During the day, we also recommend heading to Mexico City to check out the shopping malls and restaurants. This will allow you to see what Mexico is like outside of the tourist-oriented beach resorts.
The night life in Mexico is pretty incredible. All you have to do is head into Mexico City to find bars, clubs, foam parties, and more!
Alternatively, you can go to Cancun, which also has so many nightclubs and bars that cater to any kind of night out you want. If you’re looking for a show, Congo Bar Cancun is known for its entertainment, including dancers, and Cancun Mandala is another great option.
That’s not to say that you need to go to Mexico City or Cancun to find good nightlife, though. There are bars and clubs in most Mexican resort destinations.
Many of these are beach bars, and this type of environment is perfect if you want to let your hair down in a more relaxed and natural setting.
What To Do In Costa Rica
While Mexico seems to offer everything you could possibly want from a vacation destination, Costa Rica isn’t easy to beat when it comes to fun activities and experiences.
There’s plenty to do during the day, but even though Costa Rica doesn’t have as much of a metropolitan area as Mexico, you’ll still be able to enjoy the night life at the end of the day.
During the day, Costa Rica has a multitude of beaches to visit and explore (for more stunning beaches, check out ‘Visiting Akumal Beach: A Complete Guide‘). Similar to Mexico, there are two different kinds of beaches: Pacific and Caribbean.
If you’re planning on doing a lot of water sports, we recommend checking out the Pacific side of Costa Rica for the ideal surfing and swimming conditions.
On the other hand, the beaches on the Caribbean side of the country are perfect for sunbathing, relaxing, and taking pictures of the scenic view. These beaches also tend to have some great beach bars.
If you’re eager to see a type of beach you might never have seen in person before, we recommend sight-seeing at the volcanic beaches, which are striking due to the black sand.
Costa Rica is the perfect destination for lovers of wildlife. The jungles are home to some beautiful animals, including jaguars, although we recommend booking a guided tour if you want to explore these areas.
If you’re interested in seeing Costa Rica’s only coral reef, we recommend checking out Cahuita National Park, while Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is great for mountain and rainforest views. Arenal Volcano National park is also well worth a visit.
Costa Rica’s choices for night life might not be as extensive as those in Mexico, but you can still easily find great bars and clubs.
The best night life in Costa Rica can be found in towns such as Jaco, San Jose, Santa Teresa, and Tamarindo.
Jaco has the biggest reputation out of the above for nightlife, so if you’re looking for bustling night clubs and incredible beach parties, this is the place to go.
Mexican Culture And Food
When choosing a destination for your vacation, it’s important to consider the range of activities on offer and whether they suit you. However, it’s also crucial to think about the culture and the food when making your decision.
The last thing you want while traveling is to not enjoy your daily itinerary as much because you don’t like the food, so it’s important to understand where you can go to eat and what kinds of food you’ll be able to choose from.
Luckily, Mexican food is a very popular type of cuisine throughout the United States and other areas of the world. That means it’s likely that you’ve tried Mexican food before and will have an idea of whether you’ll enjoy it or not.
However, even if you’ve never sampled Mexican cuisine, the food options are pretty versatile and you should be able to find dishes that are to your taste and that meet your dietary requirements.
Bear in mind that the Mexican food you’ll find in Mexico is likely to be different from American-style Mexican food. The dishes you’ll be served in Mexico will, of course, be as authentic as it gets.
If you’re interested in sampling some of the more adventurous Mexican food options, we recommend going to Oaxaca, where you can try delicacies such as huitlacoche (which is actually corn fungus), and grasshoppers, which are known as chapulines in Mexico.
With that being said, you definitely don’t need to try any insects or fungus if you don’t want to. Puebla and Merida are some of the best spots in Mexico to try some traditional Spanish-style Mexican food.
When it comes to drinks, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try some of the best mezcal and tequila. We also recommend visiting Mexico’s famous wine region, which is called Valle de Guadelupe, where you can also try pulque (a traditional, fermented Mexican beverage).
We talked a lot about beaches, night life, and wildlife exploration as part of our activity recommendations, but if you want to immerse yourself in Mexican history and culture, the best way to do this is to check out theNational Museum of Anthropology and the Museo Frida Kahlo, both of which are located in Mexico City.
Alternatively, if you find yourself in the Southern part of the country, you should make a point to see the Aztec and Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.
Costa Rican Culture And Food
Costa Rican cuisine doesn’t have as much of a market in the United States compared to Mexican cuisine, so many tourists don’t have a clear idea of what kind of food will be available when they visit.
Luckily, though, Costa Rican food is not only delicious but quite versatile and largely based around whole foods and seafood.
That means that if you’re vegan, you can easily find dishes composed of rice, beans, and vegetables. Fruit is also plentiful, and if you’re a fan of seafood, you’ll love the menus in Costa Rica.
In terms of Costa Rican culture, it’s pretty much a mix of Caribbean and Central America with some influence from parts of North America.
This makes Costa Rica a really interesting place to visit, especially if you make sure to check out some of the historical sites. We recommend prioritizing the petrospheres, which are located at Diquis Delta.
Costa Rica may not host as many festivals as Mexico, but if you plan your trip to coincide with the festivals that happen throughout the year, you’ll be able to experience the vibrancy of Costa Rican culture to the fullest.
Which Country Is Safer?
As a tourist in a country you may never have visited before, safety should always be a priority. This is especially true if you’re going to be traveling solo.
On the whole, the general opinion is that Costa Rica is safer than Mexico. However, if you really have your heart set on visiting Mexico, don’t let that put you off.
As long as you do your research beforehand and stick to mainly tourist-friendly areas of Mexico, you shouldn’t find yourself in any trouble.
The main reason why many people express concern about the safety of traveling through Mexico is because of the cartels. However, cartels don’t operate in the tourist areas, and there’s less general crime in these areas, too.
Therefore, particularly if you’re traveling alone or if it’s your first time in Mexico, we recommend booking yourself into a safe beach resort.
In Costa Rica, you don’t need to worry about cartels, and it’s generally considered to be the safer of the two countries. With that being said, you should still be on the lookout for pickpockets.
Pickpockets are more likely to operate at beaches where tourists congregate, so make sure you or someone you trust is watching your belongings at all times.
How Much Money Will You Need?
Depending on whether you choose to travel to Mexico or Costa Rica, you may need to create a different budget plan.
Mexico is more budget-friendly for a vacation than Costa Rica, and that’s mainly because Costa Rica has recently experienced a boom in tourism over the past 10 years or so.
As a result, a lot of the tourist accommodations and attractions are charging more.
It’s worth noting that since Costa Rica is, on the whole, safer for tourists than Mexico, you could choose to stay a little way outside the main tourist areas to save money. We wouldn’t recommend trying this in Mexico, though, especially if it’s your first time visiting.
When creating a vacation budget, it’s natural to think about things like tourist attractions, accommodation and food first.
However, if you’re thinking about traveling to Costa Rica, there’s one expense that might cost more than you’ve been anticipating: transport.
Unless you’ll be bringing your own car or bicycle, or you have the budget to hire a car while you’re there, you’ll need to think about how much it will cost to use the public buses and Ubers.
Ubers are particularly expensive in Costa Rica, with a fare of a few dollars on average just to get to the closest store. In contrast, the same Uber far in Mexico can get you from one side of the city to the other.
Luckily, since Costa Rica is quite safe and hitch-hiking is very common there, you can usually save yourself some much-needed dollars by catching a ride from one of the many friendly locals you’ll meet on your travels.
When it comes to buying groceries, you’ll spend less in Mexico as long as you don’t just stick to the food served at tourist resorts. That’s because the food there is more expensive.
You can lower your expenses quite easily by shopping in the same places as the locals. For example, the street food joints are very budget-friendly and the perfect opportunity to try some authentic Mexican cuisine.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Are Mexico And Costa Rica Similar?
We’ve spent most of this guide highlighting the differences between Mexico and Costa Rica. However, these two countries have a lot in common.
First of all, there are similarities in the histories of these countries. Both experienced colonization by the Spanish Empire, for example.
In the present day, there are many similarities between Mexico and Costa Rica. Both have Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, for example, which means that there’s a good selection of beaches in both countries.
Both Mexico and Costa Rica are home to stunning scenic views and wildlife.
Is Mexico More Expensive Than Costa Rica?
No, Mexico is not more expensive than Costa Rica. In fact, the reverse is true. If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll be better off vacationing in Mexico because the accommodation, tourist attractions, and food are all more budget-friendly.
The same is true of public transport, which is significantly more expensive in Costa Rica.
Why Is Costa Rica So Expensive?
The cost of living in Costa Rica is mainly so high because taxes are imposed on imported goods. Food, in particular, is costly in Costa Rica because of the taxes on food as well as agricultural protectionism.
This is why the price of rice in Costa Rica is the 3rd highest worldwide.
Additionally, because of the recent tourism boom in Costa Rica, things aren’t just expensive for locals, but also for tourists.
Vacation resorts and tourist attractions all cost more in Costa Rica than in Mexico because prices have had to be raised due to the increase in tourism.
What Are The Negatives Of Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is a great place to visit on your travels. Traveling to Costa Rica is, for many people, an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
However, in addition to the high cost of living, there are some downsides to staying in Costa Rica that tourists should be aware of.
For one thing, there’s currently an issue with poverty in Costa Rica. One in four people living in Costa Rica are living in poverty, so this is something you may need to be prepared to encounter if you vacation in the country.
Many of the roads are also underdeveloped, which makes driving more dangerous and public transportation slower. The fact that Costa Rica experiences a pretty intense rainy season each year doesn’t help with the road issue.
However, on the whole, we definitely recommend visiting Costa Rica if you have the opportunity since it’s a beautiful country with an interesting history and many unique experiences to offer.
Is Mexico Safe For Tourists?
The main downside for tourists staying in Mexico, especially compared to Costa Rica, is that the country as a whole isn’t quite as safe for tourists.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel to Mexico – it’s a fantastic experience – but you will need to take more precautions.
The main thing to bear in mind is that while some areas of Mexico are very safe and tourist-friendly, there are certain areas you should stay away from as a tourist due to cartel operations.
Before you leave for your vacation, make sure you have thoroughly researched the area you’ll be staying in as well as the surrounding areas, noting anywhere that’s known to not be tourist-friendly.
Stay out of these areas and stick to those that have a reputation for being safer, especially if you’re going to be traveling on your own.
How Does Costa Rica Compare To Cancun?
If you’re struggling to choose between Mexico and Costa Rica, you might also be wondering how Costa Rica compares to Cancun.
Ultimately, if you’re interested in spending a lot of time doing water sports at the beach, you might prefer the atmosphere in Cancun. The accommodations for tourists in Cancun are, overall, slightly nicer as well.
However, for natural beauty and tranquil, untouched beaches, Costa Rica wins. It all comes down to your preference on how you’d prefer to spend your vacation.
When it comes to choosing whether to visit Mexico or Costa Rica on your travels, there’s a lot to bear in mind, and it’s not an easy decision to make.
Both Costa Rica and Mexico have stunning beaches on the Caribbean and Pacific sides, many of which are perfect for water sports and are complete with beach bars.
Overall, Mexico is the better choice for night life and metropolitan experiences, although there are also plenty of bars and clubs in Costa Rica if you know where to go.
You’ll need a bigger budget to vacation in Costa Rica, but it’s the safer of the two countries. If you’re traveling through Mexico, make sure you know which areas are safe for tourists.
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