In San Jose:
spend very little time here-it is really a place to stay over night in on your way to somewhere else. SOme people will recommend you take day trips from San Jose but I say go to the places and take trips around it, don't stay in San Jose long, hotels are expensive and the town can be visited in one day.
This is where we stayed in San Jose.
Hotel Aranjuez-$35-great place, fabulous breakfast buffet, Cap's Place-$35-great place owned by a woman with her children, very homey but no food, Pension de la Cuesta-$28, by far not my favorite! It is fine if you just spend one night there, bathrooms are shared and one night we had to move rooms in the middle of the night because there was a spider the size of a Volkswagon under the bed.
In Monte Verda (a must see!):
You can get there via city bus (about $3 and 5 hours) or by one of the charter buses ($25 and about 4 hours). The bus is very bumpy and only stops once, but a real experience and if you have the time it is a good way to save money. I recommend going on city bus and comeing home on the charter. You can stay outside monte verde in a little town called santa elana. the hotel was called Atardesar- it means "sunset"-great little place on a hill right outside santa elana. It cost $10 a night. It was clean, hot water and full of charm. it was easy to walk into town in less than 10 min. owner did not speak english, so you may want to brush up on you spanish. there are also many places in town for about $5 a night but thay are pretty dismal- make sure you look at the actual room before you pay for it. Eating was not terrible exciting. Stay away from rice and beans for several months befor you go so you can fill up on them when you go... and you will fill up on them!
If you go on a Sky Trek, use the company called Sky Trek, they are a great company, right in town. They have good deals on packaged trips. The actualy sky treking tours are zip lines you are connect to that litterally zip you across the jungle. very fun, but not the way to see the rain forest. i recommend that you only do this if you can also afford to go on the sky walk! this is a series of bridges above the jungle where you can see everything. My best advise for this is to get a guide. Well worth the money! they can point out things that otherwise you would just walk by and never notice. Including the much sought after Respledant Quetzal. We also went to the Monte Verde cloud forest preserve and did a self guided tour, but once again if money allows get a guide. Bring binoculars and a rain poncho. We saw a many birds as well as the Resplendant. One of the highlights.
From here we took a car and boat to Arenal- there are several ways to get there but it is not all that easy. We stayed at Hotel Arenal in La Fortunia- if faces the volcano, on a clear night you can see the lava flowing. 5 min walk to town. Many come for days and the clouds do not part long enough to see the eruption, so don't be too disapointed if you miss it. If you go to the hot spring, there are 2-One is Tampico (i think) it is a fancy place- very expensive ($15ish) to get in and not worth it at all. It is for people who go to Costa Rica without really planning to see it. THen there is Baldi- much better ($8ish) they just redid it and has about 12 pools all of doffering temperatures, all hot! great place to see the volcano and much fewer tourists.
From there we headed back to San JOse and to the southern part of CR- The OSa Pennesula- amazing! but not a place for a person on a budget! If you think about heading this way let me know and I will brief you on the area, but again- it is very expensive.
One of the best things we did, proably the highlight was the Pacuare RIver rafting. THis was so great, i can't even explain to you- If you send me your email (if that is allowed) I can send some pictures of our rafting trip. This can be taken from Arenal or San Jose, if you like to raft or think that you would like to raft, do not settle for any other river- it is rated one of ten of the best rafting rivers in the world! We took Rios Tropical travel company- it was a good choice and most cost effective- They actually own the rights to parts of this river, but if other companies take you to this river, you can't go wrong
That is all I can think of now- but if you have specific questions or I am missing something, let me know. Happy to help