Budget Travel: How Low Can You Go?

I'm pretty sure we hatched this "Good Morning America" weekend anchor series over drinks. In this terrible economy, would it be possible to go on a great vacation, have a real adventure, without breaking the bank? we mused. And if so, how would you do it?

Would you trade houses with someone in France? Nope. None of us was willing or able. Could you hop a cargo plane? Nope. Give your services in exchange for a discount? Now we're getting somewhere.

My plan came together when I casually mentioned the how-low-can-you-go idea to my friend Teri. Turns out her brother David is a professor who often takes groups to Costa Rica to do something called "volun-tourism" -- trading some time doing volunteer work in a community in exchange for a cheap rate on a room. I was intrigued.

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David put us in touch with a guy named Merlyn Oviedo, owner of the Danta Corcovado Lodge in the remote town of Guadalupe on the Osa Peninsula in far southwestern Costa Rica. A few weeks later, I was standing in a rain forest.

The first thing you need to know about this vacation is that it's not for everyone. If you don't like camping, hiking, the feeling that something may or may not be crawling up your leg in the middle of the night, this is not your place. But even if this isn't your cup of tea, you can learn from my experience. And if you do enjoy the sounds of thickest nature and love, the thought of jumping into a waterfall in a dense tropical forest or zip-lining above the canopy, then by all means, get yourself to Costa Rica.

"When I grew up here there were no roads in Osa," Merlyn told us after he picked us up at the tiny airstrip in Puerto Jimenez. It was about an hour's drive north, along the Golfo Dulce and then inland, to the town of Guadalupe. Merlyn was nice enough to give us a lift for free.

We flew into Puerto Jimenez on a 12-seater from the capital of San Jose. The flight from New York is currently on sale for about $371 round-trip. The other way to get to Puerto Jimenez is to take an eight-hour bus ride, which costs just $12. That's what many of Merlyn's guests do. Others drive down in rented cars.

"Many people from Europe, they don't really plan anything," Merlyn confided.

"Not like Americans," I said.

"Yeah, seems like people [from Europe] like traveling around and seeing what they can find."

We discovered quickly that transportation would be one of our biggest expenses. Once we arrived at Danta Lodge we had no way to get around except walking or calling a taxi. And taxis would normally cost $10 or $15 a pop.

So we took the public bus. That was an adventure. There was a box of chicks up front. And I got to sit next to the guy holding a big piece of sugar cane and a machete. Seriously.

But hey, it's those little unexpected moments that make a trip an adventure, right? Like the time we were hiking in the Corcovado National Park and an earthquake hit. The trees shook, loose branches fell, the ground rippled under our feet. Our young guide, Isai, quickly said "temblor," meaning "it's only a tremor." Turned out it was a magnitude of 5.9.

Danta Corcovado Lodge was quite a place. Merlyn, 33, built it himself five years ago, using his father's old farmhouse as a base. Everything is made of wood.

"Trees that fall down or trees that my dad planted," Merlyn said. "We have never cut a tree from the forest to do it."

The whole place is eco-friendly with recycling bins and locally grown produce used in the kitchen. And since I've agreed to volunteer, I will pay just $39 a night for my bungalow in the rain forest, including three meals a day. The normal price for the bungalow would be close to $100 a night.

Merlyn said he accepts volunteers as part of the Lodge's "social commitment" to the community. They started out doing projects in Guadalupe, working on the local school. Now they've turned their attention to painting houses.

"The most important thing here are the kids," Merlyn said. "We were doing something very important for them in the school. But they live in the town so now we are making our town better. And we want locals to feel proud of what they have and where they live."

It's easy to spot the houses Merlyn's volunteers have already painted in town. Their wood siding is painted with vibrant colors, usually with a mural of animals or nature scenes on one side. On the day I volunteered, we were painting house No. 9 -- a bright lime green and turquoise two-tone job with a red macaw near the front door.

"I want people to feel proud of saying 'I live in Guadalupe.' In the Osa Peninsula. This beautiful town that has different houses with different colors, and 'My house is the one that has the macaw,'" Merlyn said. "People can say we do recycling in our town. We do it to protect nature, but we want other people to see it, and hopefully learn from us."

The work is not hard. Sure it's hot. Even by 10 a.m. it's about 95 degrees, with 100 percent humidity. And over by the outdoor sink where the family washes its dishes, there are loads of biting ants. They attack my feet as I'm trying to paint. But those are minor things.

The hours pass quickly. And painting with a group of other volunteers, chatting away with them in Spanish, is actually a fun way to pass a morning. Besides, there's that feeling you get from knowing you're doing a good thing for a family. Merlyn says it's why a lot of his volunteers come back year after year.

"Osa is a beautiful place. You can go to many places, do many thing here. Enjoy it a lot. But when you help, there is something else. And you cannot put a price on that," Merlyn said.

I can put a price on the trip though: The zipline cost $40, kayaking was $10 and it was $10 to enter Corcovado National Park. Most of my meals were covered. Transportation was about $5 a day and I bought some t-shirts for my pals back at GMA. The bottom line? If I had stayed for seven days, my entire trip would've cost about $110 a day, including airfare. Not bad huh?

And I can give you a few more travel tips.

1. Do as the locals do. In Costa Rica that means taking the public bus or walking or eating at a restaurant in someone's home, called a "soda."

2. Look for bargains. A banana costs one penny in Costa Rica.

3. Don't kayak and zip-line on the same day. It's a lot.

4. Personally, I wouldn't bring little kids on this vacation. But I would bring my husband so I wouldn't be all alone in that dark bungalow with the sounds of the rain forest.

5. Eat plenty of ceviche and patacones. But stay away from the guaro. They call it "fire water" for a reason.