If you have two weeks to spend in Costa Rica, first—congratulations! Two weeks is plenty of time to get a taste of what this small Central American country has to offer. To get the most out of your vacation, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when planning your itinerary. First, don’t be fooled by how close destinations appear on a map. Costa Rica may be only the size of West Virginia/Switzerland but getting from one place to the next can take a full day due to poor road conditions, traffic, and mountainous terrain. Second, expect to make a stop in San José when going from one place to another. San José is a major transportation hub and connections on the public bus and small planes are often made here even if it’s out of the way. If you rent a car, you may still have to pass back through the Central Valley in order to avoid certain mountain ranges.
The 14-day itinerary below aims to show the best of Costa Rica while keeping travel times to a minimum. We suggest three destinations in an order that will let you experience beautiful mountains, beaches, and lush jungle, without spending too much time on the road.
Day 1: Arrive at San José International (SJO) airport. Stay overnight in the San José area.
Flights generally start arriving mid-day at SJO, so by the time you get through customs, immigration, and get your luggage (about one hour), it is already early afternoon. After a long day of travel, we recommend staying overnight in the San José area and getting an early start the next day.
Tip: Stay in Alajuela, which is actually closer to the international airport than San José. Hotel Buena Vista, in the surrounding hills, is a great option for those looking for a peaceful escape and panoramic views. Or, if you’d like something closer to the airport, try Hotel La Rosa, a charming hotel with typical Costa Rican decor and friendly staff.
Days 2-4: Retreat to the mountains and visit Costa Rica’s famous Arenal volcano.
The La Fortuna area is a great place to start your Costa Rica vacation. An unhurried downtown provides visitors with just enough convenience while surrounding plantations and mountain villages give a glimpse into the simple Tico lifestyle. A low rumble felt from the snoozing Arenal volcano will be sure to wake your senses, but if you need more, try some of the many adrenaline-pumping activities available just outside town like zip-lining, rappelling, or white-water rafting.
Renting a car is a great option for this part of your trip. It’s less than a four-hour drive from San José and the rolling green mountains you maneuver will have you pulling over for plenty of amazing photo ops. Before getting behind the wheel though, know that driving in Costa Rica can be an adventure in itself. Roads and highways are steep and curvy and the locals seem to forget their laid-back nature when driving.
If you’d rather leave driving to the pros, you could opt for a shared shuttle service like Gray Line or Interbus. (Note that if you stay overnight in Alajuela the day you arrive, you may have to go a designated pick-up location as these shuttle companies offer hotel-to-hotel service in San José only.)
Flying to La Fortuna on one of the domestic small plane carriers like NatureAir is your best bet for saving time. If booked in advance, tickets can be affordable too. If you’re looking to save some cash, take the direct bus from San José to La Fortuna (4-5 hours) for about $5.
Arenal National Park: Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s five active volcanoes. In its heyday, it spewed bright orange lava on a near daily basis. Although Arenal’s activity has slowed considerably since 2010, it is still a spectacular sight. At over 1,633 meters tall, this perfectly conical shaped volcano towers behind the town of La Fortuna. For the best view, hit the trails within Arenal National Park. When planning your visit, it’s best to be flexible. Clouds can sometimes obscure the view so be sure to head to the park on your first clear day. Visiting during the dry season (December through April) will increase your chances of seeing the volcano. For more information, read our blog on hiking the park.
La Fortuna Waterfall: Just outside of town, you’ll find a stunning waterfall that plummets 70 meters into a deep pool, perfect for swimming. The falls are accessible via a 15-minute hike down a steep set of stairs or by horseback. Be sure to bring your swimsuit for a refreshing dip in the cool waters. Admission is $10.
Hot springs: After a day of hiking, reward yourself with a relaxing soak in one of the area’s naturally occurring hot springs. You can make a day of it by visiting a resort like Tabacon or EcoTermales, or ask a local where to find the free springs that flow in the area.
For more information and hotel recommendations, read our post on what to expect in La Fortuna.
Days 5-9: Head south to the beautiful beaches of Manuel Antonio.
Manuel Antonio has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world—and that’s not just our opinion. Playa Espadilla has been so named by countless publications and was most recently ranked the best beach in Central America by TripAdvisor. But this area offers travelers more than just a great beach. With a plethora of hotels, restaurants, and bars catering to all budgets, and nature at your doorstep, it’s no wonder Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s top tourism destinations.
This is one trip where we do not recommend taking the public bus. Because there is no direct bus from La Fortuna to Quepos/Manuel Antonio, you’d have to go through San José first, turning a five-hour trip into a 10-hour trip. Instead, opt for a shuttle, rent a car, or take a small plane. Note that a rental car would also come in handy for day trips around the Manuel Antonio area.
Manuel Antonio National Park: Spend the morning exploring the trails to see white-faced monkeys, sloths, and other critters in this picturesque park. For the afternoon, enjoy a picnic lunch at Playa Manuel Antonio, a beautiful cove off of the main trail. This park is perfect for families because it has fairly flat terrain and easy-to-spot wildlife. For more specific information about the park, read our blog.
Tours: Manuel Antonio is a great jumping off point for tours. There are a number of operators in the area where you can book all kinds of activities, including ATV, zip-lining, white-water rafting, mangrove, kayaking, parasailing, horseback riding, jet skiing, sportfishing, sunset cruises, whale watching, and surfing.
The Whale Marine Park, Marino Ballena: About an hour down the coast in the Costa Ballena region lies the quiet town of Playa Uvita, home to one of Costa Rica’s only marine national parks. Here you’ll find another beautiful beach and the famous whale tail, a naturally occurring sandbar formed by converging ocean currents.
Dominical: It’s worth a stop in this surfer town on the way to Uvita to see just how laid-back life can be. Even by Costa Rican standards, the vibe here is nothing but pura vida, with surfers lined up waiting for the next big wave, vendors napping under palms, and kids running around barefoot in the sand.
For more information and hotel and restaurant recommendations, read our post on Manuel Antonio Trip Planning.
Days 10-12: End your trip with adventure and relaxation in Drake Bay.
By this point in your trip, Costa Rica’s pura vida attitude will have set in. You’ll feel more relaxed and be ready to experience Drake Bay in all of its glory. Located in the dense jungle of the Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay is a nature lover’s playground. Here you can find some of Costa Rica’s most rare species like Baird’s tapir, white-lipped peccaries, and if you’re lucky, even big cats. Drake Bay is also the perfect retreat for those of you looking to unplug and unwind. The village consists of only a handful of hotels, lodges, and camps, and with very few restaurants in town, most accommodations provide everything you need, including meals. Be sure to bring a flashlight as street lighting is novel in this village that only recently became electrified.
With few roads going in and out of Drake Bay, access is limited. While you can technically drive there during some parts of the year, it is not recommended due to multiple river crossings and rugged terrain. The good news is that you really don’t need a car in Drake Bay and there are much easier ways to get there. The least expensive option is to take a boat taxi up the Sierpe River. If you book lodging in advance, your lodge will probably make the arrangements for you. The ride lasts about an hour and is a tour in itself through miles of mangrove. Grab it at Las Vegas, a restaurant/store in the small riverside town of Sierpe. If you’re looking to save time and have cash to spare, take a small plane from Quepos via NatureAir or Sansa Regional.
Hiking in Corcovado National Park: Corcovado is the largest lowland rainforest remaining on the Pacific coast. Its climate can be best described as intensely hot and soupy. While hiking under such extreme conditions should not be taken lightly, there is no substitute to the park’s biological richness. For the serious trekker, extend your vacation with a multi-day backpacking excursion, entering the park at San Pedrillo Ranger Station and exiting at La Leona Ranger Station (37 km). Or if you’d rather skip the days of hiking and see the park in a single day, arrange a boat tour to Sirena Ranger Station, the area of the park with the most visible wildlife. Note that starting in 2014, all visitors must be accompanied by a registered guide. Read our blog for more information.
Snorkeling at Caño Island: Take a snorkel or dive tour out to Caño Island to see pufferfish, turtles, and jack fish schooling along the reef. The waters around Caño are notably rich in marine life so be sure to keep your eyes peeled to and from the mainland for dolphins and even whales, which come to the area to breed.
Hike to Playa San Josecito: For a long day hike, check out San Josecito beach. The trail from Drake Bay, which follows the coast, offers scenic vistas and a chance to see wildlife like Scarlet Macaws, toucans, and all four types of monkeys that live in Costa Rica. Be sure to bring your snorkel gear as this beach has some of the best onshore snorkeling we’ve seen in Costa Rica.
For more information about visiting Drake Bay, including details on how to get there and hotel recommendations, read our post Drake Bay: Costa Rica Unplugged.
Day 13: Head back to San José.
To make your international flight out of Costa Rica, you’ll probably need to head back to the San José area the day before. Flying via small plane is the fastest option, but you can take public transportation as well. First, take a boat taxi to Sierpe then catch the bus from Palmar Norte to San José. Be sure to plan in advance because boat taxi service is limited. The ride from Palmar Norte to San José is about six hours, giving you a total trip time of eight hours. Gray Line also offers a daily shuttle from Sierpe to San José.
Day 14: Head home.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed your stay in Costa Rica and have some fond memories to take back home with you. Two weeks is certainly enough time to get a sense of what Costa Rica is all about, but there’s plenty more to see if you’re already ready for another visit. We know what that’s like. After our first week-long trip in 2007, we were hooked, scoping out other areas of the country to explore on the plane ride home. Watch out Costa Rica lovers, because now, six years and several trips later, we live here!
Have questions about this itinerary? Leave us a comment below.
Looking for more info to help plan your trip? Check out these posts:
Driving in Costa Rica: What to Know Before You Go – Aren’t sure if driving is right for you? It can seem scary at first, but renting a car is by far the best way to explore the country. These tips will help get you ready to cruise on down the road.
Cost of Traveling in Costa Rica – Costa Rica is a little more expensive than some other Central American countries. This post will give you a general sense of how much things cost, including hotels, restaurants, transportation, and tours.
Best Hotels Near SJO Airport – If you are flying in and out of San Jose, you might need to stay the night. Check out our picks for the best places close to the airport.
Packing List – Your trip might be months away but here are some things that you don’t want to forget.
Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde. Updated July 15, 2015.