Post Updated March 4, 2020
If you have two weeks to spend in Costa Rica—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 de America, a charming hotel with typical Costa Rican decor and friendly staff.
Days 2-4: Retreat to the Highlands 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 right 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 three-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 do decide to rent a car, check out this special discount for our readers to save 10-25%.
If you’d rather leave driving to the pros, you could opt for a private or shared shuttle van service. These vans are very popular and also reliable. We describe how each type works and how to book one in our post Shuttles in Costa Rica.
Finally, 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 Volcano 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 (5,358 feet) tall, this perfectly conical shaped volcano towers behind the town of La Fortuna. For the best view, hit the trails within Arenal Volcano National Park. For more information on planning your visit, read our post on hiking the park.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Just outside town, you’ll find a stunning waterfall that plummets 70 meters (230 feet) 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 or ATV. Be sure to bring your swimsuit for a refreshing dip in the cool waters. Admission is $15.
After a day of hiking, reward yourself with a relaxing soak in one of the area’s naturally occurring mineral 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 only 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 would have to go through San José first, turning a five-hour trip into a 10-hour trip. Instead, opt for a shuttle or rent a car. 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 many 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 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 post.
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, jet skiing, sportfishing, catamaran cruises, and surfing. Check out our Manuel Antonio Activities Guide for more ideas.
Exploring to the South
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.
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. An affordable and fun 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 or La Perla, two restaurants in the small riverside town of Sierpe.
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. Read our blog post for more information.
Snorkeling or Diving at Caño Island
Caño Island is one of the best places in Costa Rica for diving and snorkeling. Along the reefs around the island, you can see pufferfish, turtles, huge schools of jack fish, and even white-tip reef sharks. 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. You can take a boat taxi back to Sierpe, then catch either the public bus or a shuttle. The public bus for San José leaves from the nearby town of Palmar Norte. The ride from Palmar Norte is about six hours, giving you a total trip time of eight hours. Shuttles are a faster option and are available for pick up right from the boat docks in Sierpe. Be sure to plan in advance because boat taxi service is limited. Note that as of 2018, we no longer recommend domestic small planes in Costa Rica due to recent service and reliability problems.
Day 14: Head home.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed your stay in Costa Rica and have some fond memories to take back home. 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, we live here!
Have questions about this itinerary? Leave us a comment below.
Post Updated March 4, 2020.
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 bookmark this list of some things you don’t want to forget.