Costa Rica might look small on a map, but don’t be fooled, you can’t see everything in just one week. With some careful planning, however, you can still have a vacation of a lifetime that showcases what Costa Rica is all about: nature, adventure, and pura vida. Here’s an itinerary that will give you just that.
Day 1: San José to La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano)
From the San José airport, rent a car, take a shuttle/tour van, or bus it to the town of La Fortuna. Along the way you will traverse rolling green mountains of coffee plantations, cattle fields, and the occasional dense forest. The narrow road winds through small cities and quaint towns. Getting closer to La Fortuna, you’ll start to see the volcano looming in the distance. Once you arrive, settle into your accommodations and take in the view. La Fortuna has a very walkable downtown complete with a charming central park. Explore the streets and shops before you grab dinner at one of the many restaurants.
Tip: If you fly in late, stay near the city of Alajuela which is very close to the airport. Hotel Buena Vista, in the hills nearby, is a great option for those looking for a peaceful escape and panoramic views. Or, if you’re getting in really late, try Hotel Aeropuerto, a more budget-friendly option just minutes from the airport.
Day 2: Hiking in Arenal National Park
Getting There: Arenal National Park encompasses 29,692 acres but is accessed through one primary ranger station. There is parking available for your rental car, or a taxi can drop you off. The shoestring traveler can take the public bus from the main station in La Fortuna for only a couple of dollars. The bus will drop you off at the main road; it’s about a 20-30 minute walk to the park entrance.
About the Park: The park has easy-to-navigate trails through secondary forest and former lava fields. The trails are mostly flat, so it’s a good option for kids and people with limited mobility. There are four trails in total, some of which intersect. Take the Los Heliconias trail to the lookout for a great view of the volcano and also sweeping views of Lake Arenal. Read our blog on Hiking in Arenal National Park for more details.
Depending on how early you access the park and how many trails you explore, this can be a half-day or full-day expedition. If you are the early type, fill up your afternoon driving around Lake Arenal or explore some of the shops in downtown La Fortuna.
Tip: There are many private trails nearby if you want to keep hiking. Arenal 1968 trail near the park entrance is a bit more challenging, but passes through decades-old former lava fields.
Day 3: Hanging bridges and relaxing hot springs
Hanging Bridges: You might be a little sore after your hike in the park yesterday, but you’ll want to power through to see Arenal’s Hanging Bridges. Along the trail, there are 16 bridges of varying lengths from eight to 98 meters. The trail and bridges will take you high up in the rainforest canopy, giving you a spectacular view and the chance to spot birds and wildlife less visible from the ground. Make sure to charge up your camera battery for this one.
Hot Springs: After you’re done, it’s time to reward your body with the famous Arenal hot springs. Several are available depending on your budget. Tabacon Resort has a beautiful facility, which you can explore for US $60 a day. For the budget-minded, don’t fret, the springs are naturally occurring so there are some free options as well. Just ask a local to point you in the right direction.
For more information and hotel recommendations, read our post on what to expect in La Fortuna.
La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio
Get up early and grab some gallo pinto (the Costa Rican breakfast of champions) because you’ve got a long journey to the Pacific coast ahead. Don’t worry, though, it’s well worth the five to six-hour drive. If you don’t have your own set of wheels, shuttle vans are a good option. Tempted to save some money by taking the public bus? You might want to rethink that. To get a bus to Manuel Antonio, you have to go all the way back to San José, turning a five-hour trip into a 10+ hour trip. Shuttle vans are very affordable, and you won’t lose a whole day of your precious vacation. To save even more time, take a small plane from La Fortuna to Quepos. The views from six to nine-thousand feet up are spectacular and the ride near the windy mountains of San José is an adventure in itself. (Note: As of 2018, domestic carriers have become less reliable, so be sure to research carefully before purchasing tickets)
Tip: Travel days like this are the reason it’s tough to see the whole country in a limited amount of time. Don’t try to accomplish too much in one day. Pair your travel day with a relaxing dinner or a beach chair, that way you’ll be charged up to enjoy your next day. You are on vacation, right?
Day 5: Zip-line adventure and sunset dinner
Zip-line Tour: Arrange a zip-line excursion through your hotel or contact the office directly. These tours will pick you up, give you a ride into the countryside, feed you breakfast or lunch, and outfit you for a great zip-lining adventure.
Visit Quepos: After you’ve flown through the trees, ask the tour operator to drop you off on solid ground in Quepos (the small city next to Manuel Antonio). In Quepos, browse local shops and the outdoor market near the seawall or grab a cup of coffee at one of the many sodas (small restaurants) in town. You can easily catch the bus back to Manuel Antonio when you’re done at the central bus terminal ($0.60).
Dinner: For dinner, ride out to Ronnie’s Place. Ronnie’s Place is located on a narrow peninsula between Quepos and Manuel Antonio. It’s a wonderful restaurant with a spectacular sunset view. Get there early and grab a table outside for the best view. Tip: You might want to take a taxi to Ronnie’s Place; the road is rough and the cocktails are strong.
For more restaurant recommendations in Manuel Antonio, check out our Manuel Antonio Trip Planning guide.
Day 6: Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s most visited park and for good reason. Here you can easily see monkeys, sloths, birds, and butterflies. As an added benefit, there are beautiful beaches for swimming and picnicking. Be sure to get there early, though; not only will you have a better chance to see wildlife, but you will beat the crowds.
After the park, grab lunch at one of the restaurants along the beach, and spend the last full day of your vacation splashing in the waves on Playa Espadilla.
Tip: These adventures may have you hitting the snooze button at 9 a.m., but remember, birds and animals get up with the sun. To increase your wildlife sightings, get some coffee and hit the trail early; you’ll be happy you did.
Day 7: Back to reality
Hopefully your trip was a success and you can reminisce about the wonderful sights, generous people, and extraordinary environment you experienced while you travel back to San José. A one-week vacation surely isn’t enough, so when you book your next trip, make sure you read our blog, Costa Rica: Your Two-Week Itinerary. ¡Pura vida!
Are you back?
What was your favorite part of the trip? Was a week long enough for the relaxing pura vida vibe to set in? We’d love to hear about your experience! Please leave a comment below.
Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde