Last Updated: May 4, 2022
Costa Rica may 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 a one-week itinerary that will give you just that.
This one-week Costa Rica itinerary has you flying in and out of San Jose Airport (SJO).
It takes you inland first for a stop at the majestic Arenal Volcano. Here, you’ll enjoy amazing rainforest views and hikes along old volcanic lava flows and atop hanging bridges. After all the activity, you’ll be able to enjoy soaking in the area’s well known hot springs.
After spending three nights in Arenal, you’ll head to the central Pacific coast for some beach time. Manuel Antonio has a gorgeous main beach, tons of wildlife at its famous national park, and many activities. It has a convenient set up, with restaurants, hotels, and the beach just a short drive from one another.
The itinerary has you spending three nights in both La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio, allowing for one night on either end of the trip near the airport.
Tip: If you fly in late, stay near the city of Alajuela, which is close to the airport. Buena Vista Chic Hotel, in the hills nearby, is a great option for those looking for a peaceful escape and panoramic views. For more recommendations, check out our post, Best Hotels Near SJO Airport.
One-Week Itinerary – Volcano and Beach
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: La Fortuna/Arenal is more spread out so it can be nice to have a rental car unless you’re staying right in the downtown. Check out our discount through Adobe Rent a Car as you’re shopping around. Our readers get 10% off, a free second driver, and other extras like a free cooler, car seats, and a surf rack.
Day 2: Hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park
Arenal Volcano 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 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.
It takes a few hours to hike the national park. For the rest of your day, you could drive around Lake Arenal, explore some of the shops in downtown La Fortuna, or check out the gorgeous La Fortuna Waterfall.
Tip: There are many private trails nearby if you want to keep hiking. Arenal 1968 near the park entrance is a bit more challenging, but passes through decades-old former lava fields. Mirador El Silencio is another good option for a tougher, more off-the-beaten path hike.
Day 3: Hanging Bridges and Relaxing Hot Springs
You might be a little sore after your hike in the park yesterday, but you’ll want to power through to see Mistico 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.
For more information on Mistico Hanging Bridges, including some recent changes to the trail (it is concrete now), read our post, Mistico Hanging Bridges: A Treetop Rainforest Experience.
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 $75 a day.
Ecotermales is a smaller, slightly less expensive facility. It’s one of our favorites.
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.
Day 4: 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-hour drive.
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
Manuel Antonio is one of the best places in Costa Rica for zip lining. There are several companies to choose from, but they will all have you soaring through the rainforest canopy to get unbeatable views!
The tour company will pick you up at your hotel or vacation rental, give you a ride into the countryside, feed you breakfast or lunch, and outfit you for a memorable zip-lining adventure.
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 owned by a local 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 a bit hidden and the cocktails are strong.
For more restaurant recommendations in Manuel Antonio, check out our Manuel Antonio Restaurant 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, butterflies, and much more wildlife. As an added benefit, there are beautiful beaches for swimming. 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.
Looking for more information to plan your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these posts:
Tarcoles River Crocodile Bridge: A Stop to See Crocs – The crocodile bridge is a great (free) stop on the way from La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio.
Family Travel – Coming with the kids? Check out our Family Travel articles for tips on the best things to do, tips for traveling with babies, and lots more.
Getting a SIM Card for Travel in Costa Rica – Learn what to do to get your phone working in Costa Rica.