If you read anything about travel in Costa Rica you’ll know that the overwhelming recommendation is to spend at least two weeks exploring the country, since there is so much to do, and it can take time to get around!
But, you can’t live life not doing things, just because everyone else says that you don’t have enough time!
So, for those of you like us, that only have one week. Here’s your condensed one week Costa Rica itinerary.
Three different locations, each offering a sense of what Costa Rica has to offer and a taste of that inimitable Pura Vida.
One Week Costa Rica Itinerary
Day 1 and 2:
Day 1 – La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano (3hrs drive from San Jose)
La Fortuna Waterfall
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La Fortuna is a town on the outskirts of the Arenal Volcano National Park. On day one head to la Catarata de la Fortuna (the Waterfall) one of the most famous of Costa Rica’s waterfalls.
75 meters high, this waterfall has 468 steps to descend, winding their way down through the forest surroundings with a reasonable hike back up. Stop and swim in the waterfall at the bottom, but watch out for strong currents.
Go early morning if you can – it can get quite crowded!
Day 2 – La Fortuna
A mix of action and relaxation. The area around the volcano is known for the natural hot springs.
We chose Eco Termales as they limit the number of guests per day, offering a really relaxing and not too crowded experience in their five heated pools. Perfect way to soothe any tired muscles after your waterfall climb yesterday. Entrance price includes your locker and towel. A full bar offering drinks and snacks is also available. Spend a little extra to have lunch or dinner included on the property, I’ve heard great things about it!
Meanwhile, the husband could not resist trying out an ATV experience, opting for a private tour with Power Wheels.
A spirited drive across single track trails through a 400 acre private reserve in the foothills of the volcano.
Where we stayed: Ti-fakara Boutique Hotel and Birding Oasis
Right in the heart of the jungle next to the famous waterfall at La Fortuna, Ti-fakara is a beautiful little hotel with cottages nestled in the greenery. There are sloths on the property and a host of birds, frogs and other wildlife. The cottages have gorgeous bathrooms with outdoor showers and rainfall shower heads.
Bonus: Ti-fakara offers a great made to order hot breakfast as part of their room rate.
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Where we ate: Lava Lounge
Live music, craft beers and a varied menu with Costa Rican favourites alongside pizza and other casual fare. This restaurant on the main road through La Fortuna is always packed.
Other activities in La Fortuna:
Horse riding treks, White water rafting, Coffee Tour, Chocolate Tour, Hanging Bridges, Hiking the Volcano
Days 3 and 4:
Day 3 – Monteverde and Santa Elena (3.5hrs drive from La Fortuna)
Driving west of La Fortuna it was time to head to the cloud forest at Monteverde and Santa Elena. The drive between La Fortuna and Monteverde is long, especially considering that you aren’t actually going that far. On the map the towns appear to be neighbours.
You have to drive around Lake Arenal. There are faster routes, including taking a boat, but if you have a hire car (like we did) that isn’t an option. Luckily the drive is beautiful, although uncomfortable at times.
Known for the diverse eco-system, we immediately booked a guided night tour of the forest reserve, keen to see as much wildlife as possible.
Our guide Carlos was incredible at spotting various birds, frogs, spiders and reptiles. We saw two venomous pit vipers, red-eyed tree frogs, a green toucanet, a sleeping hummingbird, tarantulas, bats, and various insects.
Day 4 – Monteverde and Santa Elena
Hanging Bridges, Hiking and Zip-lining
Famous for the Hanging Bridges that run through the forest canopy offering stunning views above the tree tops and an easy hike through the forest. We started our day with a guided tour ‘Sky Walk’ with Sky Adventures. Two hours through the cloud forest across five hanging bridges. Our guide gave us lots of information about the forest, the plants, trees and wildlife within. Sky Adventures also offers Ziplining and a Sky Tram with gondolas.
We then headed to Santa Elena reserve to hike a couple of their trails. A different experience of the forest, we opted to self-guide and follow the clearly sign-posted trails. There are no hanging bridges at Santa Elena.
Where we stayed: Selina Hostel, Monteverde
Cheerful chain of backpackers hostels and co-working spaces with private bedrooms for around $60 per night. Busy bar/restaurant area with pool table and live music, yoga classes and social vibes.
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Where we ate: Taco Taco
We had to fight for a table at this busy taqueria, and for good reason! The food is excellent and reasonably priced. Extensive cocktail list and draft beers, this is a must try when in Monteverde.
Other activities in Monteverde:
Bat Jungle, Coffee Tour, Herpetarium.
Days 5 and 6:
Day 5 – Manuel Antonio (3.5hrs from Monteverde – stop at Tarcoles River bridge en route to see the crocodiles)
The Pacific Coast of Costa Rica is known for its beaches and surfing. We traveled down to Manuel Antonio to explore some of the coastline. Black sand and lava rocks line the busy beach town. Head to the beach to rent surf boards, get lessons or just to take a look around.
Day 6 – Manuel Antonio
Get up early to head to the National Park, there is a restriction to the number of visitors per day (600 on a weekday and 800 on a weekend day – I have no idea how strictly that is actually enforced).
Inside the National Park is where you will find the naturally beautiful beaches as the forest spills onto the sand. You’ll also find lots of wildlife. We saw sloths, three types of monkey (howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys and the white face monkeys), toucans, sleeping bats, an agouti, a deer and two different snakes.
All were perfectly visible to the naked eye but if you want really good photos you might want to do a guided tour as the guides use telescopes to get zoomed right in.
We opted just to walk self-guided and enjoy watching the animals.
*Watch out for the parking touts, they will literally stand in the road to flag you down and convince you that you have to park in their car park, charging whatever they feel like.
Where we stayed: Téva Eco Retreat, Manuel Antonio
Another hostel, our ‘Comfort’ bedroom with air-conditioning and private bathroom set us back $45 before taxes. A ‘Basic’ double room with no a/c and shared bathroom starts at $28. Small, clean rooms and a cute little Moroccan restaurant and bar. The property is relatively new, opening December 2018.
Bonus: the Morrocan restaurant on-site, Azuleo, offers great sharing plates at dinner and tasty breakfast options.
Where we ate: Baldi’s Fresh Restaurant
Among the crush of fairly samey looking restaurants along the beach front, Baldi’s Fresh Restaurant stood out to me with the selection of clean salads, fresh juices and smoothies.
Day 7 – Jaco (1hr from Manuel Antonio)
En route back up to San Jose for our flights we stayed overnight in Jaco for a bit more of the Pacific Coast action. Jaco is the party town, the vast stretch of black sand beach and fantastic surf conditions have made it hugely popular with surfers and tourists. Lots of shops, restaurants and bars to choose from and some interesting little boutiques among all the ‘Pura Vida’ t-shirt selling tourist traps.
From Jaco it was then a straight 2hr drive up to San Jose for our flights.
Where we stayed: Selina Hostel, Jaco
We were so impressed by our first stay at Selina in Monteverde, that we decided to try it again – especially as our private room with shared bathroom only cost $40 (including taxes). The hostel has a fantastic spot with direct beach access, pool and beach bar.
Where we ate: Ridiculous Burger
The clue is in the name – Ridiculous Burger feels like a bit of a made-for-instagram-phenomenon.
Over-the-top burgers, challenges (eat the biggest burger in 30 minutes and it is free, or the hottest burger in 15 minutes and it is free, you get the idea). Milkshakes piled high with donuts, whipped cream, cupcakes and candy. Giant cocktails to share. All of which are just made to take photos of. All that aside though, the husband did declare his burger to be delicious (there were over 20 to choose from, including the insanely expensive Wagyu and Caviar burger for $499) and my salad was tasty too.
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Getting around Costa Rica:
We chose to hire a car to afford us extra flexibility. We rented a Suzuki Vitara from Vamos Rent-a-Car in San Jose. Navigating around Costa Rica was pretty simple using Google Maps in offline mode. We also used Waze with data from a local PAYG Claro SIM card.
The roads, for the most part, are excellent. There is a stretch of road for about an hour on the way into/out of Monteverde which is a gravel dirt road with pot-holes. This is the reason that many people suggest 4×4 vehicles when traveling through Costa Rica.
You can also fly between the domestic airports if you want to maximize your time.
As always we made all of our hotel reservations on Hotels.com. There was a great variety of hotel and hostel accommodation across different price points for all of the destinations that we were visiting. We booked much of it last minute as we traveled and kept our itinerary flexible.
The National currency in Costa Rica is the Colones, but $US Dollars are accepted virtually everywhere. We paid predominantly in dollars and kept the change that we were given in Colones for small charges, tips and tolls. The exchange rate when we traveled was roughly 570 Colones = 1 $USD.
Please, please, please do not forget to take out travel insurance. Our rental car was badly damaged while parked in a secure hotel car park. An example that even when you are being careful, and not at fault, accidents can still happen.
We buy our travel insurance from World Nomads. Please make sure to read the policy details to ensure that the coverage is right for you.
So that concludes our Costa Rica tips and my one week Costa Rica itinerary.
While it would have been lovely to see more of what Costa Rica has to offer, we had a fantastic time exploring as much as we could in those seven days. We know that we will be back for more Pura Vida adventures.
Please leave any suggestions in the comments for destinations that we should include next time!