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Ah, Costa Rica. Verdant rainforests, picture-perfect beaches, majestic volcanoes, and unparalleled wildlife – this gorgeous Central American destination may be the closest you’ll ever get to true paradise.
Here, ecotourism is thriving. About a quarter of this rugged and rainforested country is made up of protected national parks, three of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
A diverse topography guarantees there’s always a spectacle to explore, whether you’re snatching views of the majestic Arenal volcano or freediving into the vibrant, coral-studded seas of the Pacific and the Caribbean.
When not gawking over natural sites, there’s still more to experience. For culture vultures, there’s a treasure trove of unique adventures here.
An intriguing mix of Spanish colonial influence and indigenous heritage creates a vibrant culture that spills over to the local’s laid-back temperament and traditional food.
If you’re paying a visit, there’s good news. Costa Rica’s relatively small size guarantees you can fit the best experiences in no more than one week.
We’ve prepared this 7-day Costa Rica itinerary for travelers who want to get the most of this Central American country, complete with tips on where to stay and what to eat. Ready to experience the Pura Vida lifestyle? Your journey begins here.
When to Travel
You can’t create the best itinerary for Costa Rica without knowing the ideal time to visit. Costa Rica enjoys a year-round tropical climate with only two seasons: dry and rainy. The best time to visit is during the dry season from mid-December to April; this period offers a lot of sunshine and very little rain.
While this season is most favorable, you’ll be hobnobbing with throngs of tourists who all want in on the great weather. Unfortunately, this is also the most expensive time to visit.
If you’re looking for time away from the crowd and cheaper options, you may want to explore the rainier season between May and November if you don’t mind getting wet.
Come during June and July and, quenched by the rain, Costa Rica’s forests burst with verdant foliage.
How to Get Around in Costa Rica
On a bus
Hopping on the bus is the most affordable way to explore the country if you’re spending just one week in Costa Rica.
You’ll find most of the country’s bus services in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital. Interbus is the nation’s main operator with the most routes around the country. You can also ride with Gray Line (for a slightly more expensive fee) for direct services between tourist spots.
PRO TIP: Bus schedules change frequently, and some routes are so in demand that we highly advise you to book your tickets in advance.
On a car
If you’re looking for more convenience, we suggest you rent a car to explore Costa Rica. Having your own vehicle gives you the freedom to travel at your pace. Travelers who are planning to take domestic flights have the option to park their rental car at the airport as well.
PRO TIP: If you do plan to rent your own car, do note that Costa Rica’s roads aren’t in the best condition. Many of the roads you’ll take to popular destinations are actually unpaved, and you’ll encounter a lot of police checks when traveling.
There are also a plethora of local driving laws to familiarize yourself with. For example, driving faster than 90 mph, regardless of the posted speed limit, will cost you around $467 or get you thrown in jail for three years.
If you’re not too keen on taking the bus or driving by yourself, it’s possible to book transfers from one location to another on GetYourGuide. Most of these transfers are door-to-door, picking you up from your hotel and taking you to your next hotel.
For example, this private transfer can take you from Tamarindo to La Fortuna in a comfortable air-conditioned car.
Sample Costa Rica Itinerary (1-Week)
Here is a Costa Rica itinerary that you’ll want to copy.
Day 1: Touchdown San Jose
There’s no better place to begin your Costa Rica adventure than in San Jose, Costa Rica’s gritty but endearing capital. While it only makes sense as the international airport is located here, San Jose is the best gateway to other Costa Rican destinations.
While most travelers head straight for the beaches or the mountains, we suggest that you explore this city first. Apart from taking some much-needed rest from an arduous flight, San Jose is a good location to unearth some of Costa Rica’s historical secrets.
Head straight to the Museo del Oro Procolombino to see more than 1,600 artifacts of Pre-Columbian gold from 500 A.D. You’ll find two other currency-related museums near this museum: the Casa de Moneda which offers a comprehensive history of Costa Rica’s minting, and the National Coin Museum, which boasts of a collection that dates back to 1236.
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Where should you stay in San Jose?
For travelers with discriminating tastes who want to be right smack at the center of the action, you’ll want to stay in upscale Hotel Presidente San Jose City Center. This modern hotel sits 100 yards from the Plaza de la Cultura and Costa Rica’s National Theater.
Backpackers on a budget may want to spend a night at Hostel Urbano, a hip and modern hilltop hostel with spectacular views of San Jose. This is a great place to socialize with fellow travelers, and it’s only a 15-minute walk from the National Museum.
Day 2: The Arenal Volcano
This Costa Rica one week itinerary takes you right to Arenal Volcano on your second day. Hailed as one of Costa Rica’s most popular sights, this 1,670m high geothermal wonder last erupted in 2010 and has remained quiet ever since.
In the morning, take a three-hour drive to La Fortuna – the main town where you’ll base yourself. Known as the gateway to Arenal Volcano National Park, La Fortuna is one of Costa Rica’s top destinations, regularly flocked to by tourists who want to snatch the greatest views of the fabled volcano.
Once you’re here, explore the various shops, supermarkets, and restaurants. If you’re looking for just one restaurant to try, swing by Tiquicia Restaurant for their locally famous casado, a Central American delicacy made of stewed beans, meat, salad, rice, and fried plantain.
Hiking for the best views
There are a number of ways to explore Arenal National Park, from ziplining across the forest canopy to whitewater rafting or canyoning. Do note that the Arenal Volcano itself isn’t accessible to the public but you may access areas where you can get the best views.
This live tour guides you throughout the best experiences in Arenal, including reaching the best panoramic viewpoints in La Fortuna and a relaxing dip in a natural hot spring resort. The tour includes a hot lunch and multiple sightings of wildlife.
Where should you stay in La Fortuna?
As a popular tourist destination, you’ll find multiple lodging options in La Fortuna. For those looking for luxurious comforts, spend the night at The Springs Resort & Spa – arguably the region’s most popular hotel.
This accommodation offers guests access to private hot springs and gorgeous unobstructed views of the Arenal Volcano.
Penny-pinchers can stay at Arenal Backpackers Resort, a trendy five-star hostel with a mix of private rooms, dorms, and safari tents. The hostel’s open setting makes it a great location to hobnob with fellow adventurers.
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Day 3: Sloths, Soaking, and Spectacular Views
This one week Costa Rica itinerary offers an action-packed third day with ziplining, wildlife tripping, and a relaxing dip in well known hot spring. Start your day early with a canopy tour for the best views of the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal.
This zipline canopy tour allows you to soar above rainforest canopies in any of the 9 available ziplines with some of the longest cables in Costa Rica. It also offers breathtaking views of the rainforest from an observation point.
If you’re looking for a more wild-life oriented excursion, walk the Bogarin Trail for sightings of adorable sloths, toucans, parrots, frogs, bats, and caimans.
Travelers looking to rejuvenate after an adventure-filled day will find respite and in many of La Fortuna’s hot springs. You’ll find that a lot of resorts and hotels with private hot springs in the area, and although day passes for these establishments are expensive, you’ll have the area all to yourself.
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Day 4: Exploring Monteverde
Get another early start for a ride to Monteverde, a region that extends all throughout the slopes of the Cordillera de Tilaran and studded with farms, nature reserves, and villages.
Here, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is the main attraction, but you’ll see various other natural sights from small family farms to the expansive Children’s Eternal Rainforest. The three-hour drive to Monteverde is a bumpy one, so we suggest getting around with a 4WD.
You’ll be staying in Santa Elena, the region’s biggest population center. If you arrive there by noon, you can explore the many vegan restos and charming cafes that dot the area.
Once you’re done eating to your heart’s content, it’s time to familiarize yourself with the region. Get an authentic farm experience with this tour of a sustainable farm in Monteverde. You’ll learn about the benefits of sustainable farming, get up close and personal with farm animals, try your hand at milking a cow, and taste delicious Costa Rican cheese.
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Where should you stay in Monteverde?
For families looking for an authentic jungle experience, the Monteverde Country Lodge situated close to the cloud forest is a great choice. This lodge boasts of rustic cabin-style rooms, lush gardens, an indoor pool, and a hot tub, among others.
Caso Campo Verde is light on the pocket but heavy on the little luxuries. Just a 10-minute drive from Santa Elena, this lodge offers great views of the cloud forest and delicious traditional breakfasts and dinners.
Day 5: The Hanging Bridges
We’re not done with Monteverde just yet. Begin day five with a thrilling walk above Monteverde Cloud Reserve’s hanging bridges – one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. Monteverde Sky Adventures Park is just a 10-minute drive from downtown Monteverde and offers guided tours of the area.
The two-hour hike through the cloud forest will leave you hanging from a series of suspension bridges, offering spectacular views of the forest canopy below.
For wildlife, take a night hike at the Curi Cancha Reserve to see various birds, reptiles, and an assemblage of arachnids.
Day 6: Catch the Waves
For the penultimate day, this Costa Rica itinerary offers what all water lovers are looking for – a beach excursion unlike any other.
Just three hours west of Monteverde is Tamarindo, arguably the most famous beach in Costa Rica for its great swells, nightlife, and restaurants. During the peak season the beach can get very crowded, so take this into account if you’re looking for something more intimate (tip: there are less crowded beaches south of Tamarindo).
Laze by the beach, book a surfing lesson, go deep-sea diving, or sports fishing for marlin, sailfish, snapper, tuna, or dorado. Once the sun sets, it’s time to party.
Here, clubs, bars, and lounges offer live music, dance nights, and DJs. Check out Pacifico Bar for their reggae night, Crazy Monkey for some splendid salsa dancing, and El Garito for underground house music.
Where should you stay in Tamarindo?
For upscale living, head straight to Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort, a four-star resort with three swimming pools and a variety of restaurants. This hotel offers great access to the beach.
For an eco-friendly option, spend a night at Drift Away Eco Lodge in Playa Avellanas – a 20-minute drive from Tamarindo beach. Verdant and quiet, this intimate lodge offers only eight rooms and four private villas.
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Day 7: Go Sunset Sailing
Your last day in Costa Rica should be spent relaxing, admiring the best views, and just taking in the best the country has to offer.
Get an early start for a one-hour drive off to Diamante Eco Adventure Park for more chances to zipline and tour the canopy. You’ll see a plethora of wildlife here, including toucans, butterflies, jaguars, and even more sloths.
Once you’re done, it’s finally time to relax. Go on a sailing adventure on a 24-foot catamaran with a chance to swim and snorkel on this sunset tour. Here, you’ll get the chance to spy on turtles, whales, dolphins, and manta rays while enjoying an open bar on board.
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