One Week in Costa Rica: My Itinerary & Guide
Costa Rica is a country that truly has it all: lush rainforests, volcanoes, beaches, unique wildlife (think howler monkeys and sloths), and some of world’s most protected national parks. The Central American nation is literally covered in wild jungles that are so well preserved — it’s definitely one of the few countries in the world that has gotten tourism right.
On our recent trip to Costa Rica, we were blown away by the biodiversity and environmental consciousness across the country. Costa Rica has gone to great lengths to protect its national parks and wildlife reserves. Despite receiving around 1.7 million tourists each year, the country has done such a great job in ensuring that tourism here is sustainable and beneficial to local communities.
For those who are planning a trip to this beautiful country, here is my detailed Costa Rica itinerary with some of the best things to do in Costa Rica in one week.
When to Travel Costa Rica
The best time to travel Costa Rica is during the dry season: from mid-December to April. This period promises plenty of sunshine and little rain.
We visited in April and we had excellent weather throughout our trip.That said, the dry season is also the most popular (and expensive) time to visit. If you don’t mind getting a little wet, visit between May and November when prices are lower and there are less crowds. During June and July, rain showers pause briefly, and Costa Rica’s forests burst with green foliage.
Keep in mind that the weather varies by region. In the thick forests of the Caribbean Sea coast and northern regions, expect high humidity and temperatures ranging between the 70s and high 80s year-round.
How to Get Around Costa Rica
Renting a car is easily the best way to travel around Costa Rica. Even if you intend to take domestic flights, you can get long term parking at the airport to keep your rental car safe. Having your own wheels lets you travel independently, at your own pace.
However, roads in Costa Rica are in terrible conditions and many are unpaved. We actually wrecked a wheel while driving to Monteverde and had to change the tyre in the forest. Also be aware that there are plenty of police checks along the way — we heard that the fine for speeding is US$600, so make sure you stay within the speed limit.
We booked our car rental on Discover Car Hire and paid around US$160 for one week of rental and a baby seat. The car hire company had excellent services and provided transfers in/out to the airport. Our car was a Suzuki Celerio, a very small compact car. We definitely recommend renting a 4WD instead.
Traveling by bus is the cheapest way to get around Costa Rica. San Jose is the hub for virtually all bus services in the country. Some routes are so popular that it’s wise to book your tickets in advance.
Bus schedules change with impressive frequency, so be sure to check in advance. You can download a comprehensive timetable here.
The main operator is Interbus, with comprehensive routes across the country. The similar but slightly more expensive Gray Line runs direct services between many tourist spots. For example, Grayline and Interbus offer shared shuttles from San Jose Airport to Tamarindo for around $50.
If you prefer not to drive or take public transport, it is possible to book shuttles or transfers on GetYourGuide. These door-to-door transfers will pick you up from your hotel and drop you at your next hotel.
For example, this adventure transfer from Arenal to Monteverde will bring you on on a boat and van and provide interesting information along the way. If you’re traveling as a family or in a big group, this private transfer from San Jose to Arenal would be comfortable and convenient.
Travel Costa Rica Independently or on Guided Tour?
Unlike other parts of Central America, Costa Rica is relatively safe and easy to travel around on your own. We traveled independently with our 4-year-old daughter and didn’t face any difficulty or challenges. It’s incredibly easy to travel Costa Rica with kids and highly recommend it for outdoor-loving family travelers.
What I recommend is traveling on your own and booking day tours especially if you’re not renting a car. Naturalist guides are trained to spot animals and will be able to point them out fast. Here’s a great wildlife day tour we took in Arenal!
If you’re not confident traveling Costa Rica independently, check out this 9-day Costa Rica adventure tour that’ll bring you to all the areas I mentioned, plus you get to travel with a group of fun-loving travelers.
If you’re looking for more action, this 12-day Hidden Costa Rica trip brings you off the beaten path and on an exciting trek. G Adventures is a Canadian adventure tour operator I’ve worked with many times and can highly recommend!
One-Week Costa Rica Itinerary
ITINERARY DAY 1: RELAX IN SAN JOSE
Your journey will most likely begin in San Jose, as the international airport is the main gateway into the country. Most people head straight for the mountains or coast as the city itself doesn’t have many interesting attractions. We chose to stay near the airport and relax by the pool at our hotel. Read more on where to stay in Costa Rica!
If you do have the time and want to explore the capital city, I recommend heading to the Museo del Oro Precolombino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum). Home to more than 1,600 artifacts of Pre-Columbian gold from 500 A.D., this museum’s impressive collection is well worth a visit.
It is located under the Plaza de la Cultura, which is home to two other currency-related museums, the National Coin Museum, which has a collection dating back to 1236, and the “Casa de Moneda” that shows the history of minting in Costa Rica.
Where to Stay in San Jose
Housed in a colorful and eclectic building, this modern hotel stands right in the heart of San Jose, steps from the National Theater and Plaza de la Cultura. It’s the perfect choice for those who want to explore San Jose and be right in the action. You’re literally surrounded by restaurants and shops. Check the latest rates here.
Midrange: Country Inn & Suites by Radisson
Located near the airport, this hotel is a great option for those who are flying in late and just want to stay somewhere comfortable without spending too much. The hotel has an excellent pool and spacious, comfortable rooms great for families. Definitely great value for money! Check the latest rates here.
Budget: Hostel Urbano
A funky and tastefully-designed option for budget travelers and great place to meet other travelers. The modern hostel is big and spacious, with lots of lounging space to socialise. It’s located on a hilltop with nice views of the city but just a 15-minute walk from the National museum. Check the latest rates here.
ITINERARY DAY 2: VOLCANO ADVENTURES
Next morning, drive out to Arenal Volcano bright and early to avoid the traffic. It’s a three-hour drive and it is considered one of the best road trips in Costa Rica.
Towering at 1,670m high, the peak of Arenal Volcano is easily one of the most impressive sights of the whole country. It’s also the most popular and expensive area in Costa Rica and can get quite crowded.
Enjoy a Costa Rican Casado
Base yourself in La Fortuna, the main town in the Arenal area backdropped by the volcano. There are plenty of shops, supermarkets and restaurants here.
You’ll probably arrive at lunch time, so head straight to Tiquicia Restaurant for the best casado in town. Casado is a typical Central American dish of rice with meat, stewed beans (frijoles), salad and deep-fried plantain. Costa Ricans really take pride in them and Tiquicia is said to have the best casado in town — we can attest to that!
Hike up Volcano Arenal
There’s no shortage of adventurous things to do in Arenal, from canyoning to ziplining and whitewater rafting. But the first thing I recommend doing is a hike in the national park to see the lava rocks and trails from the big eruption.
There is also a nice viewpoint where you can see both the volcano and lake. Entrance for the national park is $15 for adults. I recommend booking a guided hike to learn more about the flora and fauna of the area.
We booked this 4-hour interpretive hike that included a stop at a hot spring bath, and really enjoyed it.
Book your tour here:
Where to Stay in La Fortuna
The Springs Resort is possibly the most famous hotel in the Arenal area and one of the best places to stay in Costa Rica. It’s an iconic landmark and an established property with its own private hot springs and stunning, unobstructed view of the volcano. You’ll get free access to the hot springs, which on its own already costs close to $100. Check the latest rates here.
Midrange: Arenal Observatory Lodge
The only hotel actually in the national park with the closet view of the volcano. Surrounded by 860 private acres of tropical rainforest, the hotel features an on-site bird sanctuary that has around 500 different species of birds. The lodge also has an on-site lake, a swimming pool, a sun terrace and games room. Check the latest rates here.
Budget: Arenal Backpackers Resort
Located close to the town of La Fortuna, this backpackers resort is fun, spacious and comfortable. There’s a large swimming pool and hammocks everywhere, plus stylish tents with beds that are comfortable and affordable for budget travelers. Food is excellent, plus you get unobstructed views of the volcano from the resort. Check the latest rates here.
ITINERARY DAY 3: WATERFALLS & HOT SPRINGS
Take a Canopy Tour
The next day, sign up for a zipline tour with Sky Adventures. It’s the adventure park with the best reviews and reputation. (We went to the Sky Adventures in Monteverde but not the one in Arenal.) You’ll be soaring over the tree canopy at 600 feet high, so expect spectacular views of Lake Arenal and Arenal Volcano.
This combination package (zipline, sky tram and sky walk) costs $120 for adults and $60 for kids.
Walk the Bogarin Trail
If you really want to see sloths in La Fortuna, you have to walk the Bogarin Trail. It’s right in La Fortuna and an easy walk for all ages to see sloths and birds. The trail used to be all farmland many years ago. When the owner first started restoring the forest, he said there was one sloth. Now there are over 25 and is one of the best places in La Fortuna to see sloths.
Soak in a Hot Spring
After a busy and active day, it’s time to relax and wind down at one of the many hot springs dotted around La Fortuna. Many hotels and resorts have their own hot springs with day passes available. Day passes are quite expensive though, priced around $50-100 per adult and $30-50 for kids.
ITINERARY DAY 4: INTO THE CLOUD FORESTS
Plan an early start once again for the bumpy drive to Monteverde. Even though it looks very close to Arenal on the map, it’s a three-hour drive on steep and unpaved roads.
We highly recommend driving this route only if you have a 4WD (we rented a compact car, and totally regretted that). Our car made it to Monteverde but we wrecked one of the wheels.
If you prefer not to drive, book a transfer from Arenal to Monteverde for $50.
Wander around in Santa Elena
Base yourself in the town of Santa Elena, the only hub in Monteverde. You should be able to arrive here by noon. The town has plenty of charming cafes and vegan restaurants.
I recommend eating at Taco Taco, an authentic Mexican place that serves refreshing drinks and some of the best burritos I’ve ever had. There are also quite a few stores and souvenir shops in town, in case you need to stock up on your supplies.
Go on a Walk in the Cloud Forest
After lunch, it’s time to explore the cloud forests that has made this place famous. The tropical cloud forests are some of the most spectacular places in the world.
As these forests sit from 1500 meters and more above sea level, the vegetation is completely different as the rainforests you’ll find elsewhere in the country.
There are actually three cloud forest reserves in Monteverde: Monteverde, Santa Elena and Children’s Eternal Rain Forest. The most popular one is Monteverde, but we chose to go to Santa Elena Reserve.
It’s less crowded, higher in elevation, more mossy and cloudy. We didn’t see a single soul during our walk and we had the sensation of walking through a fairytale! Entrance fee for Santa Elena reserve is $16 for adults and $7 for kids.
Where to Stay in Monteverde
Luxury: Hotel Aguti Lodge & Reserve
Located right inside a private reserve, this stylish yet rustic hotel is a magical place poised on a hilltop overlooking the clouds forests. There are hiking trails all around the reserve where you’ll find animals like howler monkeys, aguti and the resplendent quetzal. You’ll be able to experience sleeping in the jungle without sacrificing comfort. Check the latest rates here.
Midrange: Monteverde Country Lodge
Located close to the cloud forest of Monteverde, this eco-friendly hotel offers rustic wooden cabin-style rooms surrounded by lush gardens. Guests of Monteverde Country Lodge enjoy free access to facilities at Hotel Poco a Poco, including an indoor pool, gym, hot tub and kids’ club. It’s a great choice for families who want to experience staying in the jungle. Check the latest rates here.
Budget: Casa Campo Verde
We stayed at this family-run lodge just a 10-minute drive from the centre of Santa Elena town. It’s great value for money, plus the view of the cloud forest from the second-floor guest room is fantastic. If you like local comfort food, you’ll love the breakfast and dinner here. Check the latest rates here.
ITINERARY DAY 5: GO ABOVE THE CANOPY
Walk the Hanging Bridges
It’s time for some more adventure! Start your day with a walk on the hanging bridges of the cloud forest or just hop onto a sky tram with Sky Adventures Monteverde. They have the highest and longest ziplines and hanging bridges.
The hanging bridges range up to 800 feet long and 2400 feet in altitude. This is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica with kids since the hanging bridges aren’t too long and give kids the chance to see wildlife easily.
A walk on the bridges, along with ziplining and sky tram, costs US$120 per adult and $60 for kids.
Take a Night Walk
If you want to see wildlife, be sure to sign up for a nocturnal hike in the private Curi Cancha Reserve. The hike runs everyday from 5.30 to 7.30pm for $20 per person. Curi Cancha Reserve is said to be the best place to see wildlife in Monteverde. It’s always best to go wildlife watching with a guide as he/she has been trained to spot animals.
Our guide David was knowledgable, fun and excellent in spotting wildlife. He also carried a huge telescope that allowed us to see small insects or illusive birds clearly. Thanks to him, we spotted a giant tarantula, a Lora viper, a rare orange-bellied trogon bird, and a stunning jewel beetle.
ITINERARY DAY 6: HEAD TO THE BEACH
Surf and Turf on Tamarindo Beach
After a few active days, you deserve a break on the beach! Drive west to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (3 hours).
Tamarindo is probably the most famous beach in Costa Rica and it’s easy to see why once you’re here. It’s home to some of the best swells in the world and the beach is lined with cool bars and restaurants. But it’s called “Tamagringo” for a reason: the beach can get very crowded at peak season. There are plenty of beaches that are much quieter and calmer south of Tamarindo.
We stayed near Playa Lagartillo, just 30 minutes away. It was absolutely wild and rugged, with very few people even on a public holiday. The nearby Playa Negra was also perfect for those who want some privacy.
Book your surfing lesson here or simply rent a board from the surf shops in Tamarindo and brave the waves. A board rental costs around $20 for 24 hours and surf lessons cost around $50 for 2 hours. Iguana Surf has the best reviews on TripAdvisor.
Where to Stay in Tamarindo
Luxury: Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort
Located right on the Tamarindo Beach, this four-star resort is a big property with three swimming pools and a range of restaurants. It’s got an excellent location on the beach and steps from shops and restaurants in Tamarindo. This is a great option for those who like to be in the action and still have direct access to the beach. Check the latest rates here.
Midrange: Drift Away Eco Lodge
Drift Away feels like an oasis in the midst of a jungle, with an empty and rugged beach steps away and Tamarindo a 20-minute drive away. We love the eco-friendly ethos of the lodge, which features locally-sourced furniture and natural products in their toiletries. Read my full review of Drift Away!
Budget: Tee-K Lodge
An excellent value for money, this budget lodge is brand new, beautiful and well-priced, though it’s quite a distance from the beach. It’s suitable for couples or families who have their own car. Rooms are stylish and spacious, with gorgeous earth-colored furnishing. Check the latest rates here.
*Alternative: Drive to Manuel Antonio National Park
Alternatively, those who haven’t had enough of wildlife might prefer heading to Manuel Antonio National Park instead of Tamarindo. This national park south of San Jose is where the rainforest meets the ocean, and where many of the country’s unique animals live.
If you really want to see a sloth in Costa Rica, this is one of the best places to see them.
You can easily hike the national park in one day. There are several trails that lead to beaches and viewpoints and along the way, you can run into monkeys, frogs, snakes, deer and more.
Though wildlife is everywhere in the park, I recommend hiring a guide if you’d like to learn more about the flora and fauna in the area.
ITINERARY DAY 7: SUNSET SAILING
Wildlife and Zipline at Diamante
Make full use of your last day in Costa Rica by rising early and driving out to Diamante Eco Adventure Park (an hour drive). This is a great spot for those who want to do more ziplining and canopy tours.
We came here because we really wanted to see a sloth and still hadn’t found one. The adventure park is home to the largest animal sanctuary in Costa Rica. Besides three beautiful sloths, there are also lots of toucans, butterflies and jaguars who have been rescued and rehabilitated here.
Sail into the Sunset
To finish off your trip with a bang, book a sunset sailing trip to experience the bay on a catamaran. On the way, you might have the chance to see dolphins, turtles or even whales during the right time of the year.
The catamaran will also make a snorkeling stop at a tranquil bay. Sunsets at Tamarindo are world famous, so you won’t want to miss this!
I hope that my Costa Rica itinerary will help you plan your own adventure. If you have more than one week, I’d recommend adding these to your itinerary: Manuel Antonio National Park, Tortuguero, and Puerto Viejo.