Costa Rica is one of the most unique countries in the world. It’s a top destination for many reasons: the lush rain forests and abundant wildlife, the beautiful beaches and surf, incredible food, culture, and people just to name a few! There is something to see and do in every part of the country which makes crafting a Costa Rica itinerary a difficult process. Mapping out logistics, researching, and making difficult decisions about where to go is overwhelming. After lots of research before visiting and a few lessons learned while in country, I’ve outlined everything you need to know for your own visit to the land of Pura Vida!
Best Time of Year to Visit Costa Rica
Costa Rica is one of those places that you can visit during any season and still have an incredible experience!
The best time to go to Costa Rica depends somewhat on what you want to see and do. But generally speaking the best time to visit Costa Rica would be the dry season which runs December to April. Keep in mind, dry season is high season and will generally be pricier, more crowded, drier (less green in certain areas) and hot. With dry season, the roads will be better and weather generally won’t interfere with plans.
While dry season is recommended, wet season has its perks. Those include better chances of seeing whales and hatching turtles, prices dip and crowds are less of a concern.
We visited in mid December before the holiday crowds and prices increased. The rainforest had periodic afternoon showers and the beaches were perfection. The only caveat to be aware of: the famous blue rivers like Rio Celeste will most likely still be brown from recent rains so plan accordingly. Swap those visits out with a stop at the Monteverde Cloud Forest or head to the Pacific Coast for Caribbean food and surf!
Must Know Tips for Visiting Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a top tourist destination in Central America. Most of the country’s economy is dependent on tourism so, needless to say, the country caters to tourists. As with any new destination, it’s still important to research prior to arriving in country in order to be prepared.
In most cases, you can skate by and get what you need once there. For example, there’s a Walmart in San José and shops in Arenal that can provide anything you may have forgotten. Things like water shoes (for canyoneering!) and extra phone chargers for the rental car, to name a few.
The local currency is the Costa Rican Colón however most places take credit cards and US dollars. For the best exchange rate, you’re better off paying in Colones. When we first arrived in country, we stopped at an ATM for colones to cover tips and some meals. Then we used credit cards for the majority of purchases in country.
If you are from the US or Canada, you’ll be happy to know that Costa Rica outlets are compatible. For other travelers, you’ll need a convertible that matches type A and B plugs.
Car Rental in Costa Rica
It’s very common to rent a car in Costa Rica in order to have maximum flexibility and see as much as possible. That being said, there are many dirt roads, steep, winding roads and decent traffic on the main highways so plan accordingly. Especially in the rainy season, the risk of roads flooding is very real – high clearance vehicles are recommended. For this itinerary and at the beginning of high season, four-wheel drive was not necessary.
If driving a rental car is not your cup of tea, you’re in luck! Many places on the main tourist path have transportation included in their guided tours and many hotels offer shuttle services. It will most likely be more expensive, but you can certainly get around with day tours and shuttle services, especially if your home base is a popular spot like Arenal or Tamarindo.
Tipping and Cost
Like stated previously, Costa Rica’s economy is absolutely dependent on tourism. With that, many Costa Ricans have jobs as guides, drivers, hotel workers, etc. One thing I didn’t expect was the entry fees for nearly everything, even seemingly obscure hikes to waterfalls. You can find a guide at almost any destination for either wildlife sightings or difficult to reach waterfalls. From my experience, the tour guides are always very knowledgable and especially helpful in spotting wildlife. So be prepared to tip!
International Airports in Costa Rica
There are two international airports in Costa Rica: one in Liberia (LIR) and one in the capital city of San José (Juan Santamaría, SJO). This itinerary plans for arrival and departure from Juan Santamaría in San José both ways but the best way would be arriving in SJO and departing from Liberia (LIR) to limit drive time. However, if using a car rental service, this would most likely cost significantly more because you would pick up from one airport and drop off to another airport.
The Best 7 Day Itinerary for Costa Rica
Day 1: San José & Arenal Volcano National Park
Welcome to Costa Rica! After arriving in the capital city of San José, pick up your rental car and head to your first destination: Arenal Volcano National Park and surrounding rain forest. Yes, Arenal is a real, active volcano, one of 5 volcanos in Costa Rica! The surrounding area is lush, tropical rain forest, full of wildlife and waterfalls. The tiny town next to Arenal is La Fortuna and it’s one of the top destinations in Costa Rica because there’s so much to see and do.
Before heading to Arenal National Park, don’t forget to make a pit stop at Walmart in San José to stock up on road trip snacks, water, and any other odds and ends you may have forgotten. Make sure to check the packing list below.
The drive to Arenal Volcano from San José is about 2.5-3 hours but if you’re willing to extend the drive time about an hour, you can stop at Catarata del Toro (Toro Waterfall), one of the prettiest waterfalls in Costa Rica. Toro is open Monday through Saturday from 7am to 5pm and costs $14 USD to enter. There are a number of steps (about 180) to get to the waterfall which is a perfect way to stretch your legs mid-roadtrip!
End the day with checking into the hotel and enjoying some free time before dinner and a nature walk around the hotel.
If you arrive in San Jose late and do not want to make the drive to Arenal, I’d suggest staying at the Marriott Hacienda next to the airport. It’s a gorgeous hotel with pool and spa and multiple restaurants. You can wake up well rested and tackle the drive to Arenal.
Drive Time: 2.5 hours
Where to stay in Arenal: Casa Luna Hotel & Spa
Casa Luna Hotel & Spa was amazing for the price. Only $80 a night which included a large breakfast and a credit towards the spa (which is a must)! Getting a massage with the sounds of the REAL RAINFOREST was a TREAT. Rooms were basic but clean and had all the amenities (mini fridge, TV, A/C) and spacious balconies. The hotel’s pool and hot tubs also came in handy after busy days exploring.
Day 2: Arenal Adventure Tours – Canyoning, Rafting, Ziplining
Day 2 of your 7 Day Costa Rica Itinerary will include one of the best things to do in Costa Rica: a guided adventure tour! There are many, many Costa Rica tours available to choose from in Arenal National Park. We did a canyoning tour which included rappelling down waterfalls (up to 200 feet!) and an exhilarating zipline to the bottom of the highest waterfall. Many adventure companies offer combo tours if you’re up for a full day of adventuring. We booked our rappelling tour through Viator for $99 per person which included 4 hour tour, transportation from the hotel, and a massive, authentic lunch. You can check it out here. Make sure to read through all that’s involved: you will need to hike through a canyon and you will definitely get soaked but that’s the fun part!
Other options include river rafting, zip lining, water safaris, ATV rides, horseback riding and more. Costa Rica really is a nature lover’s paradise so I’d highly recommend embracing at least one of the many options available to experience the lush rainforest in all of its glory. You can easily find tour options through google, Viator, or in many cases through the hotel you booked.
After the tour, head back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner. Enjoy your free time with a spa treatment or take a dip in the hotel’s hot tubs!
The Best Restaurant near La Fortuna
For dinner, you must venture out to Le Chante Verde. Just 5 minutes from Casa Luna Hotel, Le Chante Verde is a cute roadside restaurant with amazing food. It’s off the main tourist drag and highly recommended. Some healthy options, some local flavors, some various asian and greek flavors, all amazing. We loved it so much we went back again the following night.
Where to stay: Casa Luna Hotel & Spa
Day 3: Arenal Must Do’s
Coffee & Chocolate Tour
Day 3 of this Costa Rica Itinerary is jam packed with all the highlights of the Arenal area. Start your day with breakfast at the hotel and then head to North Fields Cafe for a Coffee & Chocolate tour. This is a great tour that will walk you through the process of making coffee and chocolate, take you through the family owned farm, and of course – lots of taste testing at the end! It takes about 2.5 hours and costs $40 per person (well worth it). Make sure to schedule your tour ahead of time during the busy season – you can get more info here or book the tour through Viator here.
The Best Place for Lunch in La Fortuna
After the chocolate and coffee tour, head into town for lunch. While the main town of La Fortuna caters to tourists and has some large western-style restaurants, I’d recommend going off the main drag for a more authentic experience. Check out the tiny Soda La Chozita and make sure to get one of the best traditional plates – the food is delicious and super cheap (a plate includes meat, rice, beans, friend plantains, and salad for under $5).
Wildlife Walking Tour at Bogarin Trail
After the delightful lunch, walk off the food coma with a wildlife tour on the Bogarin Trail. This is an easy walking trail on the edge of La Fortuna and one of the best way to see sloths and native birds in the wild. You’ll cover about 1.5 miles over about 1.5-2.5 hours and you are certain to see a large variety of wildlife – from sloths to birds to lizards and frogs. You can enter the trail on your own for $15 or pay $55 for a guide which is pretty necessary. The guides are well acquainted with the area, extremely knowledgable, and they have telescopes that make seeing the wildlife so much easier. They can even put your phone camera up to the telescope to get amazing close up photos! There was absolutely zero chance we would’ve been able to spot any of the wildlife or know what we were looking at if we didn’t get a guide. Make sure to bring extra cash to tip your guide.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Your final stop of the day is the breathtaking La Fortuna waterfall. One of the most popular waterfalls in Costa Rica, La Fortuna is about 200 feet tall and located inside a lush biological reserve. The pictures do not do the waterfall justice. To get to La Fortuna, you’ll have to pay $18 to enter and walk down about 530 steps. Going at the end of the day will ensure there are less people but keep watch on time because the waterfall access closes at 5pm. There are bathrooms, changing rooms, and even a restaurant at the waterfall if you need anything.
Where to stay: Casa Luna Hotel
Day 4: Rio Celeste, Tenorio Volcano, and Rincon de la Vieja National Park
Rio Celeste and Tenorio Volcano National Park
On Day 4 in Costa Rica, hit the road early to take the scenic route to stop at the gorgeous Rio Celeste inside of Tenorio Volcano National Park on the way to Rincon de la Vieja National Park. Rio Celeste is known for its turquoise waters and gorgeous waterfall. However, if you’re visiting in the rainy season, or it recently rained, skipped Rio Celeste. The famous turquoise blue water turns to brown after rain. You can hike through Tenorio Volcano National Park to see the waterfall and more in about 1 hour if you don’t get a guide. A guide isn’t necessary unless you want to learn while walking through the park.
Rincon de la Vieja National Park
After Rio Celeste, you’ll want to get back on the road and head to Rincon de la Vieja national park for some hiking, volcanic activity, and monkey sightings. The drive is just under 2 hours from Tenorio Volcano and will include a small toll once you get close to the park.
The park costs about $15 and is only open until 3pm (and closed on Mondays) so make sure to leave at least an hour to do the short loop hike. There are a few waterfall hikes that are longer which you can do the following day. The short loop hike will take you past a large cascading waterfall and a few “mud pots” where you can see (and smell) the volcanic activity! You’ll also be sure to spot some monkeys and iguanas.
Rio Negro Natural Hot Springs
After a full day of hiking, take a rest at the Rio Negro Natural Hot Springs. This was one of my favorite spots in Costa Rica – rustic, relaxing, and enjoying nature. Entrance into the springs costs about $15 but is free for guests of Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin. There are rustic changing rooms before you walk down to the 9 pools surrounding Rio Negro. To get the full experience, make sure to rub the volcanic mad on, let it dry, then take a dip in the refreshing river then sink into a natural hot spring pool of your choosing. There are a bunch of popular natural hot springs around Arenal Volcano National Park as well. But they are typically overpriced and manufactured (more like a large, warm swimming pool). Rio Negro Natural Hot Springs really embraced the surrounding nature and have a super relaxing vibe all for a more affordable entrance fee.
Drive Time: about 4 hours total
Where to stay: Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin
Hacienda Guachipelin is the nearest hotel to Rincon de la Vieja park and it offers a ton of tours of the surrounding areas. Literally any activity you can think of, they seem to offer it. We did not end up staying there but I wish we did (we stayed further away).
Day 5: Waterfalls & Tamarindo Beach
If you’re visiting in the dry season and there hasn’t been too much rain, check out the nearby waterfalls. There is La Leona which requires a guide, Las Chorreras requires about 1 hour hike (or guided horseback riding offered through Hotel Guachipelin) or Cangreja Waterfall which requires a 3 mile hike inside of the park. For a full breakdown of nearby waterfalls and ways to see them, check out the hotel’s page here. Not all of the waterfalls allow you to swim. And the bright blue color gets muted when it rains too much.
After enjoying some more of the waterfalls, it’s time to hit the road again to get to the final destination: Tamarindo! No Costa Rica itinerary is complete without a stop at one of its beautiful beaches. Tamarindo is a tiny beach town packed with restaurants, shops, hotels, bars, and anything else you could need while at the beach. It still maintains those chill “Pura Vida” vibes even with all that going on. There are so many great food options in Tamarindo and not to mention hotels for any budget. The waves are pretty mild so it’s a great spot for beginner surfers. Even though Tamarindo is sometimes called “Tamagringo” due to it’s tourist-loving appeal, it’s easy to see why it remains a top destination in Costa Rica.
Enjoy the rest of the day at one of the many beach clubs in Tamarindo before heading in for the night.
Drive Time: about 2 hours
Where to stay: The Coast Beachfront Hotel in Tamarindo
We chose The Coast hotel because it was beachfront but tucked away from the town center a bit and had good reviews. We enjoyed coffee on the patio each morning and walked about 5-10 minutes into town each night for dinner. You can check out more information on Booking.com here.
If you’d rather be in the center of the action, Hotel Tamarindo Diria Resort would be a great choice. It was a beautiful hotel and really in the center of town with beachfront options as well. Check it out on Booking here.
Day 6: Tamarindo
The next couple of days involve relaxing on one of Costa Rica’s beautiful beaches! One of the best places to soak up the sun is Tamarindo. A great place to check out the beach clubs for a relaxed happy hour and beach views. If you’re looking for some more adventure, it’s also a great place for boat outings, fishing, surf lessons, snorkeling, diving, nearby Eco parks for zip lining, and truly so much more. We decided to do mountain biking at Las Catalinas which was a ton of fun but exhausting in the heat – and we even had e-bikes!
Because Tamarindo is such a hot spot for tourists, there are a ton of tours that provide transportation from town. You can easily make Tamarindo your home base and explore from there – including Rincon de le Vieja National Park.
Where to Eat in Tamarindo
My favorite questions always: where to eat?! Luckily Tamarindo has some stellar food options. Listed below are a few of our favorites.
Breakfast: Breaking Bread, Nordico, Cafe Tico, Waffle Monkey for beachfront waffles
Lunch: Pico Bistro (beachfront, also good for breakfast and dinner!)
Dinner: Green Papaya Taco Bar (SO GOOD), Bamboo Sushi Club, The Red Door (romantic, on the beach)
Day 7: Last Bit of Beach Time Head to Airport Hotel
Tamarindo is about a 4-5 hour drive to San José with a chance of traffic making that drive even longer so it’s good to plan some time to get to San José before flying out. If you’d rather explore some of San José, there are a few museums and walking tours in the city but I can’t personally recommend them as I didn’t spend any time in the city. We opted for more beach time!
If you want some extra time before having to fly out, I highly suggest staying at the Marriott Hacienda Belen next to the airport in San José. It’s a beautiful, historic hotel with pool, spa, and multiple restaurants. Although, if you want amazing Indian food, walk the 2 minutes down the road to Zaika Indian Food and you will NOT be disappointed. The Marriott Hacienda Belen was the perfect last stop before a busy travel day.
Drive Time: 4-5 hours
Where to stay: Marriott Hacienda Belen
Enjoy your last Costa Rican breakfast at the hotel, gas up the rental car and head to the airport, it’s time to go home! San José’s airport is relatively simple to navigate. There are lounges, and some restaurants but the airport can be very busy so I wouldn’t want to spend all day there.
Have Some Extra Days?
There’s so much more to explore in Costa Rica than what I covered in this itinerary. Some other great options to add to this itinerary are listed below.
Manuel Antonio National Park
A great place to see wildlife, Manuel Antonio National Park has become a top spot for visitors in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful national park full of hiking trails and lined with coastal waters and beaches.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is best known for it’s massive suspension bridges and ziplining tour that allow you to experience the height and depth of the rain forest like no other. Get above the rainforest canopy with the ziplining tour but be prepared for chilly weather as it’s typically colder in this part of Costa Rica.
The pacific coast is a bit less popular in Costa Rica mostly because it’s further from the tourist hotspots but that’s a good thing! Two great places on the pacific coast are Puerto Viejo and Tortuguero National Park. Puerto Viejo is best known for its carribean influenced food, beaches, and the Jaguar Rescue Center. Tortuguero National Park is best known for being home to the leatherback sea turtles.