Are you ready for swimming under waterfalls, volcano views, beautiful beaches, unique wildlife, and more? We created this one week Best of Costa Rica itinerary to give you the perfect overview of Costa Rica in a short amount of time.
As always, we catered this Costa Rica trip plan to budget travelers like ourselves, but there are definitely a few splurge activities in here as well. Sometimes you’ve just got to go crazy! If any of the activities in this itinerary are a bit out of your price range we provided alternative activities as well.
Alright! Let’s get planning!
- 1 Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Schedule Overview
- 2 Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Transportation
- 3 Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Detailed Itinerary
- 4 Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Destinations
- 5 Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Accommodations
- 6 Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Restaurants
- 7 Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Activities
- 8 Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Words of Advice
- 9 Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Printables
Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Schedule Overview
Airport Area (day 1) → Manuel Antonio (day 2, 3) → Jaco (day 4) → La Fortuna (day 5, 6) → Airport Area (day 7) → Leave paradise (day 8)
Land in San Jose / Tour Britt coffee plantation or visit Irazu Volcano
Drive to Manuel Antonio/ See Crocodiles / Playa Biesanz / Sunset Dinner
Manuel Antonio National Park / Playa Espadilla
Drive to Jaco / SUP / Sunset Cocktails
Drive to La Fortuna / Waterfall swimming / Hot Springs Chilling
Tubing / Hiking / Natural hot springs
Cacao tour / Drive back to the airport area
It’s time to say goodbye to paradise!
Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Transportation
This Costa Rica tour needs to be done by rental car. The reason for this is many of the activities listed are a bit off the beaten path. It will be difficult to get to them without a car. Also, you will be traveling to multiple locations throughout the country. Having a car makes transportation a whole lot easier and more affordable.
It is possible to do this itinerary without four-wheel drive but we suggest at least renting something with decent clearance (as in a SUV). All the roads you will encounter are paved, but there are some steep hills in the Manuel Antonio area and on your drive to La Fortuna.
We have partnered with our favorite rental car company in Costa Rica, Adobe, to give you a 10% discount, free extra drivers, a free cell phone to use, free roof racks, and more! We love how honest and transparent Adobe is in a country where other rental car companies can not always be trusted.
You can find out more and grab your discount here.
If you need more info about directions we have a full post about how to get around.
Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Detailed Itinerary
Land in San Jose / Tour Britt coffee plantation or visit Irazu Volcano
Yeay! You’ve arrived in Costa Rica. Now you’re probably wondering, “what’s next?” First off, we suggest reading our guide to landing in San Jose. This will tell you all you need to know about going through Customs and picking up your rental car.
Once you have exited the airport, taken the shuttle to Adobe, and picked up your rental car, it is time to do something fun. We suggest either checking out Irazu volcano (here’s our complete guide) or checking out the Britt coffee tour.
If your flight gets in early in the morning you will have plenty of time to explore Irazu and the surrounding area. If you get in around midday you can do the Britt coffee tour. If you arrive in the evening it is probably best to grab some dinner and rest up before your drive to La Fortuna in the morning. We personally suggest Jalapenos Central for some filling Tex-Mex style food which is super tasty.
For some other great dinner spots check out our Alajuela (airport area) guide.
Drive to Manuel Antonio/ See Crocodiles/ Playa Biesanz/ Sunset Dinner
Get up somewhat early and eat breakfast before heading out to Manuel Antonio.
It will take you about four hours to drive to Manuel Antonio. There are tolls on this road near the start of your drive, so make sure you have colones or a few dollars with you (they do take dollars at the toll booths and will give you colones as change). I like to pay with a $10 bill if I don’t have colones. The change that they give you will be enough to pay the rest of the tolls in colones. If you need some help with getting to Manuel Antonio, check out the maps section of this itinerary.
About an hour and a half into your drive you will cross over a bridge that is usually lined with people looking down. This is called Rio Tarcoles. Pull your car off to the side of the road after the bridge and make sure all your valuables are covered. Then walk back onto the bridge and look down. You’ll see some huge crocodiles chilling in the sun waiting for their next meal. After checking out the crocodiles hop back in your car and head the rest of the way to Manuel Antonio.
When you arrive you should check into your hotel and drop your stuff off before heading to the beach. If it is too early to check in you can ask if there is a place where you can safely store your belongings in the hotel. Costa Rica is pretty safe but petty crimes can be a problem sometimes. It’s best to never leave your belongings in the car unattended for more than a few minutes. After dropping your stuff off it’s time to grab lunch and head to our favorite beach in Manuel Antonio.
As you turn onto the road for Playa Biesanz you will see a restaurant on the corner called Falafel Bar. This place is really cute and has some of the best falafel I’ve ever eaten. You could also wait until you get to Playa Biesanz to get lunch. There are tons of locals selling things such as ceviche and barbeque on the beach. Although I’ve never actually eaten on Playa Biesanz I can tell you the barbeque smells amazing!
There is no a sign when you arrive at Playa Biesanz, but you will see cars lined up along the road as well as a parking attendant. If you get to a hotel called the Parador, you’ve gone too far. Just backtrack about thirty seconds down the road. Pay the parking attendant his fee for watching your car. It is about $4. The parking attendant will direct you to the path to the beach.
As you walk down to the beach look up in the trees, Every time we’ve visited there have been howler monkeys chilling out in the trees.
Playa Biesanz is not the most beautiful beach, but we like it because it is not filled with tourists, has a cool local feel, and the water is extremely calm. The locals working on the beach will rent anything you could ever want. We suggest doing some sea kayaking. They have very nice tandem kayaks which we were able to rent last time for $15 for one and a half hours. We also suggest bringing your own snorkel mask from home if you have one (Thomas recently bought this full faced mask and he loves it). Playa Biesanz is a great place to swim out and see some fishies. If you want to just relax there are people renting out lounge chairs as well.
In the late afternoon head back to your hotel and get ready for dinner. We try to typically eat around 5pm when we are in Manuel Antonio because there are so many great restaurants with wonderful sunset views. You can check out our guide to Manuel Antonio some good options, but our favorite sunset dinner spot is called Ronny’s Place. It’s good to make a reservation here ahead of time.
Note: Make sure to bring bug spray with you to dinner. The second the sun goes down it tends to get really buggy.
After a nice dinner, we suggest just relaxing at your hotel or grabbing a cocktail at El Avion. El Avion is a restaurant located in an old cargo plane. We think the food is just average, but the bar part of the restaurant is actually located in the plane. It’s a great spot to grab an evening drink.
Go to bed somewhat early because you should be at Manuel Antonio National Park when it opens at 7am. We suggest being there when it opens because it gets really crowded as the day goes on. Ask at your hotel before you plan to get there at 7am. Sometimes the change it to 8am during rainy season.
Manuel Antonio National Park/ Playa Espadilla
Time to check out Manuel Antonio National Park! We have a complete post about Manuel Antonio here which you should read to get a better idea of how to have a successful visit. Because you can not bring food to Manuel Antonio, we suggest staying until about 12.
You can leave your car where you parked it and walk to the downtown area of Manuel Antonio. You have the option of walking the trail from right outside the entrance or walking down the road. If you decide to take the road and want a light lunch, check out Sol Frozen Yogurt on your walk. They have great smoothies, fro yo, and ice cream. It’s a super cute spot. If you want a bit more substance Backpacks Paradise Costa Linda serves good typical Costa Rican food at an affordable price. It is a hostel located down the street from Sol Frozen Yoghurt.
After you eat, enjoy some time on Playa Espadilla (the big beach in Manuel Antonio). If you want a quieter experience, walk to the far end of the beach. There are some cool large rocks down there and that area is almost always empty. After exploring the beach head back to your hotel to relax a bit or check out one of the Manuel Antonio activities we have listed in our Manuel Antonio guide.
In the evening enjoy dinner at one of our recommended places.
Drive to Jaco/SUP/Sunset Cocktails
After breakfast we suggest spending a few last hours back at Playa Biesanz before you have to check out of your hotel. It will only take you an hour to drive to Jaco and you won’t be able to check into your hotel so early.
If you do arrive at your hotel in Jaco before check in time, most places are pretty good about letting you check in early if the room is clean. If not, they will likely have a safe place you can store your luggage. Don’t leave it in the car!
Jaco is not exactly one of the most beautiful places in Costa Rica. It has a reputation for being a place for backpackers who are interested in partying and gambling so if that’s your scene you’ll love it here. If not, have no fear! There are plenty of other great activities to do. We suggest spending the night here mainly to give you another view of Costa Rica and to break up the drive from Manuel Antonio to La Fortuna. You could, of course, skip this stop entirely and head straight to La Fortuna if you would prefer.
Once you arrive in Jaco and check in to your hotel, it’s time to do something fun, but first, change into your swimming clothes and grab lunch if you’re hungry! We love Tacobar, but we have other really great options in our Jaco guide if you’d like to try something different.
After lunch head to Carton Surf Boards. Here you can take surf lessons, rent a surfboard or a stand-up paddleboard. We suggest going the SUP route if you are not an experienced surfer and don’t want to spend the money for a surf lesson.
If you’d like to book ahead of time you can do so on their website, but we’ve never had a problem just walking in and getting a board. They can direct you to the best places to go. I suggest only doing an hour if it is your first time on a SUP (it is quite the arm workout), but if you love it you can always extend for longer.
After a fun afternoon of SUP or surfing, it’s time to watch the sunset on the beach. We suggest heading back to your hotel and getting ready for dinner first. After getting changed, grab a few drinks at one of the many mini markets and go sit on the beach. After a sunset drink, head to one of our suggested restaurants for dinner.
We suggest Soda Jaco Rustico if you would like a traditional Costa Rican meal at an affordable price. If you are up for a drink after head to Green Room Cafe. They have a good craft beer selection and usually have live music. Don’t forget, you have a long drive ahead of you tomorrow though!
Drive to La Fortuna/ Waterfall swimming/ Hot Springs Chilling
After breakfast, it’s time to pack up your stuff and get ready for a long drive to La Fortuna. In total, the drive will take you about four hours. It may seem long, but the second half of this drive is the most beautiful drive in Costa Rica (at least in my opinion). Just a warning, the roads are in decent condition but it can get pretty curvy in places for all of you who tend to get car sick.
Once you arrive in La Fortuna, you will need to check in to your hotel and get changed into swimwear. It’s time to check out the amazing La Fortuna waterfall! We have a full guide to visiting the La Fortuna waterfall here.
After the waterfall, stop at Rainforest Chocolate tour. It is located right down the street from the waterfall. This is a great activity to do on your last morning before heading back to the airport area, but it fills up fast. It is best to stop in and see if you can reserve a spot for the morning tour two days away.
Now it’s time to relax at a hot spring! We like to get as much out of the hot springs as possible so we tend to stay until late (they are open until 9 or 10pm).
However, you probably want to eat as well. We usually grill (both hot springs that we recommend have free grills which you can use), but we also have the luxury of bringing paper plates, aluminum foil, etc from home. If you have to buy all of that stuff, it might be better to just eat at a restaurant or get takeout before going.
We suggest Organico Fortuna for a good healthy meal which you can get to go, but you may end up getting there and want to just eat there (it’s ridiculously cute).
Another good option is Que Rico Arenal. They have great pizza and are located very close to both hot springs we will suggest below. You could pick up a pizza there and take it with you.
Either way, after picking up your food, head to the hot springs.
We have two hot springs which we love, so I’ll describe them both and you can pick which sounds better to you.
Termalitas de Arenal: This is where the locals go. It costs 4,500 colones to enter (so about $9). On the weekends it tends to get pretty crowded. We like this place because at night it is all lit up with different colored lights. The setup is also really nice and you have more privacy at the various picnic table areas.
Termales Los Laurales: This hot spring costs about 6,000 colones (so about $12) to enter. It is much more open than Termalitas de Arenal. We love it because it has an amazing view of Arenal volcano. It’s absolutely beautiful at sunset. It also has lights at night, but they are not multi-colored like Termalitas de Arenal.
If you’d like more info we have guides to the hot springs here.
I (Sarah) like Los Laurales more, but Thomas likes Termalitas de Arenal more. We’d love if you report back on your favorite so we can continue to argue about the best one. Maybe I’ll start a tally.
Both hot springs have multiple hot and cold pools, bathrooms, lockers, changing rooms, and a snack bar (but the food is not the best and it’s expensive for what it is).
After a nice evening at the hot springs, head back to your hotel and get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be filled with action!
Tubing/ Hiking/ Natural hot springs
Ready for an amazingly fun activity? This morning you are going tubing! Arenal River Tubing will take you on a half day tour down a river in a personal inner tube. It’s ridiculously fun and the guides are absolutely amazing.
The price is $45 per person, which I know isn’t exactly a budget activity, but sometimes you’ve got splurge a little! If this is out of your price range, check out our La Fortuna guide for other great activity ideas. It is best to reserve a spot ahead of time so, head on over to their website right now and email them to confirm a spot. They are generally really good about emailing you back within 24 hours.
The tour will begin at 10am and will return around 2pm. Transportation from your hotel is included (which is awesome). Make sure to wear a bathing suit or something you don’t mind getting wet. After your fun filled tubing adventure, it is time to grab some lunch at one of our suggested places.
If you’re not watered out yet, we suggest going for a dip in the natural hot springs. The free hot spring is located under the bridge near Tabacon resort. You can find out more about how to visit in our hot springs guide.
After relaxing in the free hot springs head back to your hotel and get ready for dinner.
Before eating, park your car in downtown La Fortuna and check out the cute park. It is really well maintained and a nice spot to chill for a bit and do some people watching. Also, the fee you paid to enter the La Fortuna Waterfall goes towards maintaining this park, so might as well take full advantage of it. 🙂
Try out one of the places in our suggested restaurant list which you haven’t tried yet. We personally like the vibe at Lava Lounge. It is right down the street from the La Fortuna park so you can just leave your car where you’ve parked it.
In the evening you can relax or go to bed early. You have an early morning tomorrow and a long drive back to the airport area.
Cacao tour/ Drive back to the airport area
After enjoying breakfast head on over to the Rainforest Chocolate tour which you hopefully already reserved. The tour lasts about 1.5 hours includes all the chocolate you can eat. I ate so much chocolate when I was there! It was incredibly tasty. After the tour, it’s time to check out of your hotel and head back towards the airport.
The drive back will take you about four hours depending on traffic. The first half of the drive will be the same route you took from Jaco. We suggest not starting too late because hitting the airport area during the afternoon rush hour is a nightmare. Once you arrive in Alajuela, check into your hotel, and chill.
If you are feeling up for an activity, you can check out our Alajuela guide for some good ideas.
In the evening, grab some dinner at one of our suggested places and get some sleep before your flight tomorrow.
It’s time to say goodbye to paradise!
We hope you had a great time and enjoyed this itinerary!
We have a guide to flying out of San Jose airport if you would like to know how to prepare for your time at the airport.
Come back soon!
Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Destinations
Was that enough info for you? I know it was a bit of an overload! If you would like to know more about each destination we mentioned in this Best of Costa Rica Itinerary, we have guides to each location. I’ll link them all here for you. Jaco guide, Manuel Antonio guide, La Fortuna guide, San Jose Airport area guide.
Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Accommodations
In every destination guide, we list our favorite accommodations. Recently we have had really good luck with Airbnb and have gotten some really good deals. We have a guide to using Airbnb in Costa Rica here. Our guide to budget accommodations in Costa Rica will also help you out.
If you plan on booking a hotel, we’d appreciate it if you booked by clicking this link to booking.com. It doesn’t cost you anything but we get a percentage of their profits which allows us to keep making these Costa Rica trip plans available to you for free.
Also, if you are new to Airbnb we have $20 off for your first stay. Just click here to sign up for an account.
Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Restaurants
Costa Rica is a restaurant paradise. You can find our favorite places to eat in every destination guide. We also have several articles that will help you out. You might also enjoy our article How to Eat on a Budget in Costa Rica and Must Eat Food in Costa Rica.
Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Activities
As I mentioned earlier in this article, we tried to keep things mostly on budget, but there are for sure some activities in this itinerary that are not cheap. We tried to only pick more expensive activities which we feel are worth splurging for and support wonderful local businesses.
If you would like some alternative activity ideas, check out our destinations guides for the places you are visiting.
Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Words of Advice
– This itinerary does involve a lot of driving, but we tried to space it enough that it becomes doable.
– Check out our Must Know page for more tips for preparing for your travel including packing lists, gear suggestions, using your cell phone here etc.
– We made this one week Costa Rica itinerary with the idea that you would be flying into San Jose instead of Liberia. For this itinerary, San Jose is a much better airport to fly in to. Driving from Liberia down to Manuel Antonio is just too much driving.
– Keep in mind that Manuel Antonio National Park is closed on Mondays. If it would line up that you would be visiting the park on Monday you could always opt to do this itinerary in reverse instead and start in La Fortuna.
– Please take into consideration that we created this guide from our personal experience. We try to always give you the best and most updated info possible, but that is not always possible. For example, even in writing this I discovered three restaurants I planned on including here are now closed. What I’m trying to say is you will need to check up on everything listed here. There is always a chance that things have changed since we created this itinerary. Also, if you follow this itinerary and notice something that is incorrect info, please let us know. We always want to keep the most updated info here that we can.
Best of Costa Rica Itinerary – Printables
We know this was a lot of info! If you’d like to make things a bit more organized we suggest signing up for our mailing list (at the end of this article). We will automatically send you our Costa Rica travel planning packet. This packet will make it easy for you to organize your daily plans using this itinerary. You can find out more about what is included in this packet here.
If you have any questions about this Best of Costa Rica trip plan don’t hesitate to leave them in the comment section below. We are always happy to help you out as much as we can! Also, if you have done this itinerary and have any suggestions for future travelers please leave a comment. We love to have your input!
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