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one week best of Costa Rica

One Week Best of Costa Rica Itinerary

If you plan to visit Costa Rica it might be tempting to try to see as much as possible in your seven day itinerary. 

However, we find that in order to actually enjoy your trip and not spend every second of your day driving, it is best to limit yourself to two Costa Rica destinations in a week.

We designed this itinerary to give you the best overview of Costa Rica in a short amount of time. A bit of some beach vibes and a bit of some jungle vibes. A bit of relaxing and a bit of action.

It’s all about the balance here!

So, are you ready for swimming under waterfalls, volcano views, beautiful beaches, unique wildlife, and more? 

Let’s get to it!

Oh, and I apologize in advance. This is a long read. However, if you are not ready to sit down and digest all this info, here is a shortened overview for you.


DAY ONE – Land in San Jose / Tour Britt coffee plantation or visit Poas Volcano

DAY TWO – Drive to Manuel Antonio/ See Crocodiles / Playa Biesanz / Sunset Dinner

DAY THREE – Manuel Antonio National Park / Playa Espadilla

DAY FOUR – Drive to Jaco / SUP / Sunset Cocktails

DAY FIVE – Drive to La Fortuna / Waterfall swimming / Hot Springs Chilling

DAY SIX – Tubing / Hiking / Natural hot springs

DAY SEVEN – Cacao tour / Drive back to the airport area

DAY EIGHT – Leave Paradise….for now

Transportation

costa rica car rental

Just a heads up, we designed this Costa Rica itinerary 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 of 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.

If you are looking for a great car deal, 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! 

Oh, also, we have a guide to driving directions which will help you to get out around with ease.

Detailed Itinerary

itinerary

Day One – Land in San Jose / Tour Britt coffee plantation or visit Poas Volcano

coffee costa rica

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 have three choices for you.

  1. Visit Poas Volcano. Check out the guide to Poas Volcano for all the details 
  2. Tour a coffee plantation. We suggest Britt, Dota, or Hacienda Alsacia (it is owned by Starbucks). Check out the guide to coffee plantations for info on all of them. 
  3. Visit La Paz Waterfall Gardens. La Paz is great for families. There is a wide variety of Costa Rican wildlife here as well as an amazing waterfall. 

If your flight gets in early in the morning you can even do more than one of these activities (or all of them). They are all in the same general area. 

In the evening, we suggest staying near downtown Alajuela. This will make it easy for you to hop on the highway in the morning to the coast.

For some hotel and dinner suggestions, check out our Alajuela (airport area) guide.

Day Two – Drive to Manuel Antonio/ See Crocodiles / Playa Biesanz / Sunset Dinner

sunset in Manuel Antonio

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. 

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 isn’t 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. 

You can also rent a snorkel mask here and do some swimming around. 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 8am. 

We suggest being there when it opens because it gets really crowded as the day goes on. 

Day Three – Manuel Antonio National Park / Playa Espadilla

manuel antonio national park

Time to check out Manuel Antonio National Park! 

We have a complete guide to Manuel Antonio National Park which you should read to get a better idea of how to have a successful visit. 

In the afternoon, 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.

Day Four – Drive to Jaco / SUP / Sunset Cocktails

Jaco beach

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 grabbing a few drinks at one of the many mini markets and sitting 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!

Day Five – Drive to La Fortuna / Waterfall Swimming / Hot Spring Chilling

la fortuna waterfall

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

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 suggest contacting the hotel you are planning to stay at in La Fortuna and ask if they have any discounts with local hot spring companies. Sometimes they can get you a great deal.

If not, check out our Arenal hot spring guide. We have suggestions for all budgets and interests. 

Some of the hot springs have restaurants on site, but if you are looking for something different, check out our guide to La Fortuna restaurants.

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!

Day Six – Tubing/ Natural Hot Springs

tubing la fortuna

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.

If you are looking for a bit more action, there are tons of white water rafting options in La Fortuna.

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 tubing 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 or rafting 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.

Try out one of the places in our suggested restaurant list which you haven’t tried yet. 

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.

Day Seven – Cacao Tour / Drive Back to the Airport Area

cacao tour

After enjoying breakfast head on over to the Rainforest Chocolate tour, which you hopefully already reserved. The tour lasts about 1.5 hours and includes all the chocolate you can eat. 

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.

Day Eight – Leave Paradise….For Now

sjo arrival

Unfortunately it is time to go back to reality. We hope you had a great visit and come back soon!

Hotels

airbnb la fortuna

In every destination guide, we list our favorite accommodations. 

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.

Restaurants for This Itinerary

costa rica outdoor restaurant

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.

Activities In One Week

As I mentioned earlier, we tried to keep things mostly on budget, but there are for sure some activities in this itinerary that are not as 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.

Our Advice for This Itinerary

us at isla tortuga

– 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.

Custom Costa Rica Itinerary

Does this itinerary sound good, but you would like a more customized Costa Rica experience? Just fill in our Costa Rica Trip Planner form! One of our favorite Costa Rica experts will contact you and help with the entire Costa Rica planning process.

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