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three weeks

Costa Rica Paradise itinerary

Get a taste for all the beautiful things that Costa Rica has to offer

One of the most common questions we get asked over here at Costa Rica Vibes is if we can help you plan your trip. Although we love to help you, we just don’t have time to plan everyone’s vacation. For that reason, we created some amazing itineraries (including this Costa Rica itinerary of three weeks in paradise) that will give you a good plan to follow.

This particular itinerary focuses on some of the best places in Costa Rica (in our opinion). Even with three weeks you won’t have time to see everything that this country has to offer, but this 21 day Costa Rica itinerary will definitely give you a great overview of the amazingness that is Costa Rica.

Airport Area (day 1, 2) → Cahuita (day 3, 4, 5) → Tortuguero (day 6, 7) → La Fortuna (day 8, 9, 10) →  Monteverde (day 11, 12) → Manuel Antonio (day 13, 14) → Uvita (day 15, 16, 17)→ San Gerardo de Dota (day 18, 19)→ Airport Area (day 20) → Leave paradise (day 21)

Overview

This itinerary needs to be done by rental car. The reason for this that a lot of the activities mentioned are somewhat off the beaten path. If you depend on day trips from tour companies you will end up spending a lot more money. Having a car gives you a lot more flexibility and is almost always cheaper in the long run.

We have partnered with our favorite rental car company in Costa Rica, Adobe, to give you all a 10% discount, free extra drivers, a free cell phone to use etc. Adobe is the most trustworthy and helpful rental car company we have found in Costa Rica.

You can find out more and grab your discount here.

FIND OUT HOW TO GET UP TO 10% OFF YOUR CAR RENTAL IN COSTA RICA!

 

Also, just keep in mind that this itinerary does involve A LOT of driving. This itinerary is geared towards people who really want to see a lot. If you’d like to take things at a slower pace, we suggest either only doing the Caribbean coast, La Fortuna and Monteverde OR La Fortuna, Monteverde, and then the Pacific coast destinations.

DETAILED ITINERARY

Day 1: Land in San Jose

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 relax. You have made it to paradise!

If you arrive in the evening it is probably best to grab some dinner and chill out. For some great dinner spots check out our Alajuela (airport area) guide. We personally suggest Jalapenos Central for some filling Tex-Mex style food which is super tasty.

We suggest spending tonight and tomorrow night near the airport. The airport is actually closer to Alajuela than downtown San Jose. We have a guide to Alajuela with hotel suggestions here.

DAY TWO - Visit Poas Volcano / Tour a Coffee Plantation

After an early breakfast, it is time to head up to the top of the Poas Volcano. We have a complete guide to visiting Poas. We suggest reading this because the ticket booking process is kind of confusing.

After a fun morning at Poas we suggest stopping for a coffee plantation tour on the way back to your hotel. You have two options on your way.

Option #1 – Hacienda Alsacia: Starbucks has created its only coffee plantation tour in the world. The tour is not cheap (it’s $35 per person) but it seems to be very modern and it will probably be interesting to all you Starbucks lovers.

Option #2 – Doka Estates: Doka is a smaller local coffee plantation. They offer a great tour which takes you through the fields and explains the entire coffee brewing process.

After your volcano and coffee adventures we suggest relaxing at your hotel before your drive to the Caribbean tomorrow.

DAY THREE - Drive to Cahuita / Relax on the beach

Once you arrive in Cahuita and check in to your hotel it is time to relax on the beach. The best beach in Cahuita is called Playa Negra. It is a short walk from the downtown area. It’s not the most beautiful beach in the world, but we like it because it has character.

In the evening, grab dinner at one of the places we suggest in our Cahuita guide. We love the restaurant Sobre las Olas and think you will as well. I believe they open at 5 pm. It is best to get there when they open so you can get a spot right at the water. One thing though, make sure you bring bug spray. The second the sun goes down here you will start getting eaten alive.

DAY FOUR - Wake up early for the sunrise / Explore the Cahuita National Park

Playa Negra is the perfect spot to start your day by watching the sunrise. The sun rises here around 5:30am.

After watching the sunrise and getting ready for the day it is time to grab some breakfast and then head to Cahuita National Park. It is our favorite national park in Costa Rica and we’re sure you’ll love it! We have a full guide to visiting Cahuita National Park.

Every time we hike here we are exhausted after. We suggest relaxing or going for a swim to cool down after your fun hiking adventure.

In the evening, check out one of our other suggested restaurants in our Cahuita guide.

DAY FIVE - Sloth Sanctuary

Today we have two good options for you. The Cahuita / Puerto Viejo area is home to a lot of wildlife reserves. Two amazing ones in Cahuita are the Tree of Life Sanctuary and the Sloth Sanctuary.

Let me explain both of them to you so you can decide which one sounds more your speed.

Tree of Life SanctuaryThis is a 10-acre botanical garden which doubles as a rescue center for animals that need a place to go due to loss of habitat, accidents etc.

They have a variety of animals here including porcupine, spider monkeys, coati, a jaguarandi, plus a lot of other amazing animals. They also have a breeding program for turtles and iguanas.

They have very limited hours and only provide tours from Tuesday – Sunday at 11am. You need to do a tour here and can’t just walk the grounds on your own. Admission costs $16. You can find out more about this sanctuary here.

The Sloth Sanctuary: This is a rescue center for abandoned, injured, and orphaned sloths.

There are two tours you can do at the Sloth Sanctuary in Cahuita.

The Buttercup Tour will give you background info on sloths before you get to meet Buttercup the sloth. You will also have the chance to see the sloth enclosures. You will then take a 45 minutes canoe ride down a river into a typical sloth habitat. This tour last for about two hours and costs $30 per person.

The Insiders Tour includes all the aspects of the Buttercup Tour plus a chance to go into the Slothpital clinic and NICU. This tour lasts three hours and costs $150 per person.

Just note, on both of these tours you are not allowed to have direct contact with a sloth. They are very nervous animals and contact with humans sends them into a panic.

You can find out more about this sanctuary here.

In the afternoon we suggest relaxing on the beach and getting dinner at one of our suggested places in Cahuita.

DAY SIX - Drive to Tortuguero / Walk the beach / Turtle tour

Today you are heading to one of our favorite places, Tortuguero! It is a good idea to head out somewhat early towards Tortuguero. Public boats stop running from La Pavona to Tortuguero at 4:30pm. If you want more info about how to get to here we talk all about it in our Tortuguero travel guide here.

Once you arrive in Tortuguero you should check in to your hotel and drop your stuff off. Before you head out to do anything fun you should ask at your hotel about setting up a turtle tour for this evening or tomorrow evening and setting up a canoe tour for tomorrow morning. Everyone knows everyone in Tortuguero and your hotel will be happy to arrange these things for you.

Just keep in mind that prime turtle season is from July through October. If you are traveling at another time of the year you may still be able to see turtles, but there is no guarantee.

After setting that stuff up with your hotel, go explore the cute downtown area. It won’t take you too long. You can walk from one side of the main road to the other end in about 20 minutes, but it is nice to check out. There are also some cute gift shops.

After exploring, we like to change into our swimsuits and relax on the beach until dinner.

We suggest getting dinner at the Buddha Cafe. It is one of our favorite places in all of Costa Rica. Get there around 5pm and try to grab a table on the water so you can catch the sunset. Once we even saw dolphins jumping here!

After a nice evening at Buddha Cafe, hopefully, you are going on a turtle tour. Yeay! You’ll absolutely love it. Just wear some kind of stable shoes and remember you can’t take any pictures.

After your turtle tour, head to bed, if you can. I was on such an adrenaline high after the turtle tour that I could not fall asleep. You have an early morning tomorrow though.

DAY SEVEN - Take early morning wildlife canoe ride / Explore the national park

This morning on your Costa Rica itinerary you are going on a bright and early canoe ride. We have a full guide to the canoe ride and the Tortuguero National Park.

After your canoe tour, you will probably be hungry. There are a few different breakfast options in Tortuguero, really you can’t go wrong with any of them. Every place serves typical Costa Rican breakfast and is really affordable.

After breakfast, we usually relax for a bit before heading back to the national park for a hike. You paid for admission with your canoe tour, so you should get the most out of it.

In the afternoon we suggest taking a nice walk along the beach to the far end of Tortuguero. Here you will find the turtle museum. It costs a few dollars to enter. You probably won’t spend more than an hour here, but it is really interesting to learn about what they are doing to preserve the turtle habitats in Tortuguero and how they have been able to successfully get the community involved.

In the evening, try out some food at one of our suggested places in our Tortuguero guide.

DAY EIGHT - Leave Tortuguero and Drive to La Fortuna / Relax in a Hot Spring

The drive from Tortuguero to La Fortuna will take about three hours. This ride is really beautiful.

Once you arrive in La Fortuna 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 suggest Organico Fortuna for a good healthy meal.

Another good option is Que Rico Arenal. They have great pizza and are located very close to the hot springs we will suggest below.

Either way, after picking up your food, head to the hot springs.

There are plenty of hot spring options for all budgets. If you are looking for a high-end hot spring we suggest checking out Tabacon or Baldi. Both places have food options included in their day passes.

For a middle price option we suggest Kalambu hot springs.

For a budget-friendly option, we suggest Termalitas de Arenal or Termales Los Laurales.

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 9: Visit the La Fortuna Waterfall / Take a Cacao Tour / Visit Another Hot Spring

Today, you are going to start out the day by checking 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. It is best to book this activity ahead of time, especially if you are visiting during high season. So, go check out their website right now and reserve a spot.

In the afternoon we suggest checking out whatever hot spring you didn’t visit yesterday or visiting the free hot spring. We have more info about the free hot spring in our hot spring guide.

Grab dinner at one of our suggested places in our La Fortuna guide and head to bed somewhat early. Tomorrow is packed with some pure Costa Rica adventure!

Day 10: Go Inner Tubing

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.

In the evening head downtown 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.

Day 11: Drive to Monteverde / Climb a Ficus Tree / Take a Night Tour

Good morning! Monteverde is the next stop on your Costa Rica adventure!

Although Monteverde and La Fortuna are close in distance it takes about three hours to drive between the two. The reason for that is big Lake Arenal. It’s a really nice drive though. We definitely suggest stopping along the way to take pictures. The view of Lake Arenal is really nice in spots.

Once you arrive in Monteverde you can check in to your hotel and grab some lunch if you haven’t already eaten. We have tons of good food suggestions in our Monteverde Guide.

After grabbing some food we suggest checking out the ficus tree. This is a large ficus tree in the woods that you can climb to the top of. It’s pretty cool and it’s free!

The easiest way to get here is by entering “Cloud Forest Lodge” into your GPS. When you arrive at the Cloud Forest Lodge just park your car on the side of the road. As always, don’t leave anything valuable in the car.

Across from the lodge you will see dirt pathways going into the woods. Follow these paths and you will pass a few other ficus trees before finding the tree you really want. You’ll know you are in the correct spot when you see a tree that you can stand inside of and climb like a beautiful ladder from nature. Eventually, you will get to the top where you will have a really nice view.

Just be careful though. There is nobody around out there and you are climbing a tree. It is, of course, possible to slip.

After your ficus tree adventure, we suggest relaxing a bit before the evening. If you need a good dinner spot just check out our Monteverde guide.

In the evening you should go on a wildlife night tour. You can read our complete post about it here.

Day 12: Go Zip Lining and Hiking

Today is action packed! After eating some breakfast (there are some great little coffee shops in downtown Monteverde) it is time to head over to Selvatura Adventure Park.

This is something you can arrange ahead of time, so go check out their website and book it.

Selvatura has all sorts of different packages you can choose from such as combo packages of zip lining, hanging bridges, and the butterfly garden. We have only done the zip lining but have heard the hanging bridges are nice as well.

Anyway, for the rest of the morning, you will be zip lining and hiking. It really depends on what time you were able to arrange the zip lining for, but up the street from Selvatura is the Santa Elena Reserve. This is the perfect cloud forest hiking spot. We have a full post about visiting here.

In the afternoon you will likely be tired. We suggest relaxing and grabbing a few early evening cocktails at Tree House restaurant. For dinner check out one of our suggested places in the Monteverde guide.

Day 13: Drive to Manuel Antonio / Relax at Playa Biesanz

The drive from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio will take about 3.5 hours.

When you arrive in Manuel Antonio it’s time to grab lunch and head to our favorite beach in Manuel Antonio, Playa Biesanz.

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.

We like this beach 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 for 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 they change it to 8am during rainy season.

Day 14 - Visit Manuel Antonio National Park

Time to check out Manuel Antonio National Park! We have a complete post about the park here which you should read to get a better idea of how to have a successful visit.

In the afternoon you can 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 15: Drive to Uvita / Slide Down a Waterfall / Watch the Sunset from the Beach

After breakfast, we suggest relaxing at the beach for a bit before it is time to head out to Uvita. It will only take you about one hour to get to Uvita. If you arrive before check-in time we suggest asking at your hotel if you can leave your stuff somewhere safe so that it is not left in your car.

Once you arrive in Uvita and check into your hotel it is time to arrange your kayak tour for tomorrow. Head towards the beach and stop at Uvita 360. They do a mangrove kayaking tour at high tide for $55 per person for a three-hour tour.

I know, it is not cheap, but the tour includes informative guides, fruits, and water. Plus, how cool is it that you can kayak through mangroves and see tons of wildlife? Anyway, it is best to book your tour the day before. They only do the mangrove tour at high tide when the water level is higher.

After stopping at Uvita 360 it’s time to grab some lunch and check out the coolest waterfall experience you will ever have. You can check out our Uvita guide for food suggestions, but we personally recommend Los Laurales. The food is amazing and the owners are the sweetest. Plus, it is a two-minute drive from the waterfall you are going to.

After lunch at Los Laurales drive a bit further along the street and you will see cars parked on the right side of the road. Pull your car off (make sure you leave nothing of value in your car because there is nobody watching them) and go to the little wooden stand. For about $2 you can purchase entry to the waterfall. If you need directions to get here just type in “Uvita waterfall” into your GPS and it will come up.

The path to the waterfall is fairly easy. It will only take you about five minutes to get there. When you arrive you will see a waterfall with people sliding down it. It’s so cool!

I suggest you try it, especially if you are traveling during rainy season when there is more water. I didn’t do it because I was not feeling the best that day, but Thomas slid down the Uvita waterfall twice. If you try it, let us know how it was.

After your waterfall adventure, we suggest relaxing at the beach and watching the sunset. We like to buy a few beers at one of the grocery stores (there is one right in the center of town) and have a sunset drink on the beach.

In the evening you can grab dinner at one of our suggested places in our Uvita Guide.

Day 16: Go kayaking in the Mangroves / Check out the Whale's Tail

Hopefully, you were able to figure out a good time to go mangrove kayaking with Uvita 360. This day works out perfectly because you can only go kayaking at high tide and you can only see the whales tale at low tide.

To get to the Marino Ballena National Park you can park at the parking lot next to Uvita 360 and walk down the beach to the park entrance. After paying admission you can walk on to the beach and walk out on to the whales tail.

In case you are wondering what I’m even talking about, on the beach in Uvita (Marino Ballena National Park) you can walk out to a point during low tide that looks like the tail of a whale. If you have a drone, you can get an amazingly cool picture from above the whale’s tail. Just make sure to get back from the whale’s tale before the tide comes in and you get stranded.

The beach in Uvita is actually one of our favorite Costa Rica beaches because we love how long it is and hoe you can look beyond it and see pure Costa Rica jungle.

After your adventures kayaking and exploring the whales tail we suggest relaxing. You can grab dinner at one of our suggested places. Just keep in mind, tomorrow’s hike will be intense so we suggest not going too crazy tonight.

Day 17: Hike Nauyaca waterfall / Explore Dominical

After breakfast, it’s time to head to Nauyaca waterfall in nearby Dominical. We have a full guide to visiting the waterfall here.

After visiting Nauyaca we suggest checking out Dominical. You drive by the entrance to the downtown area when heading back to Uvita, so it is definitely worth stopping.

We suggest getting lunch at one of our suggested places in our Dominical guide. In all honesty, the food in Dominical is so good that we have a hard time picking one place for you to go.

After lunch, we suggest walking down to the Dominical beach and checking out the artists selling stuff. Usually, the entire road next to the beach is filled with artists. You can buy anything from clothes to jewelry, to artwork. Just be warned, it is difficult to leave without buying something.

You can then spend some time enjoying Dominical beach before heading back to Uvita.

You will likely be really tired from this day, so we suggest just chilling tonight. If you want a nice dinner Sabor Espanol has great Spanish food.

Day 18: Drive to San Gerardo de Dota / Eat a tasty trout lunch

Today you will be driving through the mountains to lovely San Gerardo de Dota. I’ve got to warn you, the drive here is a bit crazy. This is the part that you definitely need a 4 wheel drive vehicle for. The road is mostly well maintained but can be really curvy. Plus, as you get further into the mountains it can get very foggy. The upside is the ride to San Gerardo de Dota will only take you about two and a half a hours.

When you arrive at your hotel we suggest checking in and grabbing some lunch (we suggest Cafe Kahawa for some amazing trout dishes).

After lunch, if you feel like exploring we like the hiking trails at Hotel Savegre (in fact we highly recommend staying there). If you are not staying at Savegre they will charge you $10 per person to hike but will wave the charge if you plan on eating a meal there. We had dinner there and the food was excellent.

Anyway, the hiking trails are great with several options if you want a shorter or longer walk.

After doing some hiking you can always grab a cocktail at the bar at hotel Savegre. They have happy hour specials in the afternoon and you can sit next to a nice fireplace.

In the evening grab some dinner at one of our suggested places in our San Gerardo de Dota guide and then cuddle up under some blankets. It gets cold here!

Day 19: Hike along Rio Savegre

I hope you had a nice cozy sleep! After breakfast, it is time to do some hiking. The Rio Savegre waterfall hike is free and the perfect few hour hike through the woods. Just ask at your hotel and they can direct you exactly where you need to go.

Definitely wear stable shoes for this hike. There are a lot of stairs along the way and they are not always the most stable. The hike will take you a few hours. If you are interested in birding, definitely bring your binoculars. San Gerardo de Dota is a birding heaven!

After your hike, we suggest relaxing at your hotel for the rest of the day. In the evening, check out one of our suggested places for dinner.

Day 20: Visit Irazo volcano / Drive back to the airport area

Today you are heading back towards the airport. If you want to take on one more adventure you can stop at Irazu Volcano along your way. Well, it is a bit out of the way, but not too far.

We have a complete guide to Irazu volcano with suggestions of fun activities to do after nearby.

We suggest staying close to the airport tonight, especially if you have an early flight tomorrow. The traffic can get really bad.

Day 21: Leave paradise for now

We hope you had a great trip and enjoyed our Costa Rica three weeks itinerary! Come back soon!

HOTELS

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.

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.

ACTIVITIES

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.

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.

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