Costa Rica might look small on a map, but don’t be fooled, you can’t see everything in just one week. With some careful planning, however, you can still have a vacation of a lifetime that showcases what Costa Rica is all about: nature, adventure, and pura vida. Sample a taste of Costa Rica’s volcanoes and beaches with a one week itinerary that is ideal for travelers that want to see the diverse environments that Costa Rica offers.
Day 1 – 2: La Fortuna. From the San Jose airport, you have two options. You can spend some time in capital city San Jose (if you do, check out these local-led day tours there), or you can go directly to La Fortuna, home to Costa Rica’s most active volcano. Acquaint yourself with the small town, then spend the rest of your afternoon in the area’s many thermal hot springs. Your body will need it after all that travel!
The majority of the city’s hot springs have been transformed into day spas and mini water parks attached to hotels, but if you’re feeling adventurous, ask some locals how to get to some of the more hidden ones. You may have to hike, but it will be well worth it to avoid the crowds.
La Fortuna is hot most of the year, so make the easy hike to Arenal National Park early in the morning of the next day. You’ll get unobstructed views of the volcano, in addition to avoiding the heat and afternoon clouds. Unfortunately, you can’t get too close (it’s still active after all) but there are plenty of trails in the surrounding forest to keep you occupied for at least a couple of hours.
Next, make your way to the cascading La Fortuna waterfall. Located just 10 minutes from the town, it’s easily accessible via a platform of stairs built throughout the jungle. Climb down the 400+ stairs to take a dip in the chilly, sparkly river. You can easily spend the rest of the afternoon here – just be sure to save some energy for the climb up!
Day 3 – 4: Monteverde. Unlike the rest of the country, Monteverde is refreshingly cool; you might even find yourself reaching for a hoodie. Part of the road to Monteverde is unpaved, so leave with plenty of time to spare in order to arrive by late morning. After a quick lunch, grab a waterproof jacket and some hiking sandals, and spend the rest of the day hiking through the Cloud Forest, marveling at cool weather flora and fauna.
It’s enchanting to experience such a drastic change from the humidity of the rest of the country. After a few days of heat, you will definitely appreciate the chill in the air. End your day with some typical Costa Rican fare from a local soda.
Costa Rica is every outdoor lover’s dream, and Monteverde is one of the best spots to scratch that adrenaline itch. While there are a large variety of activities on offer, don't resist the thrill of ziplining across one of the largest ziplines in Latin America. The views of the forest were nothing short of spectacular. Plus, the excursion to ziplining included plenty of hiking, a free-fall “Tarzan” swing, and some “superman” ziplines as well (ziplining face down).
By the time you make it back to your hotel and rest for a bit, you’ll be eager for dinner and to explore the small town. Opt for an enchanting dining experience at Tree House or stick to the more moderate option, Tico y Rico. Either way, you can’t go wrong. The town is a lively place for an evening stroll but be sure to go to bed early as your next stop is a good few hours drive away.
Day 5 – 6: Manuel Antonio. Manuel Antonio is arguably one of Costa Rica’s most popular cities, known for its crystal-clear beaches and diverse animal population. Upon arrival from Monteverde, treat yourself to lunch at Marisqueria Jiuberths, a hidden gym-type restaurant with some of the freshest seafood in the city.
Make your way to the secluded Playa Biesanz for a relaxing beach day. You won’t find many tourists here but a parking attendant will happily point out the trail to the beach. Here you can rent beach chairs, surfboards and other equipment so just bring your essentials; don’t forget hiking sandals and plenty of bug spray.
Plan to spend the next day at Manuel Antonio National Park. With several beaches and plenty of trails, you certainly won’t run out of things to do here. Arrive as soon as the park opens. That way you can avoid hordes of tourists and see as many animals as possible (many scurry away at the sound of groups that are too large). Most guides carry telescopes, which will prove super useful for sightings. There’s nothing more magical than seeing sloths, bats, monkeys, and more in their natural habitat.
After hiking to your heart’s content, snag a prime spot at Playa Manuel Antonio, the most popular beach in the park. Keep a very close eye on your belongings here. The raccoons and monkeys aren’t afraid to run off with your bags in search of food and other goodies. I saw more than one tourist chasing after animals who had stolen their belongings. Even the people who cleverly tied up their things didn’t leave unscathed!
Day 7: Alajuela, San Jose. Depart Manuel Antonio for Alajuela as early as possible to take advantage of your last day in Costa Rica. For one last dose of Costa Rican nature, take a trip to Waterfall Gardens, a nature preserve with wildlife, plants, and plenty of waterfalls.
If you’ve had your fill of wildlife, you could also spend the day exploring San Jose, the capital. Although not often on the radar of visitors, it has a booming craft beer scene, markets galore, laid-back parks and much more.
Alternatively, the Dokka Coffee Plantation is adept at teaching visitors the process of growing coffee.
Of course there’s only so much to see in Costa Rica in only seven days. But one thing’s for sure: the laid back rura vida lifestyle will have you booking your return flight as soon as you get home.