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So you’ve managed to sneak away for an entire week. Why not visit the beautiful and zen-like Central American country of Costa Rica? In this article, we’ll highlight a fun route that allows you to see a fair portion of Costa Rica in a week.
This Costa Rica itinerary is designed for adventure enthusiasts who are looking for a well-manicured mix of immersive cultural and outdoor activities with a hint of luxury.
Our 7 trip focuses on two destinations in the country: La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano area) and Manuel Antonio on the Southwestern Coast. Both of these locations are prized by both Costa Rican locals and foreign travel enthusiasts for their beauty, accommodation options and exposure to some of the most epic scenery in the world.
Both areas are also fairly spaced apart, which potentially allows for a scenic road trip and immersive experience. As you read on through this itinerary, feel free to substitute cities, transportation methods or activities to suit your personal situation. We’ll also offer suggestions on visiting alternate cities should you wish to explore further.
Why Visit the Arenal Region in Costa Rica?
Did you know that Arenal is both one of the youngest and most active volcanos in the world? If you visit Arenal, your hotel might feature a view of the volcano in your backyard. In 1968, a large eruption brought the then-dormant volcano back to life. For the next 40 odd years, the volcano was periodically spewing lava and ash into the air. The most recent eruption occurred in 2010… but it’s not just the volcano that makes Arenal special.
Arenal resides within Costa Rica’s Northern Lowlands, which makes the imposing peak that is Volcan Arenal impossible to ignore. The surrounding landscape is un-apologetically green and filled with beautiful waterfalls, rivers, canyons, lakes and wildlife.
Activities in this area range from white water rafting, hanging bridges, canopy tours, kayaking to horseback riding. In essence, visiting the Arenal region offers adventure enthusiasts an opportunity to experience the ‘bulk’ of what Costa Rica has to offer, all in one location. You’re really only missing the Coastal Experience, which is why your second destination on this itinerary is Manuel Antonio.
Why Visit Manuel Antonio?
Manuel Antonio resides on the Southwestern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Essentially, following the inland visit to Arenal, Manuel Antonio allows you to get your saltwater fix and experience a different side of Costa Rica. When most people think about CR, they envision beautiful beaches and one of the most sought-after surf locations in the world.
Manuel Antonio gives you just that, plus some of the best sports fishing in the world, a chance to see monkeys and sloths and a chance to drink rum directly out of a coconut while you do all of the above. It was rated in 2011 by Forbes as one of the world’s top 12 most beautiful parks.
Manuel Antonio is a great place to experience unique and abundant wildlife, as it’s a national park. You can hang at the beach and then look to your left and watch a white-faced monkey run away with your backpack (seriously, protect your belongings from the monkeys). Not far away, a sloth may be hanging upside down from a nearby tree while you go surfing.
Activities in Manuel Antonio range from surfing, wildlife tours & night hikes, whale watching, sport-fishing (some of the best blue marlin fishing in the world), lounging at the beach, parasailing, horseback riding, boat tours, white water rafting, kayaking, ATV tours, sailing, jet-skiing & so much more.
Before Traveling to Costa Rica
Traveling to Costa Rica involves being somewhat prepared for what both man and nature may throw at you. It’s a Spanish-speaking country, and while many locals in well-funded regions do speak some English, it’s wise to prepare yourself ahead of time so you can somewhat travel independently.
When to Travel to Costa Rica
Costa Rica has a rainy season.
There are two distinct seasons in Costa Rica. Ironically, seasons US citizens would normally refer to as Winter and Spring are considered Summer by many locals. Late April through Early November is considered the rainy season within Costa Rica. Mid-November through Early April is considered the “dry season.”
My personal preference is to travel during the dry season, and I think most would agree with me. Traveling during the rainy season often includes beautiful sunlit mornings, but the afternoons bring heavy tropical thunderstorms which in the worst cases can lead to significant mudslides. It’s also much hotter and the abundance of mosquitoes during the rainy season can be obnoxious.
Costa Rica is Easy to Access
Costa Rica is a beautiful, other-worldly destination that exists for many of us right in the backyard. If you live in South Florida, as we do, it’s a short 2 hour and 20 minute non-stop flight into San Jose International Airport. Even if you’re not that close, plenty of methods exist to get to Costa Rica on a budget. According to a recent report by Cheapflights.com, Costa Rica was recently rated as one of the top 5 bargain destinations to visit, with fares down more than 30%.
There are a number of airlines that fly direct to Costa Rica and round-trip tickets can frequently be found for under $200. Below, we’ll highlight some of the best methods for getting to the country without breaking the bank, in addition to a day-by-day itinerary that breaks down transportation, activities and insider tips for navigating and fully enjoying all that Costa Rica has to offer. Read on… Pura Vida!
Getting to Costa Rica
As mentioned above, there are a number of carriers that fly daily into Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría (SJO). Depending on your preferred final destination(s), Liberia Airport (LIR) also offers travelers another arrival option if you’d prefer to be closer to certain popular Costa Rican attractions, such as Playa Hermosa or Monte Verde. Note however that LIR typically includes more stops and flights can be a bit more expensive.
Two well-known budget airlines fly into Costa Rica’s SJO non-stop. They include Spirit Airlines and JetBlue. You can also search on Airfarewatchdog for some of the top flight deals across all airlines.
If you’re familiar with Spirit, you probably know that it’s one of the most budget, bare-bones carriers you can fly on in and out of the United States. While comfort is certainly lacking, efficiency is Spirit’s strong point. Note however that Spirit does come with a plethora of hidden fees associated with your fare. They range from carry-on and checked bag fees, to fees for picking your seat ahead of time and even paying to deal with an agent at the airport. While this is all very annoying, they aren’t incredibly steep fees, and by the time the entire trip is complete your ticket will still be one of the cheapest when compared to other airlines flying into Costa Rica.
Another option and my preferred airline, is JetBlue. JetBlue flies in and out of both San Jose and Liberia. JetBlue offers more comfort, food and in-flight entertainment than Spirit does, and they have far fewer fees. You may end up paying a bit more upfront for your ticket, but you’ll have a more enjoyable flight and you won’t be forced to pay for a carry-on bag.
Also worth noting is that JetBlue just released an amazing 30,000 point signup bonus credit card (that’s numerous free flights) that comes with a ton of benefits, including free checked bags.
Compare flights into San Jose or Liberia using a flight comparison service such as Expedia Flights.
Arriving in Costa Rica – Are Your Finances in Order?
So you’ve just landed in Costa Rica and the adventure is just about to begin. But before you leave the airport, did you stop at the ATM? Make sure you have some cash on you — in the form of both US dollars and Costa Rican “Colones”. If you’re flying into SJO, there’s an ATM near the last belt in the baggage claim area, just before you bring your checked baggage through customs. We recommend using the ATM over the conversion counter for acquiring cash, as you’ll get a better conversion rate. Consider taking out at least $200 in cash. $100 in US and $100 in Colones. Note that 50,000 Colones is roughly $100 US dollars. The acceptable conversion rate at the time of writing this itinerary is 1 Costa Rican Colón equals 0.0019 USD.
Most merchants and even street vendors accept US dollars, so don’t worry if you run out of colones. Separately, modern vendors, hotels and restaurants accept major US credit cards.
So you’ve made it through customs and now you’re looking to get to your hotel. Depending what city you’ve flown into and at what time of night, your options for picking up a rental car may be limited. Do your research ahead of time and ensure you have transportation lined up.
We arrived very late into SJO and only two rental companies were open at the airport. Both of which had received very bad reviews — which I knew ahead of time. In planning the trip, I chose to take a taxi to the nearby Wynham Garden San Jose Escazu (which was very modern, clean and had exceptional service), about 15 minutes from the San Jose airport. This allowed us to spend the night in a comfortable and affordable room, wake up to complimentary breakfast, and then take a hotel shuttle to an offsite Avis Rent-a-Car location free of charge. This method gave us access to a high-quality sports utility SUV from a highly rated rental company with no issues.
Given our arrival time and personal situation, the above strategy worked perfectly for us. If you’re arriving earlier in the day, you’ll have more rental and transport options. So again, do your research ahead of time. The best rental companies get booked up quickly. We’ll discuss specifically what car rental companies you should use further on in this itinerary in addition to some recommended private transport companies.
Renting a Car
There are three companies I recommend you rent a car within Costa Rica. The first would be through Avis, which has an office both at the airport as well as a location found 20 minutes away. The off-site location is found within the Corobici Hotel and our agent couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating. He was honest about what insurance we actually needed and offered us a great rate on a GPS. Get the GPS, trust me.
The second option would be to use Wild Rider. These guys are incredibly nice and they understand that most other rental companies in CR are there to screw the tourists. They only offer you insurance that is required by Costa Rican law and will help you get on your way quickly, while answering any and all questions about navigating the country you may have.
Lastly, we recommend using Dollar if you’re flying into Libera airport. It’s one of the most highly rated rental companies in the area and they are very accommodating.
If you’ve settled on renting a car, book it sooner than later. Especially if you’re using Wild Rider (they are popular and well-liked so they fill up quickly). Also, if you’re driving long distance through any remote areas, an SUV is recommended.
Costa Rican Travel Tip: Many popular destinations throughout Costa Rica involve lengthy car or bus rides to get to. You’ll need to travel through some towns which may be very poor and can appear third-world. That being said, be mindful of your surroundings and expect traffic laws to be ignored in some areas. Depending how skilled of a driver you are, you may want to consider private transportation, public or tourist buses to get around.
Taking a Bus
There are over 160 destinations in Costa Rica that can be accessed via Public Bus. Note that prices vary — a 5 hour ride may cost around $70 — and tickets most often need to be purchased in person. You can see a comprehensive bus schedule here.
Taking a Taxi
When arriving at the airport and heading out to the curb, tourists are sometimes bombarded by taxi drivers. Some of these cabs use meters, others just charge you a flat rate. We paid about $28 USD to be taken from SJO to our hotel near downtown San Jose. If you’re planning on leaving the city, expect to pay at least $1.25 per kilometer and for longer trips up to $270 as a one-way flat rate.
Many tourists prefer to be driven around Costa Rica through a private or semi-private transport company. If you’re not confident in your driving abilities, Costa Rican traffic or simply don’t feel like driving, this may be the right option for you. For the purposes of this itinerary, the cost for 2 people to travel from San Jose to the Arenal area is around $160. Some of the more popular options include but are not limited to:
The Meaning of “Pura Vida”
When you arrive in CR, you’re very frequently going to hear the phrase “pura vida.” It may be spoken in the form of a greeting, or in place of thank you, or when saying good bye. It’s essentially the same as saying “hakuna matata,” like in the Lion King. At it’s most basic translation, it means “pure life.” But to the Costa Rican people it has a much deeper meaning. The country is rich in nature and the people really believe in a happy-go-lucky mentality. Pura Vida is really a way of life, a mentality that the natives strive to live and breathe. It means being in the moment and appreciating all that life around you has to offer.
Day 1 – Arrive in Arenal and La Fortuna – Stay at the Royal Corin Hotel
So now that we’ve gotten most of the logistics out of the way… let’s enjoy CR! As we had mentioned previously, we spent our first night in Downtown San Jose because we arrived so late. I do not recommend driving long distances in the dark in Costa Rica. If you too are arriving late, play it safe and stay in San Jose the first night. When you wake up, grab a hearty breakfast and prepare for a 3 1/2 hour ride from San Jose to La Fortuna. La Fortuna is the main town within a few miles of the Arenal Volcano.
We recommend leaving San Jose as early in the morning as possible so you can get the most out of your day. If you leave around 8am, you’ll get to Arenal between 11:30 and 12.
When you arrive in Arenal, take some time to digest everything your hotel has to offer. We highly, highly recommend staying at the Royal Corin Thermal Water Resort and Spa. Note that there are numerous other hotels in the Arenal Volcano area, but our experience at the Royal Corin was superb. Take a walk around the grounds, grab a drink at the pool bar or go for a steam in the unique sauna located adjacent to the pool area.
The Royal Corin Amenities Include:
- A tropical welcome drink
- Deluxe breakfast buffet
- Free WiFi
- Entrance in the Hot Springs
- Daily free newspaper in your language
There are several pools at the Royal Corin, all except one of them are heated naturally by the geothermal energy given off by the nearby volcano. The water is quite warm and certainly relaxing. Your worries will literally melt away. If it gets too hot, jump in the one pool that isn’t heated. It’s the left-most pool if you’re facing the volcano. Also, keep an eye on the wildlife right around you. You may get to meet and even feed some of the resident iguanas around the Royal Corin, Valentina & Sour.
Visit the Hot Springs
Although the Royal Corin offers a nice version of the hot springs, there are other locations near the volcano that are worth a visit. There are three hotels that also offer a hot springs experience, The Baldi Hotel, The Springs Resort and Tabacon Thermal Resort. You can also book tour combination experiences that include visits to the hot springs, hanging bridges and volcano through Ecotermales. For the most part, each of these locations have been turned into spa-like scenes with multiple pools, restaurants, saunas, steam rooms and other accommodations. Baldi and Ecotermales are closest to nearby La Fortuna. They’re also the most inexpensive and most authentic hot-springs / Costa Rican experience. The Springs Resort and Tabacon are more modern and upscale, but are also a bit more expensive.
On day one, you can stay at the Royal Corin and or visit one of the hot spring locations we mentioned above. Personally, the Royal Corin is very nice, has no crowds, provides an intimate vibe, and you don’t need to drive anywhere. Whichever you choose, you’ll have a good time. Note that if you’re visiting any of the springs outside of your hotel, it’s ideal to get there early in the day as the hot springs can be quite popular.
Eat at the Hotel
On day 1, why not take it easy? You’ve just spent a lot of time and effort getting to this beautiful spot, relax. The Royal Corin has a great spot to eat, called the Emperador Restaurant with excellent service at a beautiful setting. Note that prices are a bit higher here, but the food, at least every dish we tried, was fantastic. You need to try the Papaya Salmon. Check out the full dinner menu here.
Days 2 – 4 – Explore Everything Arenal & La Fortuna Has to Offer
For the most part, we suggest that travelers spend Day 1 relaxing and getting acclimated to their hotel. Days 2 through the rest of your stay are reserved for more activities. We suggest hitting the La Fortuna waterfall, otherwise known as “Catarata La Fortuna.” This is a good way to get your feet wet — literally — and really be blown away by some of the natural aspects around Arenal.
La Fortuna Waterfall is a short 15 minute drive from the Royal Corin, and only a 5 minute drive from downtown La Fortuna. This particular waterfall costs about $12 per person to enter and the hike encompasses a combination of hanging metal bridges and steep declining stairs to get down to the waterfall itself.
Once you get there, you’re welcome to jump in the water. We encourage it! Just be careful not to go too close to the edges of the pool or get too close to the waterfall itself. It’s powerful, and rocks can occasionally fall from above. Expect a heart-rate-boosting hike on the way back up! But luckily there are benches to sit and catch your breath, along with water fountains. Overall, this hike and visit doesn’t take too much time. It’s about a 15 minute hike down to the fall and a 20 minute hike back up. Total duration depends on how much time you decide to spend observing or swimming around the fall itself.
When you get back to the top, make sure you stop at the Rio Lounge restaurant. The food is fantastic, the views are incredible and it goes without saying that it’s incredibly convenient given that it’s located just at the beginning of the Catarata La Fortuna hike. When you’re finished, you’ll be a bit burnt out and replenishing your tank is a good idea. There’s also beer and wine!
Following your visit to the waterfall, there are dozens of other things you can do around Arenal over the next 3 days. We wanted this itinerary to be somewhat flexible, so take a look below at most of the adventures you can take part in.
Note that some of these activities are offered in tour format, others can be done unguided. Some can be done either way. Also, many hotels, including the Royal Corin offer package deals, so be sure to ask your concierge what options you may have. Julio at the Royal Corin couldn’t have been more helpful in pointing us in the right direction.
Things to do around Arenal & La Fortuna:
- Arenal Volcano Hike
- Arenal Hanging Bridges
- Horseback Riding to La Fortuna Waterfall
- La Roca Canyoning Tour
*The above 4 activities are offered individually as package deals that include deep tissue massages at the Royal Corin for roughly $140 total*
- Bird Watching Near Arenal Volcano
- See the Butterfly Garden
- Celeste River and Tenorio Volcano Hike
- Kayaking at Arenal Lake *Recommended!*
- Night Hike(s)
- Safari Float
- Venado Cave Tour
- Bike Tour by Arenal Lake
- Horseback Riding Near Arenal Volcano
- Sport Fishing at Arenal Lake
- Sunset Lake Arenal Tour
- White Water Rafting
- Sky Tram
- Canopy Tours
- ATV Tour
- Sky Walk
- Flyboard on Lake Arenal
- Sunset + Wine at Arenal Observatory
Some of these adventures are longer lasting than others. Some are full-day activities, others are half-day and some are just an hour or two. Cost varies widely depending on the activity, length, if it’s a package deal and if transportation is involved. Note that many are in high demand and require scheduling a day in advance.
I do not recommend booking activities prior to arriving in Costa Rica. You only need 24 hours at most to schedule. Be sure to ask your hotel which can be done in the form of a tour and which can be done independently. If you’re like us, we prefer to do as much as we can on our own.
Day 4 – Half Day in Arenal + Drive to Manuel Antonio
Day 4 will be your last day around the Arenal area, if you’re sticking close to this itinerary. You’ll get to spend a complete half day, so the choice is yours whether you’d like to spend this time doing another activity, or simply relax at the hotel before you leave.
Your transportation should be scheduled prior to your departure. If you’re renting a car, you’ll have about a 5 hour drive Southwest towards Manuel Antonio National Park. Keep the distance in mind as I recommend not driving at night in Costa Rica. Again, if you’re following this itinerary exactly, your destination will be Hotel La Mariposa which resides within the town of Quepos in Manuel Antonio.
The drive South is paved and not incredibly difficult. You will have to deal with 1 way “dangerous bridges” as the local GPS calls them. Separately, you’ll have to navigate through a few towns, some of which are quite poor and traffic laws don’t exist. Drive slow and be alert at these junctions. When you finally arrive in Quepos, again be very alert as you drive uphill to La Mariposa. Quepos is a small town with a lot of activity, very narrow roads with steep switchbacks and some areas that have construction being done. I promise it’s worth the drive. See the image above? That’s just one of the reasons why the drive to Manuel Antonio is worth it.
Upon arriving at La Mariposa, there should be someone to help you with your bags. Parking is limited but available at the entrance of the hotel and very close to the front desk. It will likely be getting dark at this point, so check-in, take a look at your room and unpack. When you’re ready, head to “Le Papillon,” the onsite ocean-view restaraunt for an intimate dinner and vibe.
Day 5 – Relax at La Mariposa
There’s so much to do in Manuel Antonio. Too much in fact. I feel like I’d need a full 2 weeks here to really immerse myself and extract total value from this area. However, it’s important to relax. You don’t need to overdo it, because your hotel offers everything you could possibly need to help you de-stress. Infinity pools, cool bartenders, great wine and some of the best views in the country. La Mariposa actually resides on the highest point in Manuel Antonio and offers 360 degree views of the surrounding town of Quepos, the Pacific Ocean and Manuel Antonio National Park.
The views are absolutely breathtaking as is the location itself. If you’re lucky, you might get to see some monkeys or sloths crawl around outside your villa. In fact, Manuel Antonio National park is home to a bunch of famous animals, including iguanas, whales, toucans, macaws, white-faced monkeys, congos and sloths.
In addition to the landscape, La Mariposa Hotel is done up in a classic Spanish-Mediterranean style adding to the authentic feel of being in a Spanish speaking country. There are 62 rooms and villas total across the property, and they’re interconnected by neat walkways and elaborately configured trails.
It’s your call, but we recommend kicking it at the hotel for during your first day there given the lengthy ride.
Day 6 – 7 – Enjoying Manuel Antonio
The last couple days of your experience in Manuel Antonio should revolve around doing whatever makes you happiest. Whether that’s hanging out at the beach, going for a catamaran ride or horseback riding through the mountains, you really can’t go wrong. It’s your choice.
If you do decide to visit the beach, which can be accessed via a short 5 minute, free shuttle ride from La Mariposa Hotel (and others), the locals in the area are all-too-eager to offer tourists their services. We had one nice young gentleman set us up with two lounge chairs for a mere $10 for the full day. In addition, he offered to get us drinks from across the street and setup us up with anything else we could possibly need. At the end of the day, we left him with $50 for all he had done and he couldn’t have been more thankful.
Also accessible at the beach are a number of activities, such as surf lessons, jet skis and an opportunity to go parasailing. You can also find a number of restaurants and souvenir shops just across the street.
Aside from hanging at the beach, you should consider some of the following things to do as well. Note that the activities we list below in some cases can be done solo or must be booked via a tour. Contact the concierge at your hotel for more information on setting any of these up.
If you book a tour, they often include transport to and from your hotel, snacks, water, lunch and open bar (depending on tour). If you decide on an ocean-based experience, you may have a chance see whales, turtles, dolphins and more.
- Catamaran Sail Boating
- Ocean Kayaking
- Mangrove Kayaking
- Canopy Zip-lines
- White Water Rafting
- Park Tours
- Horseback Riding through the Mountains
- ATV Tours
- Deep Sea Fishing
Day 7 – Leaving Manuel Antonio
When the time has come to finally leave Costa Rica, be sure that you leave yourself a good 3 hours if you’re driving back to Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO or San Jose Airport). Note that most of the rental car return areas are off-site and the shuttle ride to the airport can take about 10 minutes. I also recommend avoiding driving back after dark, for reasons we already discussed.
GPS Coordinates for San Jose Airport (SJO)
Juan Santamaria Airport
Latitude: 9.998237999999998 (9 o 59 ‘53.66 “N)
Longitude: -84.20407999999997 (84 o 12 ‘14.69 “W)
A visit to Costa Rica, whichever specific destination(s) you choose will leave you inspired and in a continued state of zen long after your trip has concluded. We hope this itinerary gives you a good sense of how to make a wonderful trip happen. Please feel free to ask us any questions you may have in the comment section below, pura vida!