Country: Costa Rica
Cities: San Jose, La Fortuna, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio
Highlights: Arenal Volcano, Tabacon Hot Springs, La Fortuna Waterfall, Mistico Hanging Bridges, Santa Elena Cloud Forest, Playa Biesanz, Manuel Antonio National Park
If you only have one week, but want to see the best highlights of Costa Rica, then this is the itinerary for you! We flew into San Jose, rented a car, and drove to the best sites of Arenal Volcano, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio. Check out here for a packing list. Now let’s get to the details!
Day 1: Getting to Arenal
We found a cheap flight using Spirit Airlines and made our way to San Jose International Airport. Upon arrival, we picked up our car at Alamo. There was A LOT of confusion about the rental car process, so let me just summarize below what we learned:
- Third Party Liability (TPL) Insurance IS required. This is not negotiable.
- CDW Insurance is NOT required. Most likely your credit card already covers this, but check with them before declining this coverage.
- Book with a reputable company. We booked with Alamo but there is a an Alamo Costa Rica website that APPEARS to be the same thing but charged more. So just book directly with the rental car agency and avoid the hassle.
- Car rental agencies in Costa Rica typically take large deposits. Ours was $1000, which wasn’t charged to the card, but did put a hold on it, so if you don’t have a lot of credit, be aware of this.
- I absolutely WOULD recommend a 4WD SUV. 90% of the roads were NOT paved and would have been impossible without this.
- Photograph EVERYTHING. Take pictures of every scratch, dent and imperfection before you even step in the car.
After picking up the car, we made the 3 hour drive to our hotel, Hotel Linda Vista, in La Fortuna (the town at the base of Arenal Volcano). This was a bit of a splurge for us, but we discovered the next morning that the view was totally worth the price.
PRO TIP: Neither of us know any Spanish, but it wasn’t necessary. There were about 3 times on the trip when we stopped at a store while driving and the employees didn’t know any English, but we all made it work. Learn the phrase “Pura Vida” – or “Pure Life” – the Costa Rican way of life. You will probably hear this phrase over 1000x on your trip. 🙂
Day 2: Exploring Arenal: Hiking and Hot Springs
We woke up early and literally screamed when we opened the curtains to see the sun rising over the volcano outside of our hotel room. It was truly magical!
After breakfast at the hotel, we drove 10 minutes to the entrance of Arenal Volcano National Park. We were the first in line to enter the park ($15 fee to enter), and having the trails to ourselves was amazing. We parked in the (empty) parking lot and started with the El Ceibo trail. This was a short trail (.75 miles) that took us past some of the largest and oldest trees in Costa Rica! It really shouldn’t be missed!
PRO TIP: There are lots of guided tours available in all of Costa Rica. We opted to find our own way in Arenal, which wasn’t too difficult, but spotting wildlife is MUCH easier with a guide (which we used later in Monteverde and Manuel Antonio).
Then we ventured onto the Lava Flow trail, another easy hike with beautiful views of the volcano and lake below.
PRO TIP: If you can’t see the top of the Volcano, wait 15 minutes. The clouds change quickly!
Next, we drove down the road to Arenal 1968. This area costs $15 to enter, but has bathrooms, picnic tables to eat, and well maintained trails. There are several self-guided (and guided) hike options to choose from, but all have great views of the volcano. We saw cows, monkeys, a pineapple farm, lava fields and all types of interesting birds.
After our hike, we decided to venture to Rio Celeste, a beautiful blue waterfall about 2 hours away driving from Arenal. This led to the most horrifying experience of the entire trip. We ended up getting quite lost and driving over a tiny wooden bridge with no sides!
PRO TIP: There is NOT great cell service in Costa Rica. Bring a printed map with you!
On the other side of this bridge was a “No trespassing sign”, so we had to do it twice! Anyway, this detour postponed our expected arrival at the waterfall and we were not allowed in to see it.
PRO TIP: They limit the amount of people who can get into Rio Celeste each day (as of 2019, the limit is 1000 people). We arrived at 2:15pm and were not let in, so make sure to get there early!
Fortunately, nearby there is a river in which the locals were swimming. The water looked very blue, so we explored the area and relaxed by the water for a little bit.
We made the two hour drive back to La Fortuna, stopped at Pizza Ranch to pick up some pizza, and watched the sunset over Lake Arenal back at our hotel.
To finish the night, we wanted to relax in some hot springs. There are many different options, both paid and nonpaid, but Tabacon Resort was close to our hotel, had good reviews, and prides itself on it’s sustainability efforts (which we like to support). We opted for the Night Pass: Entrance with Dinner.
PRO TIP: It is highly recommended you book your hot springs in advance. You will also have to choose a dinner time, so plan accordingly. Note that parking can be difficult (all on the side of the road) so factor in extra time for your arrival.
We arrived at the hot springs, put our belongings in the lockers, and walked around to find a suitable spring that wasn’t too crowded. There were lots of windy paths through what felt like a jungle, and the water temperature was just right. It was like our own little paradise. There were plenty of open spots where we weren’t surrounded by other tourists, so we picked one and relaxed by ourselves for quite some time.
We had dinner at the Hot Springs but I’m not sure I’d recommend it if you have another option. It was buffet style dinner, and admittedly it wasn’t the best. Some of the food tasted luke warm or old, but it was suitable for just a quick break between hot springs. The rest of the night was spent checking out different springs, relaxing and then eventually getting back to the hotel for some rest.
Day 3: La Fortuna Waterfall, Coffee and Chocolate Tour, Hanging Bridges, and Getting to Monteverde
We woke up early as it was another long day ahead of us. We packed our bags and checked out of the hotel, as we’d be driving to Monteverde later in the day.
We started off with a trip to nearby La Fortuna Waterfall. After paying the entrance fee of $18, we took the 500 steps down to the base of the waterfall. There were some people swimming there, but with our limited time schedule, we passed. 500 steps back up (with some rest stops) and it was over. To be honest, I’d probably skip this stop if we had to do it again. Maybe if we had more time to explore and relax, it would have been worth it.
Next, we headed to downtown La Fortuna and booked a chocolate and coffee tour with Don Juan Tours. After a quick souvenir stop in La Fortuna, we headed to the meeting place for the tour and got started.
This tour was a lot of fun! We learned all about the process of how chocolate and coffee are made, and even got to make our own (not as tasty) chocolate ourselves to take home (and throw out) later! Even as a non-coffee drinker, I had a good time on this tour and learned a lot, so I’d highly recommend it. After the tour, we returned to their gift shop and bought some coffee beans and chocolate to bring home to our families.
Next, we decided to check out Mistico Hanging Bridges, a short drive in the direction of Monteverde. Entrance fees were $26 and did not include a tour guide, but we wanted to save our tour guide money for Monteverde and Manuel Antonio, so we did without. However, during our walk, we ended up walking next to some employees that just happened to be walking near us, and they pointed out several cool birds along the way. Of course, if you want to see all of the wildlife, be sure to hire a guide.
The main attraction of this park was of course, the hanging bridges. There were lots of them (~20) and I thought it would be terrifying, but the bridges felt secure and well-maintained. On some of them, employees make sure that you only go on one at a time, but for the most part, you can cross as you please. Some had very good views of Arenal Volcano, and all overlooked beautiful jungles below.
After grabbing lunch at the attached restaurant (which was delicious!), we said goodbye to Arenal Volcano and headed towards Monteverde.
The drive to Monteverde was not an easy one. It took approximately 4 hours on unpaved roads, winding back and forth, the road typically just slightly larger than one lane wide. We saw lots of farmland and cows, some houses, and not much else until we arrived in the town of Monteverde.
In Monteverde, we opted for an Airbnb just outside of downtown. After getting lost several times, we finally found our way and checked in. As we were quite hungry and ready for dinner, we drove to downtown Monteverde and went to Tree House Restaurant. This awesome restaurant is built around a giant ficus tree! Not only that, but the food and drinks were delicious, and there was local live music. Don’t miss a stop at this restaurant!
After dinner, we walked around the corner to Bar Amigos, which had a DJ and open dance floor. The crowd was a bit young on the dance floor, but there were people of all ages around and we had a fun time mingling with other travelers before heading back to our Airbnb for the night.
Day 4: Ficus Trees, Cloud Forest and Nighttime Wildlife Tour
We didn’t have plans for this day, but a fellow traveler had told us the night before about a giant Ficus tree you could climb inside of to the top, so we decided to check it out. After a quick breakfast at Stella’s, we parked downtown (close to the Tree House Restaurant from the night before) and walked up the main road away from town. It probably would have been better to park and walk from Eddy’s Place (or somewhere else along this road), as this is closer to the entrance of the Ficus trail. We also got lost some, so I’ll drop the map location here so you can find it easier than we did. 🙂
After a short hike along the trail, and passing several other Ficus trees, we came upon the greatest tree of all. It was honestly one of the coolest trees I’ve ever seen. You can climb up the inside to the top, but we only made it about 1/3 of the way before getting too scared and climbing down. It was still awesome, and we had the tree all to ourselves for a good amount of time! This would definitely be on my “do not miss” list.
On the walk back to the car, we saw a sign for a Night Walk at one of the “sodas” (a cheap local restaurant) nearby and decided to sign up. The tour wasn’t until later, but we had to book early in the day for that evening. There are many Night Walk options available, but we booked with Kinkajou and it ended up being amazing.
After lunch at the aforementioned soda, we wanted to do some hiking in what Monteverde is known for: the Cloud Forest. The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve was close by, so we drove and paid the $16 entrance fee. There were several trails ranging in length, but were all well marked, so we hiked about 2 hours through the beautiful forest, seeing very few other people the entire time.
After the hike through the Cloud Forest, we went back to our Airbnb to relax a little bit. As we had time to kill before the Night Tour, we hiked the trails near our Airbnb and found more Ficus trees (and a nice lookout!). If you’re into adventure, this might be a great time to do one of the many ziplines in the area!
At last it was time for our Night Walk tour. We went back to the “soda” where we had purchased our tickets and the tour bus picked us up from there and brought us to a meeting point. There were LOTS of people on this tour, but they divided us into smaller groups of about 15 people per tour guide.
PRO TIP: Try to get near the front of the tour for this one if you can! Several times we missed some wildlife action because someone in front of us was moving too slowly. Move as quickly and as silently as possible!
This tour was exceptional! Our guide pointed out things we would have never seen on our own…nocturnal birds, frogs, armadillos, scorpions, tarantulas, AND the most exciting part…a sloth coming down to pee! They only do this once/week and we happened to be there for it, so you can say we were just a little excited (aka it was the highlight of the trip!). Not to mention the amount of stars we could actually see was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. DO NOT MISS THIS TOUR!
After this tour, we had a slight mishap with our rental car while backing into a tree (and severely cracking the bumper). Read here to see how we got away with paying nothing!
Day 5: Drive to Manuel Antonio and Playa Biesanz
We packed up our bags, grabbed breakfast, and headed on the 4 hour drive from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio. This drive was a bit less bumpy than the previous drive, but still more rural than we’re used to. Our route took us through Jaco, a cute coastal town, where we purchased coconuts with straws on the side of the road for $1.
We arrived in Manuel Antonio around noon, too early to check into our hostel, so we drove directly to Playa Biesanz. This is a beautiful local beach that is accessed by a short walk through the jungle (often filled with wild monkeys!).
PRO TIP: There is street parking right near the entrance of the beach path. However, you must pay an attendant to watch your car for $5. We opted for this, as we did not see any available free parking within walking distance. Also, wear sandals with straps/sneakers as the hike to the beach can be a bit slippery.
There were chairs/umbrellas for rent, but we brought our own towels so we sunbathed and swam for hours here. There were very few people, other than some food/drink vendors and a couple of families. The water was warm and clear, and it was great to just relax for a while.
Next we headed to our hostel, Hostel Plinio, to check-in and shower. This hostel was SUPER cute. I felt like we were staying in a tree-house. However, there was no air conditioning and the room was small, so we did get quite warm at times.
After freshening up, we headed to Barba Roja for dinner. As this is a great sunset spot, make sure to get there early if you want a good view! Food and drinks were reasonably priced, there were two Birds of Paradise who built a nest nearby that kept us company, and of course we got to watch the beautiful sunset. I definitely recommend this place!
After dinner, we headed to Bar Jolly Roger for some karaoke! It was a fun way to end the night.
Day 6: Manuel Antonio National Park
We booked a private tour online for Manuel Antonio National Park, as we had previously missed some wildlife being stuck behind slower people in the group in the Night Walk. We had breakfast (included at our hostel) and were picked up by our guide.
PRO TIP: Manuel Antonio National Park is closed on Mondays. Other days, the number of visitors is limited (check website for more details). Either arrive EARLY or book your tour in advance. Bringing food into the park is strictly prohibited. There is food available for purchase in the park.
The guide had a special scope that he was able to quickly set up and allow us to view the wildlife close up. If there was time (and there usually was), he let us take pictures on our cell phones of the animals. We got some truly stunning shots of sloths, birds, and monkeys using this method.
Walking around with the guide in the forest was amazing, as he saw many things we could not, and we learned a lot about the different wildlife that could be found there. The tour was supposed to be 4 hours long, and ended up being about 2.5, so after emailing the tour company when we got back, we were refunded some of our money (do not be afraid to do this if the company misleads you).
After that, it was time to check out the beaches. There are 2 main beaches inside the park: Espadilla Sur Beach and Manuel Antonio Beach. Both are quite close to each other and it’s easy to hop back and forth from beach to beach. We started with Manuel Antonio Beach, as it was closer to the tour end and closest to the food. The water was SO blue, the sands were soft and white, and monkeys ran through the jungles that surrounded the beach (we even saw one lady get her food stolen).
Next we headed over to Espadilla Sur Beach. There was considerably less jungle here, and thus less opportunity to limit sun exposure (and heat exhaustion when not in the water). We swam over here too, as it was just as beautiful as Manuel Antonio Beach, until I got stung by a jelly fish (ouch)! After that, we decided to head back to Manuel Antonio Beach.
PRO TIP: Most people rest in the shade of trees on these beaches. Be sure to avoid the Manchineel trees, which are poisonous even if touched!
The rest of the day was spent on the beaches, relaxing and unknowingly burning our skin. Make sure to wear HIGH SPF – even if you don’t think you’re getting too much sun!
The walk back to the tour guide pick-up at the entrance of the park took approximately a half hour, so make sure to factor this into your departure time. We were brought back to our hostel and got ready for dinner. Dinner that night was at Ronny’s Place, which is also known to have great sunset views (get there early to ensure a good table)!
After another beautiful sunset and great dinner (with more coconut drinks!), we wanted a night out on the town. We were recommended Selina Manuel Antonio, a nearby hotel known for it’s party atmosphere and free dance lessons. This is a must-do if you want a fun, party night! The dance lessons were SO much fun, there was a pool with volleyball games going on, several bars, and LOTS of travelers of all ages around.
After that bar closed, some people I had met decided we wanted to keep the party going at a nearby casino in Quepos. I would NOT recommend this option. It felt dirty and scary, and we left as pretty much as soon as we got there (losing Uber money in the process).
Day 7: The Journey Home
We slept in after a long night, packed up our bags, checked out and headed back towards Playa Biesanz. Our flight from San Jose wasn’t until nighttime, and it was only a 3 hour drive back, so we had some time to kill. We rented some chairs and umbrellas this time (after having been badly sunburnt) and spent the day relaxing.
The 3 hour drive back to San Jose was the easiest yet (mostly paved roads) and left us time for dinner. We made reservations at Mirador Tiquicia, a traditional Costa Rican restaurant in San Jose which overlooks the entire city. Honestly, the drive up to this restaurant was horrifying, but the live performances and delicious food made it worth it.
After dinner, we drove to the airport, returned our rental car, and took our flights home, ready to plan the next big adventure.
As always, if you have any questions, you can contact us here.