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If you’ve read our article The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica, then you already know how passionate we are about this tiny country. I’m so excited to share my favorite Costa Rica itinerary with you so you too can experience a country that truly has it all! We want to make it as easy as possible for you to plan your trip and get exploring! In this guide, I’m going to break down the perfect Costa Rica itinerary and a complete guide to your trip on either the Pacific or the Caribbean Coast, what to pack, where to stay, and even tips for my LGBTQ friends.
Traveling for longer than 7 days? Perfect! I’ll add notes on how long to stay in each area if you have **more time.
COSTA RICA ITINERARY: Getting around
Many people’s first question when creating a Costa Rica itinerary is how they are going to get from place to place. For budget travelers, I don’t suggest purchasing a guided tour for a week, it’s expensive and it takes away from the adventure of getting to explore a new country.
You can experience the culture, the rush of being in a new place all by booking public transport, uber or shared shuttles. Personally, after going to Costa Rica 3 different times the idea of driving has never even been an option in my mind, and here’s why:
First, there are no addresses in Costa Rica, directions are difficult to pin down. Second, the roads are terrible (I mean what would happen if you break down and have no phone service? Third, it’s expensive. Does this mean you shouldn’t rent a car? Absolutely not, I encourage you all to travel how you want and it is the easiest way to get around the country, it’s just not our preferred way.
COSTA RICA ITINERAY: Where do I go?
Well friends, it really depends on a few things. What do you want to do in Costa Rica?
The Caribbean side has a much more Afro-Caribbean vibe. Things move slower here. There is SO MUCH MORE NATURE despite what you may read my wife and I experienced so much more wildlife here.
If you are looking for 7 days of beach, wildlife, bike rides, and sloth spotting then this may be the way to go.
The Pacific side has quite a range of activities as well as more predictable weather. If you like volcanoes, waterfalls, beaches, and a fast-paced and fully booked schedule this may be the best Costa Rica itinerary for you. Don’t worry we will go over both that way you can make the best decision for yourself.
Costa Rica Weather
One of the most frequent questions we get about the Caribbean side is the weather. Yes, It rains daily on the Caribbean side (FYI September and October while the rest of the country is getting the heaviest rain the Caribbean side beaches are dry and sunny!). The dry season in Costa Rica is December- April but what we have found is that prices are significantly higher during this period AND a lot more travelers. We spent 2 weeks on the Caribbean coast and expected to lose several sunny beach days to rain, however, we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of rain. We arrived in Costa Rica in Cahuita on January 31st and the rain didn’t put a damper on our Costa Rica itinerary at all!
Also fun fact- the sun is the strongest in Costa Rica around 9-10 am. Every day we would experience about an hour of heavy rain which sounds discouraging however it was honestly a nice break from the heat and humidity, just pack your light rain jacket with you and carry on with your plans. Overall, don’t be discouraged by the rain, it didn’t stop us!
Is Costa Rica Safe for LGBTQ Travelers?
Read more about safety in Costa Rica and more check out our info on exploring the country as an LGBTQ traveler.
7 DAY COSTA ITINERARY: CARIBBEAN COAST
Day 0: Arrive in San Jose
While planning your flight to San Jose, keep in mind the time of day you fly in and adjust your itinerary accordingly. For example, we try to land in San Jose in the afternoon so we can head straight to our first location rather than spending the night in San Jose then getting up the next morning to travel. If you can’t find a flight that lands you in San Jose in the afternoon no worries. Our first destination is Cahuita, see below on the options for transportation.
Bus: Cahuita Bus
- This website has the address of the bus station you need in San Jose and how to get there
- Cost per person is around $10 USD
- Length of trip is over 5 hours
Private Transport: Interbus
- $49 per person
- Under 4 hour trip
- Straight to Hotel/ Hostel
Day 1: Cahuita
Our first stop was Cahuita. It is a sleepy beach town an hour north of Puerto Viejo. After you wake up and grab some breakfast and coffee, walk over to the Cahuita National Park, from our B&B it was only a 5-minute walk. I’m really not sure why more people aren’t talking about this place, it has beautiful white sand beaches which are perfect for snorkeling! The entrance is free, all they ask for is donations. This was the first time we both got less than 5 ft away from a sloth! Pack a day pack with tennis shoes, sandals, sunscreen, and bug spray! It is an easy hike but the area can flood from the rain so bring shoes you don’t mind getting wet and muddy.
Where to stay:
We highly recommend Brigittes Ranch– the prices are super reasonable and you get to wake up to a jungle with horses staying right around the corner from your cabin.
Day 2: Puerto Viejo
On day 2 you will head down to Puerto Viejo. The cheapest way of travel is to head over to the Cahuita bus station the day before (it’s near the national park) and see when they depart for Puerto Viejo and buy tickets! Public transportation is the cheapest and most common form of transportation on this side of the country. Puerto Viejo is a large area with many beaches to explore and spend the night at. Once you arrive, check in to your hotel or hostel, rent a bike for a few days and check out the area! Bike is the easiest way to get around and the roads are perfect for it (around $6 USD per day).
Where to stay:
- Punta Uva
- Cocles beach
- Playa Negro
- Playa Chiquita
Safety tips in Puerto Viejo: Puerto Viejo is a bigger city and much busier and more touristy than the surrounding areas. Don’t walk around at night, always take a taxi. Keep your belongings secure. Women and LGBTQ friends, there is more catcalling and staring on this side of the country. Courtney and I felt safe but there were a lot of local men that would make comments or try to strike up a conversation. Ignore it and keep walking.
If you want to read more about gay travel in Costa Rica then check out our gay travel guide!
Bus information: Check out this website for Covid bus time updates
Day 3: Puerto Viejo
Once you’re settled into Puerto Viejo it’s time to hop on your bike and start exploring. Sign up for a tour at the Jaguar Rescue Center and experience the rehabilitation of many of Costa Rica’s beautiful wildlife. The tour is about 1.5 hours and ticket prices are $22 USD. After your tour, take a local chocolate and coffee tour.
Day 4: Punta Uva
Pack your bags and hop on your bike over to Punta Uva beach, we found a cute little hotel right on the beach that we loved. Spend your morning kayaking the Punta Uva River where you will see even more wildlife! The best part is not many people kayak in this area so you’ll have a peaceful experience.
Where to stay:
Day 5: Manzanillo
Whether you are staying in Puerto Viejo or another beach nearby Manzanillo is the perfect place for a day trip where you can fully escape the hustle and bustle from Puerto Viejo. Enjoy surf lessons for about $30 a person and take a guided hike of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. This refuge protects a critical mangrove swamp as well as the plant and wildlife within it. There is a good chance you’ll see caimans, crocodiles, toucans, parrots as well as turtles. If you are looking to book a tour there are plenty of places in town either in Puerto Viejo or Manzanillo to book.
** If you have more time in this area I highly suggest hopping the border to Panama and checking out the beach town Boca Del Toro for 3-4 nights. Check out this article Guide to Bocas Del Toro for more information on travel from Costa Rica to Panama.
Day 6-7: Tortuguero
With our Costa Rica itinerary, we like to add a little adventure to your trip. After you’ve spent a few days soaking up the Caribbean sun, you can end your trip with the magic that is Tortuguero. Or, if you got to this point in the itinerary and think you may want to flip this part of the trip to the first two days- go for it! Tortuguero is tucked away in the northeastern corner of Costa Rica, and when I say tucked away, I mean it. Transportation can be tricky, so keep reading to assess all of your options!
If you are looking for a Costa Rican rainforest, this is the place for you. Your journey to Tortuguero will involve a boat ride through a series of rivers and canals that sweep through the jungle. The biggest reason people visit Tortuguero is the turtles, Tortuguero stands for “region of turtles” in Spanish. Your chances of seeing them nesting are in April and May. Even if you miss the nesting there is still so much to do and see in Tortuguero including hiking, checking out the wildlife, and exploring the canals.
What to do in Tortuguero?
Tortuguero National Park– If you only have one option for fun in Tortuguero this would be my first pick. You can hike a couple of trails and also take a boat tour (this is pretty much the only way to get around). Admission is 8,300 CRC/ PP. Prepare for rain! Bring shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting wet and muddy.
How to Get to Tortuguero by Flying:
Flying: This is the quickest way to get to Tortuguero but also one of the most expensive (expect to pay between $80-130 each way).
You can access these domestic flights from San Jose however in recent years there have been several deadly crashes as well as reliability issues with some of the companies, therefore I am not currently recommending this option.
How to Get to Tortuguero by Boat:
This is a more affordable option as you can arrive from San Jose or Puerto Viejo by taking a shuttle (insert shuttle company options) or by public bus. These boats are used by locals and travelers alike and generally hold up to 25 passengers. This is a scenic option where you’ll feel like you’re on a tour as you catch views of beautiful rainforest, animals, and birds along the way. There are two towns on the mainland that provide boat service to Tortuguero, La Pavona and Moin. If you are coming from San Jose La Pavona is the best option. If you are coming from Puerto Viejo or other Caribbean towns the ride will be longer (about 4 hours), Moin will be the town you choose.
FYI there are public and private boats: Tour groups and hotels use private boats as part of their packages, here is a company we recommend if you want to book a tour. If you arrive on your own, you can use the public boats which have a set schedule. There is a high chance it will rain while you are on the boat taxi. There is typically a canopy over the boat but you can still get wet. Bring a cover to put over your bag, but know it is also generally wrapped in a tarp.
Schedule and Cost: Generally boats leave from La Pavona four times a day from 7:30, 11:00, 1:00, and 4:30, remember you are on Tico time and they may wait for a bus to arrive. Make sure you arrive early, from this dock the trip to Tortuguero is a little over an hour. The cost is about $3 PP one way, you can buy tickets inside the main building, luggage will follow you on a separate boat and each bag will cost you around $2.
Get to Moin by bus: From Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, or other areas on the Caribbean side, take the bus from Limon. From Limon, there is a local bus that goes to Moin about every 30 minutes. If you are short on time, take a taxi to the docks- this will be about $10. Boats usually leave the Moin dock around 10 am, and the ride itself will be about 4 hours.
Cost: This boat ride is more expensive as it is longer, it’s about $35-50 PP. This route is less traveled independently so try talking to your hotel about transportation or book a tour.
Shuttle to Moin and Boat: If taking the bus and a taxi sounds too complicated you can book a shuttle! Shuttles can include boat transportation as well as a round trip ticket. Check out a shuttle here!‘
Day 7-8: San Jose
After your time in Tortuguero make your way back to San Jose! Your flight will most likely be at night, what we usually do if we have time is grab a cheap hotel/ hostel with a free airport shuttle just to rest our heads and take a nap before the long journey home.
If you want to know more about what to do while in San Jose, check out our Guide to San Jose!
Bus: You can take the public bus from Limon to San Jose which will take about 4 hours
Private Transport: Interbus
- $49 per person
- Under 4 hour trip
- Straight to Hotel/ Hostel
7 DAY COSTA RICA ITINERARY: PACIFIC COAST
Weren’t ready to spend your entire trip on the Caribbean coast? No worries, the pacific side of Costa Rica is just as amazing and full of adventure.
Day 0: Arrive in San Jose
While planning your flight to San Jose, keep in mind the time of day you fly in and adjust your itinerary accordingly. For example, we try to land in San Jose in the afternoon so we can head straight to our first location rather than spending the night in San Jose then getting up the next morning to travel. If you can’t find a flight that lands you in San Jose in the afternoon no worries. Our first destination is La Fortuna, see below on the options for transportation. I do not go into details about renting a car as we have never explored this option, it is expensive and Costa Rica has rough roads and no actual addresses.
- Cheapest option
- Most time consuming
- 5-hour trip
- $5- buy tickets at the bus station.
- Direct and indirect buses
- Autotransportes Venecia is the official bus company, buses depart from Terminal 7-10 Bus Station on Calle 8. Buses depart 3 times a day, the last direct bus leaves around noon.
- If you miss the direct bus board a bus to Ciudad Quesada, where there are connections to La Fortuna.
Private Transport: Interbus
- $55 per person one way in a shared shuttle with other passengers
- Under 4 hour trip
- Straight to Hotel/ Hostel
Accommodations in San Jose we recommend:
Day 1-2: La Fortuna
What makes La Fortuna so important for our Costa Rica itinerary? La Fortuna is a beautiful location where you can experience the Arenal volcano, hot springs, hiking, waterfalls, and more! It is the perfect place to start your week in Costa Rica. This was the first place I traveled where I was completely in awe of the landscape and the wildlife as Costa Ricans are very protective of their land and the animals that inhabit it.
What to do in La Fortuna
1. Visit Arenal National Park
I highly recommend booking a tour (book through your hostel or https://www.arenal.net/tours ) for a hike of Arenal National Park as there are so many different types of animals to see, but locals are much quicker to spot them. You will hike through the national park, go visit some beautiful native frogs in the forest as well as have a swim in the hot springs which are just a river that runs under the road! So cool!
2. Rio Celeste
The second day in La Fortuna we spent on a day trip over to Rio Celeste, where we hiked through the lush rainforest only to find beautiful blue waters and a magical looking waterfall! This was our favorite activity in La Fortuna. We highly suggest you pack good shoes that you don’t mind getting wet and muddy as it rains a lot here.
3. Visit La Fortuna Waterfall
If you’re looking to hunt waterfalls, this is the best place to start! La Fortuna waterfall is massive and has a large pool you can swim in at the bottom. The water is chilly but feels so good after hiking down the steep stairs that led you there. Definitely bring sturdy shoes to hike in! If you are cramped for the time you can easily fit this in in the morning or afternoon after another excursion.
Where to Stay in La Fortuna
We stayed at both of these hostels and found both to be comfortable. At Arenal Backpackers Hostel they only had tents left when we booked but they were surprisingly spacious and comfortable.
**If you have more time we highly suggest spending 4 days in La Fortuna so you don’t feel rushed and you can enjoy all of the tours in the area without running around all day trying to fit it all in, it is doable if you only have a week in Costa Rica it will just be jam-packed. Check out our separate guide for Arenal.
Day 3-4: Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s most popular beach destinations. I absolutely loved this town which is why it has made it to our Costa Rica itinerary. It is known for its beautiful beaches, diving, a pristine national park with plenty of wildlife, and nightlife. Even though it’s a fairly touristy town as it’s grown over the years, you should definitely spend a couple of days here, especially with the Manuel Antonio National park where you can experience the wildlife including capuchin monkeys, sloths, agoutis, over 200 species of birds and maybe even a squirrel monkey!
Transportation to Manuel Antonio from La Fortuna
Bus: It is possible to get to Manuel Antonio by bus but it is complicated and time-consuming. The trip will be about 9 hours and involves at least 3 bus stations and walking between stations.
Shared shuttle: This is a comfortable and affordable way to make the journey over to Manuel Antonio. You can pay to have someone pick you up from your accommodation, and share the ride with other travelers. This trip will be about 5.5 hours.
What to do in Manuel Antonio
1. Visit Manuel Antonio National Park
It is easy to walk to, and you don’t need a guide (even though there will be locals offering tours outside). The entry fee is $16 and at the end of your walk, you will find yourself in a beautiful beach area where you’ll see monkeys watching you from above hoping to sneak a snack from your bag.
2. Beach beach beach!!
Playa Manuel Antonio is a beautiful beach with white sand and local vendors selling fresh coconut water all around you. You can easily spend the day enjoying these beaches and soak up some sun!
3. Sunset Sailing Trip
If you want to hang out and sail across the beautiful Costa Rica waters and see the best sunset ever this is a great option. Depending on the time of year you may also spot humpback whales or see dolphins swimming alongside you! Tours start at around $75-80 USD.
4. Dolphin and Whale Watching
Between November-March and July-September you’ll have the opportunity to experience humpback whales and pilot whales swimming and even jumping out of the water! Also, depending on weather conditions you may be able to hop in for a swim. Tours start around $75 USD.
Where to stay in Manuel Antonio
Airbnb: Manuel Antonio has a lot of Airbnb options from sharing a room (dorm style), private rooms to entire apartments.
Hostels: Hostel Plinio
**If you have more time we high suggest 3-4 days in Manuel Antonio, the first time I went to Manuel Antonio I only have 7 days in Costa Rica and felt like I only got a taste of Manuel Antonio.
Day 5-6: Montezuma
After you soaked up the sun and lost all your snacks to the monkeys, head over to Courtney and I’s favorite small beach town in Costa Rica, Montezuma. The journey from Manuel Antonio is a long one (around 5 hours) and requires you to take a boat taxi from Jaco to Montezuma but it is definitely worth the trip! You’ll feel the Pura Vida vibes once you arrive in Montezuma and there is another beautiful waterfall waiting for you to explore and maybe even jump from.
How to get to Montezuma
Shuttle + Taxi Boat: This option is pricey, but it will be the least time-consuming. A shuttle will pick you up from your hotel or hostel in Manuel Antonio and take you over to Jaco where you will get on a fast boat over to Montezuma! It runs around 4 hours (1 hour on a fast boat) and $95 PP you can book tickets here!
Bus + Ferry + Bus:
It is possible to take a bus from Quepos over to Puntarenas (2 hours) then take the ferry (another 1 hour) then a bus down to Montezuma (1.5 hours) but it is more time-consuming. Tickets are cheap for the bus, about $5, $2 for the ferry, and another $5 for the third bus. If you don’t mind spending more time traveling this is definitely the cheapest option.
What to do in Montezuma
- Visit the waterfall (just ask your hostel/ hotel or a local how to get there!)
- Take a day trip to Santa Teresa beach
- Take a day trip to Isla de Tortuga to snorkel
- Just have a chill day at Montezuma Beach and grab yourself a margarita!
Where to stay in Montezuma
Hostels: Downtown Montezuma Hostel (We love this hostel and have stayed here twice!!)
Hotels: Check out Montezuma Hotels here!
More info on Montezuma
This website is awesome and has detailed information on transportation to and from Montezuma as well as options for tours and excursions in the area.
Day 7-8: San Jose!
After you have soaked up more fun in the sun it’s time to head back to San Jose. The journey is about 6 hours from Montezuma by shuttle. Make sure you plan your time accordingly so you don’t miss your flight if you are flying the same day you are traveling. Costa Rica is notorious for traffic, construction, and overall delays in travel due to random circumstances.
If you end up having more time in San Jose and want to explore, check out our Complete San Jose Guide.
Transportation to San Jose
Public transportation: This is your most affordable option, one way ticket will cost about $15.50 one way. The link above will tell you the departure times for the bus.
Shared shuttle: This is a more costly option but will be the most comfortable and least time-consuming. Tickets will run about $57 one way with Interbus.
COSTA RICA ITINERARY: Other places to explore
While I put together a fairly extensive itinerary I did choose places that were Courtney and I’s favorite locations. Here are some other great places to explore in Costa Rica, I’ve even added a few places outside of San Jose if you find yourself wanting a couple of quick adventures in between flights!
This is a popular destination for travelers and a must-have on any Costa Rica itinerary as many tourists pick Monteverde as their second destination after la Fortuna. You can enjoy walking through the cloud forests and the signature hanging bridge and go on a coffee tour. We highly suggest you spend at least 2 days here so you can feel settled in and not like you’re constantly hopping on and off a bus to your next location.
2. Playa Tamarindo
Playa Tamarindo is in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica and is a long rocky beach with awesome waves if you want to learn to surf! Playa Tamarindo used to be a quiet fishing village but has grown to be one of the most popular destinations in this province. You can also head over to Las Baulas National Marine Park and check out the Leatherback turtles nesting! We suggest 1-2 nights in Tamarindo.
3. Poas Volcano
Volcan Poas is one of Costa Rica’s most active and largest volcanoes! It is an easy day trip from San Jose/ Alajuela. You can book your tickets ahead of time here.
4. San Jose
Doka Coffee Plantation Tour
Ever wondered what the coffee process entails? This is a super popular tour as it’s fairly short and easy to get to from San Jose plus, it’s a great way to take home some amazing Costa Rican coffee before you take off!
La Paz Waterfall
This is the perfect getaway from the city as it’s only 45 minutes from the San Jose airport and only 20 minutes from Poas Volcano National Park. All you’ll need is 2 hours to visit the park but you could spend the entire day enjoying the waterfalls and all of the wildlife (it’s the largest animal sanctuary in Costa Rica with over 100 species of animals). Buy Tickets Here!
San Jose Museums
San Jose has soooooo many museums! If you just want to explore the city this is a great way to get some walking in and take in the scenery!
This is a beautiful area in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, it is one of the top spots in Costa Rica for wildlife and you could spend up to 3 days here! It is easy to book tours to the Corcovado National Park easily through your hostel or hotel and be prepared to experience the beach, jungle, and a plethora of wildlife! You can fly from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez. You can also bus or take shared transport (the journey from San Jose to Corcovado is about 9 hours). From the San Jose bus station, you head to TUASA Terminal where you look for the San Carlos Bus Terminal. Book a bus (Blanco Lobo) that will take you to Puerto Jimenez (cost is under $20).
COSTA RICA ITINERARY: What to pack
I have created an entire packing guide for Costa Rica to help you with all your packing needs!