There is a popular saying in Costa Rica, Pura Vida which translates to “pure life” or “simple life.” While Costa Rica does emanate an essence of purity in its well-preserved ecological setting, there is nothing simple about it — especially when it comes to planning a Costa Rica itinerary. From rain forests to beaches, and everything in between, Costa Rica’s geographical biodiversity can be attributed to the varied ecosystems within the country. Nestled between both the Pacific and Atlantic coast, Costa Rica is home to tropical, deciduous, mangrove, and cloud forests. With so much to offer, it can be difficult to decide which parts of the country to visit. This 7 night itinerary will ensure that you see the essential areas of Costa Rica, with your time split between the rain forest and coastal region.
1 Night San Jose
San Jose is the major city and most developed area of Costa Rica. It is worth checking out for a day or two if you have the time, but absolutely not a necessity.
On day 1 of your trip, fly into San Jose airport, rent a car, and check in to your hotel. After a long day of traveling and an early morning ahead, you will probably just be using your hotel to sleep, so no need to excessively splurge here. the Sheraton or more affordable Aloft are two great options to spend the night. Get a good night’s rest and plan to leave San Jose the following morning at 6:00am. This is also a good time to acquainted with Costa Rica’s best export, strong local coffee.
If you arrive in San Jose in the early morning or afternoon, you can skip the night in San Jose and drive straight to La Fortuna.
3 nights Arenal Volcano / La Fortuna
Depart 6:00am from your hotel in San Jose to begin the 3 hour journey to La Fortuna. There will be a little bit of early morning rush hour traffic as you leave the city, but the rest of the trip should be smooth sailing. If you prefer to sleep in a little and leave a bit later, the hour between 9:00 – 10:00am is also an acceptable time to leave.
Costa Rica is mapped via the Waze app, so make sure you have it downloaded on your phone. Costa Rica does not use traditionally numbered addresses, but rather names to indicate places so make sure you have the proper destination name to navigate to your hotel. Unlike some other parts of the country, the highway and roads from San Jose to La Fortuna are paved and well-maintained, so there is no need to worry about that. There are however, several one-lane highways, so being stuck behind a slow moving vehicle or one that is completely stuck will probably be your only concern. That said, the drive through the lush mountainous terrain is very beautiful, and was personally reminiscent of the Road to Hana in Maui.
Your time in La Fortuna will be both relaxing and adventurous. Among the most popular things to do in La Fortuna are hot springs, zip lining, hiking, horseback riding, ATVing, butterfly gardens, and other nature parks and conservatories. Depending on your personal pace and preference, choose between 1 – 2 adventure activities per day. The following were my favorites:
Arenal Mundo Aventura Canopy Tour
The best zip lining in the Arenal area. There are MANY tour operators that offer zip lining, so it can be difficult to know which one to choose. Luckily I did plenty of research to take the guesswork out for you. Why is Arenal Mundo Aventura the best? For one, it is the only zip line that goes over the La Fortuna waterfall. It also has the longest zip line in the area, and 2nd longest in all of Costa Rica. There are two options for zip lining tours at this park. You can ether choose a 3 hour tour which includes 12 zip lines (~$60.00 USD) or the “AMA Extreme” 2 hour tour which includes 7 zip lines (~$50.00 USD). I chose the 2 hour tour because you still get to ride their longest zip line and over the waterfall. I was glad that I did because upon arriving, I learned that the 2 hour tour is called “extreme” because you skip the first 4 “practice” zip lines.
Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
The Mistico reserve sits upon 600 acres of protected tropical forest. The 1.9 mile nature trail through the forest offers multiple hanging bridges with gorgeous views of the Arenal volcano. You can choose to either walk the trail with a guide or as a self-guided tour. I chose to go without, but the benefit of having a guide is that they are able to point out the wildlife you otherwise might miss while walking through the forest. Entrance to the park is $26.00 USD. Don’t forget to wear close-toed shoes.
Arenal Volcano National Park
The Arenal Volcano National Park offers multiple trails of varying lengths to hike around the base of the volcano, through lava fields, and to scenic lookout points. There are both guided or self-guided options and entrance to the park is $15.00 (USD).
Hot Springs and Where to Stay in La Fortuna
to use their hot springs, which are the most impressive in the area. Many hotels in Arenal have hot springs on their premises, but Tabacon offers a more superior and luxury experience. Even if your hotel has hot springs, consider purchasing a half day morning pass with lunch included.
Best Restaurants in La Fortuna:
The center of La Fortuna has many cafes and restaurants. Two that I recommend are Rainforest Cafe (not the chain) and Tierra Mia.
2 nights Manuel Antonio
On day 5 of your trip, make the pleasant 4 and a half hour drive to Manuel Antonio. If you’d like to break up the commute, the city of Jaco about an hour before Manuel Antonio is a quaint beach town and a good place to stop for lunch. My recommendation is a build-your-own tacos and burritos called Taco Joint.
What to do in Manuel Antonio
The main attraction in Manuel Antonio is Manuel Antonio National Park. The park is also one of the most popular sites in all of Costa Rica and the biggest driver of tourism in the country. Within the park are nature trails through the tropical jungle, where sloth, monkey, and other animal sightings are plenty. Inside the park are also three pristine beaches, the best in Manuel Antonio.
Visiting Manuel Antonio National Park
The park opens at 7:00am (closed on Mondays) and is $16.00 (USD) for entrance. You will want to arrive as soon as they open because they only allow 800 people per day. I highly recommend hiring a guide to take you through the park. Aside from being extremely informative about all the species that live within forest, it is also extremely hard to spot the animals on your own because they are camouflaged or high up in the canopy trees. With a guide, you will be able to observe the animals through a telescope for the best viewing.
You can negotiate a guide outside of the park but you run the risk of them not being certified. I recommend arranging a tour through the hotel which includes transportation both ways, a tour guide, and snacks and water. Doing it this way will also guarantee entrance and you’ll be able to cut the very long line in. The price for the tour through the hotel is ~$50.00 per person. If you go on your own, after paying for transportation and/or parking, the entrance fee, and the park guide, you will end up paying around the same amount, so it’s better to go on an organized tour and not have to worry about anything at all.
What to Bring to Manuel Antonio National Park:
You will want to pack a camera, bug spray, sunscreen, and whatever you need to hit the beach after the tour (bathing suit, towel, etc.) There is no food or water for purchase inside the park, so if you want to spend the day at the beach you might also want to pack a lunch or some snacks (but no chips of any kind allowed inside.)
Best beaches in Manuel Antonio
As mentioned, the best beaches are inside the Manuel Antonio National Park, specially beach number 3, which is #15 on the list of best beaches in the world. Across the street from the park is another good beach called “Manuel Antonio Beach.” This beach offers water activities such as jet skiing, parasailing, and surf lessons, and also has food and drinks for sale. Lastly, Biesanz beach is another favorite of mine for its calm waters. You can also rent snorkel gear, boogie boards, and purchase snacks and drinks at Biesanz.
Where to Stay in Manuel Antonio
Best Restaurants in Manuel Antonio
The Issimo restaurant is one of the best gourmet fine-dining in all of Manuel Antonio. For a more casual option, Agua Azul is also great. If you’d like to experience a more authentic meal and setting, head down to the next town over of Quepos and stop at Marisqueria Velamar Restaurante or Sopa Sanchez for authentic and fresh ceviche and seafood.
1 Night San Jose
Even if you did not spend the first night in San Jose, returning to the city the day before your flight is a good idea, especially if taking an early flight. Traffic and road conditions can be unpredictable, so it’s best not to take any chances. More on driving in Costa Rica here.
The drive back to San Jose from Manuel Antonio takes about 2 and a half hours. Leaving before 1:00PM is most ideal to avoid traffic. San Jose is a city known for amazing gastronomy, so here is your last chance to fit one more amazing meal before you end your trip. I recommend eating at La Davina Comida for an excellent and beautiful Peruvian-fusion restaurant.
When is the Best Time to Visit Costa Rica?
Costa Rica has two seasons: wet season, from May – November, and dry season, from December – April. Though beautiful, green, and lush, traveling to Costa Rica during wet season is not preferred because the rain can be quite unforgiving and impede on plans. That said, hotel and tour prices are significantly lower. If you don’t mind a bit of rain, a good time to visit and take advantage of low season pricing is late November, just before the start of high season, or just after in late April. Even when traveling during dry season there is not a promise of perfect sunshine, as tropical storms often pass through the forest and remain for days at a time.
How Much Does Costa Rica Cost?
Hotels: Prices within the tourism industry of Costa Rica fluctuate greatly between low and high seasons. 3 & 4 star accommodations can be found under $100 (USD) a night during low season and can surge to over $300 during high season. Meanwhile, luxury 5 star resorts such as Tabacon remain above $300-$500+ year-round.
Car rental: car rental for a week costs around $300 with National for a standard economy car without insurance and $480 with insurance. Add $100 for gas. Renting an SUV with four wheel drive is preferred but not necessary if you’re only sticking to the above routes. It’s always best to reserve the cheapest car beforehand and then try to swing a free upgrade once you get to the rental site.
Activities: most tour activities such as zip lining, ATVing, etc. cost between $40 – $80 per person, depending on the length of activity with prices fluctuating during high/low season. Many national parks and conservation centers also require entrance fees, which can range between $15 – $25 a person.
Meals: Where you will save is on food. A good lunch in La Fortuna can cost between $10 – $15 per person and it is not uncommon to find an excellent dinner under $30. However, prices for food and activities are higher in the beach city of Manuel Antonio. Most hotels in both Arenal/La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio include complimentary breakfast buffets.
The total cost of the trip including all activities, meals, luxury accommodations, and flights without any reward/travel points cost around $1500.00-$2000.00 USD a person during high season, based on double occupancy. This same trip can easily be done for half the cost during low season or by booking budget-friendly accommodations, and/or using points for hotels and flights.
As a final note, I chose to spend 3 nights in Arenal/La Fortuna and 2 in Manuel Antonio because the beach is not a rare occurrence for me whereas the jungle is. If you are craving more time at the beach and less in jungle and volcanic hot springs, then you can easily swap one more night in Manuel Antonio for one less in La Fortuna.
Whatever you decide, hopefully this guide has helped you plan the perfect 7 night Costa Rica itinerary for jungles, beaches, volcanos, and eco-luxury tourism.