22/06/2024

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The Classic Itinerary For First-Timers

10 min read
The Classic Itinerary For First-Timers

Even though Costa Rica is a fairly small country, it seriously has so much to do. In a week’s time, you can visit between 2-3 destinations and get a diverse impression of this unparalleled adventure and eco-tourism hotspot.

In this classic Costa Rica itinerary, I’m going to focus on several nature highlights, such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the Arenal Volcano, and the Tortuguero National Park. We’ll be making a big loop around the country, getting to see several different regions.

By the end of your week in Costa Rica, you’ll be living to the beat of the famous Costa Rican saying—Pura Vida!

Plan your trip to Costa Rica!

A 1-Week Costa Rica Itinerary

This template is for planning your week-long Costa Rica trip. This starts in Monteverde and ends in Tortuguero. Each day includes suggestions for activities and accommodation.

A suspended bridge in the middle of a forest in Monteverde, Costa Rica

Days 1 & 2

Arriving in Monteverde

Book your flight into San Jose, which is right in the middle of Costa Rica, making it the perfect launching point for our week-long adventure.

First off: for a one-week trip, I highly recommend renting a car in Costa Rica. While you can take public transport or taxis, this country is best experienced on your own four wheels, since public transportation can sometimes double or triple your travel time.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to travel around Costa Rica independently.

You can arrange your own vehicle, book hotels online via sites like Booking.com, and book activities with local tour providers via GetYourGuide or Viator. Taking the DIY approach will save a lot of money over a prefab tour (and these savings will be helpful given that Costa Rica can be a costly destination overall). You’ll also be able to customize your trip to your heart’s content while using this itinerary as a template.

If you want, you can explore San Jose for a few hours, but it’s not the most captivating place in Costa Rica. I recommend heading straight to the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

It’s about a 3 1/2 hour drive from the airport to Santa Elena, where you’ll stay to access the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. It’s a gorgeous drive on well-paved roads through the mountains, so take your time and enjoy the views. As you approach the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, you’ll be greeted by an otherworldly area full of misty magic.

The mountains of Monteverde National Park in Costa Rica

Check into your hotel in Santa Elena, then take it easy on your first day, since your first and only full day in Monteverde will be packed solid.

Where to Stay in Monteverde

Camino Verde B&B Monteverde Costa Rica ($$$$)

If you want some epic views of the rainforest, then you have to stay at this BNB. You can sip your coffee on your private deck and see the clouds crawl across the hills. The rooms are also super comfortable, and you’ll feel right at home.

Cabinas Eddy B&B ($$$)

If you’re traveling on a budget but still want lovely green views, then these rooms are the perfect stay for you. The B&B offers a free breakfast and wonderful morning views from the balcony.

Some of the best things to do on your half day:

There’s also a ton of hiking trails in the area if you’re feeling up for some adventure.

In the evening, make sure to make a reservation at the tree house in Santa Elena. It’s one of the coolest restaurants in the whole country. Situated inside a giant tree house, you’ll be able to watch the clouds move across the tops of the trees as you enjoy some delicious food.

Monteverde Cloud Forest

Waste zero time on your first full day in Costa Rica by heading out early in the morning on an adventure tour through the Monteverde cloud forest.

You’ll walk across hanging bridges, zip line through the trees, and hopefully spot some sloths in the trees. With over 15 platforms, you’ll see some of the craziest views of the clouds and be surrounded by lush greenery.

After a full day in the cloud forest, head back to Santa Elena and grab a bite to eat at one of the local restaurants. A typical Costa Rican dish will include rice and beans, grilled meat, and some yummy fried plantains.

A young sloth hanging on a tree in Costa Rica

If you still have some energy left, take a night tour through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. You’ll have the chance to see some crazy-colored frogs, bats, coati bears, and even some gorgeous owls as your local guide takes you through the reserve.

Days 3 & 4

La Fortuna

Take your time enjoying a morning coffee before making your way to La Fortuna. Although on the map they look extremely close, it’s about a 3-hour drive because you have to go around the jungle and the lake.

But trust me, La Fortuna is probably one of the best places in Costa Rica. It’s home to the iconic Arenal Volcano, where you’ll have a plethora of activities to choose from and some pretty gnarly hikes.

Two days will be gone in a blink, so you want to make the absolute most of your time in the town. Once you arrive, check-in, drop your bags, and get out there. (Don’t worry, I’ve included some relaxing activities as well!)

For the afternoon, you have a few options depending on your energy levels:

  • If you’re feeling up for it, you can join a white-water rafting tour through the Balsa River. Your adrenaline will be pumping as you paddle through class III and IV rapids, surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature.
  • Or, if you want to get in the river but maybe take it a little slower, you can join a wildlife safari float on the Penas Blancas River. Your guide will help you spot monkeys, sloths, and maybe even some caimans along the way.
  • If water isn’t your thing, join a chocolate tour where you can see how chocolate is made from bean to bar before being exported to the rest of the world. You’ll be able to see the cacao plant and even try it before it’s turned into delicious chocolate.

A cocoa pod hanging on a tree with flowers

You’ll want to get a good night’s rest because tomorrow is a full day of hiking, adventuring, and all the best of La Fortuna.

Arenal Volcano

The Arenal Volcano with clouds covering its top in Costa Rica

La Fortuna is most famous for the Arenal Volcano. The volcano has been dormant since 2010, but that hasn’t stopped it from being a must-see attraction for visitors. Loads of tours can take you on guided hikes through the rainforest, where you’ll get to go swimming in the La Fortuna waterfall and visit a few different unique stops along the way before arriving at the breathtaking view of the Arenal Volcano. It’s a 3.3-mile in-and-out trail, so make sure to bring good shoes.

It’s a day full of outdoor adventure, and the best way to end it is by soaking in one of the many hot springs in the area.

An aerial view of two people walking on a Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridge in Costa Rica

If you want to explore on your own, you can enter the Arenal Volcano National Park and hike at your leisure. I recommend stopping at the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, where you can walk through the treetops and get a bird’s-eye view of the park.

If you’re a huge nature junkie, then you could probably spend the whole week just in and around La Fortuna. If you have a couple extra days, here are some great day trips from La Fortuna:

  • Head to Rio Celeste to witness a gorgeous blue waterfall and some serious wildlife. The waterfall is at the end of a 3.4-mile trail in Tenorio Volcano National Park. It’s about a 1 1/2 drive from La Fortuna and is a great place to spend the morning.
  • Go deep underground at the Venado caves, only about 45 minutes from La Fortuna. You’ll be guided through an underground system of grottos and caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites. You’ll have to crawl through some small and tight spaces but end up in huge caverns with beautiful formations.

Regardless of how you choose to schedule your two days in La Fortuna, you’re going to have an epic time discovering why Costa Rica has become a top nature travel destination.

Where to Stay in La Fortuna

La Finca Lodge ($$$$)

The views at La Finca Lodge are to die for! The rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows and open up to a terrace for you to take in all the beautiful rainforest around you. They each come with a hammock on the deck so you can relax after all the exploring you’ll be doing.

Arenal Manoa Resort & Hot Springs ($$$$$)

The Arenal Manoa Resort and Hot Springs is everything you need for a luxurious stay in Costa Rica. With views of the volcano from the pool and multiple hot springs surrounded by nature, I’m not sure we’ll be able to get you to go hiking. Ha!

Days 5 & 6

Tortuguero

A group of people riding a small boat while bird watching at the Tortuguero Canals in Costa Rica

A lot of today will be spent in the car, but you are headed somewhere truly magnificent. The journey is around five hours, but you’ll be passing through little towns and can stop if you want to stretch your legs.

Located on the northeastern coast of Costa Rica, Tortuguero is a place unlike anywhere else. While a lot of people head to the Pacific to catch some waves, I think there is something truly special about the Caribbean side that will give you a look into how diverse the country is.

Now, the journey to Tortuguero isn’t as simple as a 5-hour drive, and boom, you’re there. It takes a bit more effort, but it’s worth it.

Once you reach the coastal town of La Pavona, you can leave your car by the dock for $10 a day. (Lots of travelers do this, so you shouldn’t feel any sort of apprehension.) You’ll then hop on a boat that will take you through the jungle canals to your hotel in Tortuguero.

The boat journey itself costs $3 and takes about an hour, but consider it an additional activity. You’ll be able to spot wildlife along the river and get a taste of the local way of life in this remote area.

Getting to Tortuguero

There are two main ways to get to Tortuguero.

By car: This is the easiest way to come from La Fortuna. You’ll need to drive the 5 hours to La Pavona, then hop on a boat to continue the rest of the trip to Tortuguero.

By plane: Your second option is to head back to San Jose from La Fortuna and catch a short 30-minute flight to Tortuguero itself. It costs about $250 round trip. You’ll fly directly into the island, bypassing the commute and boat ride altogether. However, if you’re already on a road trip in Costa Rica, it’s recommended to drive to Tortuguero.

If you’re big on wildlife or specifically love turtles, then you’re about to be in heaven. Tortuguero translates to “Land of the Turtles”, and it’s one of the world’s most important nesting sites for more than one turtle species in the country. It’s a small area, and it’s super remote, so there are only a few things to do while you’re here. It’s the perfect time to relax after nonstop hiking and exploring.

Three turtles walking on a fallen tree trunk at the waters of Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica

Join a tour of the nesting beaches, where you’ll be able to see thousands of baby turtles hatching and making their way to the ocean. Or, if you’re lucky, you may even witness a nesting event on a night tour. Honestly, it felt a bit weird for the guide to be all up in the turtle’s business with a flashlight as we watched her lay her eggs. But hey, it was a… neat experience.

You’ll want to get a good sleep here because all the activities take place at the crack of dawn, but that’s when the wildlife is most active. Morning tours will take you through the rainforest, where you have the opportunity to see some pretty incredible animals like ocelots, manatees, and vibrant tropical birds.

Two great green macaws on a tree in Costa Rica

Your time in Tortuguero is the epitome of Pura Vida. Days are long and relaxing. You can head to the village to meet the locals and just take in the last few days of your Costa Rican vacation.

Where to Stay in Tortuguero

Tortuguero Adventures GuestHouse ($$$)

Located right on the river, this guest house is a unique stay right next to the National Park Entrance. Take out their paddle boards, or book a morning boat tour to explore the mangroves.

Day 7

Return to San Jose and Fly Out

You’ll want to give yourself ample time to get back to the city to catch your flight. Remember you’ll have to take a boat back to the mainland, and then you still have a 3 1/2 hour drive back to the airport.

If you time it right, you can catch a morning boat to get back to San Jose in time for lunch and visit the central market to pick up some souvenirs for everyone at home.


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Posted DEC 22, 2023

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