Home » Costa Rica in one week: The ultimate guide

Costa Rica in one week: The ultimate guide

written by Sally Elbassir November 19, 2017
Arenal Volcano Costa Rica

NOTE: This article was inspired by our 9-day Costa Rica Express trip.

Sparkling beaches, beautiful forests and cascading waterfalls. Welcome to Costa Rica, the traveler’s eco-touristic paradise, where sloths slowly make their way through forest canopies and monkeys swing through trees.

It’s not hard to fall in love with Costa Rica’s relaxed Pura Vida philosophy. It’s not just a catchphrase, it’s a way of life. Costa Ricans, fondly called “Ticos,” embody this carefree ideology. And as someone who spends too much time worrying about a never ending to-do list, this was a refreshing concept.

One could easily spend months exploring Central America’s most popular destination. Although it appears small, there are distinct differences between towns, coasts and mountains. Many of us don’t have months to dedicate to traveling, but there are still plenty of amazing experiences you can have in a week.

Costa Rica hiking

Intrepid travellers hiking near Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano

Here’s the best way to experience part of Costa Rica in seven days.

Day 1: La Fortuna

From the airport, you have two options. You can spend some time in capital city San Jose (if you do, check out these local-led day tours there), or you can go directly to La Fortuna, home to Costa Rica’s most active volcano. Acquaint yourself with the small town, then spend the rest of your afternoon in the area’s many thermal hot springs. Your body will need it after all that travel!

The majority of the city’s hot springs have been transformed into day spas and mini water parks attached to hotels, but if you’re feeling adventurous, ask some locals how to get to some of the more hidden ones. You may have to hike, but it will be well worth it to avoid the crowds. I personally chose to go to the Baldi Hot Springs. It had various pools of different temperatures, waterfalls and even a water slide!

READ MORE: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO DO IN LA FORTUNA

Costa Rica Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano

At night, make your way to town and sample some traditional Costa Rican food. The Rainforest Café is always a good bet. I was addicted to plantain chips by the end of my trip!

Feeling inspired?

Day 2: La Fortuna

La Fortuna is hot most of the year, so make the easy hike to Arenal National Park early in the day. You’ll get unobstructed views of the volcano, in addition to avoiding the heat and afternoon clouds. Unfortunately, you can’t get too close (it’s still active after all) but there are plenty of trails in the surrounding forest to keep you occupied for at least a couple of hours.

Next, make your way to the cascading La Fortuna waterfall. Located just 10 minutes from the town, it’s easily accessible via a platform of stairs built throughout the jungle. Climb down the 400+ stairs to take a dip in the chilly, sparkly river. You can easily spend the rest of the afternoon here – just be sure to save some energy for the climb up!

La Fortuna waterfall Costa Rica

Waterfall in La Fortuna

End your day with some spectacular Peruvian-Chinese fusion at Chifa La Familia.

Day 3: Monteverde

Unlike the rest of the country, Monteverde is refreshingly cool; you might even find yourself reaching for a hoodie. Part of the road to Monteverde is unpaved, so leave with plenty of time to spare in order to arrive by late morning. After a quick lunch, grab a waterproof jacket and some hiking sandals, and spend the rest of the day hiking through the Cloud Forest, marveling at cool weather flora and fauna.

It’s enchanting to experience such a drastic change from the humidity of the rest of the country. After a few days of heat, I definitely appreciated the chill in the air. End your day with some typical Costa Rican fare from Soda La Salvadita.

TO VISIT MONTEVERDE, LA FORTUNA AND MORE, CHECK OUT THIS 9-DAY ADVENTURE

Day 4: Monteverde

Costa Rica is every outdoor lover’s dream, and Monteverde is one of the best spots to scratch that adrenaline itch.

While there are a large variety of activities on offer, I couldn’t resist the thrill of ziplining across one of the largest ziplines in Latin America. The views of the forest were nothing short of spectacular. Plus, the excursion to ziplining included plenty of hiking, a free-fall “Tarzan” swing, and some “superman” ziplines as well (ziplining face down).

Costa Rica Monteverde

Ziplining in Monteverde

By the time you make it back to your hotel and rest for a bit, you’ll be eager for dinner and to explore the small town. Opt for an enchanting dining experience at Tree House or stick to the more moderate option, Tico y Rico. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

The town is a lively place for an evening stroll but be sure to go to bed early as your next stop is a good few hours drive away.

READ MORE: 7 THINGS YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT COSTA RICA

Day 5: Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio is arguably one of Costa Rica’s most popular cities, known for its crystal-clear beaches and diverse animal population. Upon arrival from Monteverde, treat yourself to lunch at Marisqueria Jiuberths, a hidden gym-type restaurant with some of the freshest seafood in the city. I was initially uncertain that I was even at the right spot because the outside didn’t look like much, but it was definitely the best seafood I ate in the country.

Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio National Park

Make your way to the secluded Playa Biesanz for a relaxing beach day. You are on vacation, after all! You won’t find many tourists here but a parking attendant will happily point out the trail to the beach. Here you can rent beach chairs, surfboards and other equipment so just bring your essentials; don’t forget hiking sandals and plenty of bug spray.

READ MORE: THE 6 BEST BEACHES IN COSTA RICA

I tried my hand at stand-up paddle boarding which involved a lot of sitting and falling into the water on my part. Whoever says SUP is easy clearly has never met my uncoordinated self. Still though, I had a fun time attempting it!

For dinner, venture to the neighboring Quepos Marina for a beautiful sunset over the water. It has an excellent collection of both international and local restaurants, and is the best place to treat yourself to a night out.

Manuel Antonio marina Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio’s marina

READ MORE: TIPS FOR GETTING OFF THE BEATEN PATH IN COSTA RICA

Day 6: Manuel Antonio

Plan to spend the entire day at Manuel Antonio National Park. With several beaches and plenty of trails, you certainly won’t run out of things to do here.

Arrive as soon as the park opens. That way you can avoid hordes of tourists and see as many animals as possible (many scurry away at the sound of groups that are too large). Most guides carry telescopes, which will prove super useful for sightings. There’s nothing more magical than seeing sloths, bats, monkeys, and more in their natural habitat.

Costa Rica slothAfter hiking to your heart’s content, snag a prime spot at Playa Manuel Antonio, the most popular beach in the park. Keep a very close eye on your belongings here. The raccoons and monkeys aren’t afraid to run off with your bags in search of food and other goodies. I saw more than one tourist chasing after animals who had stolen their belongings. Even the people who cleverly tied up their things didn’t leave unscathed!

For dinner that evening, the lively town of Quepos, next to Manuel Antonio, offers plenty of less touristy dining options.

READ MORE: HOW TO SPOT SLOTHS IN COSTA RICA’S CLOUD FORESTS

Day 7: Alajuela / San Jose

Depart Manuel Antonio for Alajuela as early as possible to take advantage of your last day in Costa Rica. For one last dose of Costa Rican nature, take a trip to Waterfall Gardens, a nature preserve with wildlife, plants, and plenty of waterfalls.

If you’ve had your fill of wildlife, you could also spend the day exploring San Jose, the capital. Although not often on the radar of visitors, it has a booming craft beer scene, markets galore, laid-back parks and much more. Check out our all-encompassing city guide here.

Costa Rica week guide market San Jose

Intrepid travellers exploring a market in San Jose

Alternatively, the Dokka Coffee Plantation is adept at teaching visitors the process of growing coffee. It certainly made me appreciate my morning caffeine intake that much more!

Let’s face it: there’s only so much to see in Costa Rica in only seven days. But one thing’s for sure: the laid back Pura Vida lifestyle will have you booking your return flight as soon as you get home.

Ready to take on the trip of a lifetime? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in Costa Rica.

(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x4, Sally Elbassir, Intrepid Travel, Sally Elbassir, Intrepid Travel, Sally Elbassir.)

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16 comments

Chris May 14, 2019 - 5:12 am

Loved your comprehensive guide to Costa Rica! My wife and I recently returned from an eight-day guided tour through Costa Rica. We reserved our tour through Stride Travel, and it made seeing the whole country easy! Monteverde was one of our favorite places we saw in Costa Rica. Although the ziplining was a little too daring for my wife, I enjoyed participating in the “Superman” style of ziplining. This should be at the top of everyone’s bucket list.

Reply
Nanci May 6, 2019 - 1:25 pm

I have a medical condition that prevents me from a lot of walking. Am I going to be able to enjoy Costa Rica?

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Anonymous February 11, 2021 - 10:03 am

No

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Anjali Paithankar January 17, 2019 - 7:44 am

This sounds like a great itinerary. How do you travel between the different cities? Do you rent a car?

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Lazylizard October 29, 2018 - 4:45 pm

Thank you for share nice information and this very helpful for me…

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Ellie Cleary October 27, 2018 - 12:52 pm

Costa Rica is such a magical place! We loved our time there last month in La Fortuna and Samara on the Nicoya Peninsula – the beaches of Samara are a lot quieter than Manuel Antonio if you have extra time!

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JC Ruiz September 13, 2018 - 3:14 am

I’ve visited Costa Rica 3 different times and even got married there. I loved every bit of it. We’ve walked the black sand beaches near Jaco, hiked the Arenal Volcano and saw the sloths and monkeys at Manuel Antonio. The food, the people, the sites. This place is heaven. I would recommend anyone who hasn’t visited here yet, to go an experience this magical Central American country.

Reply
Allison September 11, 2018 - 1:50 am

Is this trip good for a 8 year old thinking of going with just myself snd my son 2018/2019 what r upcoming trip dates

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Emily Kratzmann September 11, 2018 - 10:43 am

Hi Allison,

We’ve got a couple of Family trips in Costa Rica that might be great for you and your son. Our Costa Rica Family Holiday (details here) has spots available from December 2018 onwards, while our Costa Rica Family Holiday for Solo Parents trip (more info here) has departures from March 2019.

Let me know if you’d like any extra info and I’ll put you in touch with our sales team 🙂

Cheers,
Emily

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Maria Costa-Rica June 15, 2018 - 12:08 am

Day 7: Alajuela / San Jose is the best idea) Thanks a lot

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Tobia May 31, 2018 - 2:06 am

Good post!

La Fortuna has to be on everbody´s todo list!!! You have hot springs, waterfalls, the vulcano, good restaurants and many good opportunities for activities…

To be honest, Manuel Antonio is not my favourite! It is too crowded and very touristic. But this is just a personal view. I would recommend Puerto Viejo in Limón to have some good days at beautiful and quiet beaches.

Regards
Tobias

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Margo April 30, 2018 - 10:24 am

Where did you stay at each location? How much did you spend…airfare, lodging, excursions?

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Hitkat April 27, 2018 - 4:24 pm

This is a fantastic and comprehensive blog for sure! I am looking for the costa rica holiday packages within my budget in this blog you have covered all the important and relevant things to do, and with a variety of options and accommodations. Your blog will be my first resource when I go next year. Thank you so much!

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Sarah April 8, 2018 - 12:52 am

This is a really good itinerary for a first time trip. Just so everyone knows, Poas Volcano is closed indefinitely due to eruptions. Another good volcano option near San Jose is Irazu Volcano.

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Cristina March 20, 2018 - 8:32 pm

Sounds amazing your trip, thank you very much! How much money did you spend this 9 days? How much do you recommend?

Reply
Elba I Ssantaliz December 28, 2017 - 9:18 am

How much would be for a week to Costa Rica

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