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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
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 day trip to Volcan Poas and the Waterfall Gardens. Start with Volcan Poas (less than an hour from Alajuela), a colorful, active caldera that smells of sulfur, before driving to the 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.
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.)