Last Updated on June 25, 2023 by Maggie McKneely
Planning a trip to this idyllic country known for waterfalls, sloths, and gorgeous beaches? Check out this itinerary for a great way to spend 7 days in Costa Rica!
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7 Days in Costa Rica Itinerary
When the Spanish first landed on its eastern shores in the 1500s, they were so overwhelmed by the amount of gold worn by the native population that they named the country la costa rica, “rich coast.” They eventually realized that Costa Rica didn’t actually have a lot of gold, that most of it came from neighboring countries, but the name has stuck for other obvious reasons. Costa Rica may be poor in precious metals but it is rich in beautiful tropical beaches, lush rainforests, thundering waterfalls, colorful wildlife, and some of the most ecologically diverse places on the planet.
Because Costa Rica is a relatively small country, you can manage to see a lot in a short amount of time. But that’s only if you plan well! It can take a long time to drive from one place to another, and even longer if you plan on using public transportation. To help you out, I’m sharing the itinerary I used for my own 7 days in Costa Rica roadtrip.
Tips for visiting Costa Rica
If you usually rely on public transportation, especially if you plan on backpacking in Costa Rica, you should know that it doesn’t really exist in Costa Rica. There are buses, and you can travel that way, but it takes some extra planning because the buses are all privately, and not publicly, owned. I chose not to rely on them, but if you’re interested, here is a great post on using the buses in Costa Rica.
The other alternative is navigating the roads on your own. Costa Rican highways are just fine, but most other roads are narrow, windy, or unpaved and prone to rainy-season washouts. If that makes you nervous, you can hire a private driver.
But if you want the most flexibility, renting a car is the best way to go. However, Costa Rica does require mandatory insurance and every rental car company imposes this differently. When looking for a rental car, be sure that the fee the company quotes you includes all taxes, insurance, and other fees. Otherwise, you may be shocked when you arrive in Costa Rica and find out that you’re going to be charged $500-1000 more than you were quoted. I’ve rented cars in many countries (I love foreign roadtrips!) and Costa Rica is the first I’ve ever experienced this.
Because I’d heard so many horror stories, I did a ton of research on the best way to avoid that scenario for my 7 days in Costa Rica. And what I found out is that one of the best things to do is to find a local, Costa Rican car rental company rather than one of the big-name brands. I used CR Save and I can’t recommend them enough! They brought the car to the airport (though they’ll deliver it to wherever you need them to), picked it back up when we were done, and the price they quoted was what we paid.
The official currency is the Costa Rican Colon. If you plan on using cash, most places will accept American dollars, but they prefer Colons because the conversion is not exact and they don’t always have the right change. Almost everywhere accepts credit cards, but you will need cash for a few things (like renting beach umbrellas or small market-type food and souvenir stalls).
7 Days in Costa Rica Itinerary
Day 1: San Jose
If you’re flying into Costa Rica, you’ll most likely land in San Jose, the country’s capital city. Depending on what time of day you arrive, you may want to either spend the afternoon exploring San Jose or instead get your rental car and drive straight to La Fortuna. My friend and I had planned on exploring San Jose the afternoon we arrived, but we were too tired and rush hour traffic was terrible, so we ended up getting dinner near our Airbnb and relaxing the rest of the evening…
But if you decide that you want to see the city, here’s a list of places I had planned on exploring!
- San Jose Central Market
- This is one of the oldest landmarks in Costa Rica, having opened in 1880. It’s supposedly a great place to find local food, souvenirs, and mingle with the locals.
- Morazan Park
- A lovely city park filled with gardens and sculptures
- Pre-Columbian Gold Museum
- A museum all about life in Costa Rica before the arrival of the Spanish and, well, gold!
- National Museum of Costa Rica
- All about the cultural and natural history of Costa Rica
Day 2: La Fortuna
From San Jose, drive north to the town of La Fortuna to really kick off this 7 days in Costa Rica itinerary!
La Fortuna is about 2 hours north of San Jose. The star of the show there is Arenal Volcano which, until recently, was the country’s most active volcano. There’s no threat of it spewing lava at tourists now, but it’s still an imposing and impressive sight as it towers over the surrounding landscape.
…… At least that’s what I’m told. Because tragically, I never saw it, not once in the entire 24 hours I was in the area because of clouds. We drove around the entire thing, went to the designated national park, and the best I got was this picture:
Here’s someone else’s picture to encourage you to try your own luck and visit La Fortuna anyway:
But even if the volcano is a bust, there are other cool things to do in the area that I highly recommend.
Such as going on a chocolate tour! I am always down for a food tour, but is there anything better than a tour completely focused on chocolate?! The Rainforest Chocolate Tour is an amazing (and delicious!) way to learn all about the world’s favorite sweet treat, from how cacao beans are grown and harvested to the incredibly complex process it takes to make them into something edible. On this tour, guests get to explore the plantation, learn about the cacao plants, take part in the chocolate-making process, and then eat a lot of chocolate (maybe I should have led with that part!).
The two-hour tour was a highlight of my 7 days in Costa Rica, but you do need to book it in advance. Go here for tickets!
Another can’t-miss in this area is La Fortuna Waterfall. The waterfall plunges 70 meters / 229 feet from the high elevations of Arenal Volcano National Park into a temperate rainforest. It takes 530 steps to reach the base of the falls (and 530 steps back up) but it is worth it! And if you bring your bathing suit, there’s a swimming hole at the bottom.
By the visitors’ center, there is also an orchid garden that contains 200 different species of orchids native to Costa Rica. The area is owned by a private conservation organization, so the trails and gardens are very well maintained. You can buy tickets on-site or ahead of time on their website.
Where to Stay in La Fortuna
La Fortuna has a wide range of places to stay, from cute, family-run budget hotels (like where we stayed) to all-inclusive resorts at the area’s hot springs.
Day 3: Monteverde
No 7 days in Costa Rica would be complete without some time spent in Monteverde, which was my absolute favorite part of the week.
Monteverde is located near the top of a mountain range, and driving there is not for the faint of heart. From La Fortuna, the 40-mile trip takes about 3 hours because the roads are often filled with potholes, not paved, or both, and features lots of drop-offs and blind curves. In the rainy season, it probably requires 4WD. In the dry season, it just requires a lot of focus.
But if you are up for the drive, Monteverde will be your reward. It’s home to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the most ecologically diverse places on planet earth. And although it gets its share of tourists, the town itself is very small, charming, and feels off the beaten path.
Because of the longish drive from La Fortuna, the first afternoon in Monteverde is perfect for any shorter tours or activities, rather than full-day excursions. Such as a tour of a coffee farm!
Did you know that Costa Ricans drink more coffee per capita than any other country in the world? They average 4 cups of coffee per day per person!! So when in Costa Rica, do as the locals do – or if that’s too much, at least learn more about that product that gets most of us through the workday. Because coffee is one of Costa Rica’s most famous products, touring a coffee farm is a must-do. And because coffee grows best at high elevations, Monteverde is one of the best places in the country to do that.
There are a number of coffee farms in Monteverde, but not all of them do tours. Cafe Monteverde’s farm has a very organized, well-structured program that I highly recommend. During the 2.5-hour tour, visitors get to walk around the farm, learn about how coffee beans are grown, and the process of turning them into something drinkable. And then it ends with getting to taste the company’s different brews!
After learning about coffee, it makes sense to then go drink some of it. Our Airbnb host suggested we go to Cafe Colibri, or the “hummingbird cafe.” I LOVED THIS SO MUCH and am passing on that tip to you! If you do nothing else in Monteverde, you must go to this adorable cafe, get a latte, and sit and watch 13 different species of hummingbirds do battle royale over the dozens of feeders on the cafe’s patio.
Between the tour and the cafe, you might be reaching Costa Rican-levels of caffeination, so a walk in the woods might help work out those jitters. And by walk in the woods, I mean a nighttime rainforest tour. Most rainforest wildlife comes out to play after the sun goes down, so a nighttime tour with a naturalist is one of the best ways to see them. Monteverde is home to five different nature reserves, and you can find nighttime tours in all of them. We ended up taking the one offered by Curi-Cancha.
Because it’s nature, there’s no controlling what you’ll see on a tour. Things might be really active the night you go or, like what happened to us, it could be raining (it is a rainforest, after all), and the wildlife will be smart and tucked in somewhere dry. We did see a sleeping sloth and several interesting insects and birds. If you go, perhaps you’ll have better luck!
Day 4: Monteverde
Yes, Costa Rica is famous for its coffee and chocolate and wildlife, but every adrenaline junkie knows the main attraction is ziplining. No 7 days in Costa Rica is complete without soaring above the rainforest and, in Monteverde, literally over and through the clouds.
There are lots of different companies in Monteverde that offer ziplining – I obviously haven’t done them all, but you probably can’t go wrong. We went with Selvatura Park because they offer a full-day package (including pickup and drop off so I could take a break from driving the ridiculous roads) that let us walk across hanging bridges, visit a butterfly garden, eat lunch, and, of course, zipline! This was a much more affordable way to do a lot of different things we were going to do anyway without having to pay separate entrance fees.
And yes, you do want to do hanging bridges. Hanging bridges are very popular in Costa Rica because they let people walk through the rainforest without having to hack their way through all the vegetation.
And the verdict on the ziplining? 100% worth it! There’s no better way to see the rainforest from above. Though because it is a “cloud forest,” you might find yourself ziplining literally through a cloud, as we did on the very last line.
Be sure to end your stay in Monteverde by catching a beautiful sunset from the mountainside!
Where to Stay in Monteverde
Monteverde is a great place to houses tucked into the cloud forest!
Day 5: Tamarindo
From Costa Rica’s mountains to its beaches – on day 5 of 7 days in Costa Rica, time to drive to the coast!
Tamarindo’s nickname is “Tamargringo” because of the large number of expats who live there. It’s also a very wealthy area, with lots of chic boutique stores, trendy restaurants, and it’s home to many of the country’s top beach resorts. Honestly, that’s not usually my scene. But Tamarindo is centrally located to other smaller towns (with fewer amenities) on the Nicoya Peninsula. So if you don’t want to spend time there, it’s worth using it as a base camp.
Tamarindo is about 3-4 hours from Monteverde, so you’ll have the first afternoon there to explore. For water lovers, there are plenty of things to do: kayaking, surf lessons, and horseback riding on the beach. One of the most popular activities is taking a sunset sailing tour!
We opted to drive to nearby Playa Avellanas, a secluded beach that’s completely off the beaten path. Getting there involves driving down a 5-mile bumpy dirt road, but it was nice to visit somewhere off of the tourist radar.
Day 6: Tamarindo
Despite the plethora of available activities in the Tamarindo area, my friend and I decided we wanted to enjoy a lazy day. So we spent most of the day on the beach. There are guys that will rent you a chair and umbrella for $20 USD cash so you don’t have to bring your own.
(Warning to my fair-skinned friends: the Costa Rican sun burns VERY hot since the country is so close to the equator. Because I’m the color of a piece of paper, I reapplied my sunscreen religiously and I still got absolutely fried. Would I spend another whole day on a Costa Rican beach? No, probably not, if I’m being honest lol.)
Where to Stay in Tamarindo
Tamarindo is known for its ritzy resorts and spas, but there are plenty of budget-friendly places too.
Day 7: Manuel Antonio
The last of 7 days in Costa Rica is for Manuel Antonio, home to Costa Rica’s most famous beach.
It’s about a 5-hour drive from Tamarindo down the coast to Manuel Antonio. If you want to get out and take a break from the car for a bit, you can stop at Carara National Park. It’s a small reserve that is supposedly home to the largest population of scarlet macaws in the country. My friend and I stopped here and did a long hike in the hopes of seeing one of those beautiful birds, but no luck. (Of course, as soon as we got back in our car, three of them flew right over us….) Worth a shot though!
Manuel Antonio National Park is a gorgeous preserve situated on a peninsula, with pristine beaches, tropical rainforests, and lots of hiking trails. It’s a great place to spot both sloths and monkeys! But it’s not very big, so an afternoon is a perfect amount of time to explore it.
When you visit the park, you currently need to purchase timed entry tickets online in advance, as it is an extremely popular destination. You have the option of wandering around the park on your own, as we did, or you can hire an official guide to teach you about all of the flora and fauna. For tickets and tour options, go here.
Where to Stay in Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is home to what was recently named the best hotel in the world, but there is definitely something for everyone!
Day 8: San Jose and Home
If you don’t have a super early flight, you’ll have plenty of time to make the 3-hour drive from Manuel Antonio to San Jose. I highly recommend making time to take the non-toll road route for an incredibly scenic drive through the mountains outside of San Jose.
With just 7 days in Costa Rica, you can get a taste of everything the country has to offer! Have you been before? Planning a trip and have questions? Let me know in the comments!
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