Costa Rica is a fabulous Central American country that packs so much nature and diversity into an area smaller than the state of West Virginia. Whether you are looking for a hiking adventure to beautiful waterfalls, exploring diverse rainforests and nature parks, or relaxing and surfing by the beach, Costa Rica offers it all!
There is so much to explore in Costa Rica, it can be a bit overwhelming when you first look into planning a trip to the Pura Vida country. We spent a full month in Costa Rica to be able to put together the ultimate one week in Costa Rica itinerary for you, to make your travel planning easier!
Disclaimer: Europcar Costa Rica provided us with our rental car for the duration of our Costa Rica itinerary. Sky Adventures Arenal provided us with the ziplining experience. All opinions are our own. Please note that some of the links in the below article are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, we earn a commission if you make a purchase. Click here for the full disclosure statement.
Top Things to Do on the Ultimate One Week Costa Rica Itinerary
With a one week Costa Rica itinerary you can see a large part of what makes Costa Rica so enticing for visitors. After having spent one month in this beautiful country, we compiled all our favorite locations and put them together in this itinerary for you. Of course, you can organize your own Costa Rica itinerary as you see fit, however if you do plan to see the below locations, we recommend doing them in this order (or reversed) so that you don’t spend too much time crisscrossing the country!
Arrival into San Jose
Most people will arrive into Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) near San José. This is the main international airport in Costa Rica, and likely the one you will arrive at. The other international airport is located near Liberia, in the northwest area of the country, about a four-hour drive from San José.
Many flights arrive into San José during the middle of the day, so it’s nice to pick up your rental car, a few supplies, and get acquainted with Costa Rica before heading out the next morning. There is a large Wal-Mart near the airport which can be perfect to pick up a diverse mix of supplies and groceries before heading out too far.
Our favorite hotel near SJO airport is the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen, which is located about a 15 minute drive away. The hotel is close to all of the action and shopping near San José but it feels like you are staying far out in the countryside. The hotel has two large outdoor pools, walking paths, and a driving range if you’re looking to get a bit of exercise after a long flight.
Additionally, the rooms are large and bright, with many having beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Settle in for a good night’s sleep before getting up early to head for a hike in Bajos del Toro.
Day One: Hiking in Bajos del Toro
Bajos del Toro is a wonderful region in Costa Rica which is quite literally overflowing with beautiful hikes and waterfalls. You can find some of the most stunning waterfalls in Costa Rica here, however it is still relatively under the radar compared to the more popular tourist trail locations.
The drive to Bajos del Toro takes about 1.5 – 2 hours, and covers some very steep and narrow roads. Once there, you have so many beautiful waterfalls to choose from. Here’s a list of some of the more popular waterfall hikes to get your started, varying in difficulty and length:
- Catarata del Toro (1.3 mile / 2.1 km loop, steep with lots of steps)
- Blue Falls of Costa Rica (2.8 miles / 4.5 km return, moderate with established trail)
- Catarata Vuelta del Canon (8.7 miles / 14 km return, requires multiple river crossings)
The Catarata Vuelta del Canon is a highlight of the area, featuring an impressive double waterfall in a stunning, lush green setting. This hike however does require a guide as you are hiking through private property and you will encounter 8+ river crossings, in each direction. If you’re hiking in the rainy season, expect a lot of mud and water. The river water is cool, but not glacial cold. It’s all worth it though once you reach the end of the hike at the beautiful waterfall. The blowing mist and lush green mountain sides give an ethereal feel to this location which can’t be missed.
We organized a local guide with the help of Senderos Del Toro Tours. If you’re in the area and interested in this hike or any other, check them out on Instagram and the can help you out!
After spending a good part of the day in Bajos del Toro, it’s time to hit the road to take in one of Costa Rica’s most famous volcanoes, Volcan Arenal. It is a 2 hour drive from Bajos del Toro to Arenal. If you didn’t pack your own snacks, grab a quick meal in Bajos del Toro before heading out.
Day Two and Three: Adventure at Volcan Arenal and La Fortuna
The town of La Fortuna and surrounding area including Volcan Arenal is a tourist hotspot in Costa Rica, and for good reason! La Fortuna is an adventure-tourism mecca, with it being a great base to go ziplining, volcano hiking, whitewater rafting, waterfall rappelling, mountain biking, and more. Plus, once you’re done you can relax at one of La Fortuna’s 12 popular hot springs!
We suggest planning an adventure each day while in the area, and experiencing one of the hot springs. The small town of La Fortuna has a nice walkable town square with lots of great restaurants serving up delicious meals made from local ingredients. Be sure to wander the side streets to find some of the best shops. The Organico Café is one of the best in the area with amazing healthy options including gluten-free, diary-free, vegetarian, and more.
The Ultimate Ziplining and Canopy Walk Experience with Sky Adventures
If you’re looking to go on a ziplining adventure, and you should be because it is one of the most typical Costa Rica experiences, then look no further than Sky Adventures Arenal for the ultimate experience. You will get the typical Costa Rica ziplining experience of traveling through lush rainforests, but you will also get outstanding views of Volcan Arenal and Lake Arenal.
The ziplining experience includes 7 different cables where you will experience speeds of up to 43 mph (70 km/h) all the while traveling up to 656 feet (200 m) in the air, across cables up to 2,460 feet (750 m) in length! It’s a truly impressive experience, and the best zipline experience we have had anywhere in the world. The ziplining experience also includes a ride in the Sky Tram and a visit to La Mano del Arenal, a giant hand sculpture with an amazing view.
In addition to the ziplining, you can choose to hike the trails at Sky Adventures Arenal to visit some waterfalls and suspension bridges, high up in the jungle canopy.
The Lake of Arenal is actually mand-made, created in 1979 for a hydroelectric project that at the time, provided energy for 70% of Costa Rica! The lake is the largest in Costa Rica, and also a great location for kayaking, canoeing, stand up paddle boarding, as well as kite surfing and windsurfing.
One of the most iconic views in Costa Rica is of Lake Arenal with the distinctive Volcan Arenal in the background. The top of the mountain is often covered in cloud, so if you end up seeing Volcan Arenal in all of its glory, count yourself lucky! A great place to view the lake and volcano is from the Mirador la Armonia campsite and viewpoint. This is a great place to bring a picnic lunch and relax out in nature, enjoying the view! There is also a toilet onsite, plus a small shop with snacks and drinks.
If you are looking for an adventurous trip and love camping, make sure you check out the Ultimate Costa Rica Campervan Experience with Pura Van.
Day Four and Five: Above the Clouds in Monteverde
As the crow flies, Monteverde is not far from La Fortuna and Arenal, however there are no roads that directly connect the two tourist hotspots, so you will have to drive west along Lake Arenal from La Fortuna, and then south through more twisting roads to reach Monteverde. This is a great location for two days, allowing you to take in the amazing nature, views, and restaurants on offer.
Monteverde is famous for its cloud forests. You may be wondering what exactly is a cloud forest? A could forest is actually a type of rainforest, but at a much higher altitude of 3,000 to 8,000 feet (914 to 2,400 m). Cloud forests are often blanketed in mist and clouds, giving them their name, and also include an incredibly diverse mix of flora and fauna.
If you didn’t manage to go ziplining in Arenal, Monteverde is the next best location and there are multiple tour companies available. In addition, Monteverde is a popular place to go on nature walks through the cloud forests. Hiring a guide is optional, and based on preference. You will no doubt see and learn way more by using a guide, however you can still see a lot on a self-guided tour, but you might just miss that sloth lounging in a nearby tree!
Monteverde also has one of the most diverse sets of accommodation in Costa Rica, so you should be able to find the perfect hotel, bed and breakfast, or hostel to suit your needs. Owing to its popularity as a tourist destination, Monteverde has a ton of great restaurants serving up all kinds of cuisine.
Day Six and Seven: Surfing at Jaco and Playa Hermosa
Have you really been to Costa Rica if you haven’t seen their gorgeous beaches? Costa Rica has a great mix of beaches, ranging from white-sand to black-sand, and rugged rocks to never-ending flat sand. There are a number of popular beach areas, namely in Guanacaste province in the northwest Punta Arenas, along the southern west coast.
The Nicoya Peninsula is beautiful and includes the surfing hotspots of Tamarindo, Nosara, and Santa Teresa, however it is sufficiently far from San José that it is difficult to include in a one week Costa Rica itinerary. Alternatively, the beach and surf town of Jaco and nearby Playa Hermosa offers up just as much surfing, a vibrant expat community, and everything else you will need for your Costa Rica beach experience.
Jaco is a 2 to 2.5 hour drive from Monteverde. Just like the road into Monteverde, the road down is equally steep and twisty. Take your time and enjoy the views on the way to the coast. Once you reach Jaco, you’ll find everything you need in town for groceries, restaurants, and cafes. A great café to try authentic Costa Rican coffee is Café Bohio, and if you’re looking for a fun evening with live music, great food and drinks, try out PuddleFish Brewery.
Heading just a little bit further south you will find the picturesque Playa Hermosa. Note that there are multiple Playa Hermosa’s in Costa Rica, so keep that in mind when doing any additional research on what to do in the area.
Playa Hermosa is incredibly large, and surprisingly quiet, allowing for perfect walks along the beach, taking it all in.
Option Extra: Drive to Manuel Antonio National Park
The Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the smallest national parks in Costa Rica, yet it is also one of the most visited. At just over an hour’s drive south of Jaco, it is easily accessible as a day-trip or addition to your one week Costa Rica itinerary. The park is so popular due to it’s truly incredible biodiversity, packed into such a small area. Here you can see sloths, monkeys, toucans, and many other of the amazing plants and animals that call Costa Rica home.
The park is located at the end of the road in the town of Manuel Antonio. There is a large number of hotels and restaurants in the area, owing to the park’s popularity. You can choose to walk through the park on your own or hire a guide. We found that the park was sufficiently busy that there were groups of people watching the sloths and monkeys, such that if you didn’t have a guide you would still get to see these amazing creatures.
Alternatively, if you decide to hire a guide, it can be quite reasonable and you will learn so much about the plants and animals in this incredible park.
After spending your time in Jaco, and possibly Manuel Antonio, head back to San José to catch your flight home. The drive back to the capital is about 2 hours. Plan extra time for traveling to San José as traffic jams are quite common, especially on weekends, and anytime near rush hour. With that, you’ve successfully completed the ultimate one week Costa Rica itinerary!
The Next Trip Top Five Tips for the Ultimate Costa Rica Itinerary
We’ve put together a list of our top tips for you to have the ultimate one week Costa Rica itinerary.
Rent a Car with Europcar Costa Rica
While Costa Rica is not physically a very large country, it can still take a very long time to get between popular locations due to there being limited roads, and the roads being full of sharp curves, steep hills, and slow trucks. Public transportation does exist, but is not really suitable for the ultimate one week Costa Rica itinerary, as you would spend half of your time taking and waiting for public transportation.
That’s why having a rental car is almost essential. Europcar Costa Rica has a large inventory to choose from so that you can select the size of car you need, and whether or not you want to have a 4×4 for piece of mind, or for some of the more off the beaten path destinations. Four our trip we picked up our Europcar Costa Rica rental car from San Jose International Airport. The pick-up process was quick and easy, and they conveniently send pictures of the car to you at the beginning of the rental period to document the condition of the vehicle when you pick it up.
We had a Hyundai Tucson 4×4 for our Costa Rica itinerary, and it was perfect for our trip. It handled the steep hills, rough gravel roads, and everything else with ease, all the while getting great fuel economy, and being fully loaded with charging points, Bluetooth, and all the creature comforts we needed. We can highly recommend Europcar Costa Rica for you rental car needs during your one week Costa Rica itinerary!
Prepare for Changing Weather
Costa Rica has a dry season from December to April, and a rainy season from May to November. That being said, you can have significant rain in the dry season and lots of sun in the rainy season. The dry season will have consistently better weather, and is the preferred travel time, however don’t count out the rainy season!
During the rainy season it will likely rain at least once per day, either in the morning or the evening. In Costa Rica it rarely rains for a whole day straight, meaning that if you are traveling to Costa Rica in the rainy season, you should be prepared to adjust your schedule to the timing of the rain.
Try the Local Food
Costa Rica is not known for the most exciting food scene; however, they do have an abundance of fresh local fruits and vegetables as well as seafood, allowing for some delicious meals. You will find that almost all typical Costa Rican meals have a side of Gallo Pinto, a flavorful dish of rice and beans. You may then also have a portion of fish or meat, and a small salad. Alternatively, gallo pinto is popular for breakfast, served alongside eggs, bacon, and fried plantains.
Remember that Costa Rica is Not Cheap
Many people assume Costa Rica is cheap based on it’s location in Central America, however you’ll be in for quite a shock if that’s what you’re expecting going in. Prepare for food and dining prices consistent with what you will find in the United States, Canada, or Europe, similar to gas prices, and the costs for tours and other items. It is possible to have a budget trip to Costa Rica, however this just takes a bit more planning and more self-guided tours and homecooked meals.
Enjoy the Pura Vida Lifestyle
Not everything in Costa Rica will be exactly as you are used to. Driving and transportation take considerably longer than you may be used to, you might not be able to find the food you are used to, and services might be slower or later than expected. However, Costa Rica embraces the Pura Vida mentality, which literally means a pure life, or simple life, however in Costa Rica Pura Vida means much more than that. It is commonly used as a greeting and encapsulates Costa Ricans desired way of life: laid-back, stress-free, and happy.
If you encounter anything frustrating, just remember Pura Vida, and enjoy the nuances of travel and rich cultural experience of traveling in one of the most beautiful countries.
Frequently Costa Rica Itinerary Questions
We answer some of the most popular questions about visiting Costa Rica to make your trip unforgettable.
How Many Days Do You Need in Costa Rica?
Despite being relatively small geographically, Costa Rica packs in a lot of amazing sights, making it a destination that many people come back to again and again. The perfect amount of time for a trip to Costa Rica is entirely dependent on your schedule, but we would suggest at least 1 week, with 2 weeks being ideal. Of course, you could spend a month in Costa Rica and still not see everything! With a one week Costa Rica itinerary, you can get a great sense of what makes Costa Rica so famous and take in many iconic locations.
How Dangerous is Costa Rica for Tourists?
Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in Central America, however you should always keep your safety in mind. Violent crimes against tourists are quite rare, however petty theft from unattended cars or while on the beach is relatively common. If you keep aware of your surroundings, and always lock up your valuables and don’t leave anything in view in the car, you should be fine. Additionally, it’s highly recommended not to drive at night, or travel alone at night or on the beaches. If you are sticking to the main tourist areas, Costa Rica is very safe for all travelers.
How Easy it to Travel in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is a surprisingly easy country to travel around on a self-guided vacation. Most people speak English, however the further from the tourist trail you go, the more likely you will need some basic Spanish skills to communicate. Many places accept credit cards, or even USD cash, however it is best to have some Costa Rican Colons with you at all times for smaller purchases. Driving in Costa Rica is straight-forward, but it is best to drive more defensively than you do at home as not everyone follows all of the rules, and you should also not drive in the dark. Costa Rica is a great country to travel to if you’re new to traveling in foreign speaking countries.
When is the Best Time to Visit Costa Rica?
The most popular time to visit Costa Rica is from December to April, during the dry season. Visiting during this time will guarantee you the best weather, which is perfect for a shorter one week Costa Rica itinerary. If however, you have a bit more time and flexibility to your schedule, visiting during the rainy season of May to November will provide you with incredibly lush and green rainforests, fewer crowds, and more affordable hotel rates.
Have You Been to Costa Rica?
If you’ve already been to Costa Rica, let us know if there is something missing from this one week Costa Rica itinerary, otherwise be sure to pin this post to your Central America Pinterest board to plan your trip to Costa Rica!
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