*disclaimer: this trip happened before covid-19. Stay home and stay safe.
When I reminisce about my Costa-Rica trip, I think of lush green forests, volcanos, warm beaches and full of wild-life. When planning this trip, I knew I wanted to make sure that I had a good combination of time spent in-land (jungle & rainforest) but also enjoy some relaxing beach time and really take advantage of everything this beautiful country has to offer. Think –volcanos, animals, adventures, and some good R&R at the beach. To accomplish most of what I wanted to experience, I booked a 2-week trip and I found that perfect.
Ok so before diving into an itinerary or suggestions, I want to mention a few practical pointers about planning a trip to Costa Rica. Not very exciting, I know, but it is necessary – and, I hope helpful.
If you rent a vehicle, and I recommend that you do, you should rent a 4×4 because some of the road conditions can be deplorable at times. While it never felt dangerous, it was a lot of dirt roads, off road, and paths that I wouldn’t recommend going through with a car, especially as a traveler. Some of your destinations might be remote to travel too, and oftentimes you won’t have cell coverage.
Unfortunately, transfers and taxis are quite pricey in Costa-Rica (supply and demand… not much supply). When it comes to renting a vehicle, I suggest it 100% of the time. If you plan to move around a lot, shuttles and transfers are so overpriced and nothing is close by in Costa Rica. For example, to go from our first hotel into town and back, a taxi would charge $40-$50. And to go from the airport to there, they charge about $75 per person. When you plan an elaborate trip, transfers and taxis can really add up. More importantly, it limits you in terms of what you can do and see. For me, perhaps it’s personal, but I like to have freedom once I go somewhere and be able to take my time and explore. This is a very personal decision, but it is what I would recommend if you want a mix of beach + jungle and enjoy a good road trip. Alternatively, if you plan on only doing beach time (like a surf trip for example) and plan on spending most of your time at the beach, a vehicle might not be necessary. A rental car will cost between $50-100 per day, while gas prices are like what you’d pay in Europe. You’re increasing your chances of an amazing trip to Costa Rica by preparing for this eventuality. The best thing to do is map out your trip and use your judgment. Lastly, bear in mind that unlike everywhere I have traveled outside of Canada, I had to purchase separate car insurance In Costa-Rica. In Central America, you won’t be covered even if you already have coverage through your credit card, etc.
Costa-Rica offers a vast array of accommodations from five-star luxury resorts, to cool Airbnb’s, beach bungalows, boutique hotels and even a few all-inclusive resorts. Whatever you’re looking for, you will be able to find if you do some research. If you haven’t already seen it, I previously wrote two blog posts on my favorite luxury stays while in Costa Rica at The Springs Resort and Spa and at Casa Chameleon in Las Catalinas. If you are looking for a luxe stay, Some other spots that I didn’t have time to stay at that were recommended to me were the Peace Lodge Hotel in the Arenal area (I opted to stay at their sister hotel – The Springs), Kasiiya and Punta Islita in Guanacaste (if you like the vibe from my blog posts from Springs and Casa Chameleon, you will surely like them). We also stayed at cute boutique hotels and airbnds that we’re a little bit more “budget friendly” towards the end of the trip.
San-José and Liberia:
If you are flying in, you will be arriving in either San-Jose (SJO) or Liberia (LIR). We landed in SJO and flew out from LIR and that’s how I mapped out the itinerary. When doing your research, you will see that are a lot of mixed opinions about the “big cities” in Costa-Rica. For SJO, there are apparently a few worthwhile things to see if you enjoy museums and embassies. To be honest, I had heard that it could be a dodgy and busy city. Based on the reviews or advice I got, it was more of a touch and go location for us. There are so many beautiful spots in Costa-Rica worth seeing, so I wouldn’t recommend devoting more than 1 day of your time to either of the country’s “big” cities. They are very industrial and business-like, and tourism is not a focal point for them. But that’s just me…
When we landed, we got the jeep, grabbed a bite to eat and went to bed to kick off our jetlag. The next morning, we got up early to head out for our 2.5 hour drive to Arenal. The drive was great; the roads were paved and safe and it made for an enjoyable ride to kick off the road-trip.
Rainforest, Cloud Forest & Jungle:
Like I mentioned, the first half of the trip was in-land. No matter how your plan your holiday, I recommend doing a mix of both in-land and beach. Particularly if it’s your first trip and you’re trying to see a good cross-section of what Costa Rica has to offer. There is SO much that I could say, but I will try and keep it straight to the point. Here are a few recommendations for the rainforests, cloud forests and jungle:
Waterfall Gardens: On our way to Arenal, we got a day pass at Waterfall Gardens to start of the trip and see a bunch of costa rican wildlife and enjoy their animal sanctuary. Most importantly, we were able to see a few majestic waterfalls and do a few hikes. It was the perfect start to our trip! If you are nearby, I would recommend a day (or half day) pass.
Arenal & La Fortuna:
Arenal and La Fortuna are some of the most popular destinations for good reason — its the best place for an introduction to the country to really get a taste of the lush forests. La Fortuna is specifically famous for its Arenal Volcano and lake. There are tons of activities to do in the area and you will most likely be able to spot wildlife in their natural habitat. Bear in mind that it’s about a 3.5-hour drive from both San Jose and Liberia to Arenal, so make sure that you leave early in the morning to take advantage of your time in Arenal. Personally, I think three or four nights there is nice. (You’ll lose some travel time as well.) During our stay, we stayed at the Spring Resort and Spa and were super lucky to be able to take advantage of the beautiful property that was perched on 165 acres of land with pano views of the Arenal Volcano and an impressive 25+ natural hot springs on site. There are plenty of ways to experience the natural hot springs in Costa Rica – you can get a day pass and visit hot springs like Eco Termales and Tabacon, ect.
Other activities: I would recommend ziplining at Sky Trek, rafting with Rio Tropicales, doing the Cano Negro tour with Sunset Tours or Desafio, hiking at the volcano, checking out the hanging bridges and waterfall, the Proyecto Asis animal rescue center, tubing at The Springs, the Penas Blancas river float, and waterfall rappelling with La Roca/Sunset Tours. Let’s just say that you won’t run out of things to do! If you have a car, I would also suggest going to see La Fortuna Waterfall.
PS: You can also visit the Arenal Volcano National Park that was previously famous for its constant mini-eruptions and lava spews (Arenal Volcano has been quiet for the past five years emitting only smoke and gas). The National Park will allow visitors to go hiking and see beautiful views of the volcano and the lake.
Monte-Verde is beautiful, but it tends to be far away from everything and you need a 4×4. The drive from Arenal to Monte-Verde takes about a 3 ½ hours. Monte-Verde Is known for bird watching, more extreme zip-lining, hiking and cool weather in the cloud forest. Due to global warming, the Costa Rican cloud forest is slowly becoming cloudless so it might be a unique experience before it’s too late! I won’t go too much into detail because there are TONS of Monte-Verde guides available online for you to consult.
Arenal/La Fortuna vs. Monte-Verde ?
A lot of people don’t have enough time to see both due to the distance between them. Both are excellent for outdoor adventures and if time permits, I recommend doing both! I would say that Arenal has more luxury hotels and accommodations, more wildlife, hot springs & waterfalls, and it’s easier to get too. (you don’t need a 4×4). Because it’s easier to access, it’s a popular spot for first time visitors and its usually included on group tours. Monte-Verde has more birds, better hiking and is a tad less touristic (although it’s still very popular). Bear in mind that Monte-Verbe tends to be more limited for lodging options so make sure to book ahead of time.
Guanacaste – The “Gold-Coast”
The second half of the trip was spent along the Guanacaste coastline that is known as the Golden Coast. If you drive from Arenal to Guanacaste, there is a super cool waterfall on the way that you should check out called Llanos de Cortes:
The Guanacaste coast is vast and large, and your options are seriously endless! Guanacaste is the driest province of Costa-Rica and the areas are tropical-dry (desert like.) It gives you the impression that you are in a completely different country compared to the lush rainforests just days before in-land. This might vary depending on the time of year, but we went a in Mid-February and this was our experience. The Guanacaste regions weather is gorgeous, very hot, and perfect for swimming all day long and surfing. We did a road-trip across the coast and really enjoyed it.
Costa-Rica offers tons of beaches and they all bring something different. Honestly, I could go on forever, but it comes down to personal preference and the vibe that you are seeking. I would recommend that you do extensive research on the different areas, and find what works best for you.. I won’t mention them all, but here are a few popular destinations:
Tamarindo: one of the popular area’s known for its bustling nightlife and restaurants. The beaches are some of the most crowded because it’s a popular surfing destination. Although surfing is the main pursuit here, swimming is possible if you are a strong swimmer and feel confident in the waves.
Hermosa Beach: Playa Hermosa near Jaco is one of Costa Rica’s popular surf locations. It’s a large beach backed with palm trees perfect to get some shade in the scolding sun. The waves are known to get massive here and is not ideal for swimming but perfect for surfing.
Playa Hermosa: Literarily translates to “beautiful beach”. The beach is generally calmer and based in a small town. It attracts a lot of people looking to relax in a more tranquil setting and allows for nice swimming because the water if calmer. Keep in mind that Costa Rica has several beaches named Playa Hermosa, including near Jaco (above), Santa Teresa, and Uvita, but the one here is in Guanacaste about 30 minutes away from the Liberia Airport.
Flamingo: Located in the south, Flamingo is known for pinkish white sand and the waves are known to be manageable and an okay spot for swimming. It’s not too overcrowded because it does not have a lot of development on its seashore (compared to Tamarindo).
Conchal Beach: As the name suggests, it was once composed of mostly seashells that are now crushed and small. You will want to bring a good pair of sandals. Since its compromised of shells and not sand, the water is clear and its known for a beautiful snorkeling area. Conchal tends to have smaller waves and while its popular, it has a reputation of not being overcrowded like some of its neighbors.
Manuel Antonio: The beaches here are also generally calmer, so it makes for a great family or swimming spot. Manuel Antonio is very touristy because it features the Manual Antonio National Park nearby that is a popular tourist attraction.
Samara: Samara is in a small beach-town village. (compact – basically a few blocks of town that are easily walkable, completely paved, with a soccer field in the center, and everything basically along the beach.) The beach is much calmer because there is an outlying reef. We stayed here at one point to have a more relaxing experience and to visit Nosora. I had heard it offered a more “authentic” Costa Rican experience and small-town vibe. Many of the beach towns in Guanacaste have become extremely popular over time so we wanted to book some time in a quieter spot as well to experience the difference.
Nosora: some of the principal attractions in the area are Pelada, Nosara, and Guiones beaches, known some of the prettiest beaches in Costa Rica. Nosara is rather spread out and I think a car is quite necessary. The roads are also not paved, making the whole thing quite dusty. Nosora is known for their excellent yoga institute (somewhat of a yoga village) and its close to Ostinal, one of the world’s best places to see turtles!
There are some people who just love Nosara, while others don’t like it. The same is true for Samara. If walkability is more important, I’d stick with Samara. You can’t go wrong with either one or seeing both (about a 1.5 hour drive).
Playa Avallanas: This beach gave me more of an “untouched” feeling to it that I loved. It’s a bit of an effort to drive there, but it’s worth it in my opinion. Keep in mind that the only amenity nearby is a restaurant called Lola (I loved this restaurant.) It’s a great place to finish off the day with cocktails and taco’s. Playa Avallanas is more of a tranquil alternative to nearby Tamarindo. It offers white sand beaches and turquoise waters. One of the surf breaks is called “little Hawaii,” since the waves can reach up to 5.5 meters, attracting seasoned surfers from around the world. In this beach town, you can likely meet “Lola”, the 400-kilogram pig – a local celebrity – who wanders casually around the beach to bathe in the sun and sand. (not to be confused with the restaurant).
It’s a bit of an effort to get too and the drive is quite dusty, but it’s worth it. It is accessible via Santa Cruz, or if you are coming from Villareal, you can take Route 155 for approximately 3.3 kilometers, then turn right about 400 meters past the Escuela Villareal. Follow the unmarked road for the remaining 9 kilometers until you reach the shore.
Just off the beating path near the beach:
I feel like there is so much more I could say about Costa-Rica but I would write forever! There is something for everyone whether you want to surf, swim, relax, party, nap, have a foodie trip, do outdoor activities and explore, etc., there is an option for you to experience your version of the Pura Vida. Without a doubt, you will love it if you plan properly. I hope that you find this helpful as a starter! Want more? Check out my Instagram highlight “Costa-Rica” on my Instagram @jennadouce for video’s.