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Costa Rica is a tiny country that looks like a dot on the world atlas. But, for a country of its size, Costa Rica packs in quite a lot. Nature lovers and adventure seekers will never find a dearth of things to do in this corner of the world. However, when it comes to planning an itinerary for a Costa Rica holiday, one may be spoiled for choice. So, we will try to address this by carefully curating a travel plan that wraps the best nature highlights of the country. In this 10-day Costa Rica itinerary, we cover the Central Highlands and the Pacific Coast.
Table of Contents (skip directly to the info you're looking for)
- 1 The perfect 10 days in Costa Rica Itinerary
- 1.1 Day 1: Arrival (San Jose)
- 1.2 Day 2 – Day 3: Manuel Antonio National Park
- 1.3 Day 4 – Day 6: La Fortuna
- 1.4 Day 7 – Day 9: Guanacaste beaches
- 1.5 Day 10: Departure (Liberia)
- 1.6 Recommendations on where to stay
- 1.7 Best time to visit Costa Rica
- 1.8 Best ways of commuting around Costa Rica
- 1.9 Final thoughts
The perfect 10 days in Costa Rica Itinerary
Day 1: Arrival (San Jose)
San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, is located in what is called the Central Valley region. Like most other capital cities, this place is filled with museums, parks, restaurants, bars and people! But what sets it apart is the view of the tall green mountains that surround the Central Valley. Depending on where you are flying in from, you will have less than a full day to explore the downtown of San Jose. That should be good enough for an introduction.
Top things to do in San Jose, Costa Rica:
- Visit the National Theater
- Explore the museums: Jade museum, National museum, Gold museum et al.
- Take a stroll in La Sabana Metropolitan Park
- Shop at Central Market
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Day 2 – Day 3: Manuel Antonio National Park
Costa Rica is nature’s paradise with high biodiversity and Manuel Antonio National Park is a great way to kick-start the journey of exploring it. Tucked near the city of Quepos, around 180 km from San Jose, lies the smallest yet an activity packed piece of forest of Costa Rica. The scenic 3-hour drive takes you through the green hills, on roads kissing the beaches, with cliffs overlooking the Pacific, while passing plantain fields and cool beach towns.
Top things to do in the Manuel Antonio National Park:
- Trails of the National Park: There are well-paved and well-marked trails that help you explore the flora and fauna of the park. Keep an eye on the trees for the two and three-toed Sloths, three species of monkeys – Squirrel, Capuchin and Howler monkeys, numerous species of birds including hummingbirds, but don’t forget the off-roads that are home to the colorful crabs, agoutis, raccoons and snakes. Hike the Punta Catedral for amazing aerial views of the ocean.
- Laze around the beaches: The park has 4 beaches – Espadilla Sur, Manuel Antonio, Gemelas, Puerto Escondido. Pick a beach to just laze around on the powdery sand or in the warm water of the ocean while your eyes will never be far from the green forests. Manuel Antonio is the most popular beach, but if you hike the trails bit further, Gemelas rewards you with serenity as lesser people visit that beach. Quick tip: The amenities – bathroom and changing rooms are only near Manuel Antonio beach.
- Waterfall Trail (Sendero La Catarata): Get on this short off-road trail closer to the entrance. It leads to a small waterfall surrounded by dense vegetation.
- Outside the Park: Espadilla Norte is the town beach where you can choose to do activities like parasailing and surfing. There are several places for zip-lining in the hills on the way from Quepos town to Manuel Antonio.
National Park Entrance Fee: The park has an entrance fee of $16 for the non-residents. Buy the tickets from the Coopelianza counter just outside the park.
Quick tip: Go early to avoid crowds and humidity, particularly in the high season of December – April.
Day 4 – Day 6: La Fortuna
La Fortuna is a picturesque little town where a volcano mountain (Arenal) forms the backdrop of a pretty church. However, do not go by the peaceful appearance of the town. You can pack in a lot of action in the couple of days you spend here, and still relax as much.
Top things to do in La Fortuna
- Arenal volcano views – wherever you go in town, the volcano almost always stays with you. If the weather permits (clouds take a break), you are going to see the cone
- Mystico hanging bridge walking trail – walk over hanging bridges to see the rainforest below and clouds around you.
- La Fortuna waterfall hike – Hike a bit to witness a gorgeous waterfall splashing down to form a pool before it runs downstream as a river.
- Natural hot springs – Soothe your muscles after all the hiking.
- Explore the town on foot
Day 7 – Day 9: Guanacaste beaches
Did you get tired of all the walking every day? Why not reserve some beach time for the end of your trip! The answer to your questions is Guanacaste, the northwestern province of Costa Rica. It boasts of a long coastline along the Pacific Ocean dotted with innumerable stunning beaches. You will find all kinds of beach here: resort beaches, small town beaches, family friendly beaches, surfing beaches and secluded beaches. You just need to choose your pick and make it your base for 3 days.
One of the popular zones for Guanacaste first timers is the region of Tamarindo, Grande, Conchal, Brasilito.
Best beaches in Guanacaste
- Playa Tamarindo can be a good base location if you prefer the availability of everything within your reach. You will find different types of accommodation (hostel/ budget hotel/ boutique hotel/ resort), plenty of dining options, souvenir shops.
- Playa Conchal is a pristine white sand and seashells beach with just one five-star beachfront resort.
- Playa Brasilito is another quiet beach nearby (kind of an extension of Conchal) next to the small sleepy town of Brasilito. It is comparatively low profile with respect to Conchal.
- Playa Grande is a long beach very popular with surfers.
- Playa Flamingo is a white sand beach lined by apartments in the surrounding hills.
You can also drive around and hop over to other nearby beaches, some known, some lesser known and others hidden. Example, Playa Mina can be reached only after driving through a treacherous unpaved road.
Top things to do in Guanacaste
- Beach R&R – swim in the ocean or sun bathe on the beach
- Beach hopping – some beaches, like Playa Danta and Dantica, are worth the hike
- Surfing – Playa Grande has some of the largest waves and is a great option for surfing
- Seafood – eat fresh catch of the day
- Watch amazing sunsets
Day 10: Departure (Liberia)
We recommend booking your flight itinerary as arriving in San Jose and departing from Liberia. This way you can avoid the 4-hour drive from Liberia to San Jose. So, before you head home, utilize this extra time and have one (or five) more margarita(s) while getting beach-tanned!
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Recommendations on where to stay
- San Jose
- Radisson Hotel San Jose
- Manuel Antonio:
- Tulemar Resort
- Hotel San Bada Resort & Spa
- El Faro Beach Hotel
- Jungle Beach hotel
- La Fortuna:
- Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa
- Baldi Hot Springs Hotel & Spa
- Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa
- Tifakara Boutique Hotel & Birding Oasis
- The Westin Golf Resort and Spa
- Jardin del Eden Boutique Hotel
- Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort
- Margaritaville Beach Resort Playa Flamingo
Best time to visit Costa Rica
Costa Rica has a tropical climate. There are only two prominently defined seasons in a year.
Wet season: It starts from April/May and continues until November/December. You can expect showers almost every day. The rain takes a break during a couple of weeks in July, so the locals refer to as ‘mini summer.’
Dry season: December to April is the dry season when the sun shines brighter and the chances of rain are low.
So, if you absolutely need the guarantee of sunny days, December to April is the window you should aim for (it might still rain on some days though). However, we feel the rains bring in a different kind of charm to the whole of Costa Rica when the nature around turns lush green.
Best ways of commuting around Costa Rica
Self-drive Car Rental
The best way of moving around in Costa Rica is to rent a self-drive car. Economy and Avis are the most popular car rental companies here. You can pick the car up from the airport of your arrival and drop it off at the airport of your departure.
The other alternative is to avail the public services for moving between towns. The buses have fixed departure schedules, are usually on time and have comfortable coaches.
Rent a car vs. Public bus?
You may not have the flexibility of venturing into the lesser traversed paths if you rely entirely on public transport system. Hence, we recommend renting a car, even if it costs a few extra bucks.
The major highways in Costa Rica are in very good condition. But, you may come across unpaved roads or roads with potholes or even completely eroded roads while driving through the villages. Therefore, we suggest getting a car with higher ground clearance, if not 4X4.
Costa Rica is a country where you are never too far away from nature, even in the urban areas. It is one of the first countries in the world to have reversed deforestation. Now, more than 50% of Costa Rica is green cover. If you are a nature enthusiast, this is the perfect place for you to spend a few days for relaxation, action and adventure.
This is a guest post by Pubali and Indranil from the travel blog Paradise Catchers
About the authors: Pubali and Indranil, the travel blogger duo of Paradise Catchers, are an Indian couple traveling across Latin America and Caribbean, while living and working full-time corporate jobs in Costa Rica. You can follow their adventures on Instagram.
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