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Costa Rica is known for it’s “pura vida” motto, which manages to encompass the country and its people, the Ticos, quite well! It means pure life or simple life, and folks use it in place of hello, goodbye, what’s up, all is well, etc. If you’re looking for wilderness, barefoot simplicity and super friendly people, Costa Rica is worth a visit. There’s an incredible diversity of animal species, two gorgeous coastlines and monkeys, sloths and parrots everywhere you look. You really can’t go wrong!
Once you start planning your Costa Rica itinerary, you may start to feel a bit overwhelmed. Though it’s a relatively small country in comparison to some others (13x smaller than the state of Texas), it’s not quite as easy to move from place to place as you might expect, on account of topography and limited transportation.
After learning many lessons during our last visit, I decided to whip up this guide to help first-timers plan a fun, safe, easy 7-day Costa Rica itinerary. Enjoy!
Deciding Where to Go in Costa Rica
Here’s the thing about Costa Rica: it’s bigger than you expect, and you just can’t squeeze the whole country in with only 7 days. If you’re like most Americans and you only have a week off at a time, you’ll want to take Costa Rica in smaller chunks and plan to return several times to explore different areas. If you have a few weeks or more, then by all means, see it all in one big go.
So with 7 days to explore Costa Rica, where should you go first? My first visit was to the Osa Peninsula several years ago – a stunning, biodiverse, magical, wild jungle of a place. I did yoga on the beach, kayaked with crocodiles, released baby sea turtles into the ocean and got the most heavenly massage.
More Costa Rica Adventures To Inspire You:
- Adventures in the Osa Peninsula
- Releasing Sea Turtles in Costa Rica
- Choosing the perfect destination based on your Enneagram
On my second visit, the one I’ll highlight in the 7-day Costa Rica itinerary below, I had my husband along for the ride so that informed our unique plans which included fishing, hiking, resting and dental work. So yes, a bizarre, fun and ultimately useful itinerary for us both.
When to Visit Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s weather is relatively predictable. Situated about 700 miles from the equator, you can expect warm to hot temperatures and humidity almost year round at sea level. Anywhere from the 70s to the 90s is normal. If you’re in the mountains, temps will vary with elevation.
Technically, Costa Rica’s peak tourist season coincides with its dry season, from December through April. It’s not out of the question to visit from May to November if you can handle a bit of rain. It’ll certainly save you money!
Getting Around in Costa Rica
Rent a Car
Rick and I swore never to rent a car in another country again after Ireland nearly killed us, but cruising around Costa Rica didn’t seem like it would be too bad. It’s especially helpful if you learn some key Spanish directional words before you go and brush up on rules of the road.
Whatever you do – don’t speed! This is not the place to mash the gas. You’ll get caught and it’s never fun dealing with law enforcement abroad.
Use Public Transportation
Buses are widely used throughout Costa Rica and are a great budget friendly option for seeing more of the country. If you have more than a week to spare, by all means, this is a savvy way to stretch your dollar. If you have less than a week, I recommend spending more money to get where you’re going quickly so you have more time in the destination. That’s why you’re going, after all!
Hire a Taxi or Private Driver
In each hotel we visited, it was easy to pop down to the concierge and have them ring up a trusted taxi driver anytime we needed to go anywhere. This got us around easily – but not cheaply. We probably spent $500 on ground transportation on this 7-day Costa Rica itinerary, so clearly we chose convenience over budget.
Is Costa Rica Expensive?
Costa Rica was definitely pricier than I remembered from my first visit, but that was a while ago so it makes sense.
- Food was pretty reasonable as were excursions. On par with what you’d expect to pay on vacation.
- The hotels we stayed at were on the high end ($250-$500/night to start). I prefer to stay at a hotel on my first visit just to get the lay of the land. Subsequent visits though? I’m game to explore! You can stay very cheaply (sometimes less than $100/night) at vacation rentals which offer lots more space, private pools and ocean views. Check out some of Costa Rica’s most luxurious oceanfront vacation rentals here.
- Ground transportation was our biggest expense, but you could remedy that by taking more public transportation or renting a car and driving yourself. (After our harrowing road trip through Ireland, we’ve pretty much given up on renting cars in foreign countries.)
- Dental work is truly the best deal in Costa Rica! We spent less than $300 for an exam, X-rays, an extraction and three fillings.
Our 7-Night Costa Rica Itinerary
Day 1 – Arrive in San Jose and head to Manuel Antonio
Getting to San Jose will be the easiest part of your Costa Rica journey. There are direct flights from Orlando, Miami, LA, New York, Atlanta and more, so it’s within a 3-5 hour journey from almost anywhere in the US.
Once you get outside immigration, things get a little more challenging. There is public transportation to many top tourist spots in the country and some hotels in San Jose have complimentary shuttles. You may also head to the domestic airport to hop on a flight to a regional airport. Or, you could take a taxi to your next stop. But it won’t be cheap!
We booked our transportation in advance ($160 USD) through Hotel Makanda By The Sea, so there was a nice fellow with a sign waiting for us. Ten years ago I would’ve taken 12 hours worth of bus ride to save money, but I was happy to be in an air-conditioned vehicle for the very windy, very nauseating ride to Manuel Antonio.
The ride should’ve been a bit more than two hours, but traffic made it closer to four. I was grateful to be able to stop halfway at the bridge in the town of Tarcoles to see the famous crocodiles that congregate underneath. The crocs are enormous – 10-15 feet easily, and we saw at least a dozen sunning on the sandbar and lurking just below the water’s surface. They say there are more crocodiles in the Tarcoles River than any other river in the world. I don’t know if that’s true, but we didn’t stick around and count them one by one, you know?
Pro Tip: Don’t swim here.
Most taxi drivers are happy to stop here for you to take a look at the crocs and grab a bite to eat at the cafe.
Hours later, we made it to Hotel Makanda by the Sea, a luxury boutique tucked into a green hillside on the edge of Manuel Antonio National Park and the Pacific Ocean. Speaking of green, I was also quite verdant thanks to the windy roads, so we ordered room service and ate dinner on our balcony. With every jungle sound, we asked, “Monkey, frog, bird or dog?”
Day 2 – Fishing out of Quepos Marina
With Rick on the trip, you know there’s one thing on his mind: fishing! And fishing in Costa Rica is famous for a reason. One – it’s good-to-excellent all year. And two – Costa Rica is the best place to land a rooster fish, known as one of the most fun sport fish in the world to catch.
We booked a charter out of Quepos Marina, a lovely, well-equipped spot with restaurants, shops and many fishing charters to choose from.
Was I seasick the entire day? Yes, yes I was. But Rick got his rooster fish on the second cast, so I was as happy as I could be while draped over the side of the boat for the next eight hours.
If I’d known that was the only fish he would land that day, I would’ve packed it in right then. And I hate to say it, but I wouldn’t recommend the guides we used. They were plenty nice but just not as knowledgeable about rooster fishing techniques as we would’ve liked. If we go back to Quepos again, we’ll try another charter.
TIP: I always try to book any weather-dependent excursions early in the trip. That way you have a chance to reschedule if it’s raining or in Costa Rica’s case, volcanic or earthquake-y.
Despite being fully green around the gills all day, I still saw several turtles, a sting ray flying out of the water, many frigate birds, a barracuda and a cubera snapper. Water safari, fishing trip and weight loss experience all in one!
Excursions You Might Enjoy From Quepos
Day 3 – Explore Manuel Antonio National Park
Don’t even think about visiting Manuel Antonio without a park guide unless you’re some kind of wildlife spotting expert. If you want to see sloths – and obviously you want to see sloths, hello, they’re awesome – then you need an eagle-eyed guide to point you in the right direction AND to provide equipment that can help you see all the little animals of the rainforest. Plus, if all you brought was an iPhone, the guide’s gear is crucial to you getting some amazing wildlife photos. This is a MUST DO on your Costa Rica itinerary, trust me.
We went with Efraín Nature Tours, a local company whose founder helped to establish Manuel Antonio as a national park many years ago. We booked the night before at the reception desk at Hotel Makanda. I don’t recommend waiting until the last minute, especially in high season, but we got lucky.
I can’t stress this enough – I would have seen zero animals if I’d gone without our amazing guide, Andres. The sloths are high up in the trees and their fur blends right in with the bark. We saw SEVEN. Andres also showed us all three types of monkeys found in Manuel Antonio, an array of spiders, leaf cutters, agouti and more.
I really wanted to see a toucan and Andres had us running around the forest floor listening to one hop around above the canopy. I wouldn’t have known what sound to listen for without him! Rick and I spent the rest of our day making bird sounds at each other.
There are several hikes of varying difficulties you can choose from and several idyllic beaches to post up with a book for a few hours. Just don’t camp out under the Hippomanane Mancinella tree, known in The Guinness Book of Records as “the most dangerous tree in the world.” And keep an eye out for cheeky monkeys who might snatch your stuff.
More Fun Tours Near Manuel Antonio National Park
- ATV Tour of Manuel Antonio
- Guided Wildlife Tour of Manuel Antonio
- Zipling, Rappelling, Waterfalls and More in Manuel Antonio
What to bring for a day trip to Manuel Antonio Park
Surprise! You aren’t allowed to bring ANY food into the park. You know my greatest fear is being stuck somewhere without snacks, so I had to empty 7 – yes, 7 – KIND bars and 4 bags of chips from my backpack before entering the park. It was mildly embarrassing to have to surrender that much food for what was set to be a half day tour.
Park rangers know that human nature is to feed all the cute animals even though it’s horrible for them, so they take the temptation away by not allowing anyone to bring any food at all.
It’s for the best. Once we met all the monkeys of Manuel Antonio, it made perfect sense. Those little scamps would absolutely be snatching KIND bars out of backpacks and it would just be a whole thing.
If you do get hungry while hiking or swimming, there’s a restaurant with pizzas, sandwiches, ice cream and pastries in the main area of the park so you can stop for a picnic or a drink on the way to wherever you’re heading.
- Backpack (We use this Herschel one for day trips)
- Reef Safe Sunscreen
- Bug Spray (we didn’t need it but better to have)
- Wide brimmed hat
- Change of clothes for after swimming
- Comfy shoes for hiking/exploring the park
- Flip-flops or sandals for the beach
It sounds like a lot for just a day of gallivanting, but if you’re hiking and swimming, it’s nice to be comfy and dry before and after.
Manuel Antonio Tips
- No snacks!
- Bring a liter of water at least per person – it’s HOT
- Look out for the manchineel tree
- Don’t feed the monkeys
- Go early – get your hiking out of the way in the cooler morning hours and then swim in the hot afternoon
Other Guided Manuel Antonio Trips you might like
Day 4 – Rest Day at Hotel Makanda by the Sea
Here’s what you don’t want to do: book an expensive, gorgeous hotel and then spend the whole time offsite. I always do this! But on this particular trip, I was determined to both appreciate the hotel and spend some quality downtime with my guy.
Hotel Makanda by the Sea is wild and romantic and lush — and adults only! Many of the rooms have private pools and large living spaces, so you almost don’t have to leave your own digs to enjoy the ambiance. We booked last minute and got probably the least fancy room in the place, with no private pool – gasp! – and still it was 1,000 square feet, had a gorgeous view down the mountainside to the sea and was in a convenient location to both public pools on property.
We also loved the private beach for Hotel Makanda guests. Getting there is an adventure… you just call up one of the staff and they pick you up in a golf cart for the 10 minute roller coaster down to the water. It’s a windy trip, but it’s quick and then you’ve got black sand and turquoise waves all to yourself. There are chairs, towels and even those cozy swinging mattresses. I could’ve stayed there for the whole vacation.
After the beach, we frolicked in the salt water pool which has a swim-up sushi bar, where we ate incredible rolls while a troop of cheeky little monkeys descended on the pool area. They’re so much fun to watch!
Speaking of local wildlife sightings, Hotel Makanda is photogenic thus very popular with Instagram influencers, so it’s likely you’ll see posing and preening at the pool. But it wasn’t intrusive – more entertaining to watch as someone who was just on vacation and not technically there to work. (And yet here I am, writing about it.) If having a “hot girl summer” is on your Costa Rica itinerary, check availability and pricing at Hotel Makanda.
Where to Eat in Manuel Antonio and Quepos
Here are a few restaurants we enjoyed in the Manuel Antonio / Quepos area:
- Jolly Rogers (crazy big chicken wings)
- Agua Azul cafe
- Cafe Milagro
Day 5 – Head to Jaco
We had the Hotel Makanda staff book us a taxi – the most expensive option at almost $100 USD, but also the easiest – to take us the 60+ minutes up to the Los Sueños Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort north of Jaco. This was a pretty easy, pretty straightforward ride, which I was beyond grateful for after several days of nausea.
The sprawling Marriott Los Sueños felt like a world away from the boutique jungle hotel we just came from, but that’s resort life for you! Of course every amenity is available: golf courses, spa treatments, a daily activity schedule, multiple restaurants and a great central location for exploring Costa Rica’s Green Coast.
Our first night, they were playing Pirates of the Caribbean on a big screen by the pool, so we hopped onto some rafts and had the most tropical movie night ever. Movie night wasn’t on our original Costa Rica itinerary, but it sure was a fun treat.
Check availability and pricing at the Los Sueños Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort
Day 6 – Dental Work and Exploring in Jaco
Jaco is a great spot to catch a tour, buy souvenirs or eat – there are so many restaurants! But I have to be honest. I didn’t love Jaco. After exploring the national park in Manuel Antonio and the clean, modern marina in Quepos, it felt very touristy, commercial and busy. We felt perfectly safe while we were there, and we ate our way around with gusto, but I wouldn’t stay in Jaco proper when there are so many other options.
TIP: Dental work in Costa Rica is SO MUCH CHEAPER than in the U.S.
Aside from the rooster fish excursion, Costa Rica has been on our radar for years because Rick needed to get some hefty dental work done. Our plan was to meet with a dentist in Jaco to see what they recommended and then make a plan to come back another time, but the dentists were so lovely, so accommodating and so affordable, that Rick got a tooth pulled and a few fillings that very day. We were in and out in less than 45 minutes with a dental plan significantly less difficult to execute than it would be in the US and 75% cheaper.
FWIW, our entire weeklong trip to Costa Rica was cheaper (fishing, hotels, food, tours + dental work) than JUST the dental work would be back home. I can’t vouch for every dentist in the country, but I recommend Premier Dental Care in Jaco.
More Incredible Costa Rica Tours from Jaco
- Amazing Mega Zipline (25 lines) over 11 Waterfalls
- Sunset Catamaran Tour
- 10 Hidden Waterfalls With Local Cuisine
Day 7 – Soak Up the Sun Before Going Home
We spent our the last day of our Costa Rica itinerary in Los Sueños, ogling the super yachts and tricked out fishing boats that cost more than our house in the marina, swimming in the Marriott’s massive pool and eating fresh ceviche at the open air restaurant ZOE. A perfect way to wrap up an adventurous week in Costa Rica!
Where to Stay in Costa Rica
Jacó – Marriott Los Sueños
We loved the Marriott Los Sueños! All the rooms have a hammock just inside the balcony and another swinging chair on the balcony. You’re never far from total relaxation. Our room was simple but very comfortable, and we had an awesome view of the enormous pool area, long stretch of beach to the left and well-appointed marina to the right. And apropos of nothing, I don’t know if all Marriott properties smell so good, but every public area smelled like blooming roses.
We ate breakfast daily at Hacienda Kitchen, which offers a big buffet with American staples and Costa Rican favorites like gallo pinto. (I’m drooling just thinking of it!)
We didn’t get a chance to check out (or photograph!) the extensive spa, the new swim-up rooms or the golf course, but we hope to when we go back for more dental work in Jacó.
Manuel Antonio – Hotel Makanda
I can’t recommend Hotel Makanda highly enough. The food was incredible, the decor was interesting, the swinging mattresses over the pool were just divine and every single person who worked there was warm and smiley and lovely. I didn’t get to try out the spa on this visit but I hope it’s not our last trip.
Things to know: Technically, Hotel Makanda is within walking distance of Manuel Antonio’s main drag with restaurants and shops. But it’s about a 20-minute walk up a hill, it was very hot and I am lazy. We took a taxi up for dinner a few nights and then walked back down. Not the safest thing to do in the dark but it seems locals and tourists gladly share the curvy road with cars and that’s just how it is. Wear bright clothes to be on the extra safe side.
Costa Rica Travel Information During COVID
Travel insurance is a must whenever you travel abroad, but even more so during COVID. We don’t leave home without updated travel insurance policies!
For two travelers who were basically just winging our trip, I think we came up with a pretty fun, adventurous and relaxing weeklong Costa Rica itinerary. And we already can’t wait to do it again – even with the dental work!