This is one of the most popular Costa Rica vacations – for good reasons. It includes all the top destinations with the wildlife and tours that made Costa Rica famous.
We can easily modify this itinerary to emphasize romance, adventure, relaxation or all three!
7-10 days & $787 to $1,815 per person including all transportation, lodging and activities – request a quote.
Arenal Volcano Days 1-3
The iconic cone rises from the northern plains ringed by a lake, a tropical river, the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, the quaint tourist town of La Fortuna, and a valley filled with natural hot springs. It’s literally surrounded by fun. We’ve visited dozens of times and still discover something amazing each time we return.
The tropical backdrop is perfect for white water rafting (the water is warm!) or trying something new like a waterfall rappel. Wildlife watching is another highlight and you can do it on foot on a guided hike, in a raft on a calm water safari or take a canopied motor launch along the Río Frío in Caño Negro wetlands.
The views of Arenal are stunning while out horseback riding, swimming under a tropical waterfall or mountain biking but perhaps the best part of the volcano is underground. The geothermal vents spend all day warming up hot springs so you can soothe your tired muscles in the evening.
Some of the most luxurious boutique hotels in the country are here and there’s a wide range of ecological lodges, mini-resorts and spas as well as hotels and backpackers dormitories.
The restaurants scattered around the volcano have amazing views and prepare Tipico dishes, Italian, Chinese, seafood, fusion cuisine, and even sushi. It’s traditionally ranching country so there are also a number of excellent steak houses.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Days 3-5
The peaks surrounding Monteverde touch the clouds which deposit moisture on tree bark and leaves supporting an entire ecosystem of epiphytes high above the ground. This is one of the last best places in the world to experience the endangered cloud forest ecology.
The famous canopy hanging bridges let you stroll through the tree tops to spot orchids, sloth, butterflies, mot-mot, and an amazing variety of hummingbirds. If you’re lucky you may be able to locate the source of a piercing “clonk” call to a bell bird perched on a branch or get a view of the resplendent quetzal and his brilliant emerald meter long tail.
There’s no shortage of adrenaline activities in Monteverde. Some of the longest, highest and fastest zip lines are here as well as the scariest waterfall rappel we’ve ever experienced.
Manuel Antonio Beaches & Rain Forest Days 5-8
After all that adventure you’ll be ready for a well deserved nap in a hammock by the Pacific and Manuel Antonio is the perfect place to hang one.
The ridgetop boutique hotels and eco-resorts overlook some of the most stunning coastline and beautiful beaches anywhere. A few hotels exchange the views for sand in their swimming pools and are located at the bottom of the hill where you can walk out onto the beach.
You won’t have any trouble finding somewhere to re-fuel while you’re relaxing and rejuvenating. This region is one of the culinary delights (along with San José and the southern Caribbean) of Costa Rica.
If you’re like us after a few hours under a palm tree you’ll be ready to get out and do something and there’s plenty available. Nearly everyone spends a day with a naturalist guide in Manuel Antonio National Park which is famous for squirrel monkeys and other species that are extinct across most of the country.
Sailing and snorkeling cruises give a different perspective on the coast or you can paddle a sit on top kayak in the calm waters of a mangrove estuary. Surf lessons are available and of course if you managed to miss out on zip lining that can be accommodated too.
Of course you may decide you’ve had enough adventure and just opt for a refill on your cool beverage in the shade…you are on vacation after all.
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Discovering Paradise On Your Own – Tips for Independent Travel
When Sue and I wing it we rely on 25 years experience traveling in Costa Rica. Since you don’t have that to fall back on we recommend purchasing a guidebook instead of only relying on the internet for some very good reasons.
You will also find it helpful to read “Step-by-Step Instructions for Planning” and “Costa Rica Travel Budgets.”
For independent travelers this is a great trip to get a rental car. Arranging shuttle transfers on your own is an option, but for more than two people it can be expensive. Because there’s no one mini-bus company that covers all the routes it can be a bit confusing and time consuming (on the other hand if you’re using a travel planner then shuttles may be the preferred method).
Backpacker’s Travel Note – Public buses are a pain in the neck on this itinerary. Getting from San José to Arenal is okay but from Arenal to Monteverde is a pain and from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio can be a real nightmare. Either pick a different itinerary or add a few extra days for getting from place to place.
It’s easiest and cheapest to fly in and out of Juan Santamaría international airport (SJO) west of San José for this itinerary. Using LIR in Guanacaste will add a least three or four hours to your ground transfer time. Tickets and rental cars are typically priced higher at LIR as well.
If you plan your arrival for early afternoon (before 2 pm) or arrive later and use a shuttle service (don’t drive at night) you can easily spend your first night in Arenal instead of at an airport hotel. The same goes for your departure. Make it noon or later and it’s pretty easy to make it to the airport from Manuel Antonio giving you an extra sunset on the beach.
Maps & Directions
Turn-by-turn driving directions are included on this google map and waze maps are useful to navigate using a cell phone (when you have signal and a data plan) in Costa Rica.
We make free printable map downloads of Arenal, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio, a free highway and driving map of the whole country and publish the bestselling Waterproof Travel Map of Costa Rica. A real map is great for getting an overview and (so we’ve been told) for getting back on track when the GPS leads you astray.
SJO to La Fortuna 2.5-3.5 hours
There are four main routes between San José and La Fortuna. Each includes sections of narrow winding mountain roads and we don’t recommend driving any of them at night.
The fastest route (although they’re all roughly equivalent) is to head east on the Pan American Highway to San Ramon then turn north to La Tigra and La Fortuna. Villa Blanca and the Los Angeles Cloud forest along this route are an excellent addition to this trip and an hour and a half closer to the airport.
You can also head straight north through Alajuela to Varablanca, turn west at San Miguel and pass through Aguas Zarcas and Muelle to La Fortuna – If you’ve got an extra day adding a night at the Peace Lodge at La Paz waterfalls along this route is a great extension this vacation. A bit over an hour from the airport up the slopes of Poás Volcano it’s one of the truly unique boutique hotels and the butterfly house, aviary, frog exhibit and of course waterfalls are some of the best in Costa Rica.
The main route (although still narrow two lane roads) is west on the Pan American Highway to Naranjo where you turn north to Zarcero (stop and check out the amazing topiary at the church), San Carlos and then through Florencia to La Fortuna.
The last and most rugged route starts out the same as the main route – west on the Pan American Highway to Naranjo where you turn north to Zarcero – but at Zarcero you veer a bit to the east and head over the mountains to Bajo del Toro. The El Silencio Lodge at Bajo del Toro is and upscale boutique gem in one of the most spectacular rain and cloud forest valleys in Costa Rica. If you have nights to add you’re guaranteed to enjoy them here.
There is a limited access “super-highway” under construction from San Ramon to San Carlos. It was originally scheduled for completion in 2013…we don’t plan to start holding our breath until at least 2018…
La Fortuna to Monteverde 3-4.5 hours
There are two main ways to get from Arenal to Monteverde. If you have a rental car you’ll head west around Lake Arenal to Tilarán then back east on very rugged gravel round rock roads to Santa Elena and Monteverde.
If you’re using shuttles there’s a great option that cuts across lake Arenal by boat eliminating much of the winding paved road around the lake and some of the bone jarring ride on the other side.
Monteverde to Manuel Antonio 2.5-3.5 hours
From Santa Elena you drop south to Gucimal and Sardinal where you meet the Pan American Highway which takes you to the Costanera (Hwy 34) to Manuel Antonio. The road down from Santa Elena used to punch your kidneys just as hard as the one up from Tilarán but in mid-2015 they were finally making some progress on paving. Like all road projects in Costa Rica it’s years (if not decades) behind schedule but it looks like they might actually achieve their latest target of having it complete for the New Year and high tourist season.
Manuel Antonio to SJO – 2-3 hours
Manuel Antonio back to the airport is the easiest drive of the trip. Head back the way you came on Highway 34 until you reach the new Caldera Highway (27) that will lead you straight back to San José. Leave a couple of extra hours for traffic if you’re doing this on a Sunday.
If you want a more adventurous drive you can head straight north from Manuel Antonio on the unpaved road to Napoles then San Marcos and Asseri before reaching San José.
Backpacker’s Transportation Notes – It’s definitely worth using one of the boat transfers from Arenal to Monteverde for this itinerary. Even though it’s $40-$80 (depending on horse, bike or van only option) and the public bus is only about $6 total, the bus is a huge pain. One of the worst connected bus routes in the country with multiple changes and lots of waiting around; besides mountain biking and boats are way more fun.
Local buses between the budget accommodations in the towns (see below) and the attractions (2-18 km away) are non-existent in Fortuna, infrequent in Monteverde, and good on the route between Quepos and Manuel Antonio. Tours that include transportation or group taxis are options.
7-9 Days Recommended
We don’t normally recommend three destinations in less than eight or nine days but this can be a fun one week adventure as long as you plan ahead. If you’re wasting time searching for accommodations after you arrive and trying to reserve tours and activities on the fly it’s going to be pretty hectic. Either add a couple of days or make advanced reservations.
Backpacker’s Travel Note – As detailed in the transportation section if you’re using public buses you’ll probably want at least 10 days if not 11.
Hotels, Lodges and Resorts
Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna
Properties are spread through the countryside all the way around the volcano in a 30 km circumference circle. The luxury resorts and boutique hotels are concentrated in the hot spring valley to the north of the cone and many offer full service spas as well as thermal waters. Most moderate options are on the south side of La Fortuna and east of the volcano on the road to the waterfall and superior class are found on every side.
Some of our favorites are the Hotel La Fortuna and Arenal Rabfer in town, Arenal Springs Resort, The Springs and Nayara in the hot springs valley. Three more remote and natural options are Rancho Margot on the west side tucked into the wilderness between the lake and the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, Tee Observatory Lodge on the hill above it, and Arenal Lodge high on a hill overlooking the volcano and the Mistico rain forest reserve.
There are literally dozens of other excellent options in the region and nearly anyone can find something to suit them.
Monteverde and Santa Elena
Hotels, resorts and lodges are a bit different in Monteverde. The cooler climate at high altitude means air conditioning and swimming pools are uncommon and many are styled after Swiss chalets or lodges. Most are located along the 6 km road east from Santa Elena to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
One of our favorite boutique hotels in Costa Rica is in the cloud forest on a mountainside between the two largest reserves (Monteverde and Santa Elena). Hidden Canopy Treehouses are a tough reservation to get but well worth the effort. Each of the half dozen “chalets” in the canopy is uniquely styled down to the smallest detail by your hosts Jen and Gary.
Hotel Poco a Poco and Monteverde Country Lodge are favorites in the mid price category and if you’re just looking for a dorm bed Pension Santa Elena fits the bill.
Manuel Antonio and Quepos
There are three main lodging areas here. In the town of Quepos, on the ridge that runs 5 km between town and the park, and along playa Espadilla surrounding the park entrance.
The majority of the luxury properties are high on the hill taking advantage of the views and breezes. The one exception is the highly recommended Arenas del Mar which is located on a semi private beach (all beaches in Costa Rica are legally public property but few people other than guests visit this one) at the south end of Playa Espadilla.
At the north end of Playa Espadilla near the national park there are several excellent mid priced options within walking distance of the ocean and the park entrance.
Backpacker’s Travel Note – Most of the budget accommodations are located in the little tourist towns near each destination – La Fortuna east of Arenal, Santa Elena west of Monteverde and Quepos northwest of Manuel Antonio. These towns are also where the bus terminals, grocery stores and sodas (inexpensive restaurants) are located. Local buses between town and the attractions (2-15 km away) are non-existent in Fortuna, infrequent in Monteverde and frequent and cheap on the route between Quepos and Manuel Antonio.
These are some of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica and the best lodges and hotels fill up fast December – April and again in July – August. The peak season weeks around Christmas, New Year’s and Easter are often booked a year ahead.
If you’re traveling on any budget from economy to luxury the best availability is at least a couple of months in advance and preferably at least six months ahead for peak times. The more rooms you need and the more money you’re spending the farther out you should book.
Backpacker’s Travel Note – If you’re backpacking you probably won’t have any trouble finding somewhere to crash, but the best budget options fill early in the day. Around peak times you should probably have an extra $100 in your budget in case you’re forced to splurge.
Weather and the Best Time for this Vacation
or see when to go summary
You can take a look at the typical weather pattern and recommendations for any month of the year in every region of Costa Rica using the drop down menu.
The destinations on this travel plan follow the typical dry/rainy season pattern for Costa Rica and the best months for sunshine are mid December through April. July and August follow a close second and the only time of year you’re likely to get really drenched are October and November.