With a mix of rugged jungles, active volcanoes and world-class beaches, Costa Rica offers some of the best natural sights and experiences in the world, all conveniently packed into one territory. Almost a quarter of the land is preserved within national parks, allowing a wide range of animals and plants to flourish, making Costa Rica an ideal destination for ecotourism. With this itinerary, you'll discover the best attractions Costa Rica has to offer in just a week.

Highlights

  • Zipline, hike, bike, and more around Costa Rica's most famous volcano
  • Discover the thousands of species that call Monteverde's cloud forest their home
  • Relax on the pristine beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Explore the natural coasts of the Damas Island Estuary

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Overview

This itinerary covers most of the accessible and major ecological sites of interest in Costa Rica — primarily the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and Manuel Antonio National Park — in a relatively short time span of 7 days. This means activities will be tightly-packed, but Costa Rica's small size makes for faster domestic travel times.

This itinerary is highly flexible and can be modified based on preference for transportation, local tour groups, and even an extension to experience Manuel Antonio National Park at a more leisurely pace. For those who love nature and are looking for a less typical travel experience, this tour is a fantastic option.

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Explore Downtown San José San José
Day 2 San José to La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano La Fortuna 
Day 3 La Fortuna to Monteverde Monteverde 
Day 4 Guided Hike of Monteverde Cloud Forest Monteverde 
Day 5 Monteverde to  Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio 
Day 6 Damas Island Estuary and Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio 
Day 7 Manuel Antonio National Park (Optional Extension) - San José (Departure)  
 

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Downtown San José

San Jose's National Museum
San Jose's National Museum

Welcome to the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaria International Airport in San José, a local representative will meet you and escort you to your hotel. 

The rest of your day is designated free time for the two of you to explore the country's vibrant capital city. Suggested activities include: 

  • A stroll through Mercado Central (Central Market), the largest in the city, with over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants) perfect for an inexpensive lunch of casado, a traditional dish of rice, beans, and meat, served with tortillas. 
  • Explore Barrio AmĂłn, a historic neighborhood that's home to cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions constructed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the area’s historic buildings have been converted into hotels, restaurants, and galleries, making this a popular district for taking in the art-deco manses and painted tropical Victorian structures. 
  • Visit the Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late 19th century, which offers free guided tours on the hour. You can also check their calendar to take in dance, music, and theatre performances. 
  • For the younger visitors, visit the Museo de los Niños, a children's museum with more than 40 rooms of interactive experiences on topics ranging from the human body to outer space. Or, explore Spirogyra Butterfly Garden, located in downtown San JosĂ© amidst the city's lush botanical garden. Kids will love seeing the butterflies in their natural habitat and learning more about different species. 

For dinner, opt for a restaurant in the hills of Escazú. This elevated region on the western edge of the city offers panoramic views of the valley below. That said, San José is filled with great restaurants serving everything from traditional to forward-thinking fusion cuisine.

Day 2: San José to Arenal Volcano (La Fortuna)

Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano

After breakfast, it's on to La Fortuna, best known as the base for exploring the Arenal Volcano National Park. Located north of the Tilaran Mountains, the cone-shaped Arenal juts out above the San Carlos Plains. After you check into your hotel, you'll have the rest of the day to explore on your own. 

If you want to get up close to the volcano, kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Arenal (optional) provides spectacular views of its peak. Or, opt for a zip lining tour through the forest canopy, where you'll cross canyons, and take in the Fortuna and Pino Blanco Waterfalls, along with the majestic Arenal Volcano.

Tonight, you will soothe your muscles with a dip in the mineral-rich waters of the areas famous hot springs, used as therapeutic baths for more than 200 years, and enjoy a traditional dinner next to the hot springs.

Day 3: Adventures in Arenal and Monteverde

A hanging bridge in Monteverde Cloud Forest
A hanging bridge in Monteverde Cloud Forest

This morning, you’ll head toward Monteverde, known as the "Green Lung” of Costa Rica due to its rich biodiversity. Located in the mountainous northwest region of the country, Monteverde is famed for its 26,000-acre Cloud Forest Reserve, home to countless wildlife species. Suspension bridges throughout allow for walks above the forest canopy, with plenty of opportunities to spot the colorfully-plumed resplendent quetzal. The reserve’s marked trails pass through exotic fauna and flora, including the greatest number of orchid species on the planet—500—with new ones discovered regularly. 

After breakfast in La Fortuna, you'll begin your drive. This is no ordinary route; you'll skip the long drive around Lake Arenal and board a boat, which will take you across the tranquil waters of the lake. On this 3.5-hour ride, you'll have ample opportunity to spot local birds like herons and anhingas. 

After check-in at your hotel, you’ll spend the afternoon in the cloud forest, where you’ll have your pick of ways to explore: zip-lining for the action-inclined, sky tram trips for a panoramic perspective, or walks along suspension bridges for up-close encounters with elusive bird species and other wildlife. 

Take the evening to enjoy nearby Santa Elena, a charming town with a heavy Quaker influence that’s known for excellent coffee and cheese.

Day 4: Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve

A colorful quetzal bird
A colorful quetzal bird

Wake up early and go on a guided tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, a unique tropical ecosystem and one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Trek through acres of virgin forests and spot a wide variety of rare animals, including quetzal birds, amphibians, three-wattled bellbirds, sloths, and monkeys. Make sure to bring a light extra layer, as the temperature usually reaches a daily high in the mid-60s (F). Additionally, the forest sees frequent showers and can get quite wet, especially in the summer months, so rain gear and hiking gear are also highly recommended.

In the afternoon, continue to explore the park through more activities such as birding or hiking. You can also visit some of the local coffee, chocolate, or sugarcane plantations, or seek out the beautiful Butterfly Garden or Orchid Garden.

Day 5: Monteverde to Manuel Antonio National Park

A beach in Manuel Antonio National Park
A beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

Spend the morning in Monteverde and scope out some last-minute sights before hitting the road by lunchtime.

You'll be picked up from Monteverde and drive 3.5 hours to the Pacific coast and Manuel Antonio National Park, where you can take your pick and wind down on one of the park's four beautiful beaches—some of the best in Costa Rica. If you're hungry for more adventure, you can also hike on one of the park's many well-marked trails and get up close to capuchin monkeys, sloths, and over 200 species of birds. Snorkeling is also accessible from multiple points along the beaches. 

In the evening, head to the town of Quepos for dinner to watch the sunset over fresh seafood and cocktails.

Day 6: Manuel Antonio National Park

A capuchin monkey
A capuchin monkey

This morning, you'll explore the Damas Island Estuary and mangrove ecosystem on one of the area's most popular tours. The mangroves' underwater root system acts as a nursery for thousands of fish and crustaceans and harbors hundreds of unique species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. You'll weave your way through the natural tunnels and passageways created by the ebb and flow of the river as you discover this fascinating tidal world. 

The unique conditions created by the shifting sediment and saltwater in the mangroves attract various sea animals. Look down as you travel to see oysters, sponges, majestic stingrays, baby black-tipped sharks, and large schools of fish among the mangrove roots. Don't be surprised if curious white-faced capuchin monkeys hop on board—these charismatic animals love to explore! 

Day 7: Farewell

Time to say goodbye to Costa Rica!

If you have a day or two more, you can stay longer at Manuel Antonio National Park. Diving, whale watching, whitewater rafting, fishing, sailing, and more are all available nearby. If not, then it’s time to say “adios” to Costa Rica. After breakfast, you'll drive 3.5 hours to San José in time for your departure flight home.

Looking for other ideas for Costa Rica?

Looking for other ideas for your trip to Costa Rica, we have some great ideas for how to spend 7 days in Costa Rica, how to spend 10 days in Costa Rica, and more trip ideas.

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Map of Best of Costa Rica in 7 Days: Explore Jungles, Volcanoes and Beaches
Map of Best of Costa Rica in 7 Days: Explore Jungles, Volcanoes and Beaches
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Sep 9, 2019