The jewel of Central America, Costa Rica offers everything—cities, beaches, and many unique ecosystems to explore. This itinerary encompasses the country's most spectacular landscapes, plus an opportunity to savor the culture of local villages and the capital city. Hike near a volcano, experience world-class bird-watching, snorkel with sea turtles, and more.


  • Hike through the jungle to the turquoise waters of Rio Celeste
  • Learn about the harvesting process of Costa Rica's most important exports
  • Take a sunset catamaran cruise from Manuel Antonio National Park

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San José
Day 2 Transfer to Arenal Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 La Fortuna Waterfall, Free Afternoon Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Boat to Monteverde, Coffee Tour, Optional Guided Night Tour Monteverde
Day 5 Zipline Fun in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 6 Transfer to Manuel Antonio, Free Afternoon Manuel Antonio
Day 7 Free Day in Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 8 Snorkeling & Sunset Catamaran Cruise Manuel Antonio
Day 9 Return to San José, Depart   

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José

The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José
The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José

Welcome to Costa Rica, the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, a local representative will meet you and escort you to your hotel. The rest of the day you'll have free to explore the city at your leisure.

Perhaps take a stroll through Mercado Central (Central Market), featuring over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). Then visit the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Church), whose interior combines Greek Orthodox, neoclassical, and Baroque styles and features wood carvings and stained-glass windows. There's also a pair of popular museums in San José: Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum) and Museo del Jade—the world's largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts.

Be sure to explore Barrio Amón, a historic neighborhood home to cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of this area's historic buildings have been converted into hotels, restaurants, and galleries, making Amón a popular bohemian district. 

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: Transfer to Arenal

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 standup paddleboarding on Lake Arenal (optional) provides spectacular views of its peak. Or, opt for a ziplining 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.

Here are a few restaurant recommendations for your stay in La Fortuna

  • Don Rufino serves a mix of local and international flavors in charming digs that include an open-air bar overlooking the main street
  • Café Mediterraneo, a friendly osteria serving up homemade pasta and pizza. 
  • La Parrilla de María Bonita is a must-visit for perfectly cooked steak as well as Mediterranean dishes like falafel and baba ghanoush
  • Rancho Perla is a popular open-air restaurant (you may even spot sloths hanging from the nearby trees) serving well-prepared Costa Rican staples
  • Ave Del Paraíso offers daily theme dinners such as Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean, and Costa Rican

Day 3: La Fortuna Waterfall, Free Afternoon

La Fortuna River and the falls
La Fortuna River and the falls

Today, you'll experience the other star of the Arenal Volcano region: La Fortuna Waterfall. If Arenal is the most famous volcano in the country, then La Fortuna is easily the most famous falls. It's located a 15-minute drive from the town of La Fortuna, at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano. The waters here plunge 210 feet into a tropical lagoon, and a 500-step downhill hike provides the opportunity to see the falls from the bottom up. Besides taking photos, be sure to swim and relax in the La Fortuna River below the falls.

Then it's back to your hotel, where you'll spend the rest of the day unwinding. If you want to indulge in the hot springs one more time, no one will blame you.

Plan your trip to Costa Rica
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Day 4: Boat to Monteverde, Coffee Tour, Optional Guided Night Tour 

The peaceful waters of Lake Arenal
The peaceful waters of Lake Arenal

After breakfast in La Fortuna, you'll transfer to Monteverde, but this is no ordinary route. You'll bypass the road trip and instead travel by water. After arriving at the shores of Lake Arenal, your captain will welcome you, you'll board the boat, and you'll begin the 3.5-hour journey to the other side of the lake. Upon arrival, you'll officially be in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica. From the lakeshore, you'll transfer by shuttle to a working coffee farm for an educational guided tour. You'll participate in the entire farm-to-cup process, from picking the beans to roasting them. Of course, frequent coffee tastings will be provided.

After the tour, check into your hotel and relax for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe visit nearby Santa Elena, a charming town with Quaker influences known for excellent coffee and cheese. You'll find various restaurants here, including vegetarian options and those serving Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo (rice with chicken).

Alternatively, you might like to consider an optional nighttime nature tour of Monteverde. On this three-hour hike, you'll be accompanied by a naturalist guide who will point out many nocturnal animals and insects. These include bats, red-eyed tree frogs, snakes, and coatis.

Day 5: Zipline Fun in the Monteverde Cloud Forest

Bridge walk, Monteverde
Bridge walk, Monteverde

Sky Adventures Monteverde Park is an aerial amusement park that literally raises jungle excitement to the next level. Its Sky Tram network of gondolas transports visitors from one adrenaline-pumping activity to another. First, you'll start with a guided Sky Walk, which combines trails and suspension bridges that ultimately reach heights of up to 984 feet above the jungle canopy. The flora and fauna of the region will be on full display, and our specialized guides will point out the most interesting specimens. Later, you'll ride in an open-air Sky Tram gondola. During this journey, you'll ascend over the rainforest and enjoy sweeping views over the mountains.

Upon reaching the end of the line, the exhilarating adventure of whizzing down the mountain begins. You will connect to a zipline cable that stretches over the treetops and across canyons, ultimately returning you to the starting point at Sky Adventures' main building. Sky Trek is regarded as the most thrilling zipline in the country—it makes sense, considering that Monteverde is the birthplace of the canopy tour as we know it.

Day 6: Transfer to Manuel Antonio, Free Afternoon

Some of Costa Rica's most beautiful beaches are in Manuel Antonio
Some of Costa Rica's most beautiful beaches are in Manuel Antonio

This morning, you'll be picked up from Monteverde and driven to the Pacific coast at 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 trails (following the signs) 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 at Gabriella's to watch the sunset over fresh seafood and steak.

Day 7: Free Day in Manuel Antonio

Playa Espadilla, Manuel Antonio
Playa Espadilla, Manuel Antonio

Today is yours to enjoy unencumbered by schedules. Beyond amazing wildlife hikes, there are a number of activities to choose from. Consider an optional boat tour to the Damas Island Estuary. This adventure is a Disney Jungle Cruise come to life. Along with a guide, you'll make your way down a network of mangrove canals as white-faced capuchin monkeys swing from branch to branch and exotic birds fly overhead. You might spot caimans or even a crocodile or two.

Another optional add-on is to take a surfing lesson on the beach. If that isn't for you, then simply stake your claim on a section of white sand and relax with a good book. One of the most ideal beaches in the park is Playa Espadilla, which stretches on for nearly a mile and is great for families as it's a tranquil public beach with lifeguards on hand during the day.

Day 8: Snorkeling & Sunset Catamaran Cruise in Manuel Antonio

Go for a sunset swim while the crew prepares dinner
Go for a sunset swim while the crew prepares dinner

After breakfast at your hotel, the morning is yours to spend however you like:

  • You can explore the incredible biodiversity found within the park during a guided tour. A naturalist will point out the more than 300 species of mammals and birds that call the reserve home, including sloths, hawks, iguanas, and several different species of monkeys. You'll also have time to spend exploring the park's expansive white-sand beaches.
  • Tour the Damas Island Estuary on a guided boat tour through the mangroves.
  • Take a surf lesson or simply relax on Playa Manuel Antonio.

In the afternoon, you'll embark on a sunset dinner cruise. Stop in a calm bay, drop anchor, and swim while the crew prepares a feast. While you dine, you'll marvel at the sunset over the horizon while keeping an eye out for dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, or even a breaching whale.

Day 9: Return to San José, Depart 

Farewell, Manuel Antonio
Farewell, Manuel Antonio

It's time to say goodbye to Costa Rica! After breakfast, you'll be driven back to San José, where you'll depart Juan Santamaría International Airport for your journey home.

More Great Costa Rica Itineraries


Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these other Costa Rica itineraries, explore different ways to spend nine days in Costa Rica, or discover the best time to visit Costa Rica.


Map of Costa Rica Highlights: Arenal, Monteverde & Manuel Antonio - 9 Days
Map of Costa Rica Highlights: Arenal, Monteverde & Manuel Antonio - 9 Days
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated May 4, 2023