Small but mighty, Costa Rica is densely packed with gorgeous landscapes and adventure activities to enjoy. If you only have three days to spare, you'll have to be strategic about how to spend your time, as roads may be rough and travel will likely take longer than you anticipate. These itineraries are all doable in a short stay without spending too much time in a car or bus.
It's important to take the weather into account, too. Generally speaking, visitor-friendly dry season runs from January to April in the Central Valley and the Pacific region. The Caribbean region is fairly wet most of the year, but offers a dry and sunny period from September to October. Considering regional practicalities and weather, read on for three possible ways to spend a weekend in Costa Rica.
Option #1: Active Adventures at Arenal Volcano
On your first day, arrive at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José and transfer directly to La Fortuna, a small town located about two and a half hours northwest of Costa Rica's capital. Ease into your first day with a Costa Rican cooking class or tortilla-making with a local family (easy to arrange as part of a homestay), followed by an evening spent soaking in the mineral-rich hot springs.
Day two begins with a guided half-day whitewater rafting trip on one of the area's rainforest rivers. Then spend the afternoon hiking on old lava rocks near Arenal Volcano, or trek through the rainforest on a guided hanging bridges tour where you’ll have the chance to learn about local flora and fauna. Keep your eyes open: Costa Rican forests are dense and diverse, home to an abundance of plants, animals, reptiles, and insects. At the end of the day, relax with a massage or another dip in the soothing thermal springs.
The Arenal area isn’t exactly known for nightlife. But if you’re up for an evening out, there are a few fun options: La Fortuna Pub serves up small-batch craft brews, Lava Lounge has live music on Saturday nights, and Kazan offers late-night bites. One of the largest dance clubs in Costa Rica and the only one in the area—Volcan Look Disco—is open Wednesday through Saturday, featuring live music and DJs. It's also worthwhile to inquire with your hotel or guide about unpublished events or hangouts.
Start your last day with an adrenaline-filled activity: soar across the treetops on a zip line or join a gravity-defying rappelling excursion. Save some time for lunch—you'll have worked up an appetite—and souvenir shopping in Fortuna. Then return to San José for your flight.
Have another day to spend in the area? Check out this action-packed four-day itinerary in the Arenal region.
Option #2: Take a Break at the Beach
Touch down at Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia, then transfer to Playa Negra, about one and a half hours southwest of the city. Go for a swim and watch the sunset on your first afternoon. Playa Negra is just one of many beachfront possibilities on the Pacific.
Start your second morning bright and early with a sunrise yoga session. Then take a surf lesson with an expert. If you're already an experienced surfer, grab a board and head to nearby Tamarindo, Playa Avellanas, or Little Hawaii to find more challenging waves. In the afternoon, refuel with a casual meal of ceviche and patacones (fried mashed plantains) at Café Playa Negra, or celebrate in style with a fine dining experience at Villa Deevena.
If you’re looking to mingle and meet other travelers after the sun sets on your one and only night in Costa Rica, Tamarindo is the place to be. Grab a craft beer on the beach at Volcano Brewing Company, play pool and enjoy live music at The Roof, sing karaoke at Sharky’s, or dance the night away at El Garito, Pacifico, or Crazy Monkey Bar. If you’re feeling lucky, you can even try your hand at blackjack in Casino Tamarindo Diria.
For those who prefer natural wildlife over nightlife, inquire about a nighttime tour to Ostional National Wildlife Refuge, located just over an hour from Playa Negra and only 20 minutes' drive from Nosara. From July through December, you can spot Olive Ridley sea turtles making their way to the sea in the light of the moon.
Spend the early hours of your last day swimming in the tide pools or surfing in the clear waters of the Pacific before returning to Liberia for your international flight. For more information on the Pacific Coast and Costa Rica's other main regions, this article has you covered.
Option #3: Immerse Yourself in Local Culture
Land at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, then transfer directly to Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat in Sarapiqui, a rural region less than two hours from San José. One of the best ways to learn about local culture in any country is to dive into the food. This is true in Costa Rica, too. At Chilamate, you can arrange a cooking class with a local chef who will teach you how to prepare traditional dishes like gallo pinto (rice and beans with spices) served with piping hot tortillas and freshly squeezed juices made from local fruits.
When darkness falls on the forest, join a guided hike and experience the nighttime world of the rainforest with a chance to spot red-eyed tree frogs and other nocturnal creatures.
After a big breakfast of local and organic foods the next morning, take a nature walk with a local guide to discover the diversity of plants, animals, birds, and insects in the lush jungles around the eco-lodge. Cool off with a dip in the Sarapiqui River before heading out on an organic farm tour where you’ll enjoy lunch with the farmer’s family. Spend the rest of the day lounging in a hammock, exploring some of the Costa Rica Bird Route, sampling chocolate at a family-run organic cacao farm, or taking a dance lesson with locals.
Rise early on your third day and head out on a half-day zip line adventure, or take a whitewater rafting trip down the Sarapiqui River before returning to San José for your departure flight.
Decided to extend your stay in Costa Rica? Excellent choice. Consider this 7-day itinerary that highlights the best Costa Rican jungles, beaches, and volcanoes.