Costa Rica looks deceptively small on a map, a fact many travelers discover when trying to choose which of its locales to visit on vacation. We've eliminated this paradox of choice by creating optimum itineraries based on the average length of time people spend in this amazing country and what they most want to see. We interviewed tourism experts, locals, and real-life travelers, taking their advice to heart in order to craft the perfect Costa Rica vacations spanning five days to two weeks. Read on to discover which is best for you.

Planning Your Ultimate Trip to Costa Rica

Costa Rica may be small, but it's home to more biodiversity than the next 10 nations combined. There are 28 national parks, and within the nation's four biosphere reserves, you'll find everything from volcanoes and beaches to mangroves and virgin rainforest. That's to say nothing of the countless species of exotic flora and fauna.

With five days in Costa Rica, we've curated a packed itinerary that includes the highlights of Arenal Volcano National Park, including its namesake volcano and romantic waterfalls. Or, if you're a sunseeker, head to Manuel Antonio National Park for five days lazing on white-sand beaches and hiking rainforest trails abounding with hundreds of exotic species of birds.

In seven days you could up your destination list from one to two, with a great option being to combine Arenal and Manuel Antonio into a family adventure. Or you could eschew Manuel Antonio for the highlands near Arenal and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the birthplace of the zip-line tour.

10 days is enough time to visit multiple destinations, combining highlight regions like Arenal and Monteverde with some lesser-visited gems like tranquil Playa Sámara, on the Pacific coast, and Palo Verde National Park, a prime destination for birders. You could also spend the bulk of your time in northern locales like Rincón de la Vieja National Park (home to romantic waterfalls), and the beaches of the Gulf of Papagayo.

With two weeks, you can see the "best of Costa Rica," which includes national parks, Arenal, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, hot springs, alligator spotting, zip-line adventures, snorkeling, catamaran trips, and much more.

In 5 Days: Arenal Volcano, or the Beaches of Manuel Antonio

Arenal Volcano
  • Relax and recharge in the thermal pools of Tabacón
  • Spot monkeys, sloths, and tropical birds while trekking in the jungle
  • Hike in Manuel Antonio National Park with a naturalist guide

Your best bet to maximize fun on a short five-day holiday is to choose between two areas: Arenal, or Manuel Antonio National Park.

Should you choose five days at Arenal Volcano, you'll be spoiled for opportunities for fun and adventure. It all kicks off in northern Costa Rica on the first day with the option to kayak around Lake Arenal or cycle to local villages. On day two you could take a zip-line tour over the forest canopy, and on day three soak your muscles in natural hot springs. Cap the adventure with a day trip to romantic La Fortuna Waterfall on day four before departing on day 5. Learn more.

Or, you could make it a beach holiday by spending five days in Manuel Antonio National Park, located on Costa Rica's central Pacific coast. After enjoying the capital city, San José, on day one, take a three-hour drive to Manuel Antonio on day two. This small protected area (just six square miles/16 square km) nevertheless is home to four beautiful beaches plus rainforests abounding with monkeys, sloths, and over 200 species of birds. Discover the area straight away by heading to the beach. 

On day three you can enjoy a more in-depth exploration of the area on a guided hike with an expert naturalist. Along the way, he or she will point out the various mammals and birds that are endemic to the area. On day four, you can enjoy the park from the water with an offshore kayak trip, picnic lunch on the beach, and a bit of snorkeling. On day five you'll depart Manuel Antonio for San José and your trip home. Learn more.

Plan your trip to Costa Rica
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In 7 Days: Pair Arenal & Monteverde

Hike through the cloud forest of Monteverde
  • 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

With seven days, you can combine Manuel Antonio and Arenal into a holiday ideal for the whole family. Or, add a visit to the cloud forests of Monteverde to experience one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

If you choose the seven-day family adventure, you'll arrive in San José and transfer to Manuel Antonio National Park. If you have the energy, opt for some beach time and snorkeling on the beaches outside of the park. Day two involves a trip to the protected Damas Island Estuary, and both parents and kids will enjoy this thriving marine ecosystem. It's home to thousands of tropical fish and crustaceans plus hundreds of mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians.

Kick-off day three with a guided hike of Manuel Antonio, then pack up on day four and head about five and a half hours north to La Fortuna, the main town near Arenal Volcano. Fortify yourself with a relaxing family dinner, then on day five explore the jungle canopy on foot over suspension bridges plus enjoy a visit to La Fortuna Waterfall. On day six, you and the kids will see exotic animals close up with a visit to a local rescue center followed by a tour around the reserve led by a naturalist. On day seven you'll depart. Learn more

Or, for a faster pace, you could add the cloud forests of the Monteverde region into a weeklong highlights tour. You'll arrive in San josé on day one and have some time to visit city landmarks like the 19th century Teatro Nacional (National Theater) and the Mercado Central, the main municipal market, which features over 200 shops and food stalls. On day two you'll head to Arenal and can head out on a paddleboarding excursion of Lake Arenal, or enjoy a zip-line adventure over the forest canopy.

On day three, you'll cross Lake Arenal by boat on your way to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. This 26,000 acre (10,521-hectare) reserve is Costa Rica's green lung, home to hundreds of exotic bird and orchid species. Over two days you'll travel above the forest canopy on suspension bridges and zip-line rides plus visit the Orchid Garden. On day five, you'll head to Manuel Antonio and spend time touring the Damas Island Estuary and relaxing on beaches before returning home. Learn more

In 10 Days: Highlights of Costa Rica

The calm waters of Playa Sámara
  • Hike near an active volcano at Rincon de la Vieja
  • Zip-line over a unique cloud forest ecosystem in Monteverde
  • Enjoy a sunset catamaran cruise on the Pacific Ocean

A great option for a 10-day Costa Rica itinerary is to combine Arenal and Monteverde with something equally beautiful but off the beaten path, like the Pacific coast beach paradise of Playa Sámara. This vacation begins in San José with some cultural city tours before heading to Arenal for more active excursions like waterfall hikes and river rafting. On day six, you'll continue the adventure on a zip-line over the cloud forest canopy and a walk along suspension bridges at Sky Adventures Park in Monteverde.

On day seven you'll continue west from Monteverde to the ocean and Playa Sámara. Located on Costa Rica's northern Nicoya Peninsula, Sámara's long sandy beach and tranquil waters make it the perfect spot for sunbathing and swimming. But that's not all you'll do—on day eight you'll kayak to offshore Chora Island, and on day nine you can visit Palo Verde National Park. This protected area is a haven for exotic bird species, so bring your binoculars. On day 10 you'll depart. Learn more

Or, if you'd like a packed itinerary that includes highlight beaches with even more exotic rainforest locales, there's a 10-day tour that's perfect for you. It begins with your arrival in Guanacaste Province, on Costa Rica's northern Pacific coast. You'll spend the first couple of days on active excursions within Rincón De La Vieja National Park, a protected area home to some of the country's most beautiful natural wonders. One of these—the romantic Oropendola Waterfall—you'll see on a day hike.

On day three you'll transfer to Arenal and La Fortuna. Spend the first day soaking in hot springs with views of the iconic volcano, then hit the trail again on day two as you explore a network of hanging bridges and hike to La Fortuna Waterfall. On day five, you'll take a boat across the lake en route to Monteverde, and will enjoy a unique excursion in the form of a nocturnal nature hike (keep an eye out for tarantulas and the famous red-eyed tree frog).

After a zip-line adventure on day six, you'll then travel to the coast and the Gulf of Papagayo. You'll have a couple of days free to relax after all that hiking and simply laze on the beach. In the evening, cap the trip with a sunset catamaran cruise around the gulf. On day 10 you'll depart Costa Rica for the journey home. Learn more

In 14 Days: Costa Rica Grand Tour

The sky-blue Río Celeste
  • Snorkel and kayak along the coast of Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Explore the natural beauty of Arenal and take a dip in the nearby hot springs
  • Hike deep into Tenorio, one of the newest national parks open to the public
  • Relax on the beaches along the Gulf of Papagayo

This comprehensive two-week adventure covers the beaches, volcanoes, and incredible ecosystems that Costa Rica is known for. Plus, it offers many unique excursions and adventure activities. You'll arrive in San José and right away can visit city landmarks like the Central Market and National Museum. The next morning you'll head west to Manuel Antonio and will spend the next few days lazing on white-sand beaches, taking catamaran rides, and going on hikes through the rainforest.

On day five, you'll head north up the coast to Tárcoles, where you'll stop at a bridge overlooking a river abounding with crocodiles. You'll continue north on day seven to Monteverde, where you can do some birding on nature hikes. Day nine is all about Arenal for more outdoor excursions plus the option to soak in natural hot springs. A real treat is in store on day 10 when you visit Tenorio Volcano National Park and the Río Celeste, an ethereal river whose sky-blue color you have to see to believe. 

After a couple of days hiking around Tenorio, you'll visit the Gulf of Papagayo for some more beach time before heading home. Learn more