Costa Rica Highlights for a Short Vacation
Short on time but want to pack Costa Rica’s top attractions into your travel itinerary? We’ve got recommendations to make the most of your vacation and budget, so you can discover some the country’s highlights in just one week. Sun-dappled beaches, bubbling volcanoes and wildlife encounters galore will spark your wanderlust and keep you coming back for more.
- Fly into the Juan Santamaria airport (SJO) rather than Liberia, it’s a more convenient base for sightseeing on a quick vacation in the Central Valley.
- Consider a one-week pass with Grayline shuttles; at around $150 it will save you time and money compared to public transport or a car rental.
- Remember this is only a taste of Costa Rica, allowing you a glimpse of its dramatic diversity. In the future, try and return for at least ten days to explore at your own leisure.
Day 1: Natural Delights of Manuel Antonio
Fly into San Jose and hit the beach. Morning and afternoon shuttles depart for lovely Manuel Antonio, less than three hours drive from the airport.
- Amble through Manuel Antonio National Park, where you’re guaranteed to see a ton of animals. Curious coatimundis, troops of playful white-faced monkeys, massive iguanas and sloths all make their home in this seaside park.
- Tuck in to gourmet fare at any number of local restaurants, where fresh seafood and sublime sunset views are the name of the game.
Day 2: Beach Time: Pick Your Pleasure
Known for its heavenly beaches and calm swimming waters, Manuel Antonio is ideal for sun-lovers. The rainforest literally backs up to the ocean, providing wonderful shady spots as well as proximity to resident wildlife.
- Spend your day snorkeling, swimming, or just beachcombing along the area’s three pristine beaches. You can rent snorkeling gear for $15, or a surfboard for $25 a day. Pick up a colorful sarong or souvenir from one of the vendors along Playa Espadilla, and then treat yourself to lunch at a beachfront cafe. We recommend the ceviche!
- Looking for adventure? There’s no shortage of tours to choose from: horseback excursions, canopy zip-lines, parasailing, waterfall rappelling, ATV trips, and much more!
Day 3: The Majestic Arenal Volcano
No trip to Costa Rica is complete without a visit to the fiery Arenal, one of the world’s ten most active volcanoes. A scenic 4.5- hour drive will bring you to the doorsteps of your hotel, where myriad options await you.
- Take an afternoon tour to one of several miradors, where on clear days, rocks and lava can be seen (and heard!) tumbling down the slopes of Arenal.
- Choose one of four hot spring resorts, where pools of all sizes and temperatures invite you to relax in their healing waters. Our favorites are Tabacon and Eco Termales, as each offers a unique experience.
Day 4: The Adventure Capital
Since Arenal creates its own weather system, lava viewing can be hit or miss, so stick around for one more day to try and catch this spectacular show. All tour operators offer free roundtrip transport from your hotel, so no worries when planning your activities.
- Giddy up, and travel horseback to the 230-foot beauty known as La Fortuna Waterfall. Take a refreshing dip in the cool, clean waters after hiking down a steep, but very short path. Follow up with a trip to the Arenal Hanging Bridges, where you can meander above the treetops enjoying panoramic views and plenty of wildlife watching.
- Take a leap of faith on one of the region’s thrilling canopy tours. From Tarzan swings to 45 mph rides some 500 feet above the ground, there’s no shortage of exciting choices. We recommend Sky Trek Arenal, for the fastest and longest rides, with amazing views to boot.
Day 5: Coffee & Butterflies
Head back to Alajuela or San Jose; the 3.5-hour drive from Arenal is extraordinarily picturesque, so sit back and enjoy the coffee plantations, papaya farms, and small agricultural towns en route.
- Spend your afternoon on one of our favorite coffee tours – either Doka Estate or Cafe Britt. Wander through shaded coffee fields, pick coffee cherries, and taste a variety of rich roasts on these enlightening tours.
- Or, book an afternoon visit to Alajuela’s magical Butterfly Farm, where hundreds of fluttering wings will whisk you into another world. Expertly guided tours are fun and informative, offering insight into these ethereal creatures.
Day 6: Cool Climates & Historic Villages
Visit an entirely different Costa Rica, where temperatures dip into the 50’s, and landscapes resemble the moon. A day trip to Irazu Volcano, Lankester Garden, and Orosi Valley rounds out your vacation, showing you the true diversity of this amazing country. Tours last all day and include a delicious, traditional lunch.
- Drive up into the mountains; at 11, 620 feet, Irazu is Costa Rica’s tallest active volcano with a lime-green crater lagoon and eerie ash-covered landscape; be sure to bring a warm jacket!
- Visit the renowned Lankester Garden, which features bromeliads, palms and cacti growing amid its 27 acres, in addition to nearly 1000 orchid species (see them in bloom during March and April). Continue on to the lush valley of Orosi, home to ancient ruins and one of the country’s last colonial churches.
Day 7: Relax & Head Home
Your journeys captured but a slice of Costa Rica, including a beautiful part often overlooked by tourists. Stock up on cheap, local coffee before going to the airport — it makes the best gift for friends and family, and start dreaming of your next Costa Rica vacation.