Costa Rica is a large country, with an abundance of things to do from top to bottom and from both of it’s coasts. However, many visitors do not have all the time needed to explore this vast country, rather they have only 1 or 2 weeks maximum. For many, their trip must fit into a week with it’s two weekends bookending the visit, giving visitors a maximum of 9 days. While there is so much to do and see in Costa Rica, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with wanting to do it all. I speak from experience. Instead, we recommend that visitors choose a smaller area to focus on if there is limited time.
In general a lot of visitors to Costa Rica make a stop to Arenal/La Fortuna, Monteverde and then a beach somewhere along the western coast. For visitors with more time, additional stops are added in on the Caribbean coast and at in-land destinations. For this post, I will focus on a classic Costa Rica itinerary taking in the main towns of Arenal and Monteverde, leaving the beach destination up to you depending on where you fly into/out of.
This classic 9 day itinerary loop from Liberia (or San Jose) takes in the major sights, offering ample opportunities for animal sightings, time for adrenaline inducing activities and for a touch of relaxation.
(Note: The itinerary below assumes a flight in from Liberia, however, it is also possible to do this trip from San Jose. Rather than go to a beach further up north, you would go south to be closer to San Jose for your departure.)
Day 1: Arrival
Depending on what time you arrive, you might need to stay near the airport, rather than attempt to get to La Fortuna/Arenal in the dark. The roads are narrow, curvy and often gravel, so they are best done in daylight. If you need to stay nearby, many people stay in Canas (Suggest: Hotel La Pacifica) which is about 40 miles from Liberia airport and is on the nicely paved highway. Otherwise, stay in Liberia itself to avoid much travel. Our flight arrived at 9:45 pm and we were out by 10:15pm with bags in hand. It’s a small, efficient airport.
If you have arrived early in the day, head on to Arenal/La Fortuna to get a jump start on your trip. There is a ton to do and see in Arenal, so the more time you have there, the better. If you want to add a new destination, make an overnight stop at Rio Celeste (at Rio Celeste Hideaway or Celeste Mountain Lodge) en route to Arenal/La Fortuna.
Day 2: Arenal/La Fortuna
If you stayed in the Liberia area, get up and moving early. On your drive to Arenal/La Fortuna make a little detour at Rio Celeste for a hike or just keep going to Arenal to make the most of your time there. This will be approximately a 2 hour drive from Liberia depending on traffic conditions.
Upon arrival, settle into your hotel and then head out to explore. If you were able to snag a room at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, your hotel will have all that you need for an afternoon of exploration. Wander around on more than 7 miles of trails to see waterfalls, rainforest, streams and tons of animals, not to mention one of the absolute best views of the volcano!
Another amazing option for families is The Springs Resort – again, a wonderful view of the volcano, beautiful hot springs and a full service activity center at their in-house Club Rio with horseback riding, water tubing, rock climbing and more.
If your budget doesn’t allow you to stay at either of those resorts, we enjoyed the great views and adorable cabins at Hotel Montana del Fuego.
[button link=”http://www.booking.com/searchresults.html?city=-1107229&aid=927174&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1″ color=”red”]Check out more hotel options in Arenal[/button]
Day 3 & 4: Arenal/La Fortuna
There are a ton of things to do in Arenal/La Fortuna, that unless you have longer than this 9 day itinerary, you will have to make some decisions on exactly what you want to do. Our recommendation is to enjoy a morning horseback ride or hike through the Arenal Volcano National Park to check out lava fields up close as well as the different animals that make this area home.
If you have time, head to the La Fortuna Waterfall hike which really is just a walk down 500 stairs before arriving at a chilly pool of water with a powerful waterfall cascading behind you. If you come in swim gear you can spend a good deal of time here frolicking in the waters, listening to the zip liners above you.
Don’t miss visiting Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park for a guided hike through their 2 mile trail taking in 6 hanging bridges along the way. We recommend going with a guide so you don’t miss the sleeping sloths, snakes and monkeys hanging up in the trees.
If you didn’t stay at a hotel with hot springs, take some time to visit one of the many hot spring pools in the city. For a spectacular day, head to Tabacon Hot Springs to soak up the thermal energy in these natural pools. A bit more budget friendly is the Baldi Hot Springs.
Day 5: Monteverde
Today will start with an early morning departure from Arenal to Monteverde. This trip involves approximately a 1 hour boat ride across Lake Arenal before transferring to a private bus for a bumpy, but scenic ride through the hills.
If you have the stamina, drop your bags at your hotel (Suggest: El Establo) and head out to explore Santa Elena town before going out on a night hike to see the creatures of the night. A night hike is such a unique adventure, we recommend it to anyone who has kids old enough to stay up late. You will see tarantulas, sleeping toucans, sloths, and so much more, if you are lucky!
[button link=”http://www.booking.com/searchresults.html?city=-1108139&aid=927174&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1″ color=”red”]Check availability & prices for Monteverde Hotels[/button]
Day 6: Monteverde
Today start your day at Selvatura Park with options to zip line, walk magnificent hanging bridges and see a butterfly and hummingbird garden. Stay for as long as you like before heading back to town. If you find you have more time in the afternoon, check out the Children’s Eternal RainForest for easy hikes.
Day 7: Monteverde/Beach
On your last day in Monteverde, take a early morning guided hike at one of the various reserves to take in more of the scenery. Curi Cancha is a great place for birders and a chance to catch the photogenic quetzal. There are trees you can climb in, hummingbirds to spy on and a canopy of intertwined trees to walk through. We recommend hiring a guide to lead you through the park.
After your morning hike, head back to the hotel to check out and pack up for the coast, arriving just in time for dinner and the setting sun. If you are leaving out of Liberia airport, choose a beach with less than a 2 hour drive to the airport. We enjoyed our stay at Playa Hermosa, however there are a ton of options between Nosara and Tamarindo.
If you are leaving from San Jose, head south towards Herradura and enjoy relaxing by the ocean and hotel pool.
Check out hotel options, prices and availability for some popular beaches on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
[button link=”http://www.booking.com/searchresults.html?city=900048856&aid=927174&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1″ color=”red”]Tamarindo[/button]
[button link=”http://www.booking.com/searchresults.html?city=-1108245&aid=927174&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1″ color=”red”]Nosara[/button]
[button link=”http://www.booking.com/searchresults.html?city=-1107473&aid=927174&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1″ color=”red”]Herradura[/button]
Day 8: Beach
Today is a day to chill and take in the sights and sounds of the beach. Regardless of which beach you have settled on, there will be plenty of opportunities for relaxation under the sounds of howler monkeys. If you need some more activity on your last day, check out local tours for deep sea fishing or nature hikes around the local area.
Day 9: Depart
Depending on what time your flight departs, enjoy the morning at the beach before heading back to the Liberia or San Jose airports for your flight home.
Do you have a favorite spot in Costa Rica that you recommend be included on a visitor’s itinerary? Share it below!
Need more help putting together an itinerary for your Costa Rica trip? Check out Il Viaggio Travel for an insiders guide on where to go in Costa Rica.
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