Best of Costa Rica: 7-Day Itinerary

Volcanoes and beaches are two of the things Costa Rica does best, so the classic first-timer’s itinerary to Costa Rica takes in two of its most popular destinations: the impressive Arenal Volcano and the beaches of the Central Pacific coast’s lovely Manuel Antonio.

Day 1: San José

Arrive in San José’s Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría (most arrivals are in the evening) and head straight to one of the small hotels north of the city in the Central Valley. The airport lies northwest of the capital, so staying in San José requires a bit of backtracking. The Hampton Inn just across from the airport lets you ease into your Costa Rican experience in familiar surroundings; the Xandari Resort & Spa offers a far more local, and pricier, first night here. Brace yourself for lines at immigration if you arrive in the evening along with several other large flights from North America. Try to get a seat near the front of the plane, and don't dawdle when disembarking.

Day 2: Poás Volcano and Arenal

(45 minutes by paved road from airport to Poás Volcano; 2½ hours by paved road from airport to La Fortuna)

If you have the time, set out early for Poás Volcano, where you can peer over the edge of the crater. It makes an interesting start to your first full day in Costa Rica. Fortify yourself with the fruits, jellies, and chocolates sold by vendors on the road up to the summit. Otherwise, get going to the Arenal area right away. Set out on the scenic drive—turn north at San Ramón—to La Fortuna, which sits at the foot of Arenal Volcano and is its hub. Bear in mind that portions of the route twist and turn and fog over by noon. Drop your luggage at one of many fantastic hotels, and partake of the myriad activities here. Take a zipline or hanging-bridges tour through the forest canopy north of the volcano with amazing views of the mountain itself. Follow up with a visit to one of many hot-springs complexes in the area as the sun sets behind Volcán Arenal. They all line the road that runs west from La Fortuna around the north side of the volcano.

Shuttle vans have hotel-to-hotel service, usually from the Hampton Inn to many Arenal-area hotels. We like Nayara Gardens with its terrific views of the volcano.

Day 3: Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

(90 minutes by paved road from La Fortuna)

Spend the day in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, a lowland forest reserve replete with waterfowl near the Nicaraguan border. Book your trip the night before; tour operators in La Fortuna keep evening hours for exactly that reason. All transport is included, and it’s far easier than trying to visit the refuge on your own.

Day 4: Scenic Drive to the Central Pacific

(4–4½ hours by paved road from La Fortuna)

Today's a traveling day—a chance to really see the country's famous landscape. Four hours' drive from Arenal takes you to fabled Manuel Antonio on the Central Pacific coast. Beyond-beautiful hotels are the norm here, and you have your choice of seaside luxury—we like the Arenas del Mar Beachfront and Nature Resort—or tree-shrouded lodges like Villas Nicolás.

Hotel-to-hotel shuttle-van services can get you from Arenal to Manuel Antonio. If you drive instead, start out as early as possible. You'll pass again through the mountainous stretch between La Fortuna and San Ramón—that’s the way you came—to get back to the main highway heading east. Exit at Atenas, a pleasant town that makes a good lunch stop. South of Atenas, hook up with the Pacific Highway—follow the signs directing you to Caldera. The Jacó exit takes you on the fairly good road to Manuel Antonio.

Day 5: Manuel Antonio National Park

(10–20 minutes from most area lodgings)

Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica's most famous national park for a reason: it has beaches, lush rain forest, mangrove swamps, and rocky coves with abundant marine life. You can—and should—spend an entire day exploring the park, home to capuchin monkeys, sloths, agoutis, and 200 species of birds. It's also one of two locales in the country where you'll see squirrel monkeys. Almost all Manuel Antonio hotels have transport to the park. If yours doesn't, taxis are plentiful and cheap. Don’t forget: the park is closed on Monday.

Day 6: Beaches

(10–20 minutes from most area lodgings)

Days 1 through 5 were on-the-go days. Reward yourself today with lots of relaxation. One of Costa Rica’s most popular strands of sand, Playa Espadilla hums with activity on weekends and holidays. Alas, riptides can make swimming risky here. Within the national park, Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Espadilla Sur offer more seclusion, but no real facilities. Manuel Antonio and its neighboring town, Quepos, have the best selection of restaurants of any beach community in the country.

Day 7: San José

(2–2½ hours by paved road from Manuel Antonio)

An easy morning drive back to San José gives you time to spend the afternoon in the city. Visit the Teatro Nacional and the Museo de Oro Precolombino, and save time for late-afternoon shopping. An evening meal caps off your trip before you turn in early to get ready for tomorrow morning's departure. We recommend that you check in three hours before your flight.

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