With all that Costa Rica has to offer, you may want to plan a month to see this beautiful country in its entirety. If you only have limited time, don’t worry, this Costa Rica itinerary for four nights in the Puntarenas Province has you covered!
I’ve been to Costa Rica three times, and each time I stayed for four nights or less. I am here to say that, although limited, it is still enough time to take in a healthy dose of diverse wildlife and exciting landscapes. The secret is planning out flights and destinations that allow you to see as much as possible with minimal transportation.
Coming from Miami, I usually snag an inexpensive a.m. direct flight and leave in the afternoon or later. Even if your flight options aren’t as convenient, planning an exciting trip to Costa Rica on a long weekend is certainly do-able (as long as you don’t try to do too much)!
This Costa Rica travel guide includes a comprehensive four-night Costa Rica itinerary plus bonuses such as the best time to travel to Costa Rica, safety tips for traveling solo, and our exact travel costs.
Costa Rica Itinerary Overview
While there are a lot of options when planning a vacation to Costa Rica, this itinerary will focus on one of my favorite areas, the Manuel Antonio National Park. My friend and I spent our long weekend here in mid-February 2018. To accommodate both our interests, we created a Cost Rica itinerary with a mix of nature, adventure, and time to relax.
During this trip, we planned two “travel days” and 3 “activity days.” We opted to fly in and out of San Jose (Juan Santamaria, SJO) airport, the largest of the two international airports in Costa Rica, (and usually the cheapest).
When researching areas close to SJO airport Manuel Antonio came up as one of the most popular National Parks in the country. Manuel Antonio park is known for its beautiful beaches, active wildlife, and stunning sunsets. The Nauyaca Waterfall hike is less than an hour away, and a unique hotel offering jungle bungalows 4 miles north of the small but lively town of Quepos was available. With only four nights in Costa Rica, this itinerary made the most of our short time.
This is a great itinerary if you:
- Only have a few nights and want to limit travel time.
- Want to visit an area with beautiful beaches, jungle vibes, and a bit of adventure.
- Staying in a jungle treehouse sounds cool.
Day 1: Travel day. Fly into SJO, rent a car, and take an easy drive on paved roads to the Quepos area (about 2.5 hours, 153km), stopping along the way for ocean views and photos. Check into Hotel Costa Verde. Enjoy exploring the hotel, hearing calls of native wildlife, and watching the sunset with a refreshing cocktail from the pool deck. Spend the night in Quepos.
Day 2: Enjoy the National Park of Manuel Antonio. Immerse yourself into beautiful natural landscapes, go for a hike, or plan an adventure tour. See wildlife in their natural habitat and relax on beautiful white-sand beaches. Have a fresh fish dinner at el Avion and finish the night with a few drinks in their unique airplane cargo pub. Spend the night in Quepos.
Day 3: Day trip to Nayuaca Waterfalls. Drive less than an hour for a rewarding hike to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Costa Rica. Enjoy soaking up the sun on giant boulders, cool your self in a natural waterfall pool or test your nerves jumping off cliffs up to 65 feet high. Upon return, stuff yourself with delicious wood-fired pizza from El Wagon, (voted #1 pizza in Antonio Manuel). Spend the night in Quepos.
Day 4: Take in the morning and admire the ocean views with a delicious traditional breakfast at Cafe Anaconda. Check out of your hotel and drive about 2 hours to Jaco. Check into Croc’s Hotel & Casino for the night. Explore the nearby shopping and entertainment area, trek to hidden waterfalls, or spend the rest of the day relaxing on the beach or at the resort pool. Have dinner at one of their four restaurants, and if you are feeling lucky, try your hand in the casino for a little evening entertainment.
Day 5: Travel day. Depending on flight time, enjoy your morning and depart for SJO airport at least 3.5 hours before your flight departs to get gas, return the rental car, transfer to terminal, and board your flight home.
Hotel Costa Verde
This unique “jungle” resort is perfect for those looking for a secluded place to enjoy monkeys swinging through trees and pristine views of the Pacific Ocean. With helpful staff, clean rooms, great-tasting cuisine, and authentic ambiance, Hotel Costa Verde has everything you need for a comfortable stay either on the property, a short walk or a 5-10 min drive away.
Pro Tip: Monkeys will jump onto your balcony and take ANYTHING of interest-other than a wet towel don’t leave ANYTHING on your balcony you don’t want to lose.
Its most distinctive features are the Boeing 727 fuselage suite and cockpit lodge, you have to see to believe! There are several other repurposed airline bodies, hidden trails, and suspension bridges around the property, all helping to make your stay a unique adventure.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio is the smallest National Park in Costa Rica but is one of the most popular. There are three beaches inside the park, many hiking trails, and boardwalks through the jungle and many animal species. It was pretty touristy when we were there, but we still enjoyed it!
What to know about Manuel Antonio Park
- Closed on Mondays
- Open 7 am-4 pm Tues.-Sun. + on all holidays
- Entrance fee is $16 US (cash or visa) for adults
- Paid parking $5.00 US
- Optional guided tours ($50+)
- Many food items are prohibited
- Prepacked and pre-cut fruit are allowed
- Alcohol is NOT allowed
- Monkeys will ransack your unattended belongings
One thing to watch out for are locals posing as guides and knowledgeable park ranges on the way to the park entrance. Only buy your entrance tickets from the official park counter, and if you want to do a guided tour, make sure you purchase from a reputable tour company.
We took about a 15-20 min walk through the jungle boardwalk to Manuel Antonio beach for the day. A great beach with refreshing water, rock formations, white sand, and turquoise water. No lifeguard and no touts.
At 4 pm, when the park closed, we walked down through town, grabbed a drink at one of the local bars, and headed to Playa Espadilla Beach to enjoy the sunset. Espadilla Beach is on the outside of the National Park’s entrance, which makes it more crowded and touristy.
Beach chairs and umbrella rentals are available (about $35 US), and many locals come through selling things like hand made jewelry, keychains, drinks, and local snacks.
Nauyaca Waterfall Hike
Nayuaca Waterfalls is one of the most beautiful waterfall systems in Costa Rica and less than an hour’s drive from Quepos. If you don’t have a 4×4, you can do what we did and ask someone who is driving for a lift to the trailhead parking lot. Everyone has to stop and buy an entrance ticket at the same place, so drivers are easy to spot.
What to know about Nauyaca Falls:
- Access is by horseback tour ($85), shared truck bed ride ($35), or hiking ($10) (prices were cheaper two years ago but I referenced the current prices from Nauyaca Waterfalls Costa Rica)
- Buy your entrance ticket at Don Lulo office off of paved Route 243
- The falls create a 20ft deep pool for swimming and jumping during the dry season (mid- November to April)
- Heavy rains will make the natural pool unusable and the trail very muddy
- The hike is about 5 miles round trip from the trailhead
- If you don’t have a 4×4 you’ll have to walk the steep clay road to the trailhead (additional 1.25 miles each way)
- Food and drinks are not available for purchase along the way
- There are no lockers or secure areas to keep belongings once at the Nauyaca Falls.
The Nauyaca hike is a bit rocky and has some incline but is well maintained and easy enough for moderately active adults and kids. Bring plenty of water and snacks for fuel. Once you get to the falls, there are paths to explore the upper and lower sections that can be slippery and are not in the best of shape.
We watched as the most daring flung themselves off the 65-foot lower falls into the natural pool below. I attempted the climb up to jump, but with bare feet, I slipped two, too many times, and decided to bow out before I did some real damage. There are other fun areas to play and jump in the lower falls if you can’t do the rope climb.
You can read my complete guide to hiking Nauyaca falls here. This guide includes information on all transportation options, how it was to hike in February, and answers the most commonly asked Nauyaca Waterfalls questions.
For our last night, we decided to stay closer to the airport to have a shorter drive on our last day. Jaco’s Croc’s Resort & Casino, an all-inclusive resort property about an hour away from SJO, was our home for our final night.
We weren’t too impressed with what we saw from the car as we drove through town. Jaco is known as a popular and lively hotspot for surfing enthusiasts, locals, and tourists that want to party. Jaco Walk, an outdoor shopping, entertainment, and dining space, recently opened in the center of town and has been getting rave reviews.
We opted for an all-inclusive resort on the beach to make the most of our time. The Resort eliminated the need to venture out for beaches, entertainment, and food. Our last full day was spent lounging at the pool, strolling the grey sand beaches, and watching another incredible sunset all from the comfort of one location.
If you have a bit more time to explore Jaco, there are a lot of day trips to be enjoyed just outside of town. Hiking to hidden waterfalls, ATV tours, croc spotting tours, and bike paths are some of the most popular.
Costa Rica Travel tips
Make the Most out of a Short Stay
- Eliminate travel time. Chose to stay in one location closer to the airport and take day trips.
- Avoid public transportation. Rent a car and drive yourself – Read more about Costa Rica car rentals in this post
- If you have more money than time, take short domestic flights or fly into LIR if beaches are your biggest desires.
Safety Tips for Traveling to Costa Rica
Yes, Costa Rica is a safe county to travel to, but that doesn’t mean you should forget common-sense safety tips.
- Avoid isolated areas especially at night
- Take valuables with you – DON’T leave in your car
- Don’t advertise your riches
- Leaving possessions unattended (or on the back of your chair) in public places (beaches, waterfall hikes, restaurants, public transportation) is asking for it
- Never book a tour or hire a guide off the street. Always go through reputable tour companies
- Don’t swim when surf conditions are rough
- Only take official red taxi services – read more on possible taxi scams in this post
- Travel with a copy of your passport
- Drink bottled water
- Limit your internet use. Even “secure” networks can pose a risk when sharing confidential documents
Also, did you know 911 is Costa Rica’s emergency number? They even have an English speaking line!
The Best Time to Visit Costa Rica
Enjoy this itinerary during either the dry or rainy season. However, keep in mind the clay trail of Nauyaca Waterfalls can become very muddy with heavy rain. Also, it is common that the natural pool disappears with heavy rainfall. You may get a more powerful waterfall but have no good place to relax after a long hike.
The best time to visit depends on a lot of things, such as preferred areas to travel, your budget, desired activities ect. Here are a few general travel time ideas.
- The most popular time: Holiday season (the end of Dec. into the first two weeks of January)
- Best weather: Dry season (December-April)
- The most expensive time: Holiday season + Easter time
- The best off-peak time: July & August
- The cheapest time to fly: September
- The rainy season (green season): May-November
- September & October are great months for visiting the sunny Caribbean side or rainforest areas like Monteverde
Is Costa Rica expensive?
Costa Rica is not as cheap as you might think when compared to other developing countries in Central America. However, it is easy to find lodging, transportation, dining options, and activities accommodating to all kinds of budgets. I consider myself a comfort traveler in most cases and feel we stuck to a mid-range budget on this trip.
We limited our expenses by eating a larger breakfast and lighter lunch mixed with snacks purchased from grocery stores. Limited drinking at restaurants and made our drinks at the hotel. We also did not buy any guided tours.
The exact costs for this specific itinerary are listed in the table below.
Without airfare, we managed this mid-range trip for around $800 each after splitting the costs of the rental car, gas, and hotels. Guided adventure tours like ziplining, waterfall repelling, horseback riding, or sport fishing are an easy $80-$100 per person per activity. So plan accordingly!
I hope this four-night Costa Rica itinerary plus bonus travel tips will help you plan the trip of your dreams. If you are anything like me, I know you are going to LOVE Costa Rica!
If you found this post helpful, let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you! Thanks for reading. Cheers!