The ULTIMATE guide to planning A week in Costa Rica

surf boards in Costa Rica on the beach

Home to over 5 million people and 800 miles of coastline, Costa Rica is one of the safest and most popular destinations in Central America.

It doesn’t take much to see why.

Costa Rica is one of the most visually stunning countries in the world. With its lush jungles, pristine beaches, and an overabundance of wildlife, this small country punches well above its weight.

Whether you are looking for adventure, family-friendly fun, exciting animal encounters, great food, or just a relaxing get-a-way, there is something for everyone to enjoy in Costa Rica.

To help you plan your trip, I’ve highlighted the best areas to visit, the best times to visit, exciting activities to do, and the best ways to get around.

Plus, I’ve included a helpful Q&A section to give you even more of what you need to plan a successful week in Costa Rica.

For a pre-planned itinerary, Costa Rica one week itinerary (Puntarenas Province) is terrific for those looking for a little adventure mixed with a bit of R&R.

What time of year to visit

With little to no rainfall and plenty of sunshine, the dry season, December-April is the most popular time (and the most expensive) to visit Costa Rica. However, because of Costa Rica’s varied micro-climates, there is no bad time to visit. 

Even during the rainy season, rainfall usually doesn’t last all day, and there are areas on the Caribbean coast where the climate is dry, and the sun shines year-round. 

To make the most out of a week in Costa Rica, decide on the kind of activities you want to do before deciding on the time of year to visit. Hiking to waterfalls and exploring beyond paved roads is best during the dry season. Rainforests are wonderful year-round but certain dive spots are only accessible during the wet season. 

Wet/rainy/green season in Costa Rica

  • May to November
  • Considered winter
  • Off-season, fewer people, less expensive
  • Waterfalls are usually at their max
  • Road conditions are poor
  • Mosquitos are at their worst

Dry Season in Costa Rica

  • December- April
  • Considered summer
  • High Season, more crowded, more expensive
  • Little to no rain in most parts of the country
  • Dirt roads are easily accessible

While you can certainly enjoy a trip during either time of year, I personally suggest trying to go between late February and April (steer clear of Easter). Although it is still high season, avoiding the holiday season means prices will be lower. Waterfalls are still flowing, hiking is easier and more roads are accessible.

Also avoid traveling during September and October, when rainfall is at its peak (unless you plan to visit the Caribbean Coast). September and October have lots of sunshine and drier weather on the east coast making it a great time to visit.

Fun activities to do

Costa Rica offers a ton of adventurous and relaxing activities suited for varying interests and fitness levels. While some activities are seasonal, most tours are enjoyed year-round in multiple locations all over Costa Rica. 

White water rafting, waterfalls and certain scuba diving spots are at their best during the rainy season. Exploring tropical rainforests and cloud forests such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve are enjoyable year round, along with surfing, canyoneering, deep sea fishing and the popular tourist destination, Arenal Volcano.

Costs may be a concern here, as many organized tours come with a premium price. I’ve only done a few guided tours during my time in Costa Rica but had just as much fun (if not more), exploring on my own!

Best wet season activities in Costa Rica (May-November)

  • Whitewater Rafting ($75-$200 USD per person)
  • Rainforest Tours ($55-$150 USD pp)
  • Waterfall Tours ($60-$80 USD pp)
  • Sportfishing Charters ($300-$700 USD per group; Sept.-Nov. peak season for Marlin)
  • Scuba diving ($85-$165; premier dive spot, Bat Islands are only accessible during the rainy season)
  • Surfing (Pacific coast, June-August)
  • Turtle nesting (July-Oct. Green Sea turtles peak season)
  • Whale Watching (humpback whales)

Best dry season activities in Costa Rica (December – April)

  • Whale watching ($80-$100 USD pp, grey whales)
  • Off-roading tours ($100- $200 USD pp)
  • Horseback riding ($50- $100 USD pp)
  • Snorkeling ($50, clearer water)
  • Bird Watching
  • Surfing
  • Sportfishing (Sailfish, Dec.-April peak season)

If you are near Dominical, try hiking to stunning Nauyaca Waterfalls. Visit during the dry season to enjoy a refreshing swim in the natural pools after your invigorating hike.

During my visit to Tamarindo, my group took a full day Costa Rica tour that included ziplining, waterfall rappelling, river tubing, horseback riding, and a quick stop at a mud bath and hot springs. It was a great way to experience Costa Rica for the first time!

Map from Pro World Travels

The best areas to visit

With only a week in Costa Rica, I recommend exploring an area close (no more than a three-hour drive or one-hour plane ride) to the airport you will be flying in and out of. 

There are four International airports in Costa Rica, Limón International Airport (LIO), Tobías Bolaños International Airport (SYQ), Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO) and Daniel Oduber Airport (LIR). The two airports with the most direct routes are LIR and SJO. 

The largest international airport, Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO) is centrally located in Alajuela (20km west of San Jose). SJO usually has more flight options and cheaper flights but is a bit further away from many popular tourist destinations.

Daniel Oduber Airport (LIR) is best for locations in the Northwestern Guanacaste region including Liberia, Rio Celeste, and a string of Pacific Coast beaches. It is smaller and less congested than SJO but tends to have more expensive flights.

There are lots of fun and unique things to explore year-round close to both airports, which allows you to cut travel time and make the most out of your week in Costa Rica.

The best areas to visit near SJO:

Most of these locations are in the Puntarenas Province which boasts a lot of fun activities for families, adventures, and nature lovers.

  • Jaco (86 km, 1.25 hrs from SJO)
  • Punta Arenas (85 km, 1.5 hrs and has ferry service)
  • Quepos/Manuel Antonio National Park (160 km, 2.5 hrs)
  • La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano (114 km, 2.5 hrs)
  • Monteverde (126 km, 2.25 hrs)
  • Tortuguero/North Caribbean Coast (129 km, 3 hr)
on the beach at Manuel Antonio

The best areas to visit near LIR:

Heading to Guanacaste Province is a smart choice from LIR. There are so many towns and various activities and landscapes to enjoy all within close proximity to the airport which is key to making the most out of a week in Costa Rica.

  • Rio Celeste/Tenorio Volcano Park (107 km, 1 hr 45 mins)
  • Palo Verde National Park (60 km, 1 hr)
  • Playa Flamingo (42 km, 50 mins)
  • Playa Hermosa (25 km, 30 mins)
  • Samara (106 km, 1.5 hrs)
  • Tamarindo (68 km, 1.25 hrs)
  • Nosara (116 km, 2.5 hrs)

Accommodation

Costa Rica is expensive when compared to other countries in Central America, but no matter your travel style Costa Rica has something for everyone. All budgets will be able to enjoy Costa Rica if you take the time to find what suits your travel interests and wallet best.

Accommodation rates increase in established tourist regions (Manuel Antonio, Tamarindo, Arenal) and during high season. If you are looking for a budget-friendly week in Costa Rica traveling during the low season (May- Nov.) and avoiding the holiday season is recommended.

Choose a budget option

Backpacker Travel– Expect to camp, stay at hostels and guest houses for about $15-$40 USD a night. Hostel Geeks Website has a lot of great options for hostels in Costa Rica.

Comfort Travel – The comfort traveler will want a hot shower and air-condition usually found at most properties rated three stars and above. Rooms in this budget typically cost $80 -$250 USD a night. I enjoyed staying at Hotel Costa Verde during my time near Antonio Manuel National Park and Croc’s Resort and Casino on Jaco Beach.

Luxury Traveler– There are many properties sprinkled throughout Costa Rica with all the comforts of home + amazing amenities and unique atmospheres. Luxury, five-star properties start around $300 USD a night and go up from there.

Transportation

There are many ways to get around Costa Rica, including taxis, public buses, small planes, and Uber (sort of). You will want to decide what airport you are flying into and where you are going first before you can determine what type of transportation will work best for you.

Mid-range and luxury hotels may offer complimentary airport transportation, so make sure you check with your accommodation’s offerings to avoid additional fees.

If you are planning to stay in one area and book organized tours, shuttle service or taxis may work best for transportation to and from lodging and airport. However, if you are planning to explore Costa Rica on your own, renting a car is an excellent idea.

Rental Car

I love the convenience of a rental car and the freedom to go wherever and whenever you want. I personally believe rental vehicles are the most comfortable, flexible, and convenient way to get around, but they aren’t the cheapest.

Travel Tip: When driving in Costa Rica make sure you have a reliable GPS or download offline maps. WAZE works well. Many streets are not marked and building numbers aren’t commonly used.

Things to know about renting a car in Costa Rica:

Along with a minimum age of 21, having a valid passport, drivers license, and a credit card in your name, here are a few more things you should know about renting a car in Costa Rica.

  • Mandatory insurance, called SLI or TPL, is required. It costs $13-$30 a day, depending on the car. This insurance is ONLY for injury to others, not the vehicle you are renting.
  • Decline additional insurance if your credit card or personal auto policy covers you in Costa Rica.
  • Most rental companies require a $5,000 security deposit if you waive additional insurances.
  • Many car rental companies will ask for a letter stating that you are covered before they allow you to opt-out. Car Protection, Liability Waiver, Insurances for third party damages are some of the additional protection plans car companies will try to sell you on.
  • Call the car company before booking to confirm if what you see online is accurate. There tend to be a lot of hidden fees.
  • Crossing rivers, off-roading, flat tires, and driving down unpaved roads usually aren’t included in the coverage. Always read the fine print.
  • Adobe is one of the most trusted car companies in Costa Rica. I also had a good experience renting with Avis.
  • Always rent with a reputable car company. There are a lot of cheap rental car sites, but the last thing you want is your car breaking down during your vacation.

It can be a bit of a hassle renting a car in Costa Rica especially since the car companies make most of their money off the extras you probably want to avoid.

On my last trip to Costa Rica, despite coming prepared and having the correct documentation to avoid additional insurances, the rental car representative gave us such a hard time. We were appalled when the agent told us we would be roadkill if something happened to the car, and we didn’t have the additional insurance he was pressing on us. We still didn’t budge.

Main roads are paved, but some streets to specific beaches, waterfalls and national parks are not paved and may require four-wheel drive to access (during the rainy season). Make sure to do the proper research and choose your mode of transportation according to where you will be exploring and what activities you will be doing.

On the beach in Jaco during low tide
on the beach in Jaco

Domestic flights

If you are not on a strict budget, domestic flights are an excellent way to travel through the country while saving time and enjoying unique sky-high views of the beautiful and diverse landscapes below. 

Travel Tip: Many domestic airports in Costa Rica charge a usage fee between $5-$15 USD each time you fly in or out.

In addition to other regional and international airports, both SJO & LIR offer regional flights to many popular tourist destinations such as Quepos, Tamarindo, and La Fortuna. Routes are serviced daily with regional airlines Sansa and Skyway.

 Here are some examples to help you plan:

  • SJO to La Fortuna FON (30 mins, $50-$100 USD)
  • SJO to Quepos XQP (20 mins, $40-$80 USD)
  • SJO to Tamarindo TNO (50 mins, $100-$200 USD)
  • LIR to Quepos XQP (50 mins, $100-$200 USD)
  • LIR to Nosara NOB (30 mins, $50-$100 USD)
  • LIR to Fortuna TNO (20 mins, $40-$80 USD)

All routes are updated seasonally, so check with the airlines for the most up to date information.

Buses

Costa Rica has a variety of bus routes servicing the whole country and is the most popular means of transportation for Costa Ricans. Although easy for locals to navigate, figuring out the bus routes can take some time.

Many buses are privately owned so quality, cost, and amenities like Wi-Fi, A/C, and toilets will depend on the company and route. Almost all routes leave from the San Jose area and costs are minimal. What costs you $10 USD in a cab fair might cost $2.00 USD in a bus.

Bring small coins in local currency for short bus rides. City buses cost as little at $0.35 cents and most cross country routes don’t go above $20 USD.

  • San Jose to Jaco ($4-9 USD, 2h)
  • San Jose to Quepos ($7-10 USD, 3h)
  • San Jose to Puntarenas ( $5 USD, 2h)
  • San Jose to Tamarindo ($8-10 USD, 5h)
  • Liberia to Tamarindo ($2-4 USD, 1.5h)
  • Liberia to Nosara ($7-9 USD, 4.5h)
  • Liberia to La Fortuna ($8 USD, 5h)

Centro Coasting-Costa Rica and The bus schedule are two English websites great for planning your bus routes. The app and website MOOVIT is another awesome tool to help you navigate public transportation in Costa Rica and beyond. I also use Rome2Rio.com to research transportation routes when traveling.

Bus Saftey: When riding a public bus never lose sight of your luggage. Decline any “I’ll watch your luggage” to avoid theft.

Taxis

Taxis are 5x more expensive than busses. However, they’re great for short trips. There is a good amount of official cabs in Costa Rica, so they should be easy enough to find in populated areas. Just remember these taxi safety tips.

  • Official taxis are red and have a yellow light and a yellow triangle on their car.
  • Avoid non-official taxis at all costs; if you must take one, negotiate the rate beforehand to ensure no money scams.
  • Make sure the meter is turned on.
  • Discuss the desired route beforehand to ensure the driver doesn’t take a longer way.
  • Addresses are not widely used in Costa Rica, so make sure you know significant landmarks around where you want to go.
  • It is safer for solo female travelers to sit in the backseat.

Also, don’t forget to watch out for some common taxi scams, easy to pull on unsuspecting tourists.

  • “I’m out of gas” This happened to me, our first mistake was not taking an official taxi cab—more on that experience in a future blog post.
  • “Your hotel doesn’t exist.” Some drivers will attempt to take you to a hotel that they get a commission from. Don’t believe them.
  • Taking the longer route to charge you more. Make sure you have a working GPS or SIM card and confirm direction before leaving, check your GPS as you go.
  • The meter is broken. All taxis have a meter (Maria in Spanish) and should always be used to avoid inflated charges.
  • Pay with colons, not USD, to avoid drivers taking more money, claiming they don’t have change.

Shuttle Buses (private and shared):

Shuttle bus services from Interbus, Eco Trans Costa Rica, and others offer comfortable transportation from airports and accessible locations throughout the country. Shuttle busses can cost anywhere from $45 USD for shared to $250 USD for private busses, one way, depending on the length of the ride.

  • San Jose Jaco; 2.5 hrs, $47 shared, $145 for private (multiple people)
  • San Jose to Quepos; 3.5 hrs, $57 shared, $210 private
  • Liberia to Tamarindo 1.5 hrs, $47, $121 private 
  • Liberia to Monteverde; 2-3 hrs, $180 private

Q&A: Visiting Costa Rica

Before you start to book your week in Costa Rica, review the Q&A section below to gain even more insight into the Costa Rican experience.

  • How long do I need to visit Costa Rica?
    • With 10-14 days, you will be able to experience most of what Costa Rica has to offer.  A week in Costa Rica only allows you to scratch the surface.
  • What should I pack for a trip to Costa Rica?
    • Rain Jacket, bug spray, casual lightweight clothing, sun protection, and sturdy boots are a good start.
  • Is Costa Rica Safe for solo female travelers?
    • Yes! As long as you follow standard safety precautions (hide valuables, avoid night travel, book through reputable sources, stay alert, walk confidently) 
  • Do you have to speak Spanish to get by in Costa Rica?
    • Nope, but learning a few essential words/phrases is always a good idea.
      • Pura Vida: Pure Life, a popular expression for hello, goodbye, thank you and your welcome
      • Habla Ingles: Do you speak English?
      • Hola, Como Estas?: Hello, how are you?
      • Mucho Gusto: Nice to meet you
      • Cuanto Cuesta?: How much does it cost?
      • Donde Esta….?: Where is…
        • La playa: The beach
        • El Bano: The bathroom
  • What kind of currency is used?
    • The colon. Currently 1,200 CRC = $2.00 USD
    • USD are accepted but expect to pay significantly more.
    • Credit cards are not accepted for small purchases.
    • Exchanging some money for local currency is a good idea.
  • Will my phone work in Costa Rica?
    • In most tourist areas, yes, most phones work. If you don’t have a good international plan, purchase a local SIM Card
  • Is public transportation easy in Costa Rica?
    • Buses can be tricky for new travelers, but service the whole country and are very cheap.
    • Taxis are available in most areas but are 5X more expensive.
  • Is public transportation safe in Costa Rica?
    • Yes, it is safe; however, theft and tourist scams are common.
    • Never let your luggage out of your sight.
  • Is Costa Rica expensive?
    • It is the most expensive Central American Country, but budget travelers can stay at hostels, eat locally, and self explore for as little as USD 30-50 a day.
  • What kind of food do they eat in Costa Rica? 
    • Fresh fruits, plantains, meats, rice, and beans are regulars at the dinner table.
    • Gallo Pinto is a typical breakfast dish consisting of rice and beans served alongside scrambled eggs.
    • Casado is a common dish made up of salad, tortilla, fried plantains, rice, and beans along with a protein (fish, pork, beef, chicken) of your choice.
  • Is tap water safe to drink?
    • Tourists should stick to bottled water or use a water purifier such as a Steripen or Lifestraw.
    • In rural areas, it is not safe to drink for anyone

Travel Tip: US dollars are widely accepted, however you should exchange your currency to colonies to avoid overpaying for things in dollars. Also, USD change will most likely not be available.

With all Costa Rica has to offer, there is no doubt you will have a fantastic time! Make sure to book your travel a few months in advance, especially when traveling during high season to ensure your first choice of bookings is available.

This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.

Due to Covid-19 Costa Rica is currently under specific travel restrictions. This post is for future planning purposes only and does not discuss current travel conditions in place from the pandemic.

Hi, I'm Sam

I just left the corporate world to travel around the world. Sharing all my bucket list experiences to help spark your wanderlust and inspire your next adventure!

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