Happy New Year!
I hope 2024 has been to a good start and that you’re taking care of yourself and staying warm!
I spent the first week of January (from the 5th – 12th, 2024) traveling and exploring Costa Rica.
It was my first time in Central America, and I was so glad that I got to do it with some of my best friends, bonding, reconnecting, and creating core memories!
The backbone of this itinerary was put together by my friend, Mak, so all credits to her! She also did all of the shuttle, hotel, and tour bookings. I only helped planning a few outdoor activities. At the end of the trip, our group did end up splitting since we wanted to do a few things on our own.
COSTA RICA 1-WEEK ITINERARY
Trip was split into 2 parts – part 1 was at La Fortuna, known for volcanos and hot springs, and the lush green jungle, and part 2 was Manuel Antonio with beachtiful white sandy beaches and coastal towns with delicious seafoods.
1. La Fortuna
Day 1 – shuttle from LIR to hotel
Day 2 – National Park hiking + waterfall swimming
Day 3 – adventure day – ziplinging, rappelling, hot springs swimming
Day 4 – 2/6 depart from LIR, 4/6 shuttle to Manuel Antonio
2. Manuel Antonio
Day 5 – horseback riding
Day 6 – free day
Day 7 – National Park hiking + swimming
Day 8 – shuttle from hotel to airport SJO
DAY 1 – FRIDAY JANUARY 5
FLY-IN AIRPORT: Liberia LIR – Guanacaste Airport, Costa Rica
Arrival time: ~ 2 pm local time
SHUTTLE from LIR to Hotel Arenal Montechiari in La Fortuna
Total time traveled: 5 hours (with lunch and cafe/sourvenir break)
Shuttle cost: split between 6 people
DINNER: Pollo Fortuneño, La Fortuna
10 minute walk from hotel
a very popular spot! Line moves fast! Must order: steak, chicken, and cocktails
Hotel Arenal Montechiari in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
DAY 2 – SATURDAY JANUARY 6
RENT A CAR VS. TAXI
After breakfast at the hotel, we went to talk to the hotel front desk for transportation recommendations. They quoted us $60 for drop-off and pick-up at the Arenal National Park. Taxis mean something that could fit us, 6 people. They also told us there’s a taxi station in downtown La Fortuna.
Uber was available, but we’d need to get 2 cars each time since each fits only 4.
We decided to rent a car instead of having them order us a taxi. At Alamo/National/Enterprise car rental in downtown La Fortuna (just behind the church), we got offered a 4×4, and the final cost was around $150. That’s because we reserve from the Expedia app. In person, they quoted us twice as much! We had the car for 1 day/24 hours, and we did take advantage of it and drove everywhere.
MORNING: Explore + hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park
Entrance fee to the park (day pass): $16 per person
Park hours: 8 am – 4 pm
If you have the Alltrails app, I’d recommend downloading the off-line maps of the trails you want to do in advance. If you don’t, it’s totally ok because trails here are so easy.
Without signal, we did a trail to the right of the big trail sign after parkin, and it took us to the bottom of the Arenal volcano. It was a misty morning, so the tip of the volcano was barely visible. Then we drove to the Peninsula sector and did another easy trail, just right behind the visitor center. It was very hot and sunny out, so be sure to apply sunscreen and don’t forget your hat.
We spotted a toucan, a big green lizard, a hummingbird, a bunch of leafcutter ants, coatis, and so many birds.
LUNCH: Restaurante El Novillo del Arenal, La Fortuna
AFTERNOON: La Fortuna Waterfall
Bring swimsuits & water sandals
500 steps of stairs!!
You can swim on the left side of the waterfall. It got crowded at times, but overall, it’s our favorite thing to end the long and hot day of hiking.
DINNER: Café Raúl Castaño Fortuna, La fortuna
- Decent spot to hang in the day time, coffee and cakes. I didn’t like the dinner menu that much.
Arenal volcano, viewed from the Peninsula sector
DAY 3 – SUNDAY JANUARY 7
MORNING: Adventure day!
TOUR: Mid-day Ziplines, Rappel, Horseback Riding and Visit Maleku Villa
Tour company: Arenal Mundo Aventura
Cost: $149.00 per adult, pick-up from hotel & drop-off
Rapelling down the waterfall and having to climb up many sets of stairs are our group’s least favorite activity. I’d say to skip all other activities and do zip-linging only! Make sure to look around because the jungle and waterfall views here are incredible!
LUNCH: Restaurante Nanku, La Fortuna – one of my favorite meals in Costa Rica! I got the fried fish, and we shared many dishes together!
EVENING: Ecotermales Fortuna hot springs, La Fortuna, San Carlos
Family owned and operated
Ticket starts from $47 or $77 with a meal – We did the $47. There’s a bar which you can order drinks from as well. There are lockers, towels, and showers.
11 min from hotel
Entrance 10 am for morning ticket or 5 pm for night ticket (can arrive 30 minutes before!)
The best hot springs resort in the area is Tabacon Hot Springs, but it comes with a hefty price tag. All river swim and natural hot springs outside of these resorts are free, and there’s one right next to the Tabacon resort sign. You can park along the road, both sides. Just Google ‘free hot springs – Rio Chollin in La Fortuna’!
we did 7 ziplines
and 1 waterfall rappell!
DAY 4 – MONDAY JANUARY 8
Shuttle from hotel in La Fortuna to LIR airport (2 PEOPLE DEPART)
Shuttle from hotel in Lafortuna to Hotel Verde Mar in Quepos/Manuel Antonio (~ 5 hours with a shuttle transfer and a bathroom/sourvenir shop break/butterfly garden)
LUNCH: Baldi’s Fresh Restaurant, Quepos
Sunset walk at Playa Espadilla – most touristy beach area! It’s a huge free stretch of beach, just steps away from our hotel!
DINNER: Emilio’s Cafe, Quepo
Some quick Costa Rica travel tips:
TRANSPORTATION: We learned (very quickly) that Uber wasn’t as readily available as compared to La Fortuna.
GOOGLE MAPS WON’T SHOW UBER AS AN OPTION IF YOU’RE USING IPHONES. ORDER UBER RIDES ON THE UBER APP. And be patient as there will be someone who will accept your ride request. We did come across the same driver multiple times during our stay here. One driver did ask for cash!
There’s a DiDi app (apparently is a local Uber ride-sharing app, but there’s no DiDi drivers here!).
You’d need to ask for hotel or restaurant front-desk staff to call a taxi for you if you need to get around. Taxis have a minimum of $10 each trip, so plan accordingly.
Roads here are extremely hilly and curvy, so walking isn’t an option plus the extreme heat.
MONEY EXCHANGE: If you can, stop by a local bank to exchange your dollars (if you’re from the US) to Costa Rican colones. You’d get better rate at local banks vs. at the money exchange booth at airports.
You’d need colones to buy small things such as fruits, snacks, and souvenirs from small locally owned businesses. At fruit stalls, they usually have signs, so you don’t even need to speak a word. With that said, I do wish I know or can speak a bit of Spanish because it would make the experience a lot better.
There’s a BAC in downtown Quepos, and that’s where I get my money exchanged.
Bring your passport.
When you come inside, you’ll be given a number. And going to the bank to get money exchange here is like going to the DMV in the US. No hats!
Most restaurants in touristy areas take card, and you can ask to charge in US dollars or colones. I’ve heard that if you say colones, your bank will give you a better rate. There’s a 13% tourist tax charge and a 10% tip, typically included in your bills, so you don’t have to tip after unless the staff goes above and beyond.
Espadilla Beach, Quepos
incredible sunset every night!
DAY 5 – TUESDAY JANUARY 9
TOUR: Horseback riding
Tour company: Brisas del Nara – Horseback Riding Manuel Antonio in Naranjito, Costa Rica
$75 + 13% tax per person – Hotel pick-up and drop-off, Costa Rican breakfast & lunch, beverages, and fruits. A Bilingual Tour Guide. A well trained horse with top of the line harness and safety equipment.
Bring or wear long pants, hat, insect repellent, sunscreen, swimsuits, a towel, water-sandals, and extra clothes if you want to change to after swimming at the waterfall
REVIEW: The waterfall is actually just a tiny one off the road. It’s free to enter! This horse-riding trip was the longest and hardest I had been on because my horse had some problems. He lost one of his horseshoe and did trip on a rock (and I almost fell!). At the end, I had to switch my horse to the tour guide’s personal horse, and it did save me from having the worst to best time. At some points, the horses were trained to go super fast up and down the hills, so keep it in mind if you’ve never ridden a horse before. Riding horses can be fun, but you’ve got to watch out for the horse’s behavior and try to connect with it somehow when you’re on one. Have fun and please be safe!
Brisas del Nara horseriding and safari tour
our tour guide, Tyler
the waterfall where we swam at (it’s more of a swimming hole)
DAY 6 – WEDNESDAY JANUARY 10
My friends had a spa day and did a night jungle tour at the National Park.
My partner and I ubered to downtown Quepos to rent a car. We got a deal at Europcar -$90 for one day car rental through the app. They quoted us a mininum of 2 days, but they did end up letting us rent for the day. It was so well-worth it! I went to the bank to exchange some money since I wanted to buy fruits for the drive. We drove along the coast, north of Quepos up to Jaco. The next morning, we woke up to a flat tire, but we got it replaced fairly quickly ourselves. Then we headed south of Quepos and had a lovely breakfast at Cafe Junjani in Dominical, Puntarenas.
stunning ocean view from the JACO sign
sunset at Hidden Ocean Lookout, Playa Hermosa
DAY 7 – THURSDAY JANUARY 11
Manuel Antonio National Park Day – last day!
The park is open every day except TUESDAYS, year round, including holidays, from 7:00am to 4:00pm.
Tickets can be sold out if you wait too close to the date! Highly recommend buying tickets online in advance: serviciosenlinea.sinac.go.cr (you need to make an account – log-in, enter your name, passport number, and pay!) – if there’s an error when you’re trying to add the tickets, chances are they’re sold out for the day! Try it another day or another option is to book a tour on the National Park website. I DON’T THINK GETTING A TOUR GUIDE IS WORTH IT BECAUSE YOU’LL ENCOUNTER MANY WILDLIFES IN HERE!
No food, no pets, no drones. Beverages are allowed (water, sodas, juice).
BE WARE of scammers (SO MANY!) outside of the park selling you park tickets and tours – JUST IGNORE AND WALK RIGHT INSIDE!
From the park entrance, you can take the paved road on the left or the boardwalk on the right – Both will take you to the same destinations. No need to download a map in advance! There’s a cafe and giftshop (with A/C), so check it out if you need to take a break.
Wear or bring along your swimsuit, sunscreen, and a towel. There are so many beaches in here, and people basically walk around the park with their swimsuits and some sort of cover on.
Boardwalk park trail – make sure to take it slow to spot wildlife.
We saw a tiny green snake, some white-faced capuchins, and coatis. I was hoping to see a lot of sloths inside the park, but I didn’t. Anwyay, I did spot a sloth a few times when out walking in La Fortuna and Quepos, so that was cool!
the best beaches are actually inside the National Park!
Playa Espadilla Sur in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
soft white sand, turquoise water – our most favorite beach in Costa Rica by far!
Playa Gemelas in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
DAY 8 – FRIDAY JANUARY 12
SHUTTLE from Hotel Verde Mar to SJO
Our shuttle driver did make a stop at a souvenir shop, and there’s the cafe area that served food. We made it to the airport with plenty of time.
FLY OUT AIRPORT: SJO – all depart!
Things I would do differently (knowing what I know now after this trip),
RENTING A CAR: If I were to plan this trip (knowing what I know now), I would rent the car from the airport. You don’t have to if you prefer having a set schedule and having things pre-booked.
My partner and I have done countless road trips all throughout the US, so we’ve got the experience and stamina to do long road trips on our own. Before, I wasn’t sure if driving in Costa Rica would be safe plus the crazy high fees from car rental companies as I had heard. Tips below!
When driving, we like to snack (in a controlled/limited amount on only a few varieties that we actually like such as gummy bears, beef jerky, and some chips). Normally, we prefer fresh local produce and fruits, so that’s what I did the money exchange for. If you’re traveling in tropical places, chances are many places will peel and cut the fruits for you for free!
We make frequent stops at gas stations and local grocery stores for bathroom breaks. It’s a good excuse to stretch and walk after an extended amount of time sitting inside a confined environment aka your car! We also clean up the car often as we go, and we like to buy small things that we need as we go.
I don’t like sweetened drinks and energy boosting anything, so lots of water it is!
NOT BOOKING AS MANY TOURS: My partner and I are both not tour-booking people and would prefer ‘free’ experiences, hiking, going to the beach, exploring places, and meeting local people on our own instead of relying on a guide. But my friends prefer having a planned/booked activity and take things slow. I’m glad they did the initial planning! Either way, you’d have to make sure to communicate when traveling with a group. But with that being said, I still enjoyed all of the tours that we did. It was so much fun doing it with other people instead of doing it alone.WHAT I LEARN AFTER TRAVELING WITH OTHER PEOPLE AS A GROUP – Everyone has very different preference in doing things as their mental and physical capabilities also differ from yours, very drastically. So communication is KEY! Our group also agreed on splitting evenly on sitting-down meals. Steak, seafood, and alcohol are more expensive, so do make sure you’re aware of that.
RESTAURANTS: Things add up very quicky when you’re dining in touristy towns. Google seems to be the only place we use to look up reviews for restaurants, so natually, everyone would want to go to the place that has the higest reviews.
In Costa Rica, affordable eats are those that include rice, beans, eggs, and plantains. Sodas are the place to go for those, but I don’t think I can survive a week eating the same thing. However, there are so many cheaper ways to do this without spending $30 – $40 per person on a meal with a smoothie or drink.
When ordering, we typically just order one entrie or one big stnad-out dish to split and share. That way, we’d have room for a few appetizers, a drink or two, and maybe a dessert. With this, I feel like I can get a pretty good grasp or have a pretty good idea at the restaurant/their cooking in case I need to write a Yelp or Google review later on.
WILL I COME BACK TO COSTA RICA?
I think I will, but not in awhile. Reason is because how expensive it is for what you can get or until I learn how to swim. Costa Rica is a hot spot for surfers, beginners and professionals. Surfing is on my bucket-list of things, so we will see! There seem to be a lot of researchs and environmental programs going on in Costa Rica, and it is almost a trash-free country (at least at toursity areas where I’ve been!). Go if you love nature, wildlife, beaches and the jungle. It is a safe country to travel to and drive around, and in fact, we’ve met so many US tourists as well as Europeans.
Costa Rica is an expensive travel destination, and things are priced as expensive as in US DOLLARS. However, you can hack your way around it making it a lot more affordable (as said above!).
Lastly, if you’re looking to book a tropical vacation, consider Vietnam, my home country because of how similar everything is. In-season fruits in Vietnam are sweeter, and Vietnamese cuisine has more variety of dishes. You can book tours or save a lot more if you’re traveling on your own. Again, I hope this blog post is helpful! Comment if you have any questions!