For my 26th birthday, I was lucky enough to spend 10 amazing days in the paradise that is Costa Rica. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m very type-A and love planning. So my Costa Rica Itinerary was thoroughly researched months before my departure.
If you’ve read my posts on Belize, you know that I LOVE traveling in Central America… For many reasons! A few years ago, I started the tradition of visiting a new country every year for my birthday. My 26th birthday, would be extra special, because it would be my first time traveling solo!
I chose Costa Rica as my first country for a solo trip and I feel this was an excellent choice. Many people speak English, there is vast tourism infrastructure, clean water, and no jet lag. (If you’re coming from the United States.) For your first solo destination, you don’t want to be forging a path that hasn’t been trekked much yet. Instead, choose somewhere easy like Costa Rica!
For my Costa Rica itinerary, I chose to stick to the Pacific coast, then head back to to San Jose for my flight home. I wanted my trip to be both adventurous and relaxing and feel that was 100% accomplished.
My trip was in late November through early December. This is the perfect time to visit any Central American country! The weather is perfect, hurricane season is usually over and the high season hasn’t quite started yet.
If you like, you can easily reverse the itinerary or shorten/lengthen it by spending less/more time in a certain place.
Since Costa Rica is one of the larger Central American countries, this post should help you decide on which areas to focus on. As well as give you some idea of the logistics you’ll need to take care of.
Costa Rica Itinerary Day 1: Arrive in San Jose
First thing you should do upon arrival, is grab a Costa Rican SIM card so you’ll be able to use your phone. This was a lifesaver for me. Mostly GPS and Google Translate when I was too tipsy to recall my Spanish as well as I would like.
For a resource covering everything you need to know about getting a SIM card in Costa Rica, check out this post from My Tan Feet. Her post is extremely thorough and her blog was an amazing resource for my own research before my trip!
Grab an Uber at the San Jose Airport and make your way to Restaurante Grano de ORO; A beautiful restaurant in a high end hotel. The service is white glove but the prices are not!
I enjoyed a delicious plate of huevos rancheros with 4 (yes, 4!) cappuccinos totaling at just under $30 USD.
Once you’ve got your caffeine fix and a full belly, leave your bags with the hotel (they’ll hold them for free) and take another Uber in to the city center.
While you’re there, definitely stop by the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum. The museum is right next to the National Theater so you can easily do both. Admission to both is a little pricey in my opinion ($11 for the museum and $10 for the National Theater) but I could also just be spoiled having free Smithsonians in my backyard!
Unfortunately, by the time I finished the museum, I was too exhausted to wait for the next tour and do all the walking for the National Theater so I just admired it from the outside.
Once you’ve finished your tour(s), head back to the hotel to grab your bags and take your shuttle or bus to La Fortuna!
I wouldn’t recommend staying more than a day in San Jose. I found it rather boring (even the locals agreed with me on that!), and there is a relatively high crime rate. You’ll see lots of sleeping drug addicts on the street. (The locals told me that heroine and crack are a big problem in the city. And I personally experienced cat calling and street harassment. So be careful while you’re there!
The ride from San Jose to La Fortuna is very long… About 4.5 hours driving…. Longer if you take a bus…. So to maximize the time in my Costa Rica itinerary, I opted to dedicate a chunk of my budget to a shared shuttle service.
I used Easy Ride Costa Rica and would recommend them. It’s definitely a no-frill service and it’s a coin toss as to how packed your shared shuttle will be. I was fortunate that my first ride was solo and so I was able to take a much needed nap. Where we weren’t so lucky was just about everything else. Nearly ALL the roads had been washed out with rain and one bridge even collapsed… While people were on it! Thank goodness, no one was hurt. What I appreciated though, was the professionalism of my driver. He was a champion and knew every detour we could take and handled the roads like an expert and was soothing me while I tried to hide my nervousness when we got stuck in some mud.
Here’s a breakdown of the costs of shuttles for my Costa Rica itinerary:
I do think of myself a budget-minded traveler but a part of budgeting is prioritizing. I decided to spend money and save time/stress. However, most other people travel via the bus system with no problems so don’t be scared to do so yourself! If you’re visiting fewer locations or have more time, using the bus is a very reasonable option.
Costa Rica Itinerary Days 2 – 4: La Fortuna
While in La Fortuna, I stayed with the Selina Hostel. You can the full review on my accommodations page. Selina’s can certainly help you book tours in the area, though I wish I had done more of that on my own before arriving.
Wake up bright and early on day 2 to spend some time in the La Fortuna town center before heading off for zip lining and hot springs!
The town has a grocery store, pharmacy and other shops so you can gather any supplies you may need. You’ll also notice a beautiful plaza full of green and colorful flowers, as well as an open air chapel.
There’s no shortage of zip lining tours anywhere you go in Costa Rica. I chose to book my tour with the Los Lagos Hot Springs Resort because of the price ($65) which included transportation, 9 cables, a Tarzan swing, and a day pass to the hot springs.
Honestly, zip lining isn’t something I thought I would enjoy. Not because I’m an adrenaline junkie—quite the opposite! I am a speed demon! I’ve been skydiving and grew up on jet skis and dirt bikes. Frankly, I thought I would find zip lining boring! Perhaps South Park tainted my view as well…
But whether you’re scared of heights, or a total adrenaline junkie like me, I 100% recommend you do this. If only for the spectacular views of the jungle! I actually found it quite relaxing rushing through the trees.
The Tarzan swing though… That’s a whole other story. That was possibly the scariest thing I’ve ever done—including skydiving! There’s something truly nerve racking about making the conscious decision to jump 100 feet off a platform tied to only a rope.
I’ll tell you though… IT WAS THE COOLEST THING I’VE EVER DONE! I felt so great afterward knowing that I conquered that fear and did something spectacular that I may never have a chance to do again.
After the lines and the swing, it’s time to relax and drink the day away in the hot springs! The Los Lagos resort has a massive amount of natural hot spring pools, as well as cool water pools, a bar and restaurant.
I did enjoy my time at the resort, however, I do wish I had gone out to explore more of the free, natural hot springs in the area. You can read more about what I wish I had done differently in Costa Rica HERE.
Day 3: ATV’s and River Safari
For your third day, what sounds more perfect than driving an ATV up a volcano? You’re right… NOTHING! Selina’s also helped me book this tour and I have very few complaints… One being the group I was with, but that’s just bad luck. The tour lasts several hours and includes a stop about halfway through to swim in the most beautiful natural river you’ll ever see.
Originally, the ATV tour was all I had planned for the day. However, after arriving shortly after lunch, I was the only person at the hostel and had loads of adrenaline going. The only tour available on such short notice was a river safari which was pretty cheap so I booked it. In the meantime, lounging by the pool and getting tipsy is perfectly acceptable!
I do wish I had just skipped the river safari. Unless you’re a family or traveling with children, you’ll likely find it very boring. I actually dozed off a few times! It just wasn’t my cup of tea but the tour guides were very nice and I enjoyed practicing my Spanish with them.
After a full day, the best thing to do is pick up your laundry from the desk service (if you choose to go on the ATV tour, they will be COVERED in mud), and party by the pool with your hostel mates!
Selina’s has a pool, billiard tables, giant jenga and tons of other things to keep you occupied and help you make tons of new friends.
Thanks to the friends I made my last night in La Fortuna, I had the best meal of my life at a little burrito stand (just down the street from the hostel!) called Juan In A Million. I can’t recommend this enough: If you’re in La Fortuna ever, you MUST MUST MUST eat at here. The love he puts in to the food he makes is apparent. His combinations are unique and I’m sure one day he’ll be a famous chef so make sure to get there ASAP, before his spot blows up!
I would recommend the Caribbean Chicken Burrito and Queso Fritos. But no matter what, don’t leave without trying the Queso Fritos! They come with fresh basil to wrap it in, while you dip it in both spicy buffalo mayo and blueberry preserves. Sound odd? Yes. But it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced. My mouth is watering just writing about it!
Costa Rica Itinerary Days 5 – 8: Manuel Antonio
The leg of Manual Antonio was the longest part of my Costa Rica Itinerary. And by far, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. While it is certainly not a hidden gem, there’s good reason for it. It’s stunning and there’s so much to do!
Again, I allowed the hostel to assist me in booking my tours and excursions and again… Wish I had done more research before I left and had some pre-booked.
Once you arrive and get settled in, I would recommend just lounging by the pool for the remainder of the evening or watching the sunset from your room. The views at Hostel Plinio are amazing and there’s an on-site restaurant and bar so you don’t even have to leave to eat! If you do need to get a few things though, the town of Quepos is a short bus ride down the hill and the bus stop is just a few feet away.
Day 5: Catamaran tour
Don’t leave Manuel Antonio without enjoying a boat tour. The views of the coast line are spectacular. The sun on your face, wind in your hair and finally being able to dive in to warm, clear water is a magical way to spend a day here.
While Costa Rica isn’t known for it’s snorkeling and this won’t be an exception, it’s still a fantastic experience and I made some incredible friends on this tour. I met a woman from Switzerland who was in Costa Rica for her 40th birthday and we ended spending every day together while in Manuel Antonio.
After the tour, we both went back to our places and cleaned up before meeting up for dinner.
As I mentioned in my 11 Untold Tips for Traveling in Costa Rica post, make sure you eat the falafel! There was so much Middle Eastern food in Costa Rica and frankly, I have no explanation for it. But almost all of it is really, really good!
As is true in many cases, your Lonely Planet guide book won’t steer you wrong when looking for places to eat. . That’s how we found Manuel Antonio Falafel Bar. Make sure to try the chicken schawarma!
Day 6: Playa Beisanz
If you have the room in your itinerary to spend an entire day at Playa Beisanz, I would absolutely recommend you do so.
My second full day in Manuel Antonio was a planned free day in my Costa Rica itinerary. I wanted to open myself up to the location and let the wind blow me where it may. Per a friend’s recommendation, I decided to start my day early and head to Playa Beisanz.
If you’re in Manuel Antonio, take the bus up or down the hill (depending how far up you’re staying) and get off near the Barba Roja Restaurant. From there, walk down a long hill past several hotels and resorts. After about a mile you’ll see cars parked next to a jungle path which leads to the beach.
While I didn’t originally plan on spending literally an entire day there, that’s definitely what happened. I spent too much on margaritas and rented a chair for the afternoon. I read several chapters of a fantastic book called ‘The H-Spot’ and spent the day floating in the current, then working on my tan…. A little too much.
After returning back to my hostel, my Swiss friend asked if I’d like to join her on a night hike. I paid the $50 for it and unfortunately we didn’t see many animals.
It also POURED rain literally the entire time. I mean torrential down pour from the second our tour began to about 30 seconds after it ended. Again though, our tour guide was a really nice guy and we enjoyed talking to him. Good thing I had my umbrella!
Night hikes are really fun and even though ours was awash (see what I did there?), I would recommend it to others. According to our guide, it’s best to go right after a rain like that. So try to plan accordingly. Though that can be extremely difficult with how quickly the weather changes. So make sure to ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS have an umbrella in your bag!
Day 7: Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio State Park may arguably be one of Costa Rica’s Crown Jewels. The park is relatively small but vast at the same time. There’s lots to explore and while I normally forego hiring a tour guide, I wish I had for this park. The parks paths are windy and go in so many directions and the animals are small or high up so without a telescopic lens, you’re mostly SOL.
Just make sure to hire a legitimate tour guide! You’ll see a million of them right outside the park but many are illegitimate and just going to rip you off. Lots of people I met booked theirs through their accommodations and had great luck.
Once you finish the tour, you can spend some time relaxing on the beach but I decided to only do this for a few minutes. The Capuchin monkeys are everywhere and WILL. STEAL. YOUR. SHIT. Although I didn’t bring any food with me, I was too paranoid to actually enjoy myself so I went back to explore more of the park and eventually head back to my hostel’s pool. I had wanted to explore more beaches in the area but the rain did not let up for the remainder of the day. If the weather is more in your favor, there are plenty of secret beaches in the area to explore.
My last meal was at El Avion and was lovely. Oddly enough, I was dying for some Italian food so I ordered the fettuccine and it was delicious! Make sure to get there for the sunset… And maybe bring an inhaler because it will take your breath away!
As I mention in the post covering what I wish I had done differently in Costa Rica, one of my biggest regrets is not doing more research before arriving so I could have enjoyed more activities in this area. I only dipped a toe in to the region. Here are some additional activities you can do if you choose…
- Horseback riding at Nauyaca waterfalls
- Relax at Espadilla Beach
- Kayak through the mangroves
- Another beach: Playas Gemelas
- Hike the hanging bridges at Rainmaker Conservation Park. (My Swiss friend managed to do this and while it is WAY off the beaten path, she said it was her favorite thing she did in Costa Rica!)
- Take a chocolate tour
- Tour a spice farm
- Visit a rainforest animal sanctuary
- Wander the Quepos Farmers Market
- Take a day tour to Caño Island (I did try this but they said they were not able to take tours since there weren’t enough people as I visited before high season).
Again, do your research before booking any of these tours if they are ones that cost money. It is tedious, as there will be several that offer the same but it’s important to read the reviews because scams and shoddy companies with terrible service are rampant here.
Costa Rica Itinerary Days 8 – 10: Uvita
The last leg of your Costa Rica itinerary will be pure relaxation. Uvita is a beautiful locale south on the Pacific border of Costa Rica and is famous for Playa Ballena, or ‘The Whale Tale.’ A beautiful long, sandy beach that at the end, spans out to look like a whale tale!
It’s a quiet bohemian town that is wide and spread out so you won’t necessarily be able to walk everywhere but wherever you are staying will be able to call you a taxi if you are too far from the main road where the bus is.
For my accommodations in Uvita, I stayed at Flutterby House and have mixed feelings about my stay but overall, enjoyed it.
Since the drive from Manuel Antonio to Uvita is rather short (about 1.5-2 hours), if you leave early, you’ll have plenty of time in the day to explore this beautiful location. Take these last few days to reflect on your time in Costa Rica, meditate on your goals for the future, as well as your gratitude to have been fortunate enough to spend so much time in such a beautiful country. The slowed down pace, wide open beach and the sounds of the wildlife and waves foster a reflective mindset, so take advantage of this before heading back home to the hustle and bustle.
Once you’re settled in to your accommodations, I would highly recommend calling a taxi to the Uvita Waterfall. You can walk from the main road but it is a rocky, steep and long road so I would say just pay a few bucks to a local cabbie. The ride from my hostel to the falls was $10 USD.
There is a $1 USD admission to the falls that you pay to the restaurant at the top. If you’re nice, you’ll only have to pay once even if you return every day.
Now it’s time to conquer some fears and cliff dive!
During the shoulder season (when I visited) often I was lucky enough to have the place all to myself and there were never more than 3 other small groups there.
At the bottom of the stairway, you’ll come to the small falls which most people jump off. Up the way is the large fall which I only saw one young man brave enough to jump. HOWEVER, fun fact: the rocks are smooth enough you can actually slide down!
I wasn’t brave enough to do this the first day and the second day I returned was after a heavy rain, meaning the fall was roaring and the water unsafe to swim in.
To get back to your accommodations, you can either have the restaurant call you a cab or exchange numbers with your other cabbie and text them via Whatsapp like I did.
And don’t forget to try the falafel pita at this restaurant! DELISH!
Spend the rest of the night can be spent grabbing drinks and exchanging stories with new friends at your hostel or hotel. I met people from all over the world at Flutterby House that I still maintain contact with!
Day 9: Free Day in Uvita / Dominical
Another free day in your Costa Rica Itinerary! This is a day you can choose to spend however you like exploring the region. If you’re visiting in September or October, you’ll have the highest likelihood to spot whales off the coast so definitely book a tour!
You can also visit Nauyaca Waterfalls from Uvita as well. Most tours are via horseback riding or ATV’s.
If you’re up for it, definitely book a day of surfing lessons! There are SO MANY surfers and teachers on the beach, lessons are reasonably priced and the surf isn’t so high to intimidate beginners.
Another waterfall to visit is Cascada El Pavon and it is free!
Personally, I chose to return to Uvita Waterfall. The night before, I met a handsome gentleman in my hostel that said he wanted to go. He asked if I could be his guide so we spent the day jumping off the cliffs and relaxing since we had the place mostly to ourselves. At the end of the day, we headed to the beach to watch the sunset.
If that hadn’t been the case, I likely would have gone to explore more beaches in the area like Playas Linda or Ventanas.
Day 10: Your Last Day in Uvita!
I planned to spend the entire day on the beach for my final day in Uvita, and that’s exactly what I did. I brought my book, finished the last few chapters, relaxed in the shade and walked the entirety of the beach shore collecting shells and sand dollars.
This was the day after my birthday, so for my personal itinerary, I spent the day meditating on my gratitude to be able to spend 10 days in paradise. I reflected on my growth and successes over the past year, and the ways in which I want to be better. What a perfect setting for this.
There are a lot of stray dogs on the beach, so I was overjoyed to have a little companion mutt that spent most of the day by my side. If you’re not a fan of dogs… Maybe don’t read this blog… JUST KIDDING! But don’t worry, there are plenty of other people on the beach so you can gently shoo them away.
Final tips for the Uvita leg of your Costa Rica Itinerary…
You’ll notice there aren’t many pictures of this leg of my trip. And for 2 reasons… The first is that I lost most of my pictures after my phone got damaged at the beach. The second being that theft and muggings are a prevalent problem in this area. Your accommodations will provide information stating that you shouldn’t walk to the beach alone, certainly not after dark, and that you shouldn’t bring anything to the beach with you that even LOOKS valuable. Leave your wallet, cameras and phone in your room. If you decide to bring your phone, you should keep it concealed at all times.
Unfortunately, this means you’ll most likely be unable to capture the stunning sunsets you’ll see at the beach. You won’t have images of the newbie surfers laughing on the waves, or the many adorable doggos you’ll see.
Take this as an opportunity to slow down, disconnect and reflect.
Time to say “¡Adios!”
Now it’s time to journey back to San Jose to catch your flight back home. Do lots of research and be prepared to spend a tad more money if you choose to stay in San Jose at all. The hostel I stayed was Stray Cat Hostel and it was the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in. The images on their site are very misleading. Fellow budget travelers I’ve spoken with recommend Hostel Pangea, Selina, and Costa Rica Backpacker’s Hostel.
For your return flight home, call an Uber, rather than booking a shuttle with your accommodations, as this will likely be much cheaper.
Final Notes: 10 Day Costa Rica Itinerary
While you can definitely pack in more than I did, you can also cut some out. Whatever your travel style, you’ll have no problems accommodating yourself in this beautiful land. Whether you prefer adrenaline rushes and constant adventures, or turning off your phone and drinking on the beach for 10 days, you’ll be able to do so in Costa Rica!
10 days in this unique Central American country is a perfect amount of time in my opinion. I found myself getting frustrated at time because of the large volumes of tourists–even in the off-season. I do think Costa Rica is a destination that requires a little more planning beforehand to avoid being scammed or facing choice paralysis when you get to your hotel and see just how many companies offer the kind of tours you want to do.
Whether you’re a first time solo traveler or a seasoned vet, this is an excellent country to cross off your list. If you speak English, with only rudimentary Spanish, you’ll have little to no problem getting around, as many locals speak English or want to learn.
Finally, make sure you don’t forget your essentials;
- Bug spray
- Sunscreen (SPF 50)
- Water shoes
- Umbrella and rain jacket
If you’re planning a trip of your own to Costa Rica, make sure to check out my other posts to make your stay as fabulous as possible!
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