Costa Rica is a place that really does have it all. In a three week trip you can easily enjoy a whole range of seasons, landscapes and cuisines without having to worry too much about difficult connections or dodgy transport links.
For short term travellers, Costa Rica comes with the huge pro that it’s very well set up for tourists. You don’t necessarily have to buy in to a big organised tour (although there are plenty of these available if that’s what you’d like to do). Public transport, local buses and shuttle services are so accustomed to having tourists that they are a dream to use. Bus drivers are aware of the places that people usually visit. If you need to take 3 buses to reach Monteverde from Tamarindo, for example, the drivers are already aware of where you want to be dropped off to make your connection before you’ve even attempted to explain it to them in pigeon Spanish.
Another reason that Costa Rica is perfect for shorter trips is its size. Despite having so much on offer, it’s not a huge country. You can quite easily cross from East to West in a morning, and North to South in a day. Although there are no night buses, you probably won’t spend much longer than 5 or 6 hours travelling per day.
We spent 3 weeks here and, unusually, didn’t feel that we had to rush or skip over too many things! One caveat is that Costa Rica is expensive but, if you read our post on how to travel here on a budget, you should be fine!
Without further ado, here is our ideal destination guide and itinerary for Costa Rica! This isn’t exactly the route we took ourselves, but we’ve cut out certain parts and rearranged things to minimise travel time. It also assumes that you’re taking an international flight into the country.
Fly into San Jose and make your way out West to the town of Quepos.
Although not a particularly interesting or beautiful place, Quepos is the best place to base yourself for cheap accommodation and easy access to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. It’s touristy, yes, but the park is absolutely not to be missed! In a day here we saw a huge amount of incredible wildlife including capuchin monkeys, butterflies, birds, two types of sloths and so much more!
Manuel Antonio is definitely best visited early in the morning. After 9am the crowds come and lines for tickets get long. Take an early morning bus from the station in Quepos – the park is a 5 minute walk from the bus stop the other end.
A lot of people recommend taking a guide but, if you’re on a budget, you can quite easily see stuff on your own. (The huge guided groups all stop and stare at certain points along the trails – a clue that there’s something interesting to be seen!)
Once you’ve cadged off of other people’s guides long enough, take the tougher routes to the various viewpoints to get away from the crowd. The park has a handful of truly beautiful white sand beaches – but be careful that racoons don’t steal your picnic! (They did ours…)
Spend 2 nights in Quepos so you’re able to enjoy a full day at the park. Wide Mouth Frog Hostel has big bathrooms, clean dorms and a simple included breakfast (coffee and porridge).
Take a bus North to Santa Elena – a beautiful mountain town that is the main hub for visiting the famed cloud forest national parks. Monteverde Park is the most popular, while Parque Nacional Santa Elena will be quieter and Bosque Eterno Los Niños is the most off-track of all. This is the place to enjoy a canopy tour – try 100% Aventura Tours for the most adrenaline-filled option, and don’t back out of the Tarzan Swing!
You could easily spend a whole week here enjoying the views and the fresh weather but, for this trip, tear yourself away after 3 beautiful nights at Pensión Santa Elena – which we’ve reviewed here.
Back on the public buses – this time heading to San José for a 2 night city break between national park visits! San José is slated by almost every guide book as being grey and uninteresting, meaning that it is almost universally skipped by travellers. Big mistake. It’s no Paris, but San José has plenty of charm in its museums, restaurants, modern hostels and night life to tide you over for a couple of nights! The Jade Museum in the city centre is definitely worth a morning visit, followed by a fancy lunch in the cafe of the Teatro Nacional (take a quick detour into the main auditorium on your way to the loo – it’s stunning!).
Take time to explore the city for one day, but you’re mainly here so you can make the early bus connection out to Tortuguero from Terminal Caribe. This is probably the most arduous journey you’ll make in Costa Rica, but trust us when we say it’s worth it. Following the instructions of the bus conductors (who just assume all gringos are heading to the same place) you’ll take two buses and finally board a boat for the two hour trip along the Tortuguero river. Here it’s very much worthwhile booking accommodation ahead – most hostels will send a rep to heard to onto the right boat, and a guide to bring you to their place once you arrive. Hospedaje Meryscar is very, very basic but a good budget option with a lovely owner.
Plan on spending 2 nights in Tortuguero which gives you one full day to enjoy the National Park (yes, another one). The absolute best way to see wildlife here is by taking a canoe tour along the river in the early hours. Most guides meet their groups at 5:30am in time to head off straight away when the park opens at 6. Prices are set by the local authority, so your main deciding factors will be the type of boat you want to go in, the size of the group and whether or not you like the guide!
Some things to consider when choosing:
- The quieter the boat the better chance you have of seeing wildlife.
- Larger boats can’t fit down the narrower canals where the more interesting scenery and animals are.
- Some canoes require all participants to paddle, while others are powered by silent electric engines – choose whichever you feel suits your physical ability.
Suck up the early start and spend the money – this experience is truly magical. Once you’ve paid your park entry in the morning ($15) you can re-enter as many times as you like for the rest of the day. Go for some breakfast post-tour and then take your time wandering the on-land trails in the afternoon!
Back to San José for a night at Hostel Yoses Urbano where you’re perfectly placed to try out some of Costa Rica’s finest breweries and craft beers in the area (not to mention the free pancake breakfast)!
Next morning, take a bus back towards the Caribbean coast to spend 2 nights Cahuita – a funky little town with buzzing night life, a Sunday farmer’s market and (of course) a national park.
Cahuita National Park is such a gem. The hiking is minimal or it was for us, at least, once we got distracted by the perfect white sand beaches and bright blue water. The entry fee is done by donation, so you can spend what you wish to enjoy some absolutely exquisite beach time. Your picnic needs to be purchased at the Italian Bakery (delicious) and you can get a good deal at Hostel Hakuna Matata. Beware of the triple bunk beds if you’re at all nervous of heights.
An easy bus ride down to Puerto Viejo and you’re set for a night of typical backpacker partying, plus a day of artisan market browsing and surfing. If this place doesn’t appeal to you (we only spent a few hours here) then take a step off the beaten track and check out Planet One World.
Planet One World is an amazing permaculture, semi-sustainable finca about 20 minutes from Puerto Viejo town. Run by a German guy and his indigenous wife, this family have got a great set up for guests interested in living simply and getting to know a little bit about sustainable farming! Rates include a huge farm breakfast and a free tour of the finca, and dinner is available for $5 per person. We loved staying here and learnt so much more from these guys about Costa Rica and her wildlife than we would have done anywhere else! Find them on booking.com or here on their website – there’s no wi-fi so bear with if it takes a while to get a response! You’ll also need a 4×4 taxi to reach them – about $10 from Puerto Viejo.
Relaxed, tanned and tired from all of your amazing adventures, you’re perfectly poised to head back to San José for an interantional connection back home or, from Puerto Viejo, why not hop across the border to Panama and let the fun continue….?