3 week itinerary in Costa Rica
After all the hype we were headed to Costa Rica. We have a flight onto Guatemala booked so we planned a 3 week itinerary in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is a place I saw mentioned time and time again in forums due to its abundant wildlife & easy family travel – we were excited! But we had read that it’s very expensive too. But that’s ok because we’re pretty good at finding those budget/free activities now… or so we thought!
I got the feeling that most visitors to this beautiful country are American holiday makers. I mean America is right on the doorstep. Plus Costa Rica has a reputation as one of the ‘safer’ Central American countries to visit.
Don’t get me wrong there were plenty of other foreign visitors and plenty of travellers, but for the most part this country has built its tourism on holidaymakers. Which brings me back to the budget thing… it really is expensive here!
But we managed and decided the extra expense was worth it for what we saw and did. This is our 3 week itinerary in Costa Rica
Getting to/from Costa Rica
Many budget travellers (like us) travel overland to arrive in Costa Rica. We were arriving from Panama and so there are 2 land border crossings. One on the Carribbean side, Paso Canoas or the Pacific side, Sixaola.
You can also cross the border from Nicaragua – although while I was researching there was some unrest in the country and so I was reluctant to venture this route with kids (I’m slightly regretting my decision now 😔). Ah well, we can’t do them all.
So we crossed at Sixaola using Caribe shuttles. A slightly expensive but very easy option to get us from Bocas del Toro to Puerto Viejo.
We didn’t have to pay an exit fee to enter Costa Rica (but we did notice that there’s an exit fee from Costa Rica to Panama).
Our 3 week itinerary in Costa Rica
- Puerto Viejo – 4 nights
- San Jose – 1 night
- Manuel Antonio – 3 nights
- Orosi valley – 2 nights
- Tamarindo – 3 nights
- Monteverde – 3 nights
- La Fortuna – 5 nights
- San Jose – 1 night
Total – 22 nights
Getting around Costa Rica
For a place with so many visitors it really doesn’t have a good transport infrastructure.
There are buses which feed the main types but actually if you want to explore you need to take several buses in order to reach your destination!
Alternatively there are shuttle buses, but these are very expensive. Cost is $54 per person!
We determined that the number of destinations and the timeframe we had that we would hire a car instead. In fact several people recommended this to us.
However, I should note that hiring a car in Costa Rica isn’t like in Europe! There is a mandatory insurance that you must buy and most companies don’t include it. You find out about it when you arrive, costing around $30 extra per day. I’ll write a separate blog post about what we learnt.
Therefore, we booked with a company called Vamos (who included the insurance into the price). Their cars are a little older and not as pristine but I think this is to avoid anyone wanting to steal them?!
We hired a car and then changed to a 4wd for our mountainous adventures. It wasn’t necessarily essential to have a 4WD but as it was rainy season (we did have a couple of torrential downpours) that the roads quickly turn into rivers. The only poor roads we experienced were around monteverde. The rest were tarmac and fine.
We hire a car for 5 days ($225) and a 4WD for 11 days ($548). Total cost was $773. Considering the shuttle to Manuel Antonio was going to cost $200 one way I think it’s definitely worth investigating if you’re happy to drive. It was very easy.
Note: be warned the police will be on the roads looking out for speeding. Unfortunately, the road speeds are not very clear. Download Waze and velociraptor apps to give you a fighting chance!
Places to visit in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has a Pacific and Caribbean side, when one side is raining it’s likely that other side is enjoying beautiful sunshine.
We arrived in October and so the tail end of the rainy season which could go one of 2 ways. It suggests that the Caribbean side experiences drier weather than the Pacific. So we started our adventure there.
There are a number of stops along this coastline. The largest town in Puerto viejo, but there’s a number of beaches with small snack shops and a handful of restaurants.
Alternatively you could stay in Cahuita which is slightly further along the coast.
The area is totally laid back. A real Caribbean vibe and nothing was ever an issue. There’s a black sand beach in puerto viejo and is popular with locals to swim around the Rick’s and jump in off an old boat in the bay. It didn’t really speak to me, but the boys loved it! Especially at sunset.
One thing I will say is that it’s very, very humid at this time of year!! Phew!
There’s a cheap local bus which feeds the local beaches and sites. We enjoyed visiting:
Cahuita national park – cheap, nice beach and lots of animals. Only $5pp donation.
Jaguar sanctuary – visit cute baby monkeys and sloths and much more. Tours are at 9am and 11am each day and cost $20pp (under 10 free)
Bike rental – if you don’t fancy the the bus you can explore on two wheels. We saw bikes available for rent for $6 per day.
We only stopped on the outskirts of the city for a night after we picked up our hire car.
The city itself didn’t get amazing reviews and most travellers suggested it was only used as a stopping point. However, we enjoyed a stop on the outskirts of the town with some beautiful views. But you need a car to get to these areas.
Hmmm.. I’m still in 2 minds about this one. I’ve heard that osa peninsula is better, but we didn’t go so I can’t confirm whether it is better. But I can tell you Manuel Antonio national park is very busy.
Manuel Antonio national park – $16pp kids free
The park has plenty of visible white faced monkeys, but that’s because the tourists we saw actually feed them!
There are also lots of iguanas and sloths, but that was about it. Many people get a guide, but if you look where the guides are stopped you tend to see what they see! To be honest we saw 2 sloths and 2 toucans outside our hostel.
There are a few nice walks in the area, but it’s not an overly huge park. But the beaches were very nice and most people bring a picnic and enjoy a cool off after walking around.
I would, however, really recommend the night tour with Manuel tours. We were collected at 5pm and taken to a private reserve best Manuel Antonio. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we saw so much wildlife. It was so busy and alive in the dark. We saw snakes, spiders, a kinkaju, deers, iguanas, frogs and more…
Manuel’s night Safari cost – $45 & $35
Theres no ‘town’ as such in Manuel Antonio. It’s really a long steep road lined with restaurants and hotels leading down to the beach area.
There are a few parking spots near the beach, but you need to pay COP 3,000 for the day. Be warned there’s a group of men who wave you down and tell you to park further up the road. Ignore them (or run them over like we nearly did 🙈).
If that bothers you, there is a regular bus that you can flag down that takes you to Espadilla beach which is good for a surfing day.
You only need a couple of days max if you plan to visit this area.
Orosi having visited the coffee region in Colombia and loved it that we’d tag on a couple of days at Orosi. There was mention of wild tapir in the nearby national park too.
Alas, this wasn’t on par with Salento and in fact we saw very few coffee plantations. It was definitely nice to have a cool breeze in the mountains.
The pacific side has plenty of nice beaches to enjoy. Again, a car is going to be the easiest way to get around.
We actually enjoyed Tamarindo. It felt like Bali 20 years ago. It’s a big expat community and you can feel it, but it’s still easy going and the beach is pretty nice too, especially at sunset!
I think it helped that we stayed at a pretty cool and sociable hostel, botella de leche. Sometimes you just get a good vibe and this was it for us.
Wet, wet, wet! Well it is a cloud forest! There are lots of activities, as long as your wallet is big enough. To give you an idea…
- Monteverde cloud forest – $25pp / $12pp (6 to 12)
- Santa Elena reserve – $16/$7pp
- Selvatura adventure park – packages start at $50/$45pp up to a whopping $121/$111pp (just wow!!)
- Sky walk with hanging bridges – $41/$28 pp
- Sky tram – $48/$33pp
- Coffee and chocolate tour – $32.90/$14.10pp
- The original canopy tour (ie ziplining) – $45/$25 (under 12)
- Night Safari – $26/$21
It definitely isn’t kind to our budget wallet, but I can see if you came here on holiday and budgeted that you would probably do more activities than we did.
Our gold star day was finding a fig tree to climb for free! It was like winning the lottery, ha ha!
We spent longer than we needed here, but we had some catching up to do and planning for our next leg. So we booked ourselves into a 2 bedroom apartment and had some chill days.
The town itself is small with a handful of shops and eateries.
We ventures out to Arenal observatory for a nice walk, bird watching and to get views of Arenal Volcano. We were actually very lucky to get a nice blue sky day!!
We also visited Termalites del Arenal which is a small thermal water park, but very cheap at only $8pp. I’m not actually convinced it was thermal waters, but there were some hot and cold pools and it was cheap for the area! The kids had a great time and you can bring your own picnic making a day of it!
We did find a FREE rope swing near the river on the outskirts of town, but when we arrived the heavens opened and we were forced to retreat! But it was definitely a popular spot for locals and travellers.
There is also a FREE hot spring near the expensive thermal hot spring resorts. Just type in Free hot spring to Google. We decided not to visit as there was mixed reports about whether the springs were not. I also read that the parking attendances from the hot spring resorts ask you to pay to park your car on a public road now 🤔 (around COP 2,000). It’s certainly an experience if you’ve never been in thermal waters though.
Other places to visit
Santa Teresa – this was mentioned several times to us by a few travellers as a great beach area.
Osa peninsular – we didn’t have time to visit but if travelling along the Pacific side you might want to consider here as an alternative to Manuel Antonio.
Tortuguero national park is only accessible by boat, but this area is meant to be teeming with wildlife and really takes you deep into the jungle.
Is it expensive in Costa Rica?
In a nutshell…Yes!! 😝. But we made sure we had hostels with cooking facilities so that we could reduce costs by not eating out.
It’s predictably easy going for holidaymakers as English is widely spoken (our Spanish isn’t great, so that suited us!). Plus it’s described as the safety Central American country. Needless to say it’s a pretty busy place!
We did find it to be fairly relaxed and getting around was easy even on public transport. We just found that having a car gave us more freedom.
But what we loved most about costa Rica was the nature, beaches and wildlife! I mean we saw sloths everywhere we looked! It’s just a shame that we couldn’t walk around more and explore as it costs to go anywhere!!