How To Create The Perfect Costa Rica Itinerary

Are you planning a vacation to Costa Rica? A long-time travel consultant talks about how to create the perfect Costa Rica itinerary for a first-time trip to this Central American country.

Once upon a time I was a travel consultant here in Costa Rica, working for Namu Travel.

People interested in a Costa Rica vacation contacted me and I would put together a customized itinerary for them based on the time they had, what they wanted to experience, and their budget. Other factors like number of people and time of year also came into play.

I did this for a long time and I still receive occasional emails and referrals from former clients, asking me to arrange another trip for them or their friends. Nowadays I pass these onto one of Namu’s other travel consultants, who are better than I ever was.

That said, I picked up a thing or two over my twelve years as a travel consultant. And one of those things was how to put together the perfect Costa Rica itinerary.

I’m aware it’s not rocket science.

No-one will ever win a Nobel prize for planning vacations. Our itinerary emails will never win a Pulitzer (neither will my articles here, but I’ve made my peace with that!).

But if you’re not familiar with Costa Rica, planning a vacation here can be daunting. Look at the expat Facebook groups down here. Every day someone asks where they should go or what should they visit first. This country can confuse you.

Costa Rica isn’t like some other vacation destinations where you can stay in one place and experience everything.  

You can stay in one place, sure. Plenty do and that’s fine. If you’re just looking for a beach resort with a great pool and round-the-clock margaritas, that’s cool. We have such places.

But I’d suggest you’re better off in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic or Mexico if you prefer a relaxing week in a beach resort.

It’s much cheaper.

Indeed, many in Costa Rica go to Cancun or San Andreas for easy, all-inclusive beach vacations at a great price.

This is one of the first things a good Costa Rica travel consultant will tell a prospective client.

It’s all about managing expectations, you see. If you want to experience the best of Costa Rica, move around.

To experience the best of Costa Rica you should stay in smaller, more boutique, individual accommodations. If you’re planning a vacation here, it’s worthwhile knowing that.

This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with chilling at a great resort. And we have plenty here in Costa Rica where you can stay. But we recommend traveling first.

To someone used to resort-style vacations, that can be off-putting.

But it needn’t be. With an adventurous spirit and a little knowledge, you can create the perfect Costa Rica itinerary and make the most of your vacation here.

So where do you start?

Well, when planning your Costa Rican itinerary, you start how I used to start with my clients.

You start with what you wish to see/do and how much time you have.

Ask yourself why Costa Rica? What have you found out about the place?

Like I said, you didn’t hear Costa Rica was a great place for a cheap all-inclusive on a white-sand beach with turquoise waters.

So what did you find out? Allow me to make an educated guess.

You read somewhere or someone told you Costa Rica was excellent for animals and wildlife, more of an adventure destination and the home of “eco-tourism”. You want to go zip lining, you want to see the rainforest. Oh yeah, and you want to check out the beach!

You have a week. A week is about the length of a North American’s Costa Rican vacation. Europeans tend to stay for longer – at least 10-14 nights.

You look at a map and you see Costa Rica is tiny.    

You figure you can stay in one place and travel all over the country from there, seeing everything you want to see. Or you go the other way and figure you can go to four or five areas in a week.

Keeping it real, you can’t go either of these routes. Or you can. But you shouldn’t.

Costa Rica might be small but the roads – although better than they used to be – aren‘t good. It takes a while to get from A to B. So too much traveling means more time in a car, bus, or transfer van. That means less time doing the cool stuff you came here to do.

A good travel consultant will explain all this to the potential traveler. They’ll suggest that for a week, two places is perfect.

When you’re creating your Costa Rica itinerary, if you have a week, two places is enough. Beyond that, if you want to add more destinations to your trip, a rule-of-thumb is to add two or three nights to your vacation per destination.

So if you want to check out three destinations, consider coming for nine to ten nights. Four destinations, at least 12 nights. And so on.

As long as you know you won’t see everything in a week, you’re halfway there. And now you’ve got an excuse to return another time and check out other areas!

So back to your week. Where are you going to go?

Well, if you’re anything like most tourists, you want all the adventure and nature stuff plus beach.

For a week-long trip, that means the La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano area for the adventure. They don’t call this the adventure capital of Central America for nothing. Chances are if you’ve seen a photo or watched a video of someone rafting, zip lining, hiking, and all that good stuff, it was around here. Great for couples, families, groups, and individual travelers alike, the Arenal area is unmissable. Especially for your first trip.

And after that, either the Central Pacific (Jaco, Esterillos, Manuel Antonio) or Guanacaste (Tamarindo, Coco, etc) for the beach. That is the archetypical, classic Costa Rica vacation and perfect for a first-timer.

If you fly in and out of San Jose (SJO), then the Central Pacific is better for the beach part. If Liberia (LIR) is your airport, then you’ll stay in Guanacaste for the beach part. You can get to the La Fortuna/Arenal area in less than four hours from both airports.

Now you might wonder which airport is better for you.

Well, that depends on where you’re coming from, which I don’t know. I can say if you want a resort for the beach part of your trip then Liberia is better. Guanacaste is where most of the all-inclusive resorts in Costa Rica are.

But if you want your beach part to be as adventurous as your La Fortuna/Arenal part, then consider flying in and out of San Jose and staying on the Central Pacific after Arenal. Manuel Antonio offers about as much nature and adventure as Arenal, without the volcano shenanigans.

If you’re wondering why we recommend Arenal before the beach, it’s because most people want to end their vacations relaxing. You can, of course, do the beach first, if you prefer. But if you’ve ever eased your sunburnt body into steaming hot volcanic hot springs and felt that pain, you might want to reconsider. Consider that an expert tip. Beach is better last.

So, to summarize, it’s simple (hey I said it wasn’t rocket science!): To get the most out of Costa Rica in a week, with easy travel times, consider the options outlined above. Know that you can stay in one place, but you’ll make it harder to do all you want to do.

Let’s now take a look at some longer trips, say a two-week Costa Rica itinerary.

You’re either from Europe or you got time on your hands. Either way, congrats! Costa Rica is excellent for a week, but it’s better for two. You’ll see more and also relax more.

Again, think of the core of your vacation as La Fortuna/Arenal and the beach. Or even two beaches. A great trip here would be to do Arenal and Manuel Antonio like discussed above. That would be adventure-packed. And then head up to a resort in Guanacaste to do nothing for six or seven nights. Best of both worlds.

You could also add in some nights in Monteverde (for the cloud forests and cooler climes) after Arenal. Say four nights Arenal, three nights Monteverde, seven nights beach (Central Pacific or Guanacaste).

If you’re feeling more adventurous, how about a night in San Jose followed by a flight over to Tortuguero on the Caribbean side or down to the Osa Peninsula in the southern Pacific zone? Both places are a nature and wildlife-lover’s dream. Or head to some of the harder-to-reach places on the Nicoya Peninsula. After that, fly back to San Jose and do the Arenal plus beach loop.

Your options are more open with a two-week itinerary.

A point to remember about airports and domestic flights.      

When putting together a Costa Rica itinerary, try to never arrange a domestic flight on the same day as an international flight.

If you’re going to or coming from some place by plane, give yourself a night near your international airport before or after.

For example, if you’re returning from the Osa, don’t do it on the same day you’re leaving. Delays are not unheard of, especially during the green season. You don’t want to miss your flight home.

Again, this isn’t complicated stuff here. But if you don’t know the country, it can seem like it is.

But a little research and planning can be the difference between doing Costa Rica like a pro or finding yourself stuck in a place you don’t want to be, miles from where you do want to be.

This goes for whether you’re rolling deep in luxury or backpacking around on public buses. The premise is the same.

If it gets overwhelming for you, hit up a travel consultant. Like I said, these guys are better than I was, and can make the whole planning process seamless for you.

So get planning your Costa Rica itinerary. What are you waiting for?

James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.