Classic Costa Rica Travel Itinerary – Monteverde, Arenal & Manuel Antonio

Every year, thousands of travelers make their way to Costa Rica. They’re drawn to the country’s vast biodiversity, beautiful landscapes, and brag-worthy superlatives. They want to see monkeys and sloths, active volcanoes and mineral hot springs. They want to stroll sandy beaches and cloud forest paths, ancient lava fields and waterfall trails. They want to experience the best, the most iconic, the most photogenic sights (and sites) in this small, yet incredibly diverse tropical paradise.

They want to experience classic Costa Rica.  

Day 1: From Concrete Jungle to Ethereal Cloud Forests

Even before your plane touches down, even as you descend through the clouds and catch your first glimpse of Costa Rica – of craggy mountains and smoking volcano, of sprawling valley and waving palm fronds – you know that something special awaits. Something tropical. Something exotic. And perhaps something a little bit magical.

Welcome to Costa Rica! A private driver is waiting at the airport to ferry you from San José (technically, Alajuela) to Monteverde, a mountaintop hideaway straight out of fairy tales. It’s an enclave of misty cloud forests and roaring rivers, of old-fashioned cheese and handmade ice cream, of sloths hanging above the road and monkeys howling in the distance. It’s a paradise of emerald-covered everything – of a million shades of green, each worthy of its own creatively named crayon color.

Our advice: It’s been a long day of travel, so take it easy tonight. Take a walk around town – you can stay in Santa Elena, Cerro Plano, or Monteverde (they’re all considered “Monteverde,” and they’re all within a few minutes’ drive of each other) – and grab a bite to eat. Despite Monteverde’s secluded feel, there’s some truly great grub to be had.

Travel time: About 2.5 hours

Transportation: Today, for convenience and comfort, we really recommend you splash out on a private driver (about $). If you book a shared shuttle or public bus, you’ll probably be waiting for hours at the airport. A rental car is also doable, but be aware that when it comes to Costa Rican roads (and drivers), you’re not in Kansas anymore! Avoid driving at night.

Optional: If you’re itching to get the adventure started today, book a Night Hike at one of the local reserves (Monteverde, Santa Elena, Cerro Plano, or the Children’s Eternal Rainforest).

Did You Know: At the very end of a meandering dirt road, sits the hilltop town of Monteverde, a cloud forest enclave with an Alpine feel. Founded by Quakers in the 1950s, what was once mountaintop pastureland is today a paradise of nature reserves, coffee and cheese production, wildlife (and lots of it!), and emerald-colored everything. You don’t know green until you’ve seen the many shades and hues of Monteverde!

Day 2: Hiking, Flying and Tram’ing

The day begins with a morning hike through Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, a 765-acre private cloud forest. The morning light filters through the forest canopy, and dew-covered orchids, epiphytes and dazzling mosses adorn every tree, every bridge, every stone, every and surface. Be on the lookout for hummingbirds (30 species of them!), toucans, monkeys, coatis and kinkajous. And if the day is fortuitous (and the season right), you may spot resplendent quetzals on your walk (best months: April and May).

In the afternoon, head to Selvatura Adventure Park for a heart-pounding canopy tour and aerial tram. Also on offer: hanging bridges, a Superman zipline (talk about adrenaline!), butterfly and hummingbird gardens, and more. You can build your own afternoon, suited to your specific interests (and adventure level).

Transportation: If you’ve rented a car, excellent. If not, book your tours with transportation included. Taxis are also viable, although it can be hard to catch one quickly in the early morning or late at night.

Optional: If you took it easy last night, book a Night Hike tonight at one of the local reserves (Monteverde, Santa Elena, Cerro Plano, or the Children’s Eternal Rainforest).

Day 3: Over Land, Over Lake

Today’s question: How active do you want to get?

Monteverde and Arenal may be close as the crow flies, but it’s always an adventure getting from one to the other. Embrace the challenge on an iconic van-boat-van transfer, or go big with a horseback trek or mountain biking extravaganza – both guided (your bags are transferred separately, no worries).

Once you arrive in La Fortuna, have a look around. In the early afternoon, head to your choice of hot springs (get the dinner package): Tabacon, the most iconic and idyllic (and expensive, at $85+ per person); Baldi, a mix of tranquil hot springs and kid-friendly water park; Eco Termales, a small and more sophisticated affair; The Springs, a very upscale and luxe complex (with a super-value, ~$60 two-day hot springs pass); or any of the other dozen hot springs in the area.

Tip: Choose a hotel with hot springs, and you can roll the cost of the hot springs right into your room.

Travel Time: For a car-boat-car trip, you’re looking at about 3 hours. Tack on additional activities or tours, and you’re looking at 5-6 hours. Budget 3.5 hours for a drive in your rental car (or private driver). A shared shuttle takes about 4-4.5 hours.

Transportation: The easiest (and most fun) way from Monteverde to Arenal is the classic Jeep-boat-Jeep. You can also hoof it (literally – on horseback), bike it, or drive it.

Optional: If you hate the idea of a wasted travel day, book an “adventure connection,” which combines your transportation with a coffee and chocolate tour.

Did You Know: La Fortuna, the beloved adventure capital of Costa Rica, sits at the base of the towering Arenal Volcano, proud owner to one of the world’s most perfect (and picture-perfect) volcanic cones. While the volcano’s once fiery activity has calmed significantly, Arenal is still one of the hottest destinations in Costa Rica, thanks to its relaxing hot springs, adventure activities, and stunning scenery.

Day 4: A Full Day in Arenal

There’s a reason why La Fortuna is dubbed “the adventure capital of Costa Rica” – it’s an adventure from morning until night! Start your day with an early morning hike along Arenal’s famed hanging bridges, a 2-mile trail (including 16 suspended bridges) through flourishing rainforest. Tip: Visit early to see more birds.

After your first hike, gear up for another! Because now you’re headed to La Fortuna Waterfall – drive or horseback ride in – where you’ll descend nearly 500 steps (later to ascend, so save your energy!) to view a roaring waterfall that tumbles into a baby-blue pool. Take a swim in the river below, then make your way back up to the entrance.

Tonight, book yourself into a hot springs. Relax. You’ve earned it!

Day 5: Adventure En Route to Manuel Antonio

When time is limited, we believe in making the best of it. And in the case of swapping La Fortuna for Manuel Antonio, there are three great ways to take advantage of travel time via adventure connections: Bundle a day of travel with a Carara National Park tour, or a crocodile tour, or whitewater rafting (class II-III). Take your pick!

Once you arrive in Manuel Antonio, settle in. Get a feel for your hotel. And definitely, absolutely, do not miss the sunset. It’s spectacular here! Tip: Several (more than several, really) great restaurants have spectacular sunset views, among them Barba Roja, El Gato Negro, Ronny’s Place, and El Avión, a Manuel Antonio icon landmarked by an old airplane.

Sidebar (or some sort of delineation): There’s a reason Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s hottest destinations: It’s paradise. Palms and sea almonds canopy powder-soft, white sands. Dramatic cliffs rise to breezy bluffs and sweeping views. Dolphins and whales are frequently spotted. Troupes of mischievous monkeys, including the critically endangered Central American squirrel monkey, swing by your window. As we said – paradise!

Travel Time: If you’re driving (rental car or private driver), plan on 4.5-5 hours. If you’re traveling via adventure connection, budget 9-10 hours. Shared shuttles take about 5.5-6 hours.

Day 6: Where Rainforest Meets the Sea

At under 4,500 acres, Manuel Antonio National Park may be one of the smallest in the country, but it’s also one of the most biodiverse. In addition to housing all of Costa Rica’s monkey species (including the adorable and critically endangered Central American squirrel monkey), the park is home to two- and three-toed sloths, agoutis, armadillos, iguanas and hundreds of other mammal and reptiles species.

But it’s the park’s ethereal beauty that’ll really get you: Here, super lush rainforest stops only where soil transitions to sand – in other words, at the park’s four pristine, white-sand beaches, which are lined with palms and sea almonds. Gentle waves beckon you to take a dip in the aquamarine Pacific, or simply to stroll with your feet in the sand.

Tip: If you’re a nature junkie, definitely splash out on a private guide ($25-$50 per person), who will spot things you didn’t even know existed.

Day 7: Adiós, Costa Rica!

Today, you head back to San José for your flight home. Adiós! We hope you had a great time.

Travel Time: Budget 3 hours for the drive from Manuel Antonio to San José. If you’re really tight on time – psst! You need to arrive at SJO a full 3 hours before your flight – consider taking a local flight from Quepos to SJO (25 minutes, around $60-$100 per person). Shared shuttles take about 4.5 hours.

Add-ons: If you have an extra day or two in Manuel Antonio, consider booking a mangrove kayaking tour, a canopy tour, a surfing lesson, sea kayaking, a snorkeling + sunset catamaran cruise, a rainforest spices tour at Villa Vanilla, and so much more. There are a ton of options in Manuel Antonio!

Too many details, too little time? Hand off your trip to a Costa Rica travel pro. Their services are free (find out why) and their knowledge is vast. Consider it your Costa Rica easy button.


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