Costa Rica - in 1 week


This is a basic must-see and must-do auto trip, good if this is your first time in Costa Rica. It's like a balanced portfolio: you'll drive a lot of scenic roads, see a lot of wild life, swim in the ocean and in waterfalls, soak in hot springs, hike in rain forest jungles, have fun riding canopy etc. 

The best way to enjoy Costa Rica is a car, and by our experience the overall cost turns out to be not more than equivalent all inclusive experience.


Day 1

Rent a car and drive from San Jose airport to Quepos

When you look for a flight, make sure that your plane lands not too late, ideally before 2-3 PM Costa Rican time. To save time it makes sense, if you can, even to travel without luggage, which is normally not a problem for a one week trip because you don't need winter clothes or heavy boots. You need about an hour to rent a car and start driving to the South. All car rental companies are approximately in 10-15 min shuttle from the airport, and when you book a car they instruct you to wait for your shuttle right outside of the airport building.

You should know that Costa Rica is very close to the equator and sunset is quick, almost like someone just turns off the light. It's approximately 3.5 hours drive from the San Jose airport to Quepos, and to make major of it with daylight you need to take off at least by 3:30, 4PM tops.

If your timing is not so lucky and you are not able to do that, better plan to stay one night in San Jose and begin your trip next morning as early as possible. Driving in Costa Rica is safe but roads on the South don't have a lot of lights, you share them with bikers, pedestrians and occasional armadillo. And off course you need a GPS. If you don't have one with a map of Costa Rica, rent it with a car. Those rented Garmins are usually very talkative. If you pass by something interesting, it will tell you a story every time.

On your way: 

Crocodile Bridge in Tarcoles - cannot miss it and must see but remember that you are on a clock, so don't spend too much time staring at those guys.

Sunset over the Pacific in Jaco - if you are lucky and not too late you probably will catch the breath taking view of it. Even if not, don't worry - tomorrow it will be even better.

Assuming that you reach Quepos somewhat between 6:30 and 8PM, you still have enough time to check in your accommodation, take a shower and go for dinner to one of the countless restaurants on both sides of the 618 road going up to Manuel Antonio. El Arado can be a good choice - it's not on the main street, i.e. relatively quiet and cozy. To have first day dinner there with a whole fried fish and a couple of "Bavaria Gold" bears was our tradition for a few years in a row. "Bavaria" by the way is just a local brand, not imported from Germany as one might think, but I like it more than dominating "Imperial".

If you feel that you are late for dinner out and if your accommodation offers a kitchenette or at least a microwave, it makes sense to stop by a Maxi Pali supermarket right at the left side of the fork of Costanera Sur to Quepos, and buy something to drink and to bite. Maxi Pali is a full size grocery store, they even sell grilled chicken which we often take advantage of, it's very good and much cheaper than going out every night. If you cook, they have everything you need in one stop. Even if you plan to go out, it still make sense to load your small fridge with some fruits, soda, bear or even wine. Bananas are cheap, we always take some as a beach snack.

Day 2

Rainmaker & Manuel Antonio National Park

Rainmaker - life time experience of swimming in a waterfall. Every time we go to Costa Rica we look around a new place and try to figure out where is that waterfall we'll swim in this time. We did quite a few of them, but Rainmaker's is surely the best, like a classic. All you need to do is to drive about 30 min (4X4 is not necessary), and to come here early. 20 min scenic hike through the real jungles, with a number of bridges and stairs, small rivers and big blue butterflies, and you'll enjoy the waterfall all for yourselves. Once more people start coming, you hike up to the upper trail and walk back enjoying all the green, mountain views and taking pictures.

Manuel Antonio National Park. You can go to the park either early in the morning, if you prefer to spend a day on a nice beach, or in the afternoon, in our case after Rainmaker. In our experience, the entire day on beach can be exhausting or even dangerous (have lots of sun screen!), but half a day relaxation after lunch is exactly what we are looking for on a vacation.

Tip: when you drive to the park, a lot of very officially looking men will jump in front of your car, make directional signs with both hands and aggressively offer parking. Unless you want to buy a "guided tour with a secret passage to the park" from them and then walk to the entrance a kilometer or two, don't stop, ignore them all and carefully drive till the very end of the 618 road. There is a parking lot there (the cheapest one!), and it's in 3 min walk to the only entrance where you buy tickets ($16 per adult) and where you can pick a tour guide for yourself if you do want one. In our opinion, those "guided tours" are ridiculously overpriced, you definitely can see everything still see-able in the park, and which worth to see, for free. Unless you specifically interested in bats, snakes, frogs, bugs and spiders which you probably will never spot on your own, all guide's stories about "park history" and wildlife you can google and read yourself. We observed the last 12 years of that park history with our own eyes, and it's not incredible.

Once you are tired of relaxing, follow the signs, and at the exit from the park you can take a cool shower. If you followed our advise and parked your car at the very end of 618, you'll exit the park in 1 minute from your car. 

Now it's time to complete this long day with a nice dinner at El Avión. "El Avión, the world famous, must-see and be-seen restaurant and bar in Manuel Antonio has a colorful and fascinating history. The C-123 Fairchild cargo plane has been converted to a pub and a two level bar and restaurant has been built in, around and above the plane. Everyone agrees, El Avion has the best views in all of Manuel Antonio! Join our sunset crew - where the cargo cult meets the cocktail crowd. Enjoy informal dining, an extensive menu a great bar scene and views of our most spectacular sunsets into the Blue Pacific Ocean below". Cannot agree more, definitely suggest.

Day 3

National Park Marino Ballena & Naujaca Waterfalls

Today we have plans for two places: 

National Park Marino Ballena where you can go to Whale & Dolphin Tour (Combination Tour) or something else - depending on your preferences you can either go on a morning boat tour at 8:30 and be back by noon and then go to Baru River, or go to Naujaca (Baru) Waterfalls first and then go to the afternoon boat (1:30 - 5PM). I am not sure do people see more whales and/or dolphins on the morning tour or on the afternoon, but Pacific's preparations for the sunset maybe worth to catch, and you can simply spend some time on the beach after the tour and enjoy an extremely relaxing sunset swimming.

If you liked yesterday's experience, Naujaca (Baru) Waterfalls is another one for you. Compared to Rainmaker, it's more challenging hike but bigger pool, higher waterfalls and no canopy bridges. There are two routes and entrances, one with a long hike, another with a short one. If you go to the waterfalls first, you drive from Quepos and probably should use the first "Naujaca Waterfalls" entrance and longer hike. If you go to the boat tour first, then you drive from Uvita and in our opinion short hike and second "Baru Waterfalls" entrance is more convenient.


As to where to eat today, you'll figure something out. There are plenty of good places in Uvita and on 243. What you'll probably like is that small restaurants higher in the mountains are very friendly and not expensive. For instance, if you happen to drive between Naujaca and Baru entrances, stop by El Guindo Del Sabor. They have a nice view, good food and very inexpensive. By the way, we've noticed that restaurant prices in touristy areas like Manuel Antonio or Uvita doubled, if not tripled in the past 10 years, mostly because US expats are buying businesses and real estate there like crazy. In the mountains is not that bad yet, but give it probably another 10 years.

Day 4

Long day drive from Quepos to Baldi Hot Springs

Man, this is a long drive. You can even split it in two days if you are not comfortable with all day driving, but there are a few things to consider before you decide to do it or not.

First of all, there are two volcanoes we are suggesting to drop by on your way: Irazu and Poas. Irazu we tried four times and only two times were lucky. The problem is that once your car climbs up to the mountain, it may be so cloudy there that you don't even see the hood of your car. Unfortunately you never know in advance and see it only once you are at the entrance. Off course it does not make sense to pay $20 if you cannot see anything, so in this case you simply make a U-turn and drive to the next stop, and it cuts the overall time of your trip by 1.5-2 hours.

If your luck with Irazu is bad, as it happened to us twice, Poas is your emergency plan B. The iconic green lake is also green at Poas. If Irazu weather cooperates, you have an option either to skip Poas, or to do both and compare.

Second of all, the drive through Dominical and the mountains is very scenic. There are plenty of nice stops you can enjoy on your way, get out from the car, stretch your legs, have lunch break etc. - so it's much more enjoyable than exhausting. We did this one day trip at least twice, so I am responsibly saying: it's doable, you just need to get up with sunrise. Alternatively, you can drive the same way back to San Jose and then through it, it's faster, but less fun.

By the way, for lunch we suggest a nice place right below Irazu, you cannot miss it. 

At the end, according to our plan, you check in to Baldi Hot Springs Resort and Spa, and that is where this long trip suffering goes away in a matter of minutes. But don't wash it all off today, leave some fun for tomorrow. 



In Baldi, there are two in-house restaurants: Virgita at the front, and Pyramid on the top, where you can enjoy the volcano view. You can pay for a buffet option ($22 pp), and it's not bad for a 1st time eater, but for pretty much the same price you definitely can do better in some nice place outside, and there are many. If you like sea food, try La Caribeña. If you are a steak person - Rana Roja is a good choice, and it has volcano view too if you take a right (well, left actually) table. If you like pizza, go to Italy or anywhere else but don't order it in Virgita.


If you were not able to book a room at Baldi or you feel that stay at Baldi is a little bit out of your price range, there are plenty of cheaper hotels, motels, B&Bs, apartments and villas around. But at least a day pass at Baldi you must try, it includes all day soaking and buffet lunch and/or dinner. But it's tomorrow.

Day 5

Arenal

Lots of fun - coming soon

Day 6

Monteverde


Frankly, I would never check out from Baldi, but itinerary is itinerary, we all must leave by the plan. Leave early in the morning and drive through Nuevo Arenal, all the way to the west side around the lake, and then to the south through Tilaran in direction to Santa Elena and Monteverde. The drive is scenic, you'll see bamboo forest, surfing people on the lake, wind turbines (100% of Costa Rican energy is green!) and Arenal volcano dominating over all of it.

Once you arrive to Santa Elena clouds, the remainder of day you'll spend in the mountains, it probably will be chilly and wet, - have the right clothes.

On your list for today:

Monteverde Sky Aerial

Monteverde Butterfly Garden

Ecological Sanctuary

Monteverde Orchid Garden

The Original Canopy Tour

Wildlife Refuge

Don Juan Coffee Tours. We have not been on Don Juan Coffee Tour in 2007, but in 2014 we stopped by a very similar one with Doka Estate, and it was quite educational. If you like coffee, take a look. 

Day 7

Back to airport and flight home


Don't forget to fill up the tank before returning your car.

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