Traveling to Costa Rica? I spent hours of research selecting the best destinations. If you’re looking to avoid the homework, below you’ll find my idea of an ideal, 12-day Costa Rica itinerary.
The beauty of this itinerary is that it gives visitors a glimpse into city, mountain, and beach life in Costa Rica – all of which are diverse and so much fun in their own ways! This itinerary does focus on the Pacific side of the country, as this is where the majority of places I was dying to see are.
I’m excluding travel days to and from the country in this itinerary, because depending where you’re traveling from to get to Costa Rica, you may have a very short or a very long flight ahead of you! Also, this itinerary starts and ends in San José, as this is where you can typically get the cheapest flights in and out of the country.
I found San José to be vibrant, fun, and full of life, however, the city itself is somewhat lacking in tourist destinations. With the exception of a few museums and gardens, there isn’t much for the visitor to do here other than get lost in the streets – which can be fun in its own way!
That said, I recommend driving to or taking a tour to nearby sites on this day. I highly recommend visiting Poas Volcano National Park and La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
The journey from San José to Monteverde can be a long one, so it might take up most of your day. That said, I highly recommend the public bus system as the cheapest (and mostly painless) way to get from San José to Monteverde. See Pura Vida: A Costa Rica Travel Guide for details on using the public buses to get to Monteverde.
Day 3 Monteverde
There are so many wonderful things to do in this little mountain town. I highly recommend the guided tour of the cloud forest. I had friends who also did the Skywalk and loved it – I wish I’d allowed myself more time for that! Ziplining, horseback riding, and canoeing are all available here as well.
If you enjoy Mexican food, do yourself a massive favor and eat at Taco, Taco tonight, in downtown Santa Elena/Monteverde. You can thank me later.
Day 4 Monteverde to La Fortuna Travel Day
I’m marking this a travel day, but really, it only takes about 3 hours to get from Monteverde to La Fortuna. I took the “shuttle-boat-shuttle” option to get there, which didn’t leave until 2:00 p.m., so you still have plenty of time to do one last activity in Monteverde today if you’re up with the sun. Ask your hotel in Monteverde for transport recommendations – most will recommend the “shuttle-boat-shuttle” for $25 USD.
Day 5, 6 & 7 La Fortuna
This is where I made my big mistake – I only allowed myself one full day in La Fortuna. While I did make the most of that day enjoying a kayaking adventure down a river in the rainforest, and exploring the town of La Fortuna, I still feel like I missed out on so much in this amazing place.
On the long list of things I wish I’d had time for: Ziplining (they claim some of the best ziplines in the world here!), a trip to Baldi Hot Springs, a hiking or horseback riding excursion to Arenal Volcano, and a hike to La Fortuna Waterfall.
Day 8 La Fortuna to Tamarindo Travel Day
Also marking this as a travel day, but I used a private group transport to get to Tamarindo. They picked me up at 8:00 a.m. and I was on the beach by 2:00 p.m., so I didn’t really feel like this day was wasted. See Pura Vida: A Costa Rica Travel Guide to learn more about booking private group transfers.
Day 9, 10, & 11 Tamarindo
Ah, Tamarindo. This not-so-sleepy little beach town has my heart. Here I ate delicious food, drank some of the best cocktails of ever had, got ultra-tan, and went salsa dancing. Talk about the ultimate beach vacation!
While there are plenty of excursions you can take from Tamarindo (think: sunset sailing cruises), they were all a bit romantic for my tastes as a single-girl solo traveler. Instead, I just enjoyed the sounds of the town and truly, completely relaxed for the first time in my travels this year. It was heaven!
Okay, now we’re going to talk food (I did a lot of eating in Tamarindo – what else is a single girl to do?)
Do yourself the biggest favor you can possibly do yourself and be sure to eat at El Chilito Mexican Grill. If you like Chipotle, you’ll be familiar with the format. You choose either tacos, a burrito, or a bowl, and run down the line selecting your ingredients. The owners make every salsa fresh daily based on available ingredients and old family recipes, and the guac is simply to die for.
The second favor you should do yourself is to have a sunset meal and cocktails at Nogui’s, right on the beach. There’s no better setting for a romantic meal, and the food is absolutely delicious. I’ll be honest…I ate here more than once. The shrimp tacos and chicken kebabs were both fantastic.
Finally, get your butt over to “Suck My Cocktails!” (I can feel my parents cringing right now as they read this smut their daughter is posting on her blog). But really…this bar had some of the best cocktails I’ve ever had. Every drink, from the kiwi and watermelon mojitos to the pineapple rum, was nothing short of delicious. They also run a lot of 2-for-1 drink specials throughout the week, so keep your eyes peeled for deals.
Day 12 Tamarindo to San José Travel Day
You’re looking at another 5-hour public bus ride on this day (maybe 4 hours if you do private group transport). I chose to leave on the 2:00 p.m. bus so that I could still have the morning in Tamarindo – and another burrito at El Chilito.
Have you visited Costa Rica? Which other destinations would you add to this itinerary! Let me know in the comments below!