Ultimate 7-day Costa Rica Itinerary for Adventure Travelers
Ultimate 7-day Costa Rica Itinerary for Adventure Travelers

Ultimate 7-day Costa Rica Itinerary for Adventure Travelers

It can be hard to figure out a 7-day Costa Rica itinerary. There are simply too many great spots to visit in this beautiful country that you don’t know what to include and what not.

I spent a total of 3 months in the Central American paradise and during this time was able to visit many destinations. And as someone who loves the outdoors, I always picked locations that had lots in store for nature lovers.

In this guide, I’ve curated some top-notch suggestions for how to spend a week in Costa Rica for tourists who love being in nature and doing adventurous activities. So, if that sounds like you, then you should read on.

Hiring a rental car

Before we get to the itineraries, I want to quickly explain why I highly recommend hiring a car for your 7 days in Costa Rica.

A week will fly by and the last thing you want is to waste time on buses traveling between locations. While different parts of the country are connected with coach services, the journeys tend to be long and cumbersome.

Two people in. a car. One is driving and the other is in the front passenger seat.
Image credit: André Luís Alves Campos / Unsplash

Hiring a car is the ideal solution. The cheapest vehicles should set you back around $50 US/day and SUVs at least $100 US/day. You might also need to buy insurance from the rental company. 

 To hire a car in Costa Rica you’ll need:

  • To be at least 21-25 (depends on the company)
  • Have an original, valid international driving license (photocopies/temporary licenses aren’t allowed)
  • Have a valid passport and tourism visa stamp

I don’t have experience renting a car in Costa Rica so I can’t personally recommend any companies. But my advice would be to go directly to a rental company to cut out any middle men. There are rental companies at San José International Airport.          

Shuttle buses, private shuttles and public transport

If hiring a car isn’t on the cards for you, then there are plenty of shuttle bus companies in Costa Rica. Shuttle buses carry around 10 people and, as they don’t stop along the way, get you between destinations much faster than a normal bus.

However, shuttle buses aren’t that much cheaper…especially private shuttles. For example, a shuttle from San José to La Fortuna (3 h) costs around $50 US one way. The same journey in a private shuttle can cost over $200 US.  

A white minibus.
Image credit: Dave Kim / Unsplash

That said, if you’re in a group, then a private shuttle might work out relatively cheaply per person depending on how many people you are and the journey. Accommodations usually work with shuttle bus companies so you should be able to sort one at your reception.

If your budget only allows for traveling by standard public transport, then I’d only recommend planning such a short time in Costa Rica if the places you want to visit are close to each other.

This is because bus journeys always end up taking longer than planned. I traveled Costa Rica by bus and my rule of thumb was to add an extra 2 h to the estimated journey time.

7-day Costa Rica itineraries

So here are my suggested week-long adventure travel itineraries for Costa Rica. Each itinerary assumes that days 1 and 7 are travel days and that the start and end point for the week is San José, the capital city.

7-day Costa Rica Itinerary 1: southern region

Destinations: San José / Drake Bay / Chirripó National Park / San José

Day 1: arrive in San José

First things first, sort your car rental. Then, get to your accommodation. If you want to do something in the city, I recommend a free guided walking tour. The next morning you’ll be heading to Drake Bay when the adventure will truly begin.

An old building among newer-style buildings in San Jose, Costa Rica.
San José old buildings

Day 2: get to Drake Bay

The drive takes roughly 4 h and you’ll need to go to a town called Sierpe. At Sierpe you can park your car at Don Jorge or at Las Vegas restaurant. This will cost you around $8 per night. It’s not a good idea to leave anything in the car.

From Sierpe you need to take a speed boat to Drake Bay. These leave twice daily: at 11:00 and 15:30. If you want to make the first boat, you’ll need to leave San José no later than 6:00. The boat ride costs $20 US per person and you buy tickets from Donde Jorge restaurant right next to where the boat departs.

You can read my complete guide to Drake Bay where I explain everything you need to know about visiting this amazing cove.

A boat drops passengers at a beach during sunset.
Sunset arrivals at Drake Beach

The speedboat journey is 1 h long and you pass by mangrove forests and beautiful beaches. The boat drops you at Drake Bay beach and you’ll have to wade ashore in shin-deep water. About a 5-minute walk up the hill from the beach is Agujitas, the main town in Drake Bay.

If you catch the earlier boat from Sierpe, then you should arrive with half the day to spare. I recommend dropping your things off at your accommodation and then heading down to Drake Beach to swim.

Brown and red leaves on a tree illuminated by sunset. The tree is on a beach.
Sunset at Drake Beach

Day 3: Drake Bay Trail

While Drake Beach is beautiful, there are other, more serene, virgin beaches a few kilometres away along the coast. You can reach these by walking the Drake Bay Trail. This mostly flat trail follows the coastline for miles and miles taking you through lush rainforest.

Thick tree roots in a rainforest.
Drake Bay Trail

You can walk to your heart’s content, but keep in mind you’ll also need to walk back. I recommend going as far as Playa San Josécito. This is a small, untouched beach about 10 km from Drake Bay. It’s a great spot to go for a dip after the long, but fun walk.

A virgin beach. There are palm trees in the background and rocks in the foreground.
Playa San Josecito

Back in Drake Bay, I recommend heading to a restaurant for a well-earned dinner. Here’s my complete guide to Drake Bay for more information about the place.

Day 4: Corcovado National Park day tour

One of Costa Rica’s best highlights has to be Corcovado National Park. It’s a haven for immersing yourself in nature and spotting wildlife. You need to join a guided tour to enter the national park and prices typically start at $100 US per person for a day tour. This includes guide fees, entrance fees, boat transport and lunch.

These tours are well worth the money. My guide was extremely knowledgeable and helped us spot howler monkeys, tapirs, a boa constrictor and other species.

Day tours to Corcovado usually start with an 8:00 boat ride to the Sirena Station. Then you have 4 h in the national park before returning by boat at around 13:30. This gives you chance to pack your things and get back to Sierpe to drive 2 h 30 min to the next destination, San Gerardo de Rivas, just outside Chirripó National Park.

Day 5: Cerro Chirripó hike day 1

Hiking Cerro Chirripó is the ultimate outdoor adventure in Costa Rica. It’s the tallest peak in the country, sitting pretty at 3,821 m, and is generally considered a tough climb. Hardcore hikers can summit and return in a day, but most people do it over 2 days. I recommend the latter

Day 1 of the hike starts from the quaint town of San Gerardo de Rivas. There are a few hotels here starting at around $50 US/night. From your accommodation walk to the trailhead to begin the 8 h ascent to Crestone’s Basecamp.

A yellow church atop a small hill. There are mountains and fog in the background.
San Gerardo de Rivas Church

Each kilometre of the hike is sign posted and the trail is obvious so you shouldn’t get lost. There are flat sections, moderate sections and steep sections meaning it’s tough to find a rhythm on this hike. This adds to the challenge. The trail is mostly under cover of lush forest with valley views between the trees.

A hiking trail in a forest.
Cerro Chirripó trail

The day ends at Crestone’s, a lodge 5 km from the summit. Spend the night here, get some grub in you and hit the sack early for a 2:00 start the next morning to reach the summit for sunrise.

Day 6: Cerro Chirripó hike day 2

Day 2 of the hike is when the magic really happens. It’s a further 3 h from Crestone’s to the summit and on a clear night the Milky Way is visible once you leave the light pollution from the basecamp behind.

Milky Way Galaxy
The Milky Way as seen from Chirripó trail

The final push to the summit is steep and you’ll need to scramble in some sections. From the top the sunrise is incredible. Seas of clouds swirl in the valleys below and the peaks of distant mountains are visible. The sky turns an array of colours as the sun moves through the sky.

A man stood atop a mountain smiling at the camera.

Getting back down to San Gerardo from the summit takes around 6 h but can be done faster.

Hiking Chirripó requires planning. You need to book your park entrance through the SINAC website along with your night in Crestone’s and meals. Only 50 people are allowed into the park each day so you need to book well in advance—I’m talking at least 1 month to be safe. The rates are:

  • National park entrance: $18 US/day
  • Crestone’s Basecamp: $35 US/night
  • Meals in Crestone’s: around $12 US/each

Day 7: return San José

The final day is spent back in San José. From San Gerardo de Rivas it takes between 2-3 h to drive there. So, if you’re feeling up to it, you could get back to the capital city the same day you get down from Chirripó.

Depending on what time you get back to the city and when your onward travel is, if you haven’t already, I recommend doing a walking tour. This is the best way to see the city without having to do any planning. If you’ve already done a walking tour, then why not take the chance to head to a restaurant for one last local meal. 

A man outstretches his arm to touch a glass panel in front of him. The sunset illuminates him from the side.
Sunset views from Hilton balcony bar, San Jose

7-day Costa Rica Itinerary 2: mid/northern region

Destinations: San José / Bajos del Toro / La Fortuna / Poás Volcano / San José

Day 1: arrive in San José

The first thing to sort is your car rental. Once that’s done, head to your accommodation and unwind. If you’ve arrived in time, then I recommend a free guided walking tour of the city.

An old, golden post office building stands in front of a tall bank tower.
San José mail office

Day 2: Bajos del Toro

This is a waterfall region wedged between the Poás and Juan Castro Blanco national parks, roughly 2 h driving from San José. Bajos del Toro is home to quite a few waterfalls and with a car you can explore many of them.

The most impressive waterfalls are:

  • Blue Falls
  • Catarata del Toro
  • Rio Agrio Waterfall
  • Paraiso Manantiales
  • Vuelta del Cañon
  • Quebrada Gata Waterfall

Unfortunately, you do need to pay an entry fee for each waterfall. These range, some as high as $15 US/person and others just a few dollars.

From Bajos del Toro it’s just a 2 h drive to the next destination, La Fortuna de San Carlos. If you feel up to it, then I recommend doing this the same day. Otherwise, if your budget allows, stay in a hotel near Bajos del Toro (not cheap) and go early the next morning. Your final option is to return to San José for the night, but I don’t recommend this.          

Day 3: La Fortuna de San Carlos

Probably the most popular destination in all of Costa Rica, the bustling town of La Fortuna is  surrounded by beautiful nature. Sitting at the edge of Arenal Volcano National Park, where you’ll find 2 volcanoes, and with waterfalls and river swimming, the town has plenty to offer.

A fountain in front of a church. The church wits within a flowery garden.
La Fortuna Church

For your first day in La Fortuna, I recommend heading to La Fortuna Waterfall. This beast is 75 m tall and crashes into a pool below. You can admire the cascade from a viewing platform near the entrance, from another platform closer, or from just a few metres away while swimming in the pool.

A tall, narrow waterfall.
La Fortuna Waterfall

The falls are just a 10-minute drive from La Fortuna, or you can walk there in roughly 1 h. The site opens at 7:00 and entry costs $15 US/person. Buy your tickets online beforehand and you’ll skip the queue. The place gets really busy so I recommend getting there before 8:30.

A waterfall crashes into a rock pool below.
La Fortuna Waterfall

The road to La Fortuna Waterfall takes you past El Salto (the Rope Swing). This is quite literally a giant rope swing from a tree with a 5 m drop to La Fortuna River below.

El Salto was one of my favourite things in La Fortuna. Not only is plunging into the river from the swing really fun, but there’s usually a crowd of people making it a good spot to hang out and meet others. I recommend staying at El Salto for a couple of hours to get in enough swings and enjoy the blue water.

Oh, and did I mention, El Salto is free!

Day 4: Arenal Volcano National Park

For your 4th day of this 7-day Costa Rica itinerary, I recommend hiking in the national park.

A volcano behind trees.
Volcan Arenal

What I love about the national park is that there are 5 different sections with different trails to choose from. I also love that all entry points are roughly just a 20-minute drive from La Fortuna.

What I don’t love is that each section charges its own entry fee of $15 US/person. While this means that hiking here can be a little bit expensive, it’s definitely worth it if you know which sections to do. 

My top choice would be the Lava Trail. This was formed during the last eruption of Volcan Arenal in 1968. The trail is moderately challenging and takes you through shaded jungle over an underfoot of pumice. At the top of the trail, you get unreal views of the 2,000 m-tall volcano. 

A man stands in front of a volcano looking at it.
Arenal Volcano

The Lava Trail should take you around 3 h to walk. I recommend hiking it early to make the most of the cooler temperatures and to leave time for another activity this day. My pick for the next activity would be to have some food and then head to the thermal springs at El Choyín.

The spring is actually a hot river and is a great place to unwind after hiking in the national park. There’s no entry fee to El Choyín but you do have to pay for parking. The parking spaces are alongside the road just above the river.

People and a dog relaxing in hot springs.
El Choyín

Day 5: Mystical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

Why walk along the rainforest floor when you can explore it from 50 m above. The Arenal hanging bridges allow you to just that and look down on the foliage.

There are 16 bridges all in and 6 of these are hanging bridges. The longest bridge is 97 m and the tallest is 55 m. The bridges and a concrete path all connect to form a 3.5 km trail through the rainforest.

A bridge running through a forest canopy.
Mystical Hanging Bridges/Image usage: Creative Commons

Foreign adults need to pay a $32 US entry fee and the park opens at 6:00. My top tip is to get there for this time. The hanging bridges are one of the most popular attractions in the La Fortuna area and draw crowds of people. Here’s the link to get tickets.

Getting there first thing in the morning means you’ll avoid tour groups and the many other tourists who come later in the day. Also, the changing temperatures at sunrise create a mystical fog that shrouds the bridges.

The hanging bridges are a 30-minute drive from La Fortuna and I recommend staying at least 2 h to slowly make your way around the trail. With these timings you should leave the park just as the crowds begin to arrive.

Next, I recommend having a hearty breakfast before packing your things and getting on the road back to San Josè. The 4 h drive means you should get back with daylight to spare.

Day 6: Poás Volcano day trip

This is another adventure-filled day of your 7-day Costa Rica itinerary. Poás Volcano is over 2000 m tall and is just a 1 h 30 min drive from San José city centre.

There’s parking available which costs $4 US/car. From the car park it’s just a 600 m walk up a tarmac road to the top of the volcano.

At the top, you can look down into the crater that holds a turquoise lake. To guarantee yourself views of the crater, make sure to visit on a clear day.

A volcano crater lake.
Image credit: Carlos Umaña

The national park opens at 8:00 and like with Cerro Chirripó, you need to pay for your entrance beforehand on the SINAC website. This is a popular day trip from San José so get there early to beat the crowds.

An early start at Poás should give you time to get back to San José to check out the central market. This is one of the best-known places in the city and you’ll find loads of local food stands for a tasty post-hike meal.

Day 7: San Jose

Depending on what time your onward travel is, if you haven’t already, I recommend doing a walking tour. This is the best way to see the city without having to do any planning.

If you’ve already done a walking tour, then why not take the chance to head to Soda Tapia for one last local meal. Then, pop over the road to check out the Costa Rican Art Museum, which is free.

A white building with a tower. The architecture in Spanish colonial.
Costa Rican Art Museum

I’ve got more information about Soda Tapia and the art museum in my guide to La Sabana Park.

7-day Costa Rica Itinerary 3: Caribbean coast

Destinations: San José / Tortuguero National Park / Puerto Viejo / San José

Day 1: arrive in San José

Priority number 1 is to sort a rental car and then get to your accommodation.  If you’ve arrived in time, then I recommend a free guided walking tour of the city.

A stadium seen through a fence.
National Stadium of Costa Rica

Day 2: Tortuguero

Tortuguero is a tiny village that lies within the Tortuguero National Park on the northern Caribbean coast. It sits on a sand bar between the mainland and Caribbean sea nestled within the forest.

A small village.
Tortuguero / Image credit: Domenico Cenvirtini

The village is a famous spot with eco tourists because leatherback sea turtles nest in the area from February-April. Outside of the nesting period you can still spot turtles, just not as many.

To get to Tortuguero from San José, you first need to drive roughly 2 h 30 min to a small town called La Pavona. At La Pavona you can park your rental car for around $10 US/night. The car park is guarded but make sure not to leave anything in your vehicle.

From La Pavona you take a narrow speedboat to Tortuguero. Boats leave from La Pavona at 6:00, 7:30, 9:00, 11:00, 13:00, 15:00 and 16:30. It’s good to get there early for your boat to make sure there’s still space.

The boat ride lasts around 1 h 30 min and costs around $10 US/person one way. Your bags go in a separate boat which follows closely and it costs around $2 US/bag.

I recommend taking one of the earlier boats to Tortuguero so that you can spend your first day here at Tortuguero Beach. Keep your eyes peeled as you might be able to spot turtles.

Day 3: Tortuguero National Park

I recommend starting your first full day in Tortuguero by hiking in the national park. There are 3 trails to tackle and you can also climb to the top of Cerro Tortuguero to enjoy views of the canals and beaches.

A Caribbean beach lines with palm trees.
Tortuguero Beach / Image credit: Wikipedia

You don’t need a guide to hike in the national park, but you do need to pay an entry fee. This is $17 US/person and you pay online beforehand via the SINAC website. The park is open from 6:00-16:00 every day but entry closes for 1 h between 12:00-13:00.

In the evening, why not kick back and find some tasty food in the town. You’ll find local dishes as well as foreign ones.

Alternative activity: kayaking

This is the most peaceful way to explore Tortuguero’s canals. You’ll be able to spot wildlife without a noisy boat engine scaring animals away. Kayaks can be rented in Tortuguero town for around $20 US/person for the day. If you want to increase your chances of spotting wildlife, you can pay for a guided tour. These cost around $25 US/person.

A group kayaking through a river surrounded by trees.
Tortuguero National Park Image credit: Grid-Arendal

Day 4: Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

Start the day early and get on the road to drive 4 h to the southern end of the coast. For the next couple of days, you’ll be staying in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a bustling town with an Afro-Caribbean culture twist.

With a few hours left in the day, you should have time to explore the town and have a dip in the sea. Puerto Viejo is alive with tourism, but unlike some other bustling parts of Costa Rica, the vibe is fun and not overly touristy.

I’d finish the day by heading out for a plate of rice and beans—a famous dish on this coast. The coconut- and-spice infused meal is a Caribbean take on what is otherwise a pretty standard gallo pinto (rice and beans). It takes the staple meal to another level for your tastebuds.

A tuc-tuc parked in front of a restaurant made out of bamboo and palapa.
Puerto Viejo town centre

Day 5: Cahuita National Park

This small but beautiful reserve is right next to the town of Cahuita, just a 20-minute drive from Puerto Viejo. The national park is essentially a long strip of forest that runs alongside a nice beach.

A man stood facing the camera. He is on a walking trail within a forest.
Getting some snaps in at Cahuita
A group of people walking in a forest.
Exploring Cahuita with friends

An 11 km walking trail leads through the forest. The trail takes you to different beaches and points that jut out into the sea. Throughout the trail you’ll be able to spot monkeys and other wildlife. Keep your eyes upon the canopy and you. might see a sloth.

There are 2 entrances to Cahuita National Park: Kelly Creek Station (main entrance) in Cahuita town and Punto Vargas at the other end of the National Park.

I recommend parking at the main entrance in Cahuita, walking the whole trail to Punto Vargas while stopping to swim and spot wildlife, and then getting a taxi back to your car.

A man stood on a fallen tree trunk on a beach shore.
The water at Cahuita is crystal blue and warm

The final thing to know about Cahuita National Park is that it is entrance by donation. You can give as much or as little as you like, but a couple of dollars per person is a good shout.

Day 6: Beaches along the coast

Close to Puerto Viejo are several lovely beaches that you can easily get to by car. I recommend heading to Playa Manzanillo (10 km away) first and then making your way back to Puerto Viejo stopping off at Playa Punta Uva, Playa Chiquita and Playa Cocles.

Playa Manzanillo was my favourite of these beaches and it has a cool shipwreck right at the shore that’s covered in graffiti. I was here for sunrise and the scenes were beautiful and peaceful.

If you head out early enough then you can spend a decent amount of time at each beach. I recommend taking food with you so you don’t have to leave earlier for lunch.

It’s around a 4 h drive to San José from Puerto Viejo, so heading out to the beaches early will give you time to get back, pack your things and drive back to the capital.

If youre flight is later at night, you could stay the night in Puerto and get up early for the drive back the next morning. Just give yourself enough time to return your car and make your flight.

Day 7: San José

If on your final day you have time to do something before leaving Costa Rica, then I recommend joining a guided city walking tour. If you already did this earlier in the week, then the central market is always fun. You can head there for a delicious local meal and coffee from the mini roastery. The smell at that place alone is enough to make you want a cup.

A man rests against a wall outside of an old building.
The National Theatre of Costa Rica

Why no 7-day Costa Rica itinerary recommendations for the Nicoya Peninsula?

I haven’t spent much time on the Nicoya Peninsula. In fact, I was only there for 1 week at a small but busy beach town called Sámara. For this reason, I can’t put together a full itinerary for the region. 

sunset picture at a beach. Water climbs the beach.
Sunset at Playa Sámara

However, the peninsula does have loads of beautiful beaches along its Pacific coastline and you’d be able to check out a few of these in a week with a car.

If you want an idea of what the Pacific coast on the Nicoya Peninsula has to offer, read my complete travel guide to Sámara.

When is the best time to visit Costa Rica?

Countries in Central America experience 2 weather seasons: the dry season and the rainy season.

The dry season runs from late November to early May and the good weather means it’s the ideal time to visit the country. However, the good weather also makes the dry season the high season for tourism. Prices will be more expensive and crowds bigger.

A countryside scene. The photographers legs are visible at the bottom of the frame.
Looking towards the Caraigres Mountains from Parque Eólico Santa Ana

The heavy rains of the wet season means that less tourists come to Costa Rica during this period. The upside of this is that prices are lower, including car rentals, and that places are less crowded. The downside is that outdoor activities might not be possible, or at least might be less enjoyable in the rain.  

More Costa Rica travel guides on A World Over

This guide should help you to plan a 7-day Costa Rica itinerary and I’d love for you to let me know in the comments if you found it useful at all. If you want more advice for traveling in this amazing country, then check out these next guides.

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