Ten days will fly by in Costa Rica, especially if you’re trying to catch a glimpse of many different parts of the country. This itinerary won’t leave much downtime, but it will give you a taste of both coasts, the Central Valley (where most expats live), and the country’s most active volcano. This tour hits on many of the most popular tourist areas as well, so you can surf or snorkel in the Pacific and the Caribbean, visit much-loved Manuel Antonio National Park, and soak in the hot springs below Arenal Volcano.This tour hits on many of the most popular tourist areas as well, so you can surf or snorkel in the Pacific and the Caribbean, visit much-loved Manuel Antonio National Park, and soak in the hot springs below Arenal Volcano.The three big tourist guns this tour leaves out are the mountain town of Monteverde, known for its cloud forest preserve and its Quaker community; the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica’s answer to the Amazon and home to Corcovado National Park; and Tortuguero National Park on the northern Caribbean coast, with its crocodiles, sea turtles, and even manatees. You could substitute Monteverde for Arenal on this 10-day itinerary, but to do justice to the Osa or Tortuguero, you’d want at least three days for each. Neither Tortuguero nor the Osa qualifies as an expat hot spot, though some hardy souls have braved these remote areas and now make their homes there.
In terms of transportation, if you feel confident about driving in unfamiliar territory, rent a car in San José and drive to all of the places mentioned. This approach has the added benefit of allowing you to see the hidden-away towns and striking landscapes between the more well-known destinations.
But if the thought of driving Costa Rica’s fabled roads makes you anxious, with a little planning you can piece together short flights, bus or minivan travel, and taxi rides. All of the places listed on this itinerary are popular enough that such services will be easy to arrange. (See the Travel and Transportation chapter in Moon Living Abroad in Costa Rica for more detailed information on getting around the country.)
Days 1-2: San José and Environs
Fly into Juan Santamaría airport just outside the capital city. Stay in town the first night, exploring some of the city’s better neighborhoods (like Los Yoses and San Pedro in the west, Rohrmoser and La Sabana to the north). Get a sense of city life by walking the downtown pedestrian mall (the Paseo Colón), have coffee at the café in the historic National Theater, and check out the nearby Gold Museum. For your second night, stay in a hotel outside of the city, to the west if the next day you’ll explore the western suburbs (Escazú, Santa Ana, Ciudad Colón) or to the north if you want to get a sense of cities like Heredia and Alajuela or towns such as Sarchí and Grecia. Give yourself a break and don’t try to see both the towns west of San José and the northern ones. Leave time for a leisurely lunch and gossiping with the taxi driver or waitress. Take time, too, to see what’s for sale in the omnipresent supermarkets and malls. The Central Valley is where the whole country comes to shop.
Even if you have rented a car, this part of the trip might be more enjoyable if you leave your car parked in the hotel lot and hire a driver. It takes some time to figure out how to get around San José and its environs; you don’t want to spend all your time getting lost or cursing the traffic. Ask at your hotel for a car and driver, or negotiate with a taxi driver to hire him or her for a few hours or the entire day. Ten dollars an hour is not an uncommon price for such services—cheaper than letting the meter run. (These services are likely to cost more outside the Central Valley, where there’s less competition among drivers and the roads are worse.)
Another option is to rent a car the day you want to leave the San José area, relying on taxis or hotel shuttles until then.
Day 3: Zona Norte
Drive, take a small plane, or ride a bus, minivan, or taxi north to the town of La Fortuna. Nearby you’ll find Lake Arenal, famous among windsurfers, and active Arenal Volcano, with the luxurious Tabacón Hot Springs at its base. The trip from San José to La Fortuna winds through some lovely scenery, and the Arenal area itself is lushly gorgeous. There’s an ever-growing community of expats clustered around the lake, people who appreciate the cooler weather and the low-key vibe.
Days 4-5: Northern Guanacaste Beaches
Drive or fly to Playas del Coco or Tamarindo. Playas del Coco will be of interest to visitors drawn to the convenience of the area (less than an hour from Liberia’s international airport, and on good roads) or who’d like to take a look at all the condos going in there. Visit nearby Playa Ocotal, less hectic than Coco and one of the nicest little coves around, and head north to Playa Hermosa, another expat hot spot.
Tamarindo will appeal to the partying set or to those who want to surf or see giant seas turtles laying their eggs. Once a little fishing village, these days Tamarindo is growing so fast you can hear its bones creak.
Day 6: The Nicoya Peninsula
Drive or fly to either the Nosara-Playa Sámara area (halfway down the Nicoya Peninsula) or the Montezuma-Mal País area (at the southern tip of the peninsula). Both areas are far less developed than northern Guanacaste beaches like Tamarindo or Playas del Coco, though these southerly areas are also experiencing their own smaller booms. Nosara has the Nosara Yoga Institute and good beaches for swimming and surfing; Sámara is a more typical low-key resort popular with Ticos, with a beach good for learning to surf.
Montezuma is a pretty little alternative-flavored town popular with the backpacking set but also providing services for more luxury-minded travelers. Mal País (and nearby Santa Teresa) is a surfer’s haven, and its one-strip wonder of a town has seen a lot of growth lately.
Between Montezuma and Mal País is Cabo Blanco Reserve, worth a day’s visit—walk through the forest for a few hours and arrive at a pristine white-sand beach where you may be the only one there. Both areas have growing international expat communities.
Day 7: Central Pacific Coast
Drive or fly to the mega-popular beach town of Jacó or to Quepos and nearby Manuel Antonio National Park, the most-visited park in all of Costa Rica. In both areas you are in high tourism mode, which may be a bit of a shock after laid-back Montezuma and Mal País. If you drive, you’ll need to take the car ferry from the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula (Paquera) to Puntarenas, then drive south on the coast road. Jacó comes first, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed there. Literally hundreds of condos are in the works, and the town is getting more and more rambunctious, with partying of all kinds on the rise. But it’s good to see the place, if only for comparison. Check out the condo prices here, compare them to houses for sale in out-of-the-way towns, and marvel at the huge difference.
Quepos, an hour south, is slightly less overwhelming. It’s the gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park. Although crowded in high season, the park is also beautiful. Tangled jungle spills down the hill to meet white-sand beaches, and the trees are full of monkeys and sloths.
Day 8: Dominical Area
If you stay one night in Jacó and another in the Quepos area, skip Dominical, which is another hour south of Quepos on the coast. The farther south you go, the less touristy it gets. Dominical has a long beach where the waves pound in—great for surfers, not so great for swimmers. Nearby Ojochal is a little French-Canadian-infused haven with stylish hotels and a few excellent restaurants.
Days 9-10: Southern Caribbean Coast
If you’re driving, you’ll take the road inland from Dominical, pass through San Isidro de El General, then head north toward San José (driving time would be 3-4 hours, depending on road conditions). From the San José area to the Caribbean coast is another 3-4-hour drive. If you fly, you’ll fly from Jacó or Quepos to San José, then from San José to Limón; each flight is under an hour.
This coast has a very different feel than the Pacific coast. It’s wetter and less developed, and real estate is cheaper. It also has more racial diversity than the rest of Costa Rica; most of the country’s blacks and indigenous people live in the Zona Caribe.
Check out Cahuita and its lovely beachside national park, then surf, party, and take long flat bike rides in Puerto Viejo. Down the road from Puerto Viejo is Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, one of the less-visited jewels in the national park system. You can also visit indigenous reserves.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Costa Rica.