I had trouble finding a good itinerary for Costa Rica when we were planning our honeymoon. I think many travel guides are aimed at people who only have several weeks or are going there for one specific purpose: a yoga retreat, a deep-jungle excursion, surfing camp, etc. We wanted to do as much as possible and see as much as possible in our time there, and it was hard to find the resources for that!
I honestly didn’t expect to love Costa Rica as much as I did. In fact, we loved it so much that we ended up only going there and Panama, even though we had originally planned to go to Nicaragua as well. (Note: this choice is not a reflection on not wanting to visit…Nicaragua, I’m coming for you! Someday!) We did this partly because we were exhausted after our wedding, partly because we wanted to save money on travel costs, and partly because we kept finding amazing new places to see!
Here’s our route, over approximately four weeks:
San Jose/Alajuela–1 day
Most travelers will arrive via the international airport near the capital of San Jose. Since we were heading out to the rainforest right after we arriving, we didn’t get to San Jose itself yet–just to Alajuela, the city where the airport is technically located. We came back to Alajuela several times during our trip, due to computer troubles, work time, rental car drop-offs, and to fly home. We stayed almost exclusively at the incredible Pura Vida Hotel, only about fifteen minutes from the airport. It’s a little garden oasis in the middle of a very busy city, and since we were there in the off-season, a great deal.
Tortugeuro National Park–3 days
Tortugeuro National Park was our first stop. As it was the start of our honeymoon, we kicked it off with a splurge trip to the Tortuga Lodge. The hotel itself is reasonable–and due the low season we ended up getting a night free–but the food and the transport are quite expensive, as it is located in the middle of the jungle, only accessible by boat or airplane. However, we were able to cut down on some of the food by only ordering snacks, filling up on the free breakfast, and splitting the large meals.
Although Tortugeuro is remote, it is amazing and unique. Tortugeuro is often compared to the Amazon, or even Venice, because at a certain point, the roads end and become rivers and canals. Getting picked up in a riverboat and being whisked to our lodge felt awesomely surreal. Then, on arrival, being surrounded by nearly pristine rainforest, full of howler monkeys and toucans and a huge variety of animals…it’s just wow. It was the most special place to start our honeymoon! We spent the three days we were there having coffee by the river, popping on boots and exploring the jungle, hanging out on our patio and watching rainstorms, and visiting the shores of the national park to try to catch sea turtles laying eggs.
We took advantage of a buy-7-days-get-1-free deal at this amazing Airbnb (traveling in the off-season for the win!) and spent eight glorious, relaxing days at a villa with a view of the jungle and the ocean. We had rented a car for this part of our journey, which is necessary to get to this place, but so worth it! We drove around to nearby beaches, went whale-watching, and spent hours on the incredible balcony simply soaking up the view.
Manuel Antonio National Park–day trip
From Dominical, we took a day trip to Costa Rica’s most famous (and most visited) national park, Manuel Antonio. We paid for a guide and it was necessary, we would have missed almost all the wildlife he showed us! We saw so much, including monkeys, sloths, lizards, crabs, bats, and a variety of insects (which perhaps were not my favorite). The guides all have a telescope to give you a better view, and will help you take pictures through this, too. The main trail takes you to beautiful beaches that have certainly been discovered–both by humans, and by the raccoon-monkey gangs that have taken over the park. “The Mafia,” our guide called them!
Playa Avellanas/Tamarindo–3 days
We stayed at a little treehouse/cabin near the secluded beach, Avellanas. The sunsets there might be the most magnificent you will ever see. Near Playa Avellanas is likely the most famous beach in Costa Rica, Playa Tamarindo (or Tamagringo). Tamarindo is very developed and full of expats, it’s true, but it’s a fun beach to visit, with a large variety of activities and great restaurants.
We stayed for five days at the Hacienda Guachipelin. We chose this hotel because of its “Adventure Day,” its closeness to Rincon de la Vieja National Park, and the hot springs on site. The “Adventure Day” was a great way to save money while still doing some of the adventure activities Costa Rica is known for. So, in one day, we went zip lining, horseback riding, and river rafting. It was a really fun day–although I discovered that I still do not like horses and now, apparently, I’m allergic to them. Despite that small hiccup, the day was a success!
The greatest things about this hacienda are the hot springs and the waterfalls, all located on the property. We’d hike to a waterfall in the morning and wander down to the hot springs in the cooler evenings. Honeymoon perfection–adventure and relaxation!
It’s hard to pick my a “favorite place” in Costa Rica…but I fell hard for Monteverde. The misty cloud forest, the slightly cooler air than the rest of the sweltering country, the feeling of being in a friendly mountain town, the many activities, the delicious food…I could have moved there, and we ended up staying three days longer than planned! We stayed at the Arco Iris Lodge, which is a great budget-friendly option in the area. It’s also adorable–I loved our little mountain cabin! You MUST eat at the Orchid Cafe–we ended up eating there at least once a day, for breakfast, lunch, or for coffee/dessert–and TacoTaco.
Curichanca Reserve–day trip
Although we planned to spend a day at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, it was less expensive and less crowded to visit the Curichanca Reserve, and covered the same ground. Again, we paid for a guide on this trip, and he was great. He found so many animals for us to see, including the famous resplendent quetzal (the bird everyone goes to Monteverde to see). He also led us on hiking trails to find the best views, that were not clearly marked on the map, so we likely wouldn’t have found them.
Selvatura Canopy & Hanging Bridges–day trip
There is a ton of zip lining in Monteverde, and this is one of the best in the country to do it! However, we went to Selvatura take advantage of the Hanging Bridges since I HAD to walk over a suspense bridge in Costa Rica. It’s an awesome park with beautiful views and the requisite howler monkeys to give you goosebumps.
If I were you, I would spend more time in Arenal. However, we had spent longer in Monteverde than planned since we fell in love, and had to cut our time here short. Splurging a bit for a room with a volcano view is worth it, especially if you’re only there for a night or two, like we were. There are many eco-lodges in the area, too, which I would have preferred to stay in, but they were all out of our price range at the time.
Puerto Viejo–5 days
Just like many other spots in this country, we ended up staying longer in Puerto Viejo than planned because we loved it so much. The main reason for this is Banana Azul, this amazing hotel and beach club that’s one of the best places I’ve ever stayed at. They were so friendly, the food was amazing, I never wanted to leave the beach club, and there were even sloths on the property (which became a must for us in Costa Rica). They also have a lot of activities on the property, as well as a tour office to help you arrange tours. Puerto Viejo itself is a small town on the rural Caribbean coast, much more relaxing that the largely developed beaches on the Pacific side.
Back to San Jose (after Panama)
After popping down to Bocas del Toro, Panama, from Puerto Viejo, we headed back to San Jose/Alajuela for one last night before flying home.
For the first few days in Costa Rica, we paid for transfer to Torteguero, round trip from San Jose. After we returned to San Jose, we rented a car through Budget. It’s fairly cheap to rent a car there, but do be warned that there is required insurance payment that will not necessarily be added to your final bill–make sure you ask about this so you aren’t surprised when you are asked to pay twice as much on arrival! Many car companies will bring the car to your hotel/hostel at no extra charge.
After we returned from Guachipelin, before Monteverde, we returned our car in San Jose. We did this primarily because we needed to stop in San Jose for logistical reasons (computer & work related) for several days, and because we had heard such terrible things about the roads to Monteverde, we didn’t want to drive there. So, from Monteverde, to Arenal, to Puerto Viejo, to Bocas del Toro, and back to San Jose, we booked transfers via Interbus or Caribe Shuttle. (They are pretty much the same, although Interbus is often cheaper and doesn’t have WiFi–but Caribe Shuttle would promise WiFi and there would sometimes not be any, anyway). There are likely much cheaper, local options–but they are largely unreliable or difficult to navigate.
I loved the freedom of having a car in Costa Rica, but I know that’s not always feasible for everyone, and it certainly wasn’t for us the entire time! On every shuttle we met a variety of backpackers and other couples traveling, and most agreed it’s the way to go in Costa Rica. However, if you’ve spent time navigating the local system successfully, please share!
So there you have it, our general itinerary in Costa Rica. I’m sharing you the itinerary I wish we had done without the extra weird stops, so you can learn from my mistakes! Of course, there are so many places left to see in Costa Rica, and even after over four weeks I feel like we just started delving into this gorgeous, complicated, peaceful country.
Isn’t that always the way?
Linking up with Travel Tuesday.