For my birthday ths year, I knew I wanted to celebrate in a big way. You only turn 30 once, afterall. So, I pulled up my trusty Google Maps and Skyscanner to search for a cheap flight and new destination. After a short search I ended up focusing my attention on Central America and ultimately ended up booking a trip to Costa Rica!
Costa Rica is such a diverse country, with the Pacific Ocean in the West, Carribean Sea in the East, and volcanoes and forests throughout the country’s interior. I knew I wanted to spend some time relaxing on the beach, swimming in both the Pacific and Carribbean, searching for widlife in the cloud forests, and hiking a volcano. Easypeasy, right?
Once I started really planning my trip I realized there was just no way that I would be able to do everything I wanted in my 9 day trip. And so, I begrudgingly managed to cut down my trip to focus on only 4 areas. Even though I wasn’t able to do everything I initially wanted (I had to cut out the entire eastern side of the country), I did manage to see so much on my trip that I got great introduction to this beautiful country.
Keep reading below to see my 9 day itenerary!
Days 1 – 3: Tamarindo, Guanacaste, Pacific Coast
I flew into Liberia in Guanacaste, in the Northwest of the country. From the airport, I took a shared shuttle out to the coastal town of Tamarindo where I spent my first 3 days. Since these were the only days I had scheduled at the beach, I wanted to spend as much time as I could relaxing on the beach while still getting out to explore everything possible in the area.
I spent the afternoon of my arrival day soaking up sun on the beach and wandering the town, popping into little beachside tourist shops looking at trinkets. My second day I spent the morning at the beach and the afternoon on a boat slowly cruising through the nearby Tamarindo Estuary. The Estuary was beautiful and absolutley worth a few hours. We saw a variety of birds, an alligator and a tree full of howler monkies! For my third and final day by the coast, I booked a Scuba Diving tour out to the Catalina Islands. This was absolutely my favorite day in Tamarindo! There is something so exhilerating about getting under the sea, to float with the fish and see another world. We saw so many fish, starfish, stingrays, sharks, and so much more!
I did have a wonderful few days in Tamarindo, but the town definitely had a bit more of a backpackers vibe than I wanted. There are plenty of hostel, bar, and restarant options, and although the beach is spacious, it was constantly crowded. If (nay, when) I go back to the Guanacaste coast, I’ll likely look for a beach town with a few less people.
Days 4 – 5: Santa Elena and the Monteverde Cloud Forest
After Tamarindo, I hoped on another shared shuttle to head inland to the town of Santa Elena, up in the mountains surrounded by forest. The shuttle ride to Santa Elena was more memorable than I expected. We stopped at a rest area on the way where we saw colorful, wild macows in a tree! Then, as we headed up into the mountains, we pulled over at a lookout with a gorgeous view of the mountains and Nicoya Penninsula.
After arriving in Santa Elena, I spent the afternoon wandering through the town. It’s small but so adorable. There are murals depicting nature and widlife painted on many buildings, really showing what this part of the country is known for.
Although Santa Elena was adorable and I really enjoyed strolling through town, the main purpose of visiting this region was to see a Cloud Forest. There are a few different Cloud Forests near Santa Elena that I’m sure are all worth visiting, but I elected to spend my time at the well-known Monteverde Cloud Forest. This might have been my favorite place from my entire trip. There is so much beautiful diversity in the forest, from the vast variety of trees and plants, birds, and other wildlife. I took both a guided night hike and a guided daytime hike to get the full feel for the forest and its animals. I loved it! I will absolutley be returning to Costa Rica to hike through a Cloud Forest in search of more birds and plants.
Days 6 – 7: La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano
After just a day and half in Santa Elena, I was off once again to another region. This time, I took a shuttle to a boat to another shuttle on my way to the town of La Fortuna at the base of the Arenal Volcano. This was fun! The first shuttle ride was uneventful, but the shuttle dropped us off on the shore of Lake Arenal where we hopped on a boat, which is definetely a fun way to travel. This ride provided the first view of the volcano, which from what I’ve read, is frequently blocked by clouds so we very fortunate to have such a clear view of the volcano that day! After the boat, I hopped on another short shuttle ride and finally ended up in the town of La Fortuna.
I loved La Fortuna! On a clear day, the volcano could be seen from almost anywhere in town. There were plenty of local restaraunts, bars, and shops around town, as well as easy access to nature. I spent the afternoon of my arrival wandering the Bogarin Wildlife Trail on the outskirts of town. This trail is in a forested area, a short wallk from town. I spent hours here and probably could have stayed longer. I saw sloths, toucans, and so many other birds in the trees. If you are looking for an easy escape to look for wildlife, this is the place to go!
The next day, I booked a tour to get out and see the area. We hiked to the La Fortuna Waterfall and watched people zip lin overhead, hiked to a viewpoint overlooking the Arenal Volcano where we stood on lava rocks and learned about this active giant, and spent the evening relaxing in a natural hot spring. I thoroughly enjoyed this day and was exhausted by the time I made it back to my hostel. This is probably another area I will return to if given the chance the next time I make it to Costa Rica.
Days 8 – 9: San Jose and the Central Valley
For the last few days of my trip, I headed to the capital of the country – San Jose. After one last shared shuttle ride from La Fortuna, I ended up in San Jose. I spent the afternoon of my arrival wandering around a small portion of the city. I visted the National Museum, walked around the main shopping street, wandered through a few parks, and visted a local market.
The next day, I booked another tour to head into the countryside outside of the city. This tour took us to see some highlights of the region. We visited the Doka Coffee Plantation, Paos Volcano, and La Paz Waterfall Gardens. I had been most excited about visiting the volcano since you are able to see into the crater where there is a small lake on clear days, however it was covered in fog while we were there. It was still interesting as there was a lot to learn about this volcano since it is one of the most active in the country. Surprisingly, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens turned out to be the highlight of the day. There is a trail leading to 5 gorgeous waterfalls that give the park its name. Along with the waterfalls, the garden also operates as an animal rehabilitation center so there is a variety of local animals to view as well. We spent the majority of our day here and it was absolutely wonderful!
Although I am glad that I sent a bit of time in the city, it was definitely my least favorite of the places I visited on this trip. The city is large, somewhat dirty, but did not have a lot to see. I’m sure if I had spent a bit more time there I would have found something to like about it. For me, the nature and forests were the highlight of this trip.