The key to having an incredible Costa Rica vacation is not cramming too many destinations in a short period of time. It can be difficult to narrow down where you want to visit since every single place sounds amazing, but unless you are here for several weeks or aren’t on a budget, it’s challenging to squeeze more than 2 or 3 destinations in one week without feeling stressed.
Here is a sample 10 day Costa Rica itinerary that takes you to the Caribbean, around the Central Valley and the Central Pacific. Each of these destinations are easy to get to, are very different in terms of landscapes and activities and have beach, wildlife and rain forest. You will get to experience both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts too!
**This itinerary is tailored towards those renting a car, but I will give alternative options if you aren’t renting a car. If you want to use shuttles, we have a 10% discount with Interbus, a shared shuttle company. You can book the shuttle here.**
Sample 10 Day Costa Rica Itinerary
Day 1: Land in San Jose in the morning, drive to Puerto Viejo
To maximize your time in Costa Rica for this itinerary, we recommend booking a flight that lands in SJO Airport before noon and this 10 day Costa Rica itinerary needs to start at San Jose. The drive from San Jose to Puerto Viejo is around 4 hours and we recommend getting there as early as possible to avoid traffic and driving late at night as the route is windy and signage is not great.
**Driving tip** If you get a pre-paid sim card or have an international data plan, use Waze. It is a GPS app that works better than Google Maps. Just make sure to open it when you have strong Wi-Fi so it can download all the prompts. It’ll help you navigate through San Jose and avoid the traffic. You can also rent a GPS but Waze works way better.
Other transportation methods:
- Bus: There is a bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo at 6, 10, 2 PM and 4 PM every day that takes 4.5 hours. It costs $11 and the bus station is at the Terminal San Carlos Avenida 9. I recommend getting there as early as possible to buy your tickets beforehand because this is a very popular route and gets full quick.
- Shuttle: Shared shuttles from San Jose to Puerto Viejo are around $50 per person. They normally have one in the morning, one in the afternoon. You can also book a private shuttle which will pick you up whenever you land and drop you off at your hotel. This costs around $250.
- Air: There is a local airport at Limon that both Sansa and Nature Air fly into. From the airport, you can book a shuttle to Puerto Viejo which is around $20 and takes 1 hour. Sansa offers more flights than Nature Air, costs $70-90 one way and takes about 45 minutes.
Day 2 & 3: Puerto Viejo
Spend the next two days exploring Puerto Viejo, the gem of the Caribbean. Take in the funky Caribbean-Costa Rican culture, dance the night away or explore the lush jungle. There is so much to do in this area and is best for beach bumming, wildlife watching and relaxing.
Where to stay:
If you don’t have a car, it is best to stay in Puerto Viejo town since you’ll be close to all the restaurants, banks and services without having to walk far. If you have a car, you can stay at the many beaches like Playa Negra, Cahuita, Playa Cocles or Chiquita. Puerto Viejo is a party town though, so keep that in mind if you are coming with little ones.
- Hotel Banana Azul: One of the nicest hotels in the area on Playa Negra. It’s oceanfront, has a restaurant and a pool. There isn’t much at Negra but this hotel is really nice for those who want to stay somewhere quiet, in nature and further away from town.
- Villas del Caribe: Great option for big groups as their rooms are spacious and have an ocean view. It’s on Playa Chiquita so it’s about a 5 minute drive to town.
- Lionfish Hostel: This hostel is right in town so the beach is a 2 minute walk and they have dorms and private rooms. They also have a restaurant. Breakfast not included.
You can also check out Airbnb (get $20 credit here), there are many apartments and casitas for rent. For my first trip to Costa Rica, we stayed in a little house near Puerto Viejo.
What to do:
- Jaguar Rescue Center: If you want to see sloths up close, the Jaguar Rescue Center is the best place to learn about the rescue and rehabilitation of sloths. The center is by Playa Cocles, about 4 miles from Puerto Viejo.
- BriBri Chocolate Tour: The Limon area is home to indigenous communities so if you’re interested in learning their culture, you must take a tour to meet the BriBri people. They offer chocolate and medicinal tours so you can learn how they make cacao and how they use the various plants and trees they grow on their land.
- Cahuita National Park: Have a beach all to yourself at Cahuita National Park! This gorgeous park is free and you can see monkeys, toucans and sloths roaming free.
- Beach hopping: Spend a day exploring the gorgeous beaches in Puerto Viejo such as Punta Uva, Playa Chiquita and Playa Cocles.
For places to eat, we love Soda Lidia’s Place. For the best Caribbean-Costa Rican food, that’s the place to go. Some dishes to try are rice and beans (with chicken is the best) and rondon (soup). Bread & Chocolate is also delicious and they have great breakfast.
Safety tips for Puerto Viejo: Don’t walk by yourself at night, don’t go to the beach at night and don’t leave your belongings on the beach.
Day 4: Travel back to San Jose
After a few days enjoying the Caribbean, it’s time to head back to San Jose and explore the Central Valley. If you’re taking the bus, the bus from Puerto Viejo to San Jose is at 9, 11 and 4 PM.
Since the next 2 days in this itinerary are in the Central Valley, you don’t necessarily have to stay in San Jose if you have a car. The city is too noisy and full of traffic so why stay there when there are beautiful hotels up in the mountains? The Central Valley cities of San Jose, Heredia, Alajuela and Cartago are all fairly close to each other so you have plenty of choices.
But if you want to explore San Jose, it is best to stay somewhere downtown so you can walk everywhere and not have to deal with traffic.
Here are some hotel recommendations.
- Finca Rosa Blanca: This high end inn is also a coffee plantation so this is the perfect place for coffee lovers. They offer coffee tours on their property and have a spectacular view of the city. It’s up in the hills of Santa Barbara de Heredia.
- Pura Vida Retreat & Spa: This mountain top resort has an awesome view of the city from the hills of Alajuela and is popular with yogis as they offer workshops and classes.
- Hotel Alta Las Palomas: This hotel is up in the hills of Santa Ana in San Jose. Decorated European style with only 23 rooms.
- Gran Hotel: This hotel is right in downtown San Jose so you’re close to museums, restaurants and shops and you can walk everywhere.
Day 5 & 6: The Central Valley
For days 5 and 6 of your 10 day Costa Rica itinerary, you can explore the Central Valley. I know a lot of people automatically think “I don’t want to stay in the city in Costa Rica!” when you mention San Jose but there is so much to the area than just the city. Not quite convinced? Here are some reasons why you should visit the Central Valley.
You’ll get to experience the local culture and city life plus there are a ton of nature and outdoor activities just one hour from the city!
Here are some ideas of things to do in the Central Valley.
- If you’re a city person, it’s worth spending 1 day exploring San Jose. Here are some things to do in San Jose like museums, local markets and more.
- Poas Volcano National Park: This is the most popular national park in Costa Rica because it’s only a hour drive from the city and is an incredible volcano crater. There are a couple easy hiking trails and the views up to the park are spectacular. You can also see wildlife such as sloths and cloud forest birds. You can also stop by the La Paz waterfall gardens since it’s not too far from Poas and see 5 different waterfalls and a zoo. It’s a great activity for kids.
- If you don’t want to visit such a crowded park but still want to see a volcano, head to Barva Volcano instead. It’s in Heredia, 22 kilometers from San Jose and a great hike. It’s still pretty unknown to most tourists since they prefer to go to Poas with its nice roads and services, but Barva is equally as impressive, especially on a sunny day. (4×4 needed and not recommended to go in rainy season).
- You can also head towards Cartago and visit Irazu Volcano National Park. It’s also an active volcano but there are no hiking trails and the green volcano lake has dried up. But the views up to the national park are gorgeous! And you can stop by Finca Sanatorio Duran on your way back down, said to be the most haunted building in Costa Rica.
- Take a coffee tour. If you love coffee, you have to try Costa Rican coffee and learn how it’s processed since it’s quite special. We love the Doka Coffee Tour and Britt is another popular one.
- White water rafting. Add some adventure and excitement to your trip by rafting the Pacuare River, one of the best in the world. There are 1 day rafting trips that pick up in San Jose. Read more about the 1 day white water rafting.
- If you don’t mind driving a little bit further, you can visit some of the jewels of the Central Valley like Catarata del Toro, a 270 foot waterfall in an extinct volcano crater. They also have a stunning blue river you can swim in!
Day 7: Travel to Manuel Antonio
After spending a couple days in the mountains/city, it’s time to hit the beach again! This time you’ll head to the Central Pacific coast to the popular Manuel Antonio for the last couple days of your 10 day Costa Rica itinerary. It’s only a 2 hour drive or you can take a bus from San Jose to Manuel Antonio/Quepos (Calle 5, Ave 4, Terminales Transportes Tracopa. 7, 10, 2 PM, 4 PM and 5 PM).
Since Manuel Antonio is very touristic, there are a ton of hotel options. You can splurge and stay at a luxury hotel with a view of the beach book a villa or stay down by the park.
Here are some hotel recommendations.
- Hotel La Mariposa: This high end hotel has a gorgeous view of the park and has several infinity pools. They have modern and rustic rooms.
- La Mansion Inn: This is a boutique hotel that has a view of both Manuel Antonio National Park and Playa Biesanz on the other side.
- Pura Vida Mini Hostel: You can book a private room or dorm and breakfast is included.
- Tico Tico Villas: Spacious studio-apartments with a beautiful tropical garden.
Day 8 & 9: Manuel Antonio
Spend your last couple days in Costa Rica taking in as much lush jungle and beautiful beaches as you can. Manuel Antonio is not a big destination but there are many things to do whether you want to hike, see wildlife or simply relax.
Day 10: San Jose
It’s time to head back to San Jose and say goodbye to Costa Rica. This 10 day Costa Rica itinerary should give you an amazing time in Costa Rica discovering the Caribbean, exploring the Central Valley and relaxing at the Central Pacific coasts. You get to experience mountain, volcano, beach and rain forest as well as see some famous Costa Rica wildlife.
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