With so many new flights to Costa Rica opening every year, it’s easy to pop over for a quick visit. I’ve had a lot of friends who booked a spontaneous trip to Costa Rica because they found a cheap last minute ticket and came for only 3-5 days. Though we love and prefer slow travel, we understand that not everyone has the time.
If you’re visiting Costa Rica for a quick visit and your goal is to relax, see beautiful beaches and go on an adventure or 2, Guanacaste is a top destination. The Gulf of Papagayo beaches are considered the most beautiful in the country, it’s super easy to get around, the closest beach is only 25 minutes from LIR airport and there are plenty of fun and exciting adventures nearby.
So here is a sample 5 day itinerary in Guanacaste with ideas of what to do and where to stay including travel tips to make the most of your short trip. This itinerary has one home base since 5 days isn’t really enough time to move around to different destinations and you want to maximize the time you have in Costa Rica.
You don’t necessarily need to rent a car for this itinerary as you can perfectly book shuttles and tours for all the activities, but if you’re itching to explore and prefer more freedom and flexibility, you can certainly rent a car.
Day 1: Land in LIR airport, head to hotel
Day 1 of your 5 day itinerary in Guanacaste is for settling in, relaxing and getting ready for the next 5 days. Try to get a flight that lands around midday so you can still have some hours of daylight and watch the sunset on the beach.
Where to stay
From LIR airport, there are 2 main areas that visitors like to stay since they are a 25 minute to 1 hour drive from the airport. You won’t spend a lot of time traveling which is ideal since you are only in Costa Rica for 5 days. The areas are the Gulf of Papagayo beaches of Playas del Coco, Hermosa, Panama and Ocotal and the Tamarindo/Conchal/Brasilito/Flamingo zone.
You can also go down to the Playa Samara/Carillo area by Nosara. The drive is a bit further, around 3 hours but the beaches there are not as touristic or crowded and it’s a bit more laid back. You are a lot further away from the national parks so most of the activities in that area are snorkeling, horseback riding, kayaking, etc. You can go surfing in Nosara, Guinoes and the beaches around there.
Gulf of Papagayo
If you want to be as close to the airport as possible, the best options are the Gulf of Papagayo beaches of Playas del Coco, Playa Hermosa, Playa Panama, Playa Ocotal and Bahia Pez Vela. They are about a 25-30 minute drive from LIR airport.
If you want to stay in a beach town, Playas del Coco is your best option. But if you want to stay in a quieter beach area with not as many people, any of the other 4 will work. These are not surfing beaches and are best for those who like to snorkel/scuba dive, fish and relax.
For high end hotels (not all inclusive), here are some options.
- El Mangroove Hotel on Playa Panama: A beautiful beachfront boutique hotel with one of the best seafood restaurants in Guanacaste. Excellent options for couples.
- Hotel Bosque del Mar on Playa Hermosa: An elegant beachfront hotel, quiet and modern rooms.
- Bahia Pez Vela Resort in Bahia Pez Vela: Individual villas, most with ocean view and a short walk to the beach. Delicious restaurant on site.
- Villa Buena Onda in Playas del Coco: Luxury adult only boutique hotel. Perfect for honeymoons, up in the mountains so has incredible view of Coco beach.
Mid range options:
- Hotel Mangaby on Playa Hermosa
- Hotel Villa Casa Blanca in Playa Ocotal
- Hotel Colono Beach in Playas del Coco
There are not that many hostels in this area so for the cheapest lodging, there are some cheap cabinas in Playas del Coco and more budget options. There is a hostel on Playa Hermosa called Congos Hostel.
Here you will find plenty of housing options, especially luxury and high end places. Tamarindo is a surfing/backpacker party town, Playa Langosta is also a surfing beach, quieter than Tamarindo and expensive, Conchal is a gorgeous white sand beach, Brasilito is a nice local town and Flamingo is another white sand beach with luxury hotels and vacation rentals.
If you’re really into surfing and/or don’t want to stay in a party town, head to Playa Grande instead.
Here are some recommendations:
- Westin Playa Conchal: If you want an all-inclusive and aren’t on a budget, the Westin is one of the nicest all inclusives in Costa Rica and right on Conchal beach.
- Flamingo Beach Resort: Beach front resort on Playa Flamingo
- Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort: Beach front hotel in Playa Tamarindo with 3 restaurants and pools
There quite a few hostels in Tamarindo like Chocolate, Botella de Leche or Coral Reef.
Airbnb is also very popular in these areas and you can find everything from a room in a local Tico house to a luxury condo.
Day 2: Boating/snorkeling
If you’re staying in the Gulf of Papagayo beaches, take a private beach hopping/snorkel tour to experience the beautiful hidden beaches. Our friend Marcy runs a boating company that picks up in the Papagayo Gulf beaches and he takes you around to the best beaches and snorkel spots. Read more about his boat tours here.
I recommend doing a half day snorkel/beach hopping unless you’re coming in a bigger group, then a full day would be more fun with more people. If it’s just two people, a half day will be plenty. He can also take you fishing!
If you’re staying down in Tamarindo/Conchal/Flamingo, the snorkeling is not as good in that area. You can take a snorkel catamaran cruise, scuba dive out of Playa Flamingo or take a sunset cruise. The best snorkeling is up in the Gulf of Papagayo but you can still experience the beautiful Costa Rican waters.
Day 3: Wildlife Tour
I’m sure you want to see some wildlife while you’re in Costa Rica so Day 3 is dedicated to wildlife watching. There are a couple options for both Gulf of Papagayo and Tamarindo areas to see wildlife.
Take a leisurely boat ride down the Tempisque River to see crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas, lizards, and tons of birds such as herons, kingfishers and flycatchers. Learn about the importance of the dry tropical forest and the river and the history of the rural towns near the national park.
Tamarindo estuary ride
The national park next to Tamarindo, Marino Las Baulas has a large estuary. Take a short boat ride through the estuary to see crocodiles, birds and monkeys.
Ostional Wildlife RefugeIf you are in Costa Rica during rainy season (July – end of November), you can take a tour to as that is the best time to see nesting Olive Ridley Sea Turtles and babies hatching.
Day 4: Relax
Day 4 is for you to relax, lay on the beach or by the pool, go souvenir shopping and explore the area. If you have a car, you can drive around to the nearby beaches, if not you can walk around town or take a taxi. It’s up to you what you want to do!
If you feel up for doing something, you can take a surf lesson at Playa Tamarindo, go SUP around Coco/Hermosa/Panama or rent a kayak. If you’re at Playa Ocotal, you can rent snorkel gear and snorkel around the reef there.
Day 5: Adventure
For your last full day in Costa Rica, get ready for an action packed day at the foot of a volcano.
This combo adventure tour is one of our favorite things to do in Costa Rica! Zipline through the forest and over a canyon, tarzan swing over a river, horseback ride to waterfalls and white water tube down the river. Wind down the day with relaxing hot springs and soothing mud baths!
You can read more about the Guachipelin combo adventure tour here and watch a video.
Some other ideas for a full day tour are Arenal one day tour with national park hike and hot springs, Nicaragua one day tour or Monteverde one day tour.
If you’d rather do just a zipline tour, you can visit Diamante Adventure Park for an adrenaline filled ocean view zipline or Congo Monkey Trail ideal for first timers or kids for those up near Gulf of Papagayo. Near Tamarindo, you can visit the Black Stallion or Pinilla Canopy Tour.
Day 6: Fly out
It’s time to go home! Even though your trip was only somewhat short, you still got a well rounded experience visiting beaches, going on adventures and seeing wildlife with this 5 day itinerary in Guanacaste!
Tips for this 5 day itinerary in Guanacaste
- This is not an itinerary geared for backpackers or those on a very strict budget. Depending on what hotel you stay at and what tours you do, you can spend around $1000 if you stay at a $80 a night hotel and do all the tours recommended above. Much more if you stay at an all-inclusive or high end hotel. If you are on a budget, stay in a budget/hostel and choose only 1-2 tours.
- If you are traveling solo, keep in mind that many of these tours require a minimum of 2-3 people such as Arenal & Monteverde one day. A private boat tour will be very expensive for 1 person so our recommendation is to stay in a hostel and try to join other groups.
- You do not need to rent a car for this itinerary since you are staying in one place but you will need to book tours that include transportation since public transportation is not efficient for these activities.
- Tours are not cheap in Costa Rica and can run anywhere from $50-180 per person. A private boating tour is about $90 per person for 2 people, a sunset sailing tour is $85 per person, the Guachipelin combo tour is $140 per person with transportation and the Palo Verde tour is $95 per person. A full day Arenal day tour is around $150, a full day Monteverde tour is $180 and a Nicaragua one day tour is $140-160.
- If you rent a car, you can drive yourself to the attractions and pay just the entrance fee. For example, you can drive yourself to Guachipelin and the price of the tour is $95 per person. Palo Verde National Park has a $10 entrance fee.
- Check our packing list to see what you need to bring. Since you will be visiting Guanacaste, one of the hottest areas in Costa Rica, you will need plenty of sunscreen and summer clothes. Guanacaste is also a very bad area for mosquitoes so bring plenty of mosquito repellent.
- The best months to visit Guanacaste depends on your preferences. High season is end of December – April and it is extremely crowded and expensive. August – November is less busy and prices go down a bit. But if you don’t want to run into any rain, dry season is the best time for you (Dec – April). March and April are the hottest months where it reaches the 100’s for weeks. September – November are the rainiest months.
Check out other sample itineraries!
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