In December 2019, I went to Costa Rica for 5-days with my friend and fellow travel blogger, Jasmine. This was our first time visiting, and even though we did a lot of research, we were a little nervous about driving through the country alone. There are a lot of different opinions on the internet, but from our experience driving around the Guanacaste Province and Arenal region, we felt safe and would highly recommend renting a car. Hiring a taxi can be expensive, and going with a tour group can slow you down. So if you want to save money and time, drive yourself.
There are so many places to see in Costa Rica that if you aren’t staying for two weeks, you’ll have to be selective. Since we only had five days, including travel days, we chose to fly into Liberia due to its close proximity to both the ocean and volcanoes. The beach is only 40-minute from the airport, and the nearest volcano is one hour away. Getting to both is quite easy, and the drive takes you through some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful landscapes.
Below you’ll find a detailed itinerary and some tips to help make planning your trip to Costa Rica simple! This itinerary is perfect for those seeking a little bit of luxury and adventure, but regardless you can always change it up according to your own wants and needs. Just think of this as a guideline. Enjoy!
Day 1: Arrive in Liberia & Drive to La Fortuna
You have arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica! Once you head through the terminal and grab your bags, follow the signs outside to find your rental car company’s shuttle bus. We rented with Alamo, who I recommend! After a two-minute shuttle ride, we reached their office, and within 30 minutes were on our way.
Tip: There aren’t a lot of restaurants along the highways, so grab some lunch in Liberia before the journey. If you’re not comfortable enough yet to stop somewhere local, there are food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and KFC right off the main road.
The drive to the town of La Fortuna in the Arenal region is long but beautiful. The three-hour ride on Route 1 and Route 142 takes you through grasslands and into the rainforest. Along the way, you will see a few different volcano peaks in the distance and drive past the largest lake in Costa Rica, Lake Arenal. The highways and roads are well paved and have many speed limit signs. However, if you’re using a GPS or Google Maps, make sure you stay on the main roads as you get closer to La Fortuna. Digital maps will often try to take you the quickest route, which sometimes leads you onto narrow and rough country roads.
Note: If your plane arrives after 3pm, you may end up driving in the dark for part of the journey. While the drive is safe, it does become pitch-black after the sunset, and there aren’t many signs directing you to your destination. Plus, you are headed inland towards the rainforest and will most likely encounter heavy rain or fog. If you are uncomfortable with this, consider flipping this itinerary. However, if you’re comfortable driving in a foreign country and have a reliable navigation system, then you will be fine. Just keep calm, follow the directions, and you’ll make it to your destinations safe and sound.
As you get closer to the town of La Fortuna, you’ll start to see the peak of Arenal Volcano. There are many accommodations nearby, ranging from Airbnbs to luxury resorts. We stayed at Arenal Kioro Suites and Spa, which costs around $190 a night. This green-friendly luxury hotel located ten minutes from the town of La Fortuna overlooks the magnificent volcano and has hot springs on the property.
You’ll arrive sometime in the afternoon, and most likely be exhausted from the many hours of non-stop travel. So take this time to unwind. The good news is you don’t have to go far to relax. All rooms are equipped with a hot tub for you to soak and enjoy the incredible views of the volcano from the comfort of your room. You can also head to the Titokú Hot Springs – about a 5-minute walk down a jungle path from your room. There are eight hot springs pools with varying temperatures and sizes. From these springs, you can watch the sunset on Arenal Volcano.
For dinner, try the hotel’s on-site restaurants Heliconias and Orquídeas. Heliconias is the signature restaurant and features a la carte local and international specialties. Orquídeas is located by the pool with views of the gardens and volcano, serving themed dinners in a casual setting. We dined there the first night and enjoyed a Chinese buffet. The entire patio was covered with red paper lanterns and other ornamental decorations, while Chinese music played over the speakers – solidifying the theme. Overall, the food and experience were fantastic!
After dinner, we got ready for bed. It was a long day, and if you plan to explore the surrounding Arenal region, you’ll need to rest.
Day 2: Explore The Area Around Arenal Volcano
Rise and shine! While you can choose to sleep in, you’ll definitely get the most out of your day by waking up early.
Before you head out, grab some food from the FREE breakfast buffet at Heliconias. They open at 6:30am and offer a variety of food ranging from cereals to avocado toast. Once you’ve had your fill, let the adventure begin!
There are many activities and tours around the Arenal Volcano, including horseback riding, whitewater rafting, canopy tours, and more. Below are a few great things to do and see during your stay. You can pick and choose which you’d like to do depending on your level of adventure, but I promise you won’t regret a single one.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Falling 70 meters over a jungle cliff and into a jade-colored pool, it’s no wonder this waterfall is one of the most visited in Costa Rica. While La Fortuna Waterfall is an absolute ‘must-see’ attraction, the only way to reach it is by hiking down a 500-step staircase through the rainforest. But don’t worry, it’s not so bad. It only takes about 15 minutes to walk down and 25 minutes to hike back up. I saw people of all ages, shapes, and sizes easily making their way up and down.
The La Fortuna Waterfall Visitor’s Center is easy to find, and there is a parking lot, bathrooms, a small cafe, and a souvenir store at the entrance. Parking is free, but there is an entrance fee of $18 for adults and $5 for children.
Be sure to check out my ‘Ultimate Guide To Visiting La Fortuna Waterfall’ for more information!
Hike Around Arenal Volcano
Between the years 1968 and 2010, Arenal Volcano was extremely active, with an average of 41 eruptions per day! However, the volcano is currently in a resting phase – making it safe to get close and explore. While there is no way to hike up to the 1,657 meters tall volcano itself, there are a few trails that take you around the base, through lava fields and lush rainforests. Due to safety reasons, you should only hike along well-maintained trails in the national park or on other private reserves.
Arenal National Park is open from 8am to 4pm and costs $15 for adults and $5 for children. The park’s most popular trails include Sendero Colada 1968, Tucanes, Coladas de Lava (Lava flow), Los Heliconias, and El Ceibo trail. All of these are relatively short, so you can do multiple in a day if you choose.
One of the best trails, Arenal 1968, is on a private reserve and right next to the national park. The reserve is open from 8am till 6pm and costs $17 for adults while children under the age of 12 are free. There are two trails – Lava Flow 1968 and Trail Forest 1968. The total distance combined is about 7km and can be done in one day.
Most trails in the area are flat and easy to walk. However, you should still come prepared with appropriate hiking shoes, water, and a waterproof bag in case of rain.
Tip: While you do not need a guide or tour to hike these trails, it’s recommended if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of the wildlife hidden amongst the vegetation. A guide will be able to help you spot animals such as white-faced capuchin monkeys, deer, coati, and snakes. There aren’t many sloths located in the national park, so if that’s what you’ve come to see, then visit the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges (which you can read more about in the next section).
Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges
While Costa Rica only accounts for 0.03% of the earth’s surface, it contains nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity. Since there is so much natural wealth in both species and ecosystems, Costa Rica sought out to preserve its biodiversity through National Parks, Reserves, and Protected Areas. Today, over 25.6% of the country (an area of 1342 hectares) is protected.
Near Arenal, one family wanted to preserve 600 acres of land while offering visitors a safe environment to enjoy the rainforest sustainably. Hence, they created the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges, which provide a unique perspective of the forest from above. So if you’re interested in learning about the Arenal rainforest and wildlife (this is where you can see sloths), definitely pay them a visit!
The Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges are open from 6am till 4pm, and entrance costs $26 for adults, $16 for teens (11-18), and children are free. Walking through the entire park is 3.2 km and takes around 2.5 hours. You can choose to explore on your own or go with a guided tour for an additional price.
Arenal Hot Springs
One of the main reasons people come to visit Arenal is the beautiful, natural hot springs. Even though the volcano is dormant, the geothermal pools remain warm and offer visitors a most relaxing experience.
Since we stayed at the Arenal Kioro Suites and Spa, we didn’t feel the need to visit more hot springs. But if you’re interested, these are some of the best options: Tabacon Hot Springs, The Springs, Eco-Termales Hot Springs, and Baldi Hot Springs. I’ve ordered them from most luxurious to most affordable.
Fun Fact: The Bachelor of season 24, Peter Weber, aka Pilot Pete, brought the contestants to La Fortuna and stayed at The Springs Resort and Spa.
If you’re looking to enjoy the hot springs without the price, there are a few springs off the beaten path. Down the road from Tabacón, there is a small bridge crossing the river Río Chollín. If you’re brave enough to climb down the hill next to the bridge, you’ll find natural geothermal pools that are totally free! Since this isn’t a regulated spring, exercise caution before hopping in.
After this fun-filled day exploring the beautiful area of La Fortuna, head back to the hotel, eat some dinner, soak in the hot springs or hot tub, and go to bed. It’s time to rest before another exciting day of travel and adventure!
Day 3: Drive to Four Seasons Resort at Papagayo Peninsula
You have two options this morning: Sleep in or wake up early and visit a magical turquoise blue river.
Option 1: Sleep in.
Check-out time at Arenal Kioro Suites and Spa is noon, so there’s no need to rush. Once you wake up, grab some free breakfast at the buffet and soak in views of the volcano. Maybe even head down to the Titokú Hot Springs one last time. Once the clock strikes 12pm, it’s time to head out.
Option 2: Wake up early and visit a magical blue river.
Wake up around 6am, get some breakfast, and drive 2-hours to Rio Celeste (On Google Maps and Waze, put in “Rio Celeste Waterfall Parking“).
The Celeste River is located in Tenorio Volcano National Park and known for its distinctive turquoise color and large waterfall. Since it is close to a volcano, there are a few hot springs nearby as well. The entrance to Tenorio Volcano National Park is $12 for adults and $5 for children (ages 2-12), and parking at the Rio Celeste Waterfall Parking lot is 2000 colones or $3.50 per car.
Tip: While this is a secure parking lot, don’t leave anything valuable in your car. If you have luggage, keep it hidden in the truck and be sure to park as close as you can to the office and entrance where there are more people.
The trail to Rio Celeste and the waterfall is 3.7 miles long round trip and takes about 2-3 hours to complete (including stops for photos). The hike isn’t challenging, however, the path can be muddy if there has been a lot of rain. Make sure to bring good hiking shoes and a waterproof bag for your electronics.
For more information about visiting Rio Celeste, check out this blog post by My Tan Feet: https://mytanfeet.com/activities/tips-visiting-rio-celeste.
During our trip, Jasmine and I went with option one because we were too exhausted from hiking. However, if you have the energy, don’t miss visiting Rio Celeste!
Driving back to the Guanacaste coast from either Rio Celeste or Arenal will take between 2-3 hours, making your arrival around 3 pm. There are a variety of accommodations ranging from luxury 5-star resorts to small boutique hotels in the area, and as long as they’re along the beach, you really can’t go wrong. During our trip, we stayed at the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Papagayo Peninsula, and it was fantastic!
The Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica is one of the most luxurious resorts in Central America. The property is situated on 45 acres across the Papagayo Peninsula. It has private access to two beaches, four swimming pools, a world-class spa, an 18-hole golf course, multiple dining options, and offers complementary activities. While the rooms are quite expensive (starting around $800 per night), if this is something you can afford, I highly recommend staying here! It is one of my favorite properties, and I hope to return one day.
Be sure to read my “Hotel Review: Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Papagayo Peninsula” for more information about this incredible property.
Once you arrive at the resort and check into your room, you’ll probably want to stretch your feet. Take this time to explore the hotel grounds. You can walk by the hotel restaurants to see what’s on the dinner menu, grab some refreshing drinks at the bar, take a dip in the pools, and walk along the beach at sunset. Just relax. Enjoy the luxurious amenities of the resort and the beauty of Costa Rica’s western coastline.
For dinner, check out Bahia, Pesce, or Añejo. Bahia is a sophisticated all-day restaurant with a variety of dishes for dinner ranging from beef burgers to vegetarian tacos. If you want something casual and light, try the tapas at Añejo. Pesce offers guests an elegant evening with dimly lit lights, panoramic ocean, and classic Italian cuisine. All three restaurants are great – it just depends on what you’re in the mood for – so you really can’t go wrong!
If you still have some energy after dinner, go for a swim in the pool or head to the beach for stargazing. It’s insane how many stars you can see at Playa Virador with the naked eye!
Day 4: Explore the Papagayo Peninsula
Slowly wake up and enjoy a delicious cup of Costa Rican coffee on the patio while listening to the peaceful sounds of birds singing and waves crashing against the shore. If you’re hungry, head to Bahia for some breakfast or grab an acai bowl at Añejo.
Once you’re all fueled up and ready to go, check out the hotel’s daily scheduled activities. The Four Seasons offers over 25 complimentary activities and others that require a small fee. So if you’re interested in doing more than lounge by the pool or relax at the spa, here are just a few fun activities for you to do throughout the day!
After breakfast, head down to Playa Blanca (located on the property) and meet your guide for a Snorkel Tour. From the beach, you’ll swim out into the bay and get the chance to see beautiful coral reefs and the marine life of Culebra Bay. While you snorkel, you’re guide will point out different species of fish and share their knowledge of the surrounding water.
Once you’ve made it back to shore, either rest on the beach or continue your adventure by taking Surfing Lessons! The Four Seasons Resorts is the closest resort to the famous waves of Witch’s Rock and Ollies Point. You can set up lessons with the concierge desk who partner with the luxury surf school Tropicsurf. You’ll be transported to the school by boat and have a one-on-one session with an instructor who will have you riding the waves in no time.
If you’ve decided to snorkel and surf, odds are you’ll be tired and in need of sustenance by noon. Bahia is the perfect spot for lunch with tasty dishes such as mahi-mahi tacos, grilled chicken sandwich, and caesar salad.
At 1:30pm on most days, the Four Seasons Resort offers the complimentary Trail of the Giants Golf Course Tour. A shuttle will pick you and other guests up from the lobby and take you to the golf clubhouse. From there, you’ll select a golf cart and begin your tour around the course. Your guide will stop at beautiful viewpoints to talk about the local vegetation and wildlife of the Papagayo Peninsula. You’ll also have the opportunity to see some white-faced and howler monkeys in the tall trees along the trail!
Once the tour ends, head to the bar at Añejo. Relax and enjoy a few refreshments and snacks on the outdoor patio.
At 4pm, walk next door to La Reserva to do the complimentary Chocolate Rum Tasting! You’ll have the opportunity to try five different rums combined with Costa Rican Chocolate! After the tasting, head to Playa Virador to watch the sunset.
If you still have energy after this very active day, go on the Moonlit Kayak Tour. There are other kayak excursions offered, but the moonlit tour is unique. Just after sunset, you’ll meet with a guide and kayak out to Blanca Bay. LED lights are attached to the bottom of the kayaks so you can see below into the dark water. While the marine life may be less active at this time, you’ll have fantastic views of the coast and start to see thousands of stars appear over the horizon.
Once you get back to shore, head to your room and clean up before a late-night dinner at Pesce. It’s been an eventful day, so sit back and unwind with a glass of red wine and delicious Cioppino!
Be sure to read my complete “Hotel Review: Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Papagayo Peninsula” for more things to do and other complementary activities offered the resort!
Day 5: Relax & Depart
Depending on the time of your flight, you have two options on how to spend your final hours in Costa Rica.
Option 1: Relax at the Four Seasons Resort.
Check-out time is from 12pm till 2pm, so if all you want to do is savor the luxury experience at the Four Seasons Resort, do just that. You can chill by the pool or partake in scheduled morning activities – it’s totally up to you.
Option 2: Explore more beaches in Guanacaste Province.
If you want to see a little more of Costa Rica before you leave, pack up and head out to some other beaches nearby like Ocotal Beach, Conchal Beach, and Playa Flamingo. These beaches are considered to be the best with public access. However, I still think that Playa Virador at the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica is more beautiful. Plus, it’s private.
If you decide to visit Playa Flamingo, which is a 1.5-hour drive from the Four Seasons Resort, swing by Las Catalinas. This new beach town is located on the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by 1,000 acres of tropical dry forest hills and valleys – perfect for hiking and biking. The town itself is completely car-free and composed of houses, small hotels and inns, shops, restaurants, pedestrian streets, plazas, parks, and recreational facilities. Once it is complete, Las Catalinas will be the perfect haven for those looking to connect with nature, locals, and other travelers.
Tip: If you are thinking about adding another day to your trip by staying in Las Catalinas, book a night at the Santarena Hotel. They have a beautiful property and a fantastic infinity pool!
What I would have done differently . . .
In my original Costa Rica itinerary, we only did one day in La Fortuna and added a day in Las Catalinas instead. This was a mistake. Since the town is still being developed, hardly anything was open, and overall there wasn’t much to do. Plus, you could hear the construction going on throughout the day. While the town will eventually be a lovely place to vacation, I wish we had spent more time exploring the Arenal region.
Also, reaching Las Catalinas is tricky. The route is along a dirt road that takes you through a few river wash crossings. If the roads are flooded, like they were when we visited, you have to find an alternative route. There are no signs to help you, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, so there isn’t a lot of traffic. Luckily, a random car happened to pass us, and we knew enough Spanish to ask for directions. If you’re interested in visiting, just do your research and keep yourself informed on the progress of the town.
Overall, Costa Rica exceeded my expectation and has quickly become one of my favorite destinations in the world. I hope I get the change to explore even more of this beautiful country! As always, my thoughts and opinions are my own.
For more posts about my adventures in Central America, click here.