Costa Rica offers a great variety of options, and in a week to ten day trip, you can visit 2 or 3 different areas of the country. Popular combinations tie together a few days in the highlands and a few days at the coast. In the highlands, you can see active volcanoes, go whitewater rafting, and visit the highland rainforest and cloudforest. On the Pacific Coast, great places include Tamarindo in the north, and Manuel Antonio in the central part of the country. Both have beautiful beaches and many activities/excursions are available. On the Caribbean side, Tortuguero National Park is a wonderful place for viewing wildlife.
The Costa Rican capital city of San Jose is the starting point for most trips to Costa Rica. If you arrive early in the day, tours can be arranged to visit some of the local sites and museums. There are two excellent museums in San Jose, the Jade Museum and Gold Museum, both of which contain large collections of pre-Columbian artifacts. There are some excellent small hotels in the San Jose area, making this a pleasant way to spend your first night in Costa Rica.
The area around Arenal Volcano offers a lot to do, in a spectacular location. You will have the chance to enjoy dramatic views of an erupting volcano, visit the highland rainforest, do a zipline or “hanging bridges” canopy tour, go whitewater rafting on the Sarapiqui River, and visit the local hot springs. This is a popular part of Costa Rica, as there is a lot to do and the scenery is fantastic. From Arenal people generally continue over the mountains toward Monteverde, or go down to the coast to have some time on the beach. You can easily spend 2-4 days in the Arenal area.
Monteverde is a charming small town in a uniquely beautiful cloud forest environment, located just over the mountains (but a 4 hour drive) from Arenal Volcano. For those who appreciate nature, Monteverde can be one of the highlights of a trip to Costa Rica. The cloudforest is home to many unique species and some extremely beautiful rare birds, such as the resplendent quetzal. The town was settled by Quakers, and has several cooperative farming communities.
The northwestern Pacific beach area around Tamarindo is a lovely place to finish off a trip to Costa Rica. The beaches are beautiful, and options for activities abound, including wildlife viewing, snorkeling, scuba-diving, surfing, fishing, sea kayaking, horseback riding, and just lounging on the beach or by the pool. From October to March, you can also observe the world’s largest reptiles, the extremely endangered leatherback sea turtle, nesting on Playa Grande, an awesome experience. These turtles can weigh up to 2000 pounds and be over 8 feet long. If you are interested in diving, see the Activities in Costa Rica page for more information.
Set on the Central Pacific Coast, the town of Manuel Antonio is home to the smallest but also one of the most spectacular national parks in Costa Rica. Surrounded by the ocean, the park is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including monkeys, sloths, iguanas, and many tropical birds. The hotels in Manuel Antonio sit up on a hillside above the beach, and there are some excellent places to stay and eat in the town. Additional activities in the area include deep sea fishing, which is some of the best in the world, particularly from December to April (see the Costa Rica activities page for more info). Other options are rafting trips to the Naranjo or Savegre Rivers, scuba diving and snorkeling trips, visits to Carara National Park (about an hour north and another great wildlife viewing area), and just relaxing on the beach.
In the northeast corner of Costa Rica is one of the best places for viewing wildlife in the country, including monkeys, birds, sloths, and reptiles. Tortuguero National Park is also one of the best places for viewing nesting giant sea turtles (during the March to August nesting season). There are some beautiful lodges situated just outside the park, and excursions are made by boat and by foot into the surrounding wilderness areas of the Park. This is a great 3 day/2 night trip and can form part of any trip to Costa Rica.
In the far southeast of Costa Rica lies one of the wildest and remotest areas of the country, the Osa Peninsula, home to Corcovado National Park. Accessible by small plane, the region around the Osa Peninsula offers the opportunity to see some of the largest standing tracts of Pacific rainforest in Central America. Options from first class tent camps to incredibly beautiful and luxurious jungle lodges mean that a visit here doesn’t mean roughing it, though you’ll almost certainly have to go without television or internet. If you have 4 days and want to have an off-the-beaten path, truly extraordinary experience, consider the Osa Peninsula.