An aerial view of Espadilla Beach and the coastline near Manuel Antonio National Park

10 days in Costa Rica: an itinerary for first-time visitors

Looking for an organised tour? This 11-day, small group tour covers many of the highlights from this itinerary.

Costa Rica is sadly no longer a “hidden gem”; loads of Americans retire here, and digital nomads are surfing during their lunch breaks all along the coast. But trust me, there are still so many aspects of the country to discover.

After 10 days in Costa Rica, you’ll be shouting Pura Vida from the rooftops (or getting it tattooed on you like me… oops). This Central American country is absolute magic, and I can’t wait to show you all the fun things to do.

We'll be chasing waterfalls, hiking volcanoes, hanging out with sloths, and even catching some waves on the Pacific Coast. If you're a traveller who wants a little bit of everything, then Costa Rica is your place! And while it can be difficult to decide where to spend your time, this guide to Costa Rica is the perfect starting point.

A waterfall in the middle of the ranforest in Costa Rica

How much time should I spend Costa Rica?

Costa Rica will have you begging for more days at the end of your travels, no matter how long you're in the country. It's one of the most beautiful and captivating countries in Central America.

Typically, travellers that only have around 7-10 days either make their way to the Pacific side or the Caribbean side, depending on what they want their trip to consist of. If you want to experience both, then I would recommend staying at least two weeks, if not a little bit more.

Now, I know most people don't have that amount of time, so in today's guide, we are going to be focusing on the Pacific NorthWest side of Costa Rica, and I have all the must-dos included so—for all of you who suffer from FOMO like me, don't worry. I've got you covered. And, if you’re staying for longer, we have some more ideas for what to do what those extra days.

Getting around Costa Rica

With only 10 days in the country, I personally think renting a car is the best option. It makes things so much easier. The roads are well-maintained and easy to drive, plus it’s a great way to explore the country on your own.

Your other option is public transportation. I won't say it's the best, but it's not the worst. Buses run regularly from major cities, and you can take local buses (ticis) from smaller towns. It's extremely cheap, but it can also be really crowded and when the humidity is high... Well, prepare to sweat.

Gardens in La Fortuna with the Arenal Volcano in the background

Day 1-2: La Fortuna

There are two airports in Costa Rica you can fly into, San Jose and Liberia. I recommend flying into San Jose; it's centrally located and will get you to your first destination quickly, and we don't have any time to waste.

We are starting our adventure in La Fortuna, a town rich in culture and nature. The majestic Arenal Volcano is located here, and it's one of the most popular things to do in Costa Rica.

Explore the nearby famous Sloth Walking trail on the Bogarin trail. It's an easy, breezy walk, and it's right downtown, making this a great addition to exploring the small jungle town.

The best way to see all of the highlights of La Fortuna is by joining this full-day tour. I recommend doing this on your second day so you have the full day to explore the National Park. If you have the energy, you can also try to squeeze in a quick trip to Venado Caves.

The tour starts with a small hike to the La Fortuna Waterfall for a quick little swim. Then, you'll make your way to the main attraction—the Arenal Volcano National Park. You'll hike to the best lookout of the volcano and hopefully be able to see what's under the clouds, and let me tell you—it's gorgeous. Lastly, tackle any fear of heights on the hanging bridges before heading back into town.

I highly recommend staying at The Springs Costa Rica. It has 28 natural hot springs around the property for you to use and take in all of the jungle views. It’s definitely a splurge in accommodation, but it’s one of the nicest resorts I’ve ever seen.

A hanging walkway in Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

Day 3-4 Monteverde

You'll want to head out early to Monteverde, a beautiful cloud forest located in the northern part of Costa Rica. With its rolling hills and misty mountains, you'll feel like you're in a fairytale.

If you want to visit some public hot springs, I recommend going to Rio Celeste waterfall on the way to Monteverde. It's a beautiful turquoise waterfall surrounded by hot springs. It's about an hour's hike to the waterfall, but if you have your own car, it's so worth it!

Once you arrive in the adventure capital of Costa Rica, get ready to fly. What could be better than seeing the forest from up high? At Monteverde, you can take a ride on one of the world's longest ziplines and soar through the treetops while taking in breathtaking views on this ziplining tour.

After seeing the cloud forest from above, be sure to find some time to relax on the ground. You can go horseback riding in the meadows or visit one of Monteverde's many coffee plantations for a unique and delicious experience. This coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane tour is one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon in Monteverde.

And don't forget to end your day with dinner at Ticos y Ricos for some authentic Costa Rican Cuisine. The patacones and pumpkin cream sauce are literally to die for.

The Camino Verde B&B Monteverde Costa Rica is my favorite place to stay near Monteverde. It’s located 10 minutes down the road in Santa Elena, and each room has a private terrace to watch the misty clouds roll in over the treetops.

Surfers on Santa Teresa beach in Costa Rica on a beautiful sunny day

Day 5-7 Santa Teresa

For an absolute dream of a beach destination, you'll want to head south to the surfing mecca of Santa Teresa for a few days. You know those beaches with surf shacks, huge palm trees lining the sand, and everyone running around barefoot? Well, that's Santa Teresa, and it's a must-visit on the Pacific coast.

Whether you're an experienced surfer or just a beginner, this is the perfect place for you to catch some waves and explore one of Costa Rica's most beautiful beaches. If you are a beginner, make sure to take some lessons. The whitewash waves of Santa Teresa make this a prime location to learn, and you'll be on your feet in no time!

If surfing isn't your thing, no problem. Santa Teresa is such a vibe, even without paddling out. You can spend your morning frothing over a smoothie bowl after yoga, reading a book in a hammock along the beach, and watching one of the most beautiful sunsets of your life. The days here seriously go by way too quickly.

If you're a foodie, then your belly is about to love Santa Teresa. From fresh coconuts off the trees to delicious food trucks and vegan eats and treats—there is something here for everyone to get their hands on.

The quirky town of Montezuma in Costa Rica

Day Trip: Montezuma

A must-do in Santa Teresa is to take a day trip to Montezuma by ATV. Montezuma is a small beach town on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, about 45 minutes from Santa Teresa. Montezuma has some of the most stunning beaches in Costa Rica, such as Playa Grande and Playa Las Manchas.

But the real star is the Montezuma waterfall, just a 20-minute walk up the hills right outside of town. Just be sure to bring good shoes, as you'll need to climb over some rocks and cross small streams on your way, but you'll be rewarded with a beautiful 40-meter waterfall.

The best way to get to this spot is by ATV. There are loads of rentals in Santa Teresa, and you'll have so much fun riding through the jungle. You can spot iguanas, monkeys, toucans, and more while exploring the trails.

The small town of Montezuma is very hippy and laid-back, with a few restaurants, cafes, and bars for you to explore. Make sure you stop by Cafe Buen Provecho for some of the best empanadas in all of Costa Rica!

The Ventura Santa Teresa is my favorite little oasis in Santa Teresa. With an outdoor pool in the back and the beach just 250 meters away, it has everything you need for a holiday in the sun.

The white, sandy Espadilla Beach in Costa Rica.

Day 8-9: Manuel Antonio National Park

Our last stop is a little further south on the Coast, a little less than 6 hours from Santa Teresa, so you’ll want to get an early start to make the most of your time, but Manuel Antonio National Park is a must-see. Although it's the country's smallest national park, it's also the most diverse. It has stunning white sand beaches, lush rainforest trails, and plenty of wildlife all through the park.

You'll be amazed by the park's stunning coastal views and the famous "whale tale beach". You can kayak around the bay or hike up to the viewpoints for gorgeous views. The national park is famous for its incredible diversity of tropical plants and wildlife. From adorable three-toed sloths and endangered white-faced capuchin monkeys to a wide variety of beautiful bird species, it really is the perfect send-off from Costa Rica.

Just 300 meters from the national park, Hotel Playa Espadilla & Gardens is the perfect place to stay for your last nights in Costa Rica. Surrounded by jungle and just a 3-minute walk to the beach, it will really have you begging to stay. You can wake up and be at the park in no time, head back for lunch, and go for a swim. Really, the world is your oyster here.

The park in front of the National Theatre in San Jose, Costa Rica

Day 10 San Jose

Sadly, it’s time to say goodbye, I know you don’t want to go! Hopefully, you have a later flight and can spend your last day exploring San Jose before heading to the airport. The capital is full of edgy urban vibes, but the locals still keep their Costa Rican warmth and hospitality alive.

Here are some of my top things to do in San Jose.

  • The National Museum of Costa Rica is a great way to learn more about Costa Rica’s history and culture.

  • Take a stroll in La Sabana Park and the Costa Rican sun one last time as you wander around. It’s one of my favorite ways to kill time before a flight.

  • Visiting the central market, if you haven’t picked up souvenirs yet, now is your chance. You can also eat some local food one last time—yum!

A tapir on the beach in the Parque Nacional Corcovado, Costa Rica

If you have more time in Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Corcovado - 2 nights

From Manuel Antonio National Park, you can continue down South for about two hours to Parque Nacional Corcovado. It’s a protected tropical rainforest where you can spot loads of wildlife, but you might have to work for it.

The National Park is one of the country's most important national parks, protecting the largest primary rainforest in the Central American Pacific region. In this park alone, you can find 250,000 species. So, if you want an incredibly unique experience full of the Earth's most dense wildlife, you can't go wrong with a visit here.

To visit Corcovado, you have to get a permit and go on a tour. It’s impossible to go without one, and trust me—this is in everyone's best interests. It’s one of the most remote places on the planet, and it’s very easy to get lost. And spotting wildlife isn’t as easy as one would think.

A lot of people just do a day trip, but I highly recommend spending at least one night at the Sirena Ranger Station. The longer you stay, the higher the chance of seeing some unique animals.

You’ll book the stay with an overnight tour, and the lodge is right in the middle of the Osa peninsula. You’ll be immersed in the wildlife and rainforest, so be ready to be hot and sticky from the humidity but amazed by the beauty that surrounds you.

Two woman walking past a surfboard rental shop in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

Tamarindo - 2 nights

Another option is to head to the North of the coast after Monteverde and make your way down to Santa Teresa.

Tamarindo is one of the most popular beach resort towns in Costa Rica, and it’s definitely the spot if you’re motto is to work hard, play harder, and party hardest! The coastal town put its name on the map with its insanely good surf and has continued to draw in tourists for years.

While the days are full of sun and surf, once the sun sets, this town comes alive with music, discotheques, and flowing drinks. Just about every night, something is going on in town, and if all else fails, head to the crazy monkey bar for a packed house and beautiful ocean views.

One of the best things about Tamarindo is that even if you aren’t big on partying or surfing, there are still things to do. Just a short drive down the road, you can visit the largest Pacific coast nesting site of the leatherback turtle at Las Baulas National Marine Park

Tamarindo is also popular for its fishing. You can take a half-day tour and catch your dinner for the night. Red snapper, grouper, mackerel, and even Mahi Mahi can be found in these waters. (There are plenty of restaurants in town to cook up your catch as well if you aren’t good on the grill.).

Tamarindo also have some of the best places to relax and chill by the pool for a few days. Hotel Casa Carlota Tamarindo is the perfect option for your stay. The staff is so friendly and really makes you feel at home.

Driftwood and flowery vegetation on a misty morning at Playa Guiones in Nosara, Costa Rica

Nosara - 2 nights

On your way from Tamarindo to Santa Teresa, stop along the coast at this much sleepier surf town. Nosara is the perfect escape from the party life in Tamarindo.

Don’t get me wrong, Nosara is still popular, but not to the likes of its north and south neighbors. You’ll be surrounded by monkeys in the trees, less-ridden waves, and some of the best yoga classes in Costa Rica.

You can spend your days lounging on the beach after a sunrise yoga class or take a surf lesson. But there are also loads of opportunities to go hiking and venture out into the wilderness. Visit the Nosara Biological Reserve or go kayaking in mangroves through Rio Nosara.

This little slice of paradise is perfect for a few days of winding down, or you can even stay a bit longer and join a yoga retreat or a surf camp. The town is full of internationals who have made Nosara their home, and it’s easy to see why. If you’re looking for a low-key beach town with plenty of adventure, then Nosara will be the sweetest escape.

Spend your morning drinking coffee as you watch the monkeys swing from tree to tree in this luxury stay. The Tierra Magnifica Boutique Hotel is definitely a splurge, but with 5-star treatment and insane views, it’s worth it!

One of my favorite stays for a budget-friendly option is Nosara Sunrise Bed and Breakfast. The hosts are so nice, and the sunrise yoga classes here are the perfect way to start your morning.

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Carae Hilcher

Author - Carae Hilcher

Carae is a free-spirited Texan, an expert traveller, and an adventurous soul who is passionate about living life to the fullest. With a contagious laugh and a love for unforgettable experiences, she is full of stories from around the world that she loves to tell.

Carae has been writing about her adventures for the past three years and loves diving into different cultures and seeing all the new places. When she's not on the move, you can find her practicing yoga or enjoying the beach-—with a cocktail in hand, of course. She has an unstoppable zest for life and tries to make the most out of every day.

Last Updated 16 October 2023

Surfers on Santa Teresa beach in Costa Rica on a beautiful sunny day

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