For senior year spring break, instead of going along with the typical resort vacation, two of my friends and I opted for something a bit more adventurous: a Costa Rican road trip. We began our trip by flying into the capital city, San Jose, then worked our way through Arenal, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio. This guide will set you up with everything from car rentals to wildlife sitings to the best coconut cream pie in the world.
WHAT TO EXPECT
This trip was WILD and filled to the brim with adventure + incredibly inexpensive. It was the perfect destination combining adventure, nature, and resort luxury. Expect to pull the car over a bunch to admire the scenery and breathe in the fresh air.
If you've done any amount of research yet, you may have heard some horror stories about the road conditions and driving in Costa Rica - but fear not, it's really not bad, and in my opinion, it's the best way to see the country. While it's true, Costa Rica lacks both addresses and stop signs, if I can drive it you can too. I highly recommend downloading the app Waze before you get there (to ensure enough LTE service to install it), this app is a must-have for navigating CR.
We rented a midsize 4-wheel drive car while we were there and it was great. We ended up paying $600 for 8 days + full insurance through Dollar Rental Company. Costa Rica does not accept outside insurance, so to be totally covered I recommend shelling out the extra money for 100% liability coverage through your rental car company.
Our itinerary took us in a square shaped route to a few of Costa Rica's most popular destinations, Arenal, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, then back to San Jose. The route is pretty well marked with signs to each city and we had no problems getting there with the Waze app. The drive to Monteverde was the hardest because it was all dirt and massive rocks, this is where that 4 wheel drive came in handy. Aside from that drive, the driving wasn't too hard, the city proved a little challenging, but if I can do it you can too.
There are tolls along the route, just near San Jose, so make sure to have some change. We paid about 4000C total in tolls (about $4).
While on the road you can expect to see a lot of "sodas," small local eateries, but once you leave the main area it can be sometimes hard to find gas, so be sure to fill up before you leave each city. The gas stations are full service and accept credit card. For our total trip, we paid about $200 in gas.
WHEN TO GO
Costa Rica has two seasons: rainy season and less rainy season (aka dry season). We went early March and it was perfect. We were able to get there a little bit before the major tourist times, enjoy the heat, and only deal with minimal downpours. However, we did have a little less daytime, the sunset at about 5:30 pm every day.
WHERE TO EAT
As you probably expect, food is pretty cheap in Costa Rica - if you are eating at local restaurants and sodas. But, if you decide to eat in the more touristy areas and nicer restaurants expect to pay about average for food ($17 per person). I find that paying for water is always the most expensive because tap water can be risky. One of the best decisions we made was stopping at a Walmart in San Jose before we left to pick up snacks, a case of bottled water, car chargers, and a music cable. Costa Rica is well known for their plantain, rice, beans, and fresh coconuts - so get ready for some good fresh food!
WHERE TO STAY
Costa Rica has so many great housing options at really low costs! I really recommend taking advantage of the quaint bed and breakfasts, hostels, or Airbnb's while you are there. These all provide great opportunities to soak in a little bit more of the culture and at a much friendlier cost than major hotels. I'll include the names of the places we choose in the itinerary below!
GOOD TO KNOW
- Almost every Costa Rican we encountered spoke English, so don't fret. I encourage you to make an effort to speak Spanish at first, though. :)
- Uber is a thing in San Jose and a much cheaper option than taxis. And if you do decide to take a taxi there is no need to tip.
- Watch out for monkies!! The little guys are aggressive and will definitely go through your stuff on the beach, I linked my sandals to my backpack and use a lock on my backpack to keep them out.
- "Pura Vida" is the go to saying in Costa Rica. It can be used as a hello, goodbye, or in response to how you are or how something was.
THE 9 DAY COSTA RICAN ROAD TRIP ITINERARY
Now it's time for the good stuff! Prior to this trip, I did loads of research, really just insane amounts of research to ensure we hit all of the must-sees in our short amount of time. This itinerary encompasses Costa Rica's non-negotiables, hidden gems, and some of the best food we found + pictures to get you even more excited for your trip. Pura Vida!
DAY 1: SAN JOSE
SJO Airport --> San Jose (45 minutes)
What to see:
- San Jose. We arrived at noon to SJO airport and from there meandered (read: got lost) through some little towns to San Jose. The city itself isn't spectacular and I wouldn't recommend more than doing a half day there.
- Dinner at Nuevo Tierra. It was right in the city with good food, a little touristy, though.
Where we stayed: San Jose Courtyard Marriott (free with points). Goes against everything I just said above, but it was free, safe, and clean which was perfect for the first night in a new city. It was close to a lot of American restaurants and only an $8 Uber ride into the city.
DAY 2: ARENAL
San Jose --> Arenal (3 hours)
What to see:
- La Fortuna Waterfall. I loved this hike! It costs $15 US dollars and is a decent hike, but very fun and nice to swim in. Bring water!
Where we stayed: Los Lagos Resort & Spa ($114 per night). This hotel was my friend Kat's choice, and was great! The grounds were beautiful, friendly staff, and nice to have everything we needed right in site. There was no wifi, though.
DAY 3: ARENAL
- Arenal Volcano. We did a horseback riding excursion through our resort that took us to the best observation deck for the volcano. While the top was still cloudy, it was a beautiful view and we got to ride through the rainforest.
DAY 4: MONTEVERDE
Arenal --> Monteverde (3 1/2 hours and the hardest drive)
What to see:
- Monteverde Eco Reserve. We used our student IDs to get a discounted park entrance ($10) to the park and ended up following along with a National Geographic group. While, we didn't see much wildlife, other than birds, it was a beautiful park and nice, easy hike.
- Tree House Cafe. This restaurant is literally a treehouse, it's very touristy but a fun experience and great life music in the heart of town.
Where we stayed: Sunset Hotel ($60). This bed and breakfast is beautifully situated on the side of a mountain right at the base of the cloud forest, so expect to see a lot of rainbows! The room was very basic, but clean and the host was incredibly sweet and hospitable + made a delicious breakfast.
DAY 5: MONTEVERDE
- Sky Adventure Cloud Walk, Zipline, and SkyTram. This was one of my favorite memories of our trip. We were the first people in the park at 8 am (which made pictures great) and started with a fun tour with our handsome guide, Jorge. He spotted our first sloth of the trip! From there we did a course of 8 zip lines that were so high we actually zipped through a cloud!
- Lunch at Taco Taco. A cute little walk up window in the heart of town with yummy (and cheap) tacos + lots of puppies.
- Chocolate tour at Café Caburé. This was one of the hidden gems we stumbled upon in Costa Rica. It seems abandoned upon first sight but is actually a beautiful Argentine Cafe and gourmet chocolate shop. Our chocolate tour was intimate and insightful.
DAY 6: MANUEL ANTONIO
Monteverde --> Manuel Antonio (4 hours including stops)
- Playa Espadilla. This was our first beach stop and it was breathtaking at first sight! Beware, though, the water is extremely salty and my sweet friend Mel got stung by a jellyfish within our first thirty minutes. The sting left a nasty tentacle line and sting, but other than that wasn't an extreme situation, pack some cortisone cream for sure. Also, there is $4 parking right on the beach, don't park with the guys on the side of the street.
- Dinner at Cafe Milagro. Y'all, this cafe is the best! From the jerk chicken to the live music to the best coconut cream pie of my life - it was awesome!!!
Where we stayed: Hacienda Pacifica Hotel ($89). We got a full condo with a beautiful pool and safe complex. It was a little far from the beaches and main town (about 15 minutes), but the amenities made up for it. It was so great to have a pool to end the day in!
However, if I was traveling solo I probably would have opted to stay at Selina Hostel ($14 for a dorm room - $90 for a deluxe private room). It's right in the heart of town and walking distance to the beaches - very hip and modern.
DAY 7: MANUEL ANTONIO
- Brunch at Emilio's. This spot is easily my favorite in all of Costa Rica, I could have stayed here forever. It all open air and has the best view of the water. The food and service were also great.
- Catamaran tour and snorkeling with Sunset Sail Tours. One of our favorite memories of the trip!! The trip included transportation to the port, boat ride, open bar, snorkeling, and dinner - worth every penny. The guides were fun and made the cruise so enjoyable!
DAY 8: MANUEL ANTONIO
- Manuel Antonio National Park. Park all the way at the end of the road (safest and cheapest, $4) and don't get a tour guide for the park. We got to the park around 8 AM and it was perfect! Not too crowded or hot + we saw tons of wildlife! The beach there was my favorite in Manuel Antonio.
- Lunch at Cafe Agua Azul. A tiny rooftop restaurant with another beautiful view of the water + great burgers.
- Playa Bisaenez. This beach is a little off the beaten path and great if you are looking to escape the crowds. A short trail walk will lead you to this secluded beach with cream-colored sands, high cliffs, and a vendor ready to bring you a cold cerveza right to your towel.
- Sunset at Playa Espadilla. I spent our last night in Costa Rica lounging in my hammock and watching the sunset.
- Dinner at El Avion. A neat restaurant with a bar inside of an old plane. They also had great tuna tartar (or at least that's what Mel said).
- Dessert at Cafe Milagros. I honestly couldn't leave Costa Rica without more coconut cream pie.
DAY 9: SAN JOSE
Manuel Antonio --> SJO airport (4 hours)
- Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to drive from Manuel Antonio back to San Jose, traffic can be so tricky! We left at 7 am for our 2 pm flight and just barely made it in time to the airport so be careful.
AND THAT'S IT!
Have fun and be safe :) I'd love to hear about any hidden gems you discover or your favorite places on your trip to Costa Rica! Feel free to connect and share your trip with me on Instagram @kerryawheeler.