Costa Rica is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Central America. With stunning beaches situated on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, active volcanoes, and the world's largest cloud forest, Costa Rica's rich biodiversity will have you falling in love with La Pura Vida within a week. Although it's not long enough to see it all, one week allowed me to get a taste of black and white sand beaches along the Pacific Coast and a couple of adrenaline filled days in the cloud forest.
Jaco - 1 Night
Although you will land in San Jose, there isn't much to see there in comparison to the rest of the country. I headed straight to Jaco, planning to spend one night there before continuing to the next destination. Jaco is a popular surfer town that sees a lot of tourists. I tend to avoid spending a lot of time in places like this, but Jaco is a chill spot, easily accessible from San Jose, and a good jump off point to see other hotspots in Costa Rica.
After landing in San Jose, you can travel one of 3 ways: rental car, bus, or privately hired shuttle. Rental car may be the best option if you plan to hit a lot of places during your stay, but beware roads can be pretty treacherous in Costa Rica. A private shuttle from San Jose to Jaco runs about $100 with 2 person minimum, and will afford you the luxury of air conditioning and saving time. I went the cheapest route and took the bus, which took 2-3 hours for $5 (2,500 colones) per person.
To get to the bus station from the airport, exit the airport and you will find a local bus stop just on the other side of the garage. Don't forget to stop at the atm or exchange counter to get cash beforehand. You will take the local bus to Terminal 7-10, where buses leave for Jaco about every 2 hours.
As I arrived to Jaco, I hopped in a taxi for a few dollars and headed to Room2Board based on a friend's recommendation. I arrived to a new, clean, multistory hostel overlooking the ocean. Room2Board runs around $16-30 per night for dorm and private rooms at $65-85 equipped with air conditioning depending on time of year and room type. You can have a drink at the bar, swim in the pool on the ground floor, or hang out on hammocks on the roof while watching the sunset over the water. They also offer yoga, surfing lessons, excursions, and transportation to additional destinations.
Things to do
Jaco is a popular surfer town and finding board rentals or lessons are advertised everywhere.
String a hammock between some palms and enjoy the black sand beaches. The mixture of tones swirled by the ocean current creates intricate patterns.
If you're the type who needs a class, most places you stay will offer or know who does.
I didn't have time to get here but wish I had. Totally doable as a day trip, you can take a bus here for a few dollars in under 2 hours. Check out the Sloth Institute if you want to be guaranteed to see sloths, as they are actually pretty rare in the wild now.
Santa Teresa - 2 Nights
Santa Teresa, one of Costa Rica's most beautiful beaches, is a popular destination for yogis, surfers, and beach bums situated on the Nicoya Peninsula overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Whether you take a rental car, private shuttle, or bus, the trip from Jaco to Santa Teresa can last anywhere from 5-8 hours. It is possible to take a ferry but the best option is to take a water taxi from Playa Herradura in Jaco to Montezuma. The trip will cost about $40 and one hour of your time, or $50 with included transfer to Santa Teresa from Montezuma. I bought my ticket through Room2Board, and you may want to buy in advance during high season because they can sell out.
There are plenty of hostels and hotels in Santa Teresa to choose from with a wide price range. I stayed in Hotel Raratonga for around $70/night including air conditioning, private balcony, and kitchen equipped with fridge, gas stove, and utensils. There is a market nearby if you prefer to cook to save money. There is a pool, but the beach is very close and far more beautiful!
Things to do
Yoga classes and retreats are abundant in this area.
Soft white sand and killer sunsets.
Some of the best surfing in the world (so I've been told).
Explore on ATV
Rent a four wheeler for about $70 for 24 hours (less if you book longer) and roam the peninsula. As you go through forests and find hidden beaches it's common to see howler monkeys, white faced capuchin monkeys, and pelicans diving along the coast.
The waterfalls in Montezuma can take anywhere from 45 minutes -1.5 hours from Santa Teresa by vehicle depending
on the route you take (can be found on maps.me). While you can hire someone to drive you, I recommend taking an ATV and exploring on the way. When you get there, you'll pay a couple bucks to park then take a short hike up to the waterfalls where you can watch locals swan dive after scaling the massive rock face.
Monteverde - 2 Nights
Monteverde is home to the world's largest cloud forest, a tropical, dense forest that remains moist from a persistent, low cloud covering. Whether you are low key or an adrenaline junkie like me Monteverde has something to offer.
Although only a little over 100 miles away, the journey from Santa Teresa to Monteverde can take about 4-6 hours. The fastest way is to take a ferry across the water to Puntarenas and then continue by car (in a rental you will pay around 24$ - or 12,000 colones for ticket which includes car and driver, few dollars extra for each additional passenger. I paid $50 to go by shared van, including ferry ticket, directly to Monteverde (set up by hotel). The shared van will take you directly to your destination. If you're strapped for cash, you can take the bus from Santa Teresa to Paquera, take the ferry to Puntarenas, then take another to Monteverde. It may save you around 30$ but will cost you several more hours of travel time.
I opted to stay in an AirBnB because it offered more luxury for the price. I stayed in Suite Tacari at Casa Valentina located near the Cloud Forest Reserve in private, quiet area for around $74 a night. The Suite includes a queen size bed, couch, fridge, private bathroom with hot tub and shower, and its own balcony with beautiful views of pastures with roaming livestock. When you arrive, you may be greeted by the neighbor Miguel, who often helps people check in to Casa Valentina. If you want to explore and search for wildlife in the area, Miguel offers guide services, and is sure to keep you safe - he literally caught a hawk barehanded that tried to attack his dog, then took a selfie. I shit you not.
Things to do
Cloud Forest Reserve
The Cloud Forest Reserve encompasses thousands of acres of protected forests home to a wide range of wild and plant life. The Reserves offer guided tours to help you identify wildlife, which can be hard to notice to the untrained eye at times. Your best bet for spotting wildlife is early morning or at night, depending on the species. Night walks are great for spotting insects, tarantulas, snakes, and maybe a sloth if you're really lucky. Morning walks and guided bird watching tours are extremely popular as well. If you don't want to pay to enter the reserve, you can find hummingbirds, monkeys, and coatis.
I don't often mention food spots, but this taco stand is not to miss. Taco Taco is located in Santa Elena and also labeled on maps.me. Make sure to get a spiked limeade with your tortillas.
There are several options for zip lining in Costa Rica. I chose 100% Aventura because their superman zip line is the longest and highest in Latin America. For $50, you get to zip line through 10 courses, including a Tarzan swing and Superman line. This includes transportation to and from accommodation
To be completely honest, this was my sole motivation for going to Monteverde, and it was worth it. For $73 you can jump from the highest bungee in Central America at Monteverde Extremo Park. They would not let me use my own go pro and I had to pay for the video, which was given to me on a CD - which was useless to me, so I recommend bringing a USB to save it on from their computer.
San Jose - 1 Night
San Jose is a large, bustling city with many different districts. Unless there is something you really want to see there, I think your time is better spent elsewhere. I only spent one night in San Jose to fly out the next morning. I always recommend getting to your departure city the day before, you never know with the roads in Costa Rica and you may miss your flight.
I took the bus from the Santa Elena bus station near Monteverde to Terminal 7-10 in San Jose for about $5. The bus trip can take anywhere from 4-6 hours depending on road conditions and stops.
I stayed in TripOn2 Hostel in the Escazu district where private rooms run around $50 a night and dorms $10-$15. It had a free breakfast and a nice outdoor area with pool and hammocks. For only one night, I wish I stayed closer to the airport because it took me 2 hours to get to the airport with construction.
No visa is required for US citizens (only valid passport and proof of exit ticket).
Costa Rica uses colones as their currency which is roughly about 570 colones to $1 USD. You can also use American dollars, but you will likely end up overpaying for things over time (this adds up!).
If you take a taxi, make sure the meter is on. Uber is also available in Costa Rica.
Wifi is widely available but you can also unlock your smartphone and put a traveler SIM card in it when you arrive in the airport. This will allow you to use data whenever you need for a flat fixed rate using local carriers.
The bus line is called Transmonteverde. Be aware when taking the bus to keep your valuables on you at all times. I typically lock one bag and store it underneath, and then keep all my valuables in my smaller backpack, which is locked and within sight or touch at all times.
Roads can be pretty treacherous depending where you are, so remember that if you're considering using a rental car.
Smoking is illegal in all hotels.
Do NOT forget bug spray or sunscreen.
Dry season (high season) is mid-November to April. You will still need to bring a rain jacket in case.
Try to reserve bus tickets and accommodation in advance during high season or they may sell out.
If someone offers to sell you "cripe" (pronounced creepy), they are referring to a potent marijuana similar in quality and cost to strains found in America. Weed is still ILLEGAL in Costa Rica, however there have been steps to decriminalize marijuana and many speculate it will be legalized in the near future.