Two Weeks in Costa Rica
I didn’t enjoy my first trip to Costa Rica very much. The scenery was beautiful—the people, too—but I found the cost of traveling in Costa Rica, monetarily and otherwise, to be much too high, considering the quality of the country’s infrastructure, accommodation and other facilities. And the fact that they put my least favorite condiment on fucking everything.
But I hate leaving a country with a bad taste in my mouth, especially one of mayonnaise, so I went back to Costa Rica. While some aspects of the country still frustrated me, I found myself a great deal more present in my surroundings, and appreciative of them—specifically, how dramatically they changed. I remember transitioning between at least a dozen distinct ecosystems between San Jose and Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, a distance of less than 100 miles.
I look forward to exploring Costa Rica more in the future, both because it will allow me to build on this sample itinerary and also, to jettison my initially lukewarm impression of the country. For now, continue reading to learn how I recommend you spend two weeks in Costa Rica, whether it’s your first trip or not.
Before I get to the meat of my two weeks in Costa Rica itinerary, I want to go over a few practical aspects of travel in Costa Rica. Not sexy, I know, but necessary—and, I hope, helpful.
Should I Rent a Car in Costa Rica?
No—you should rent a 4×4. The condition of roads in much of Costa Rica, particularly roads leading to the country’s most stunning natural treasures, is deplorable. I rented a Hyundai Accent on my first trip to Costa Rica and, had it not been for the amazing rental car protection of my American Express Platinum card, I’d have had to pay thousands of dollars to cover the damage Costa Rica’s horrendous roads did to it. Alternatively, use Costa Rica’s extensive (but slow) bus network, or take domestic flights using a carrier like Nature Air.
Accommodation in Costa Rica
Costa Rica offers a wide range of accommodation, from hostels to five-star luxury; from beach bungalows to all-inclusive beach resorts; and from homestays to one of the most extensive Airbnb networks I’ve seen outside the U.S. Choice notwithstanding, I don’t find the quality of hotels in Costa Rica to be extremely impressive at any level, particularly considering the cost.
Is Costa Rica Expensive?
Speaking of cost, yes, Costa Rica is expensive. I remember paying almost $100 for a very simple beach bungalow in a sleepy town on the Pacific Coast, for example, one that would’ve cost no more than $20 in India or Thailand—and those probably would’ve been nicer! Food is also rather expensive: Unless you eat at a super tico place, plan on spending at least $10 per meal. Buses are cheap, but you get what you pay for; a rental car will cost between $50-100 per day, while gas prices are similar to what you’d pay in Europe.
OK. Now to the itinerary!
San José and/or Liberia
You may or may not pass through San José during your two weeks in Costa Rica—many flights, particularly those from North America, arrive in Liberia, a smaller and much less congested city in the northwest of the country.
No matter which city serves as your entry point to Costa Rica, you shouldn’t expect much—Costa Rica does rural much, much better than it does urban, although San Jose’s city center is colorful and eclectic (it even has its own China Town!), while cute towns around it like Cartago and Zarcero also deserve honorable mentions. Regardless, I wouldn’t recommend devoting more than 1-2 days of your two weeks in Costa Rica to either of the country’s “big” cities.
Mountains and Volcanoes
To be sure, whether you arrive in San José or Liberia, your first stop should be either a rental car agency or bus station: It’s time to head for the hills! Both of Costa Rica’s main tourist hubs allow for easy access to the breathtaking mountain scenery of the country, much of which is dotted with volcanoes.
If you land in San José, the two most easily accessible volcanoes at Volcan Poás and Volcan Irazú. You could also hit up Volcan Turrialba, which is a bit further east than the other two, although that (along with nearby Rio Pacuare) might be better saved for your journey to Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast, at least if you’re driving your own car. If you’ve get an early start, you can combine a trip to Volcan Poás with a hike at the magnificent Bajos del Toro waterfall.
Landing in Liberia better positions you to visit Volcan Arenal, although it’s also relatively easy to visit from San Jose. Likewise, Liberia is closer than San José to the magnificent Rio Celeste, which might be home to the bluest water I’ve ever seen, even if its waterfall is slightly less imposing than Bajos del Toro.
Cap off your volcano and waterfall experience with at least two days in Monteverde Cloud Forest which, I’m going to warn you, looks much closer on the map than it actually is—damn shit roads! Stay at the beautiful Rainbow Valley Lodge, if it still has availability, that is.
The Pacific Coast
Descend out of the Cloud Forest and back to sea level, then head west toward Puntarenas. Bypass the city for now (I find it serves better as an epilogue for your Pacific Coast adventure, rather than a prologue—watch sunset before you head back to San José, preferably while sucking down a chilly Churchill), then drive or walk onto a ferry bound for the Nicoya Peninsula. It’s about 90 minutes from where the ferry lets you off to Santa Teresa, which is the beautiful spot where I spent several days of my two weeks in Costa Rica.
Of course, that’s just my recommendation—Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast is home to hundreds of amazing beaches, from Manuel Antonio, to Tamarindo, to Dominical—the list goes on. And on. And on.
The Caribbean Coast
I won’t be so contentious as to state that Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast is more beautiful than its Pacific one—I’ll just say the former is better suited to me than the latter. The vegetation is more tropical, the air balmier, the sloths more plentiful. Plus, they add coconut to everything, which is always a recipe for success in my book.
The easiest way to access Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast is via the city of Limón, although I don’t recommend you stay there—it’s dangerous and ugly, to boot. You can drive here from San Jose (about 4 hours, if you don’t stop in Turrialba or Rio Pacuare as I recommended earlier) or fly, via Nature Air.
Many foreigners decide to stay in Puerto Viejo, although I chose to continue further south to to Manzanillo, not be confused with a beach community of the same name on the opposite coast.
Other great beaches on the Caribbean include Punta Uva, Playa Grande and Playa Chiquita, although they’re all fabulous and beautiful in my book.
Other Costa Rica Destinations
As I mentioned in the intro to this post, I plan on continuing to explore Costa Rica—my recommendations for two weeks in Costa Rica are only the beginning! If you’re looking for more Costa Rica ideas, fear not. They’re on the way!