Exploring Costa Rica’s Natural Wonders: An Itinerary from a Local

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costa rica beach sunset

If you know us, then you know that we preach asking for recommendations when you are planning and even after you arrive on a trip. Although we may have a few meals and tours planned out, we are constantly asking where to eat and what places are tourist traps even once we arrive at a destination. 

We have been to Costa Rica a few times but have always connected with Scott's work, and we haven't made it to the beaches yet. We explored the area around Poas Volcano and stayed at an eco-friendly lodge where the sun heated the water. Melissa has explored a coffee plantation, enjoyed a zip line, one of the activities Costa Rica is known for, and spent an afternoon wandering the Jade Museum in San JoseThere are some great day trips that you can take from San Jose if that's where you are based and that's all the time you have.

However, we wanted to plan a trip to explore more on our own, so we hosted Mile, a native of Costa Rica, a friend of ours, and a work colleague of Scott's, to help us. We wanted to know, from a local's perspective, what she would recommend for a trip. 

Here’s her guide to exploring some of its best natural wonders. We've done the research for you and added recommendations on where to stay, what tours to take, and where to eat, and of course what to pack.

Some links are affiliate links.  See our disclosure.

Start in San Jose (1-2 days)

Arrive in San Jose International Airport Juan Santa María (SJO). Keep reading before you book because you'll actually want to fly out of a different airport at the end of your trip to save time. 

San Jose, our capital, is a lively mix of old and new right in the heart of the country. Charming colonial touches are alongside a modern vibe. Wander through places like Barrio Amón, dive into the bustling Central Market, and savor our diverse cuisine. It's not just a city; it's a cultural hub, a starting point for adventures, and a piece of our Costa Rican life.

Where to Stay

La Sabana Hotel Suites Apartments

Located near La Sabana Park and the Museum of Costa Rican Art, this hotel offers a charming boutique atmosphere with excellent breakfast and friendly staff

Auténtico Hotel

Situated close to the Costa Rican Art Museum, this hotel features an outdoor pool and a restaurant, making it a great choice for families and couples alike and has an airport shuttle.

Tours and Experiences

We love to just get out and walk a new place to discover it but it is even better when you can take a walking tour with a local.  You can find a walking tour or San Jose that fits your interests here.  

Also, don't miss a visit to the National Museum, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, or the Jade Museum.  Pro Tip: Museums can be a great way to escape the heat during the middle of the day.

Where to Eat

Be sure to Explore the historic neighborhoods of Barrio Amón and Barrio Escalante and have dinner at a local restaurant in Barrio Escalante. This area is known for its vibrant food scene with numerous local and international restaurants. We also love taking local food tours to taste local food from various places. Here's a walking food tour in San Jose.

If you have time, don't miss Restarurante y Mirador Ram Luna for dinner overlooking the city.  We love how the lights twinkle as they come across the mountainside and in the valley at night.

Here are some food recommendations from Mile to look for throughout your trip:

  • Casado: A traditional dish with rice, black beans, plantains, salad, and a protein (chicken, fish, or beef).
  • Gallo Pinto: A popular breakfast dish consisting of rice and beans, it usually comes with different sides like fried plantains, fresh cheese, bread and eggs.
  • Ceviche: Fresh seafood marinated in citrus juices.
  • Chifrijo: a mix of refried beans, rice, pico de gallo, fried pork rinds and avocado.

Arenal Volcano for both Adventure and Relaxation (2-3 Days)

Arenal Volcano is a big, impressive volcano. You can hike around it, soak in hot springs, and see a cool lake nearby. It's a great place to enjoy nature and maybe even spot the volcano at night.

Rent a car in San Jose or from the airport.  Drive Time: 3.5 hours from San Jose. You can stop at La Fortuna Waterfall for a refreshing swim.

In the afternoon, explore Arenal Volcano National Park, take a hike, and enjoy the scenic views and then relax in the Hot Springs.

Where to Stay

Photo credit: booking.com

Arenal Kioro Suites & Spa - Offers luxury accommodations with stunning views of the volcano

Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa - Known for its natural hot springs and lush gardens.

Photo credit: booking.com

El Silencio del Campo - features an outdoor pool and relaxing volcanic hot springs

Photo credit: Booking.com

Where to Eat

Visit the La Fortuna downtown, many good restaurants and local cuisine such as La Parrilla de Maria Bonita, a popular spot in La Fortuna known for its delicious local cuisine and friendly atmosphere, and Chocolate Fusion Café

Tours and Experiences

Arenal Volcano National Park Area Tours.  Tours may include visiting the Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna Waterfall, ATV rides, relaxing in the hot springs, and more.

Guanacaste Area - Playa Concha for a Beach Paradise (2-3 Days)

Santa Cruz, Costa Rica  

Photo credit: Mile PIcado

What makes it special is its unique sand—it's not the typical sand; it's made up of tiny, crushed shells. The water is clear and calm, perfect for swimming or just relaxing by the shore. It's a serene spot with a tropical vibe, surrounded by greenery. It's a great place to unwind and enjoy the sun and sea.

Drive Time: 4.5 hours from Arenal

"It was one of my favorite things to do on a Friday, take the car, go to a beach. And I usually do that by myself. Or if somebody wanted to join, that was great too. But I really enjoy traveling by myself. So that's one of the things that I really love." - Mile Picado

Hear more on our podcast episode with Mile "How to Plan the Ultimate Costa Rica Getaway & Vacation like a Local."

Where to Stay in the Guanacaste Area

Photo Credit: Booking.com

W Costa Rica - Reserva Conchal 

A luxurious beachfront resort with eco-friendly practices and stunning views.

Bahia del Sol Beach Front Boutique Hotel 

Photo Credit: Booking.com

A charming mid-range hotel offering beachfront access and excellent service.

What to Do

Head to Playa Conchal and relax on the beach or participate in water activities. Have lunch at a local restaurant and enjoy some good ceviche, fried fish, patacones, or any seafood. Opt to take a boat tour to see the local marine life.

Tours and Experiences

Catamaran Sailing & Snorkeling Tour - Explore the marine life and enjoy the pristine waters of the Pacific Ocean on this eco-friendly tour.

Where to Eat

Sunset view from Nicoya, Costa Rica  

Photo credit: Mile Picado

Beachside Restaurants are her recommendation - Enjoy fresh seafood and ceviche at the many beachside eateries along Playa Conchal.

When you are ready to leave (or it's just time to go home), fly out of Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) instead of driving back to San Jose. Depending on which option is cheapest, you can easily accomplish this by either booking a multi-city trip or buying two one-way tickets from your home airport.

Day Trips from San Jose 

If you're limited on time and can't venture far from San Jose, there are still plenty of eco-friendly tours and activities to enjoy nearby.

Poás Volcano

Drive Time: 1.5 hours from San Jose

What to Do

Visit the massive volcanic crater and explore the surrounding national park.

Tours and Experiences

Poás Volcano, Café Doka, and Peace Falls Day Tour include a visit to our favorite La Paz Waterfall.

Irazú Volcano


Drive Time:Approximately 1 hour from San Jose


What to Do

Explore the highest volcano in Costa Rica and take in the breathtaking views from the summit.

Tours and Experiences

Irazú Volcano Half Day Tour from San Jose

If you're in the area, also visit La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Scott had visited a few times and took Melissa the first chance that he got.  You can also stay here for an escape near San Jose.

Costa Rica Travel Tips from Mile

Photo Credit: Mile Picado

  • The currency is the Costa Rican Colón (CRC), though U.S. dollars are widely accepted.
  • Taxes and Tips are included in the check, but locals will appreciate any tips
  • Some highways will have tolls; you can pay with a credit card, but having cash with you is also advisable. $30 should be enough for tolls
  • Waze is the most accurate GPS app in Costa Ric
  • Renting a car can be a convenient way to explore, especially if you plan to visit multiple destinations. Roads can be winding, so be prepared for some longer travel times. Renting an SUV is recommended for exploring diverse terrains.
  • The official language is Spanish, but many Costa Ricans in tourist areas speak English. Learning a few basic Spanish phrases can enhance your travel experience.
  • Costa Rica has excellent healthcare facilities, but it's advisable to have travel insurance that covers medical expenses.
  • Tap water is generally safe to drink.
  • Costa Rica is known for its biodiversity. Respect wildlife and follow guidelines to observe animals in their natural habitats without harming them.
  • Pack lightweight, breathable clothing, especially if visiting during the dry season.
  • Don't forget essentials like sunscreen, insect repellent, a rain jacket, and comfortable walking shoes.
  • Don't hesitate to explore local markets for authentic flavors. We stopped at a Fresas (strawberry) stand on the side of the road during our last visit, which was during strawberry season, and enjoyed the fresh, locally picked berries.
  • Costa Ricans are known for their friendly and laid-back nature. Embrace the "pura vida" lifestyle and respect local customs and traditions.

Other Information Mile shared with us that is helpful to know when planning your trip

Photo credit: Mile Picado

Costa Rica has a tropical climate, and temperatures can vary based on the region and elevation. In general terms temperature usually stays between 60°F and 80°F in the city. 

Central Valley (San Jose)

    • Daytime temperatures typically range from 70°F to 80°F (21°C to 27°C).
    • Evenings: temperatures ranging from 50°F to 60°F (10°C to 16°C). 

Coastal Areas (Guanacaste, Puntarenas, Limón)

    • Daytime: range from 80°F to 95°F (27°C to 35°C).
    • Evenings: temperatures around 70°F to 75°F (21°C to 24°C).

Arenal and Monteverde

    • Due to higher elevations, temperatures are cooler in these regions.
    • Daytime: can range from 65°F to 80°F (18°C to 27°C).
    • Evenings: ranging from 50°F to 65°F (10°C to 18°C).

Costa Rica's summer, considered the dry season, occurs from December to April. This period is ideal for exploring the country's diverse landscapes and outdoor activities.

The rainy season runs from May to October. Showers are common in the afternoons, but mornings are often clear. This season offers lush greenery and fewer crowds.

Costa Rica’s commitment to sustainability makes it an ideal destination for eco-friendly travelers. From the vibrant culture of San Jose to the serene beaches of Playa Conchal and the adventurous Arenal Volcano, there’s something for everyone.

Enjoy your adventure in Costa Rica, and as always, let us know what you find there that you loved, and please share your tips and recommendations with us!


 

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Hi! We're Scott and Melissa

The Sunshine Travelers

 

We are a couple of travel obsessed explorers sharing our travel experiences and stories to inspire you to travel more and better. We are so happy to have you here.

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