3 Weeks in Costa Rica – The Ultimate Itinerary for 2024

Costa Rica is only a small country located in Central America, but contains 5% of all biodiversity in the world! It’s an absolute paradise for nature and wildlife lovers, from turtle hatching in Tortuguero to spotting sloths in Cahuita. 3 weeks in Costa Rica gives you the ultimate opportunity to visit some of the country’s best at a slower pace!

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costa rica map

How to get around during your 3 weeks in Costa Rica

Although Costa Rica is one of the most popular and well-developed countries in Central America, it’s still lacking a good local transport system. There are busses throughout the country bringing you almost everywhere, however, it may take up long travel time and multiple transfers.

By Rental Car

Renting a car is the ultimate way to get the fullest out of your time during your 3 weeks in Costa Rica. Therefore if you’re traveling as a couple or with friends, renting your own car is game-changing!

The roads in Costa Rica are well maintained and some have been rebuilt in the last years. Even though it’s possible to reach any place on this list with a normal car, having a bigger 4×4 gives you all the freedom to go wherever you want and allows you to explore off-the-beaten-path during your trip.

We always book our rental car with Rentalcars.com, where you can easily compare all companies and cars.

car rental costa rica

By Bus

Not everyone is in the position to rent a car on their 3 weeks in Costa Rica, as it could get pricy if you’re heading towards a 4×4. For that reason, the best option to get around Costa Rica as a backpacker is by bus or shuttle. Local bus companies drive all around the country but you may need to change multiple times on one route.

By Shuttle

Another option is shared shuttles. These are often more comfortable and have routes between all the destinations in this 3 week in Costa Rica itinerary. The only downside of the shuttles is that they are quite expensive so unfortunately not very ideal for backpackers.

Travel tip: Get yourself an essential FREE Travel Card from Wise to avoid ATM fees abroad!

sloth parking
fog on road in costa rica

San José – 1 night

Before starting your road trip through Costa Rica, I recommend staying in the capital to catch up on some sleep after your flight. San José isn’t one of the best cities in Central America, so I recommend staying close to the airport and moving on to the next destination as soon as possible.

When you do decide to stay in the capital, make sure to pay a visit to the National Museum as I’ve heard it’s a great place to learn more about the country’s history from their perspective. 

hotel san jose costa rica
Hotel Recommendation:

La Riviera Hotel
San José, Costa Rica
Book Here!

Puerto Viejo – 4 nights

Your 3 weeks in Costa Rica start on the Caribbean coast, in a small village named Puerto Viejo. Your days here will be filled with some beach time, spotting epic wildlife, and relaxing. Located a bit off the route, this laid-back village is often skipped by many travelers. It turned out one of my favorite places in Costa Rica and it’s unmissable for your trip!

punta uva palmtree beach

How to get from San Jose to Puerto Viejo

🚘 By Rental Car

By rental car, reaching Puerto Viejo from San José can be done within 4 hours. The roads are recently renewed, so the road conditions are very good!

🚌 By Public Transport

The public bus company MEPE drives twice a day from San José to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and takes around 4 hours as well. A ticket costs around €10. Next to the buses, there are also shared shuttles that are a bit more comfortable and pick you up at your hotel/hostel. Prices start from around €50.

monkey cahuita national park
puerto viejo village

Best Things to Do in Puerto Viejo

One of the best things about Puerto Viejo is the amazing wild beaches nearby. Punta Uva is one of the most beautiful and wild beaches I’ve seen in Costa Rica. All the beaches in the area are well visited by bicycle so you don’t have to worry when you don’t have a rental car. Oh and yes, you definitely want to rent that bicycle – fun guaranteed! 😉

With all the things to do in and around Puerto Viejo, you can easily spend 4 nights here! Another highlight in Puerto Viejo is Cahuita National Park, where wildlife spotting is at its best and still relatively unknown. Of all the national parks we’ve visited in Costa Rica, this one was by far our favorite!

Read here all the Top Things to do in Puerto Viejo and how to visit them!

puerto viejo village 3 weeks in costa rica

Jaguar Rescue Center

Spotting wildlife in their natural habitat should always be your first choice. However, after doing a lot of research, we came upon the Jaguar Rescue Center.

This center rescues and fosters injured, ill or orphaned animals. They give them a temporary home or even a permanent one because not all animals will ever survive back in nature anymore. It’s well worth a visit during your time in Puerto Viejo. Read the Puerto Viejo blog post for more details!

lodge puerto viejo
Hotel Recommendation:

Finca Chica Lodge & Villas
Puertjo Viejo, Costa Rica
Book Here!

Tortuguero – 3 nights

Tortuguero is located on the northeastern Caribbean coast of the country and the name actually means ‘place of turtles’. As the name is already saying, this area is meant to protect the large population of green turtles. The village itself is located on a narrow stroke of land tucked between the ocean on one side and the river on the other, surrounded by dense jungle.

Compared to other places in Costa Rica, Tortuguero is a whole different world and is sometimes even referred to as the Amazon of Costa Rica. The mix of biodiversity here is at its wildest and not to be found elsewhere in the country due to the uncommon high rainfall in the area, and its rich environment where the freshwater river mix with the ocean. 

tortuguero village costa rica

How to get from Puerto Viejo to Tortuguero

🚘 By Rental Car

The Tortuguero village is only reached by boat as it’s tucked away far from civilization. Park your car at La Pavona Dock for $10 a night and take the local boat to Tortuguero. On the 1 hour drive along the river, you may spot caimans and other wildlife!

🚌 By Public Transport

To reach La Pavona dock by local transport, you can take the bus to Cariari. From there, there’s a direct bus leaving straight to La Pavona dock. This route may take you several hours so make sure to leave early in the morning as the last boat to Tortuguero leaves around 4:30 PM. It’s definitely not the most convenient way, therefore you can also opt for an organized tour to Tortuguero leaving Puerto Viejo. This may come with a price, but it saves you the hassle of public buses.

frog wildlife
monkey in rainforest

Best Things to Do in Tortuguero

Exploring the biodiversity of Tortuguero National Park is best done on a boat tour, which is a unique and relaxing way to spot wildlife in Costa Rica. Looking for something more special? Book a night walk through the jungle, to spot wildlife that comes to life at night (not recommended if you can’t stand spiders ;)) We booked our night tour with Mawamba Lodge, which has amazing tours for its visitors. If you’re staying somewhere else, you can either book your night walk here or in town!

I’ve written a full blog post about Tortuguero, with all the best things to do, how exactly to get there & more!

mawamba lodge tortuguero
Hotel Recommendation:

Mawamba Lodge
Tortuguero, Costa Rica

Book Here!

tortuguero national park river

La Fortuna – 3 nights

La Fortuna is one of Costa Rica’s most popular places to visit, mainly because of the El Arenal Volcano! Hike in one of the many national parks around the volcano with epic views or cool off at the hot springs in town, created by the volcano!

How to get from Tortuguero to La Fortuna

🚘 By Rental Car

Hop back on the boat to Pavona dock, pick up your rental car, and start your journey inland to La Fortuna, which is around 4 hours away.

🚌 By Public Transport

For this route, I recommend skipping local transport and taking one of the shuttles to get to La Fortuna. Shuttles cost between €50/€60 and take around 5 hours, most of them include the boat as well.

el arenal volcano in la fortuna

Best Things to Do in La Fortuna

La Fortuna Center is very focused on tourists, but the activities here are the reason to put this place on your 3 weeks in Costa Rica itinerary. For example, visit La Fortuna Waterfall or admire El Arenal Volcano! The views of the El Arenal volcano are seen from every out corner of the city, that’s why hiking in one of the many national parks is one of the best activities in La Fortuna!

I highly recommend taking a full-day tour that brings you to the Arenal 1968 trail including hot springs (not the free ones). I joined a tour organized by our hostel, so I don’t have the exact tour. However, this tour takes you to the same trail – where you can spot snakes, monkeys, frogs, and sloths! – and visit the hot springs! 

hot springs la fortuna
frog 3 weeks in costa rica

Free Hot Springs

Thanks to the nearby volcano, there are natural hot springs to be found in La Fortuna and they’re completely free to visit. Many locals head here in the late afternoon, catching up with friends with some beers and that’s exactly what we did as well.

Looking for more comfort and luxury? Many resorts in La Fortuna have beautiful hot springs, where you can buy a day ticket without staying there.

la fortuna waterfall

Hanging Bridges

If you’ve already done some research about La Fortuna, you may have seen lots of photos of hanging bridges. You can find these at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park where you’re able to walk through the dense jungle with views over the Arenal Volcano!

If you want to hear more about the flora and fauna or even wildlife spotting, opt for a guide! As for us, we had some other amazing national parks for wildlife spotting on our 3 weeks in Costa Rica itinerary – therefore we went on our own.

hanging bridges in costa rica
wildlife tree costa rica

Extra Stop/Day Trip: Rio Celeste Waterfalls

Hidden inside the Tenorio Volcano National Park, lies the magical, intense blue waterfall ‘Rio Celeste’. It’s a small detour from your way from La Fortuna to Monteverde, therefore only possible to visit this way if you have a rental car. When you don’t have your own car, no worries as enough day trips are leaving from La Fortuna like this tour that brings you to the beautiful national park!

rio celeste waterfalls costa rica
lodge in la fortuna cosya rica
Hotel/Hostel Recommendation:

Casa Torre Eco-Lodge
La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Book Here!

Monteverde – 2 nights

Located high up in the mountains and home to the only cloud forest in Costa Rica, lies Monteverde. Cloud forests are extremely rare and represent only a fraction of the world’s existing rainforests! For nature lovers, Monteverde can’t be missed on your 3 weeks in Costa Rica itinerary.

You may want to pack up on some warmer clothes as temperatures can drop here!

monteverde cloud forest

How to get from La Fortuna to Monteverde

🚘 By Rental Car

We’re moving on to Monteverde which looks close by on a map. However, you have to drive around the lake, taking up to at least 3 hours to reach Monteverde. No worries though, as the drive is super scenic through beautiful forests!

🚌 By Public Transport

Local busses leave from La Fortuna to Monteverde, but they take up 7 to 8 hours as they go around the lake, with multiple transfers. Like many places in Costa Rica, you can opt to reach Monteverde by shuttle, which includes a boat ride to cross Lake Arenal instead of going around it. Shuttles cost around €50 and I definitely recommend these overtaking the local busses.

sunset mountains

Best Things to Do in Monteverde

Take at least a full morning exploring the cloud forest of Monteverde. They’re full of wildlife and a huge variety of flora and fauna. If you’re lucky, you may spot the Quetzal bird, which is world-famous! This beautiful bird is considered the symbol of Monteverde and people come from all over the world to spot this specific bird here.

Another cool activity to do is ziplining through the canopies of the forests. Unfortunately, it was raining almost non-stop when we were in Monteverde, causing all the tours to be canceled.

nature leaves cloudforest
monteverde cloud forest

Santa Teresa – 3 nights

We’re leaving the forests and impressive landscapes behind and making our way to the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. This small bohemian village on the Pacific coast is the perfect spot to watch magical sunsets and learn how to surf! Surrounded by tall palm trees, the beaches of Santa Teresa are among Costa Rica’s best and attract surfers from all over the world.

surfing in costa rica

How to get from Monteverde to Santa Teresa

🚘 By Rental Car

There are 2 ways to travel from Monteverde to Santa Teresa by car. Firstly, you can opt to drive the whole route over land – which is what we did. This will take you around 4 hours in good road conditions. Not all the roads are paved, so I would suggest having a 4×4 for this route. Even though it’s also done with a normal car, you should do some research on which roads to take to reach Santa Teresa.

Maps.me lead us through a crazy road which was definitely not doable for a car besides a 4×4. Therefore, I recommend sticking with your pre-downloaded Google Maps.

Otherwise, the other option is to take the boat to cross over the water onto the Nicoya Peninsula. Even though you won’t save any time by choosing this option, you will save on kilometers and gas.

🚌 By Public Transport

Reaching Santa Teresa by local transport is a long journey taking up at least 6 hours because you have to take 3 busses, a boat, and either a short taxi ride or a 30-minute walk. It is the least convenient way to reach Santa Teresa, but at the same time also the cheapest.

Personally, I would suggest saving yourself the struggle and taking one of the shuttles. The shuttle takes around 4 hours to get to Santa Teresa and prices start from €60 with pick-up and drop-off service to your accommodation.

sunset during 3 weeks in costa rica

Best Things to Do in Santa Teresa

Spend a few days here relaxing on the beach, improving your surf skills, and trying out the healthy lunch spots in town.

For surfing, I recommend walking into some stores in town and asking about their rates for surf lessons. Most of them offer classes for either beginners or more advanced.

Having some extra time left in Santa Teresa? Rent an ATV and explore the nearby Montezuma.

santa teresa costa rica
Airbnb Recommendation:

Pura Vida Surfers
Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
Book Here!

surf shop in beach town
healthy food in costa rica

Manuel Antonio – 2 nights

Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s most visited national park and also the smallest! Not only that, but it’s also one of the world’s best national parks. It’s home to pristine beaches, dense jungle, and an amazing variety of wildlife.

beach in national park of costa rica
monkey wildlife

How to get from Santa Teresa to Manuel Antonio

🚘 By Rental Car

Hop into your car and drive to Paquera which is a little over 1 hour away. This is the point where you embark on a boat, that brings you to the other side of the water. From there it’s another 2 hours drive to reach Manuel Antonio. All of this takes around 4 to 5 hours

🚌 By Public Transport

Local busses leave from Mal Pais (6 kilometers out of Santa Teresa) to Cobana, where you need to change busses to get to Paquera. After you get off the ferry in Puntarenas, many buses leave for Manuel Antonio or Quepos. All of this should take you around 8 hours.

With an organized shuttle the prices start from €60, which saves you taking multiple buses.

Extra Stop: Crocodile Bridge

Make a quick stop at the Crocodile Bridge, to spot giant caimans, laying in the river down below! You simply can’t miss this spot as many people are standing on the bridge looking down.
crocodile bridge costa rica

Best Things to Do in Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio National Park may be the best park in Costa Rica for spotting sloths, together with many other wildlife. For example, monkeys, snakes, tucans, and iguanas inhabit the park as well! Manuel Antonio is also home to some stunning beaches so make sure to bring your swimming suit 🙂 Spend at least 1 full day inside the national park to explore it properly.

Uvita – 3 nights

Head further south along the coast and make your way to Uvita. Uvita is a small village on the South Pacific coast and is becoming very popular among travelers, I can understand why!

Spend your time in Uvita whale watching, exploring insane waterfalls, seeing the iconic whale-tail beach, and spotting wildlife!

You may want to visit Costa Rica at a slower pace, therefore you could also skip Uvita and stay longer in other places on this 3 weeks in Costa Rica itinerary. We couldn’t fit Uvita into our itinerary anymore, but I’ve seen amazing photos and heard great stories from fellow travelers about this place!

How to get from Manuel Antonio to Uvita

🚘 By Rental Car

By car, it’s only a short 1-hour drive along the coast from Manuel Antonio to reach Uvita, which is only 60km away.

🚌 By Public Transport

To reach Uvita by bus, it takes around 2 hours. Busses leave from Quepos multiple times a day and cost €5. However if your accommodation is in Manuel Antonio itself you need to take the local bus to Quepos which takes around 30 minutes.

I wouldn’t recommend taking a shuttle as it’s only a short and direct drive and the shuttles cost around €40.

hanging bridges costa rica

San José – 1 night (optional)

After 3 weeks of exploring Costa Rica’s best places, your time in Costa Rica has come to an end! Bring back your rental car and stay the night close to the airport for your flight back home (or elsewhere) the next day.

Of course, this is optional and totally depends on your flight times. If you have a flight in the late afternoon or evening, you can easily drive to San José airport in the morning straight from Manuel Antonio or Uvita.

How to get from Manuel Antonio/Uvita to San José

🚘 By Rental Car

Heading back from Manuel Antonio to San José will take you around 3 hours and 4 hours coming from Uvita.

🚌 By Public Transport

Tracopa operates 8 times a day with busses taking you from Manuel Antonio to San José in around 4 hours for about €10. The same counts for Uvita but it will take you one hour more and it operates fewer times a day.

A Summary of your 3 weeks in Costa Rica itinerary:

  • 1 night: San Jose
  • 4 nights: Puerto Viejo
  • 3 nights: Tortuguero
  • 3 nights: La Fortuna
  • 2 nights: Monteverde
  • 3 nights: Santa Teresa
  • 2 nights: Manuel Antonio
  • 3 nights: Uvita
  • 1 night: San José (optional)

Slow Travel Tip: Feel free to skip some of the places on this itinerary to slow down or give yourself the freedom of not having a plan.

sloth in jungle

Best time to visit Costa Rica

Depending on the above-mentioned itinerary, I recommend visiting Costa Rica during the shoulder season in November. Even though December to April is considered the dry season for the main part of Costa Rica, visiting in November results in lesser crowds, better deals on accommodation, and still good weather overall.

Note: The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has its own little micro-climate with the best travel time being September and October. 

Things to take care of at home

Visa

Most passport holders don’t need a visa and they can stay up to 90 days in the country with proof of exit. You can find out if you need a visa on this site, however, I always recommend contacting your own country’s government.

Onward Ticket

Before entering Costa Rica, you must show proof of onward travel. This can be a pre-booked flight, bus, or boat ticket out of the country. Many airlines, like Copa Airlines (the one I have used multiple times), allow you to make a flight reservation without paying for 24 hours. This is an actual ticket and is valid as an onward ticket. If you don’t pay they automatically cancel your flight after 24 hours or you can cancel the flight yourself once you’re through customs.  

Vaccinations

When you’re planning to travel to Costa Rica, make sure to visit your doctor or a travel doctor to stay up-to-date with the required vaccinations. The recommended vaccinations for Costa Rica, as in many countries in Central America, include Hepatitis A + B and Rabies. Your routine vaccinations of DTP (Diphtheria, Tetanus & Polio) should be up-to-date as well.

costa rica 3 weeks itinerary

If you made it so far by reading my complete 3 weeks in Costa Rica itinerary, thanks for reading! 🙂 Please use this itinerary as a rough draft of your own trip and feel free to skip places and stay somewhere longer – I even recommend it!

Staying in one place gives you the chance of getting to know the culture more and will make you feel more rewarded at the end of your trip as you truly immersed yourself in the country.

Please let go of the thought that you must see everything a country has to offer as you may feel like you’re missing out on something. Traveling is not about ticking off hot spots on a list just to say ‘I’ve been there’. Or because people tell you ‘you must go there if you’re in Costa Rica’. Instead, it’s about all the experiences, memories, and friendships you’ve made on your trip. 

Drop a little ‘❤️’ in the comments if you love slow travel or if it’s something you want to do more. And always let me know if you’ve used my itineraries for your travels!

Plan Your Trip to Costa Rica

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Simone Vromans

Simone is the owner and writer of Travel With Simone! By sharing these travel guides, she hopes to help you plan your epic adventures and inspire you to go on that long-overdue trip! 💛

travel with simone

About Simone

Hi there, I’m Simone and the writer behind this travel blog. By reading my guides, I’m hoping to inspire you to travel more mindfully and have epic adventures all over the globe!

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8 Comments

  1. Name *willy willems

    Hallo Simone,

    Proficiat met uw mooi reisverhaal over Costa Rica.
    Het is een voorbeeld voor een indeling van een reis door Costa Rica met prachtige bestemmingen en dingen om te doen.
    Het is voor ons een leidraad om een reis door Costa Rica uit te stippelen en de meest mooie plaatsen te bezoeken en te beleven.

    mvg;
    willems willy & van den berg josé

    Reply
    • Simone Vromans

      Hi Willy & José,

      Super leuk om te horen! Mochten jullie nog vragen hebben, ben ik altijd blij om te helpen 🙂

      Simone

      Reply
  2. Jordan Doidge

    Hey Simone 🌞

    I trust you had a great Christmas break.

    I’m travelling to Costa Rica on the 30th Dec > 15th Jan – if you were to shorten this itinerary what would you advise to drop? Also I don’t suppose you would have any NYE recommendations?

    Thanks,

    Jordan

    Reply
    • Simone Vromans

      Hi Jordan,

      I did, thank you 🙂 I hope you enjoyed the holidays as well!

      To shorten your itinerary, it basically depends on your interests and whether you’re traveling by rental car or public transport. If you’re traveling to Costa Rica for wildlife/nature, I recommend skipping Manuel Antonio (too touristy) + Santa Teresa (beach/surf) and shorten your stay in Puerto Viejo to 3 nights. Of course you can also easily take away some nights in any place on the itinerary to shorten it to 2 weeks, but taking it slow will let you enjoy your trip a lot more. If you want more of a mix and using public transport, skip Tortuguero as it takes a lot of time and transfers to get there and maybe Uvita.

      About NYE, unfortunately I wasn’t in Costa Rica during that time. However, I think it depends what you’re looking for. For partying I would say places like Puerto Viejo or maybe Tamarindo (haven’t been though), but if you’re looking for a more chill vibe, Santa Teresa could be a good option!

      Hope you enjoy your trip & I would love to know how your NYE ended up being. 🙂

      Simone

      Reply
  3. elizabeth h. anthony

    Simone, we are only going to RuiPalace Costa Rica for 3 night 2 days.

    We leave on March 4h. Did we make a mistake and opt for the busy touristy time of year in that Liberia area? I’m finding it very difficult to pack everything they say you need.
    Thank you, lisa Anthony

    Reply
    • Simone Vromans

      Hi Lisa Anthony,

      This is high season in the area, meaning also the busiest often! High season comes with increased prices and activities/accommodation may book out faster in advance. I don’t know if you’re doing a big trip throughout the country or just staying for 3 nights at that one place but if you’re okay with crowds and some higher prices it’s definitely a great time weather wise. You’re already there right now, so hopefully you figured it out regarding the packing! 🙂

      Enjoy Costa Rica!

      Simone

      Reply
  4. Catherine

    Hello Simone,
    Thanks for all the great info above,,,so much to see,….hard to narrow down how my daughter and I will spend our 3 weeks in Costa Rica, but your info defiantly helped! Just wanting for a bit of advice re using our Wise card whilst there. Is it easily accepted/usable in shops/restaurants….? Is it easy to find an ATP to withdraw cash on it? Do we just use it to pay for things as we would a credit card? Would appreciate any advice you can give us as we have never had one before. Thanks so much, Catherine & Molly

    Reply
  5. Millie

    Hi Simone,

    I am looking at going to Costa Rica in June, is this a good time if year to go or because it is at the start of the rainy season would it not be ideal to be able to do everything in your guide?
    Also, how safe is driving around there if we were to hire a car? We are 2 girls in our early twenties and so were just worried about tricky roads and being vulnerable.
    Also, we were just wondering if food is expensive out there?

    Thank you,
    Millie

    Reply

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