Costa Rica might look small on a map, but don’t fool yourself. You can’t see it all in a week. When I took my trip to this Central American gem, I knew I didn’t want to rush. “Pura Vida”, the typical Costa Rican greeting, was going to be the motto of my trip and I took it to the heart. Be inspired by my recommendations, learn from my mistakes and (not so serious) survival tips!
Pura Vida Spanish for "pure life." The law of the land in Costa Rica. The expression is used in many forms, from a greeting, to a synonym for "excellent." Ticos (Costa Ricans) follow this lifestyle and are some of the most wonderful people on earth. A synonym of "hakuna matata." Life is wonderful; enjoy it.
7 Day Itinerary For Costa Rica
Arriving to the capital San José
In late April, I arrived without set plans to Costa Rica. I came into the country through the airport of San José, which lies northwest of the capital. I only had booked my stay with Aldea Hostel for the first night, since I planned to continue to the beach as soon as possible. (Un)fortunately Costa Rica had other ideas.
Before arriving to the airport, I looked into getting to the hostel with a public bus. It was supposed to be quite easy and since I wasn’t too tired from my short flight, I tried my luck. As promised, it really wasn’t difficult to hop on the right bus, as they leave directly in front of the airport. It was all safe and took around an hour and a half plus saved me at least $20.
The hostel itself was rather basic but quite busy. I guess many people come in to the country via San José and don’t bother to explore the capital. The hostel provided tons of info on where to go next – tours, busses, places etc. So I looked into that after a small dinner at the Hostel’s own Pizzeria, where I made friends with other travelers. Together we walked around the area, but the neighborhood didn’t seem too promising. Shops and bars were shut as it was late Saturday and we were too tired to get on a bus or cab and see what else the city had to offer. We all planned to continue traveling early the following morning, so we went back to Aldea and hung out for a bit before calling it a night. We would need the energy the next day!
Public transport to the hostel: <1$
Aldea Hostel San José: $10 per person (8-bed dorm, no breakfast)
Day 1 – Exploring San José + A nerv-racking trip to Monteverde
I woke up and looked into taking the bus to Monteverde, a city in the the green heart of Costa Rica, surrounded by nothing but wild green jungle. I left my bag at the hostel and went to the bus station to purchase a ticket (this seemed to be the only way to do so), I learned that there were only two buses per day, and I had missed the first by 5 hrs… So I got a ticket for the next bus and wandered through the city for the rest of the time. That prolonged stay couldn’t ruin my mood.
I was going to make the best of it and it didn’t take long, until I found a vegetarian restaurant, a green park with huge, century-old trees and some street art to photograph. What more do you need?
Later I found out that San José has Uber, which made taking my bag up the hills to the bus terminal a little more convenient. The bus itself was quite comfortable and the ride was to take only 4 hrs, but without air condition, a super bumpy and winding road, the experience become quite nerve-racking. I prayed that my body would not betray me and told myself to be a big girl.
When I finally arrived in Monteverde, the sun had set and it started to pour. In the rain, I walked over to the nearby Hostel Santa Elena, where I had booked a room. The Eco Hostel is a quiet place with several small buildings, an open space with palm trees and hammocks and its own bar. It also has a community kitchen, which I would make good use of. But that night I decided I would go out for dinner and walked over to the Monteverde beer house which serves Mediterranean food (hummus!!!) and has a great craft beer selection.
Transport to Monteverde: Bus leaves from “7-10” (yes, that is the actual name) bus terminal , it costs $6 per person, two busses per day
Santa Elena Hostel Monteverde: $44 per night for a basic private room with own bathroom (accommodates up to 4 people)
Rain Season in Costa Rica I went to Costa Rica at the beginning of Rain Season (May to November). Here is why: - The jungle is green and lush - It’s only slightly cooler - It’s much less busy and cheaper - The waterfalls are gushing and gorgeous Best Times to Visit: Visit at the beginning of the rainy season or beginning of the dry season. Of course, the weather varies year to year, but during these months, mornings are generally sunny and it rains for an hour or two in the afternoon and maybe at night, but not all day.
Day 2 – Activities in and around Monteverde
The hostel provided a booking service for loads of activities. I decided to go for a coffee plantation tour in the morning and it was really excellent. A family run plantation, with guides who are enthusiastic to share their insights from growing to processing to the whole ecology. One interesting little take away was that the farmers always plant two new coffee plant seeds next to each other – the saplings compete, and both plants grow faster together than they would have solo. I enjoy my coffee even more after this excursion! Forget about Starbucks.
In the afternoon I finally got some work done. The internet was good enough at the hostel, though I would throughout the trip struggle to find a really fast connection that allowed to upload and download files at satisfying speed.
Later that day, I did a night hike through the jungle – also organized by the hostel in cooperation with a local tour company. I saw a sloth, toucans, a snake, a tarantula and a disgustingly big cockroach. To my surprise she wasn’t big enough to be held on the floor – instead the huge beetle took off with a loud humming noise to escape my curios eyes.
Had I stayed another night, I could have enjoyed a zip line tour over the cloud forest and perhaps a suspension bridge hike, but the timings didn’t play well together. Again, the not so frequent transportation played a role in the decision to leave early. So I fit what I could into my short time. After all, I wanted to get to the coast!
Coffee plantation tour, booked through the Hostel, $30 per person, 3 hrs
Night hike through the jungle, booked through accommodation, $25 per person, 2 hrs
Day 3 – Getting to Santa Teresa + Where to stay
Tuesday was a travel day to find sunshine and vitamin sea! There are a few beach towns to choose from. I heard that Jaco was a party place, and Tamarindo was affectionately referred to as ‘Tamagringo’. I decided on Santa Teresa – which turned out to be a good choice. Something in between. Small enough and relatively quiet thanks to the low season, but also lively, colorful and friendly, with both party seeking backpackers, relaxed yogis meditating on the beach and the sunburned, long haired surfer types. Santa Teresa offered plenty things to do and places to eat (VEGAN!). Montezuma is not far from there too, but more on that later.
How I got from Monteverde to the beach? I took the 5.30 am bus to Punta Arenas, there I had to walk two kilometers to the ferry, took a boat to Paquera, followed by two more busses (change at Cóbano). Finally I landed in Santa Teresa 12 hours later. On the bright side, this whole trip cost me not more than $10. Definitely worth it if you are on a budget! But, as I learned in the end, you can skip the horrific trip and take a tiny plane from San José – it costs only $75 and takes 40 min. I did this on my return and loved the experience! There is also the option to organize a shuttle through the hostels, which costs $50.
I ended up staying in Santa Teresa for the entire time of the trip. I stayed in a couple of places. Firstly, three nights at Eco Pacifica, a handful of private rooms ran by a very kind couple. They have lovely rooms, one of which is a converted old bus, with its own bathroom and kitchen. I changed accommodation, since my room at EcoPacifica was already booked for the weekend. But Gara, the friendly owner referred me to a friend and neighbor who only recently opened a guest house. I happily took the offer and moved two houses down the block into a very modern building.
To give you an idea on the price range of apartments here in Santa Teresa: I spend about $42 per night for a 50qm2 apartment with a double bed, full equipped kitchen, bathroom and balcony or terrace. Later I found a great deal with Dos Monos, which includes a bed in a 8-bed dorm, shared bathroom, incl. breakfast for 12$. Definitely a deal worth checking out! I started to feel a bit lonely and was looking for company. And I got plenty of that at the hostel! – In good ways, as everybody there, from the guests to the staff were super friendly and awesome in every way.
I want to mention one very popular place with the party crowd, the Selina Hostel. I found myself stopping by there pretty much everyday, be it for a beer, booking an island tour or yoga class. The vibe is over-all great, the people are nice and most important: Their wifi was the best in town. But the place is by far flaw-less: The prices are steep for a hostel, which makes it rather unattractive budget traveller. It can be quite hectic and the staff seems to be overwhelmed by the demand. Looking for a relaxed atmosphere? Go elsewhere. Got to Dos Monos. They have two locations and breakfast is included in the price ($12 per night, 8-bed dorm).
Transportation from Monteverde to Santa Teresa
Monteverde to Punta Arenas: Transmonteverde Busses, leaves from the only bus terminal (can be reached by foot as the place is rather small), ~$2.60 per Person
Punta Arenas to Tambor: Ferry, ~$1.50 per person (attention, bus drops you off at a stop in 2 km distance, you can walk to the ferry or take a cab)
Tambor to Cóbano: Bus, leaving from the ferry terminal, ~$1 per person
Cobanó to Santa Teresa: Bus, (nice service: you get dropped of at any hostel), ~$1
Accommodation in Santa Teresa
Eco Pacifica, $135, 3 nights, accommodates 2
EliLor Home, $168, 4 nights, accommodates 2
Hostel Dos Monos North, $12 per person (8-bed dorm, incl. breakfast)
Selina Hostel, $13 per person (12-bed dorm, no breakfast)
(All prices as seen in low season)
Day 4 – Exploring Santa Teresa
In the following days, I would often do coffee and send out emails from Café Zwart, a café- home-atelier with a completely white interior. It’s quiet and very pleasant, with plenty cruelty-free options, smoothies, sandwiches and big salad bowls. But like Selina and many other nice spots, gringo prices.
The local super market and fruteria have fresh, ripe fruit (oh my goooood the fruit!!!), vegetables, bread, and everything else you need. I cooked meals at home often. When the produce is that good, it’s well worth doing. Plus, it will safe you quite a few bucks. Figure, that a decent meal will cost you $10 when eating out. Not including drinks and tips.
That day, I decided to rent a bike and ride North-West up the road running along the shore, and get a better feel for the place. I stopped off between Playa Santa Teresa and Playa Hermosa at low tide and went for a rocky walk. I couldn’t resist and made another stop for more coffee at a very sweet place, called Café Social. They not only have plant-based milk for your latte (as most places in Santa Teresa), but sweet vegan treats and savory snacks.
I continued to Hermosa where I relaxed on the beach for a while. If you wanted you could rent a surf board for an hour to practice. But I was more than content to simply watch the others try their luck.
Much of the rest of the day was spent on the beach and then in the evening, a yoga class facing the ocean. This was where I met Alejandro, Santa Teresa’s good soul, imported from Mexico and well-known amongst the Yogis of the town. He teaches Yoga and Meditation and I ended up taking three sessions with him. I was lucky, and although announced as group classes, was always the only one to join and got basically a private lesson.
I enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Olam that day, a restaurant with amazing vegan dishes and excellent mint and ginger lemonade. They have a great atmosphere for working too.
Bike hire: Available everywhere – you cannot miss it. Ranges around $3 for 2h or $12-15 for 24hrs.
Surf lesson: Selina Hostel, $57, 2hrs
Surf board rent on the beach: $10 for the day
Yoga lesson: $3 to $10, booked through Selina (every day 5pm, class on the beach) or Dos Monos Hostel (in the hostel, several times a day)
Day 5 – Montezuma and Waterfalls + Adventures on 4 Wheels
In the morning, I got breakfast at the Bali Café. Great vibe and super friendly staff! I ordered an Açai bowl, because it was screaming my name (and it was very tasty indeed) and shared a mate with a friend who had joined me.
I decided, that it was time to further explore the peninsula. So I rented an ATV(!) and drove 40 minutes to Montezuma to find a waterfall hidden in the forest. That was the most fun thing I’ve done this year! If you do one thing in these beach towns, rent an ATV (you may know an ‘all terrain vehicle’ – a quad bike) and go for a drive through the country roads.
You may also take public busses or a shuttle organized by the many agencies in the town of Santa Teresa, if making the drive alone seems too risky for you. At the time of writing, Google maps does not accurately direct you to the waterfall – I learned the hard way. From downtown Montezuma, walk or drive about 0.5 km south to the small bridge that crosses the Rio Montezuma. Just after the bridge there is a trail and parking area on the right. Parking costs about $2, otherwise there is no entrance fee. If you prefer, you can drive into Montezuma and park by the beach for free, then walk back for 10 mins.
The waterfall is only accessible by foot, and you need to enter the trail from the car park. The trail is dirt at first but soon enters the rocky riverbed. During the dry season, there are plenty of different ways to walk along the boulders and rocks or next to them, but when it is rainier and the water levels are higher, the hike can be much more difficult. At a couple of tricky spots, there are ropes along the riverbank to help you pass.
The trail follows a stream up to the waterfall, it takes a half hour or so to get up there. There is a small pool at the top of the waterfall that is only about 5 meters tall, but dumps into a nice deep pool that is perfect for swimming and jumping. There is also a rope swing on a tree here, so you can hurl yourself into the pool that way too. A note on jumping in: The pool underneath the fall is deep, and people do dive, but it’s not like there is a life guard around, and the road back to town starts 2 km away after a hike over rocks, so don’t get over confident… Still, this is a great place to swim and hang out for an hour or so.
Montezuma is a smaller town also on the coast. Its much quieter, with a slightly older crowd and a small tucked away beach. I stopped by a restaurant with a deck overlooking said beach for a beer before heading back.
ATV hire: Available everywhere. About $60 for 5h. You don’t need a driver’s license. Passport and Credit Card details are left as deposit.
Carpark / entrance to Montezuma waterfall – Opposite the Montezuma hotel
Day 6 – Rain in Paradise
The next morning brought rain, which cancelled a trip I had scheduled to Tortuga Island, a small archipelago 40 min off the shore. I rescheduled for the next day and did some rainy day stuff. I walked over to Zwart Café, just on the other side of the street and ordered a Soy Cappuccino and spend the morning doing absolutely no work at all. Instead I was chatting with other travelers, reading a book and calling my family back home in Germany.
Later I cycled to a bakery – it’s just called The Bakery – and ate some very good sweet treats. Once you walk into the shop and see the huge offer of delicious goodies in their showcases, you will never want to leave again. The Bakery is situated in Mal Pais (which doesn’t do its name justice – Mal Pais translates to “bad country”), the town that follows up on Santa Teresa and has the same chilled surfer vibe. There are a bunch of Argentines in Santa Teresa and Mal Pais, so take advantage and have a mate! I snacked on a Mushroom Foccacia and enjoyed a very good coffee, then made my way back to Santa Teresa (a 20min ride), where I dropped of my bike and ended the day with a beer and making new friends at the bar of Selina Hostel.
Day 7 – Snorkeling in deep waters
I decided to give Tortuga another try. I had booked my trip with Zuma Tours through Selina Hostel and they made rescheduling super easy. The Selina Team even remembered that I had ordered a vegan meal, which made me happy.
When I got up early in the morning, it did not look good for me, since the sky was drenched in heavy grey clouds. Nonetheless I walked over to the meeting point. The driver was already there. So far so good. Once he got the OK, we hopped on the tiny bus. Our party of 7 departed from Santa Teresa was taxied to Montezuma, where we would grow to about 25.
We were introduced to our guide José, who made a great effort to make sure we all had a great time! On the 40min boat ride out to the island, our guide briefly stopped off by a smaller boat of local fisherman selling fresh ceviche (meeeh). But then we finally got to snorkel!
We snorkeled for an hour and a half. There were a lot of us in the water but surprisingly, the very colorful fish were not phased. Schols would swim among us. It was pretty cool. We had lunch on Tortuga island and got to tan and swim for another 2 hrs. This was frankly a quite touristy experience. Great beach, but I wouldn’t do it again.
Tortuga Island Trip: Booked through Selina, who co-ordinated with Zuma Tours. $65 per person incl. transfer, snorkeling gear, lunch and drinks
Getting back to the airport of San José
As I mentioned before, there are several ways to do this.
To avoid the bus ride back through the mountains and have an extra day in Santa Teresa, I opted for the flight from the city of Tambor (30 min car ride away) to San Jose. There are three flights every day and they only take an hour or less. The tickets are cheap ($50-$75) and the flight in the tiny machines itself is an experience you can’t miss.
It should be noted, that you have to take a cab to the airport, which adds $50 to the bill, but if you travel in a group, that should not be a problem.
If I was to travel to Santa Teresa again, I would definitely fly in from San José.
You might also want to look into taking a shuttle ($50) or if you are brave enough and have the time, go back by public transport.
Find the flight schedule here.
Travel Budget Costa Rica
By looking around and not booking everything in advance, I managed to find places in the $35-50 USD per night range.
With the cost of food (an average meal to be $10) and one or the other activity, a week in Costa Rica was rather expensive – especially when you are used to traveling in South America or Asia.
If you live in North America, you’ll save money and time on the flight so that is definitely something to consider. There are many other countries in Central America which are cheaper than Costa Rica, so research and plan according to your budget.
If you have the time, consider volunteering for 1 month or more on an organic farm or at one of the retreat centers – it’s a reasonable way to experience Costa Rica for just a fraction of the cost.
Look into options to do a workaway in Costa Rica!
Santa Teresa had plenty to offer and I found incredible meat-, egg- and dairy-free options not only at regular restaurants but a couple vegetarian and vegan spots.
These are my favorites:
Olam – Vegan restaurant, yoga studio and eco lodge (Hotel Nautilus). Great choice of meals, good prices and wonderful atmosphere. Delicious smoothies, breakfast options, sweet treats, full lunch menu and smaller dinner menu. I could go there every day and not get bored.
Zula – Calm your cravings for Hummus and Falafel.
Bali Café – Cutest coffeeshop on Argentinian hands. They make a solid Açai bowl and decent sandwiches. Try a mate!
Bakery Marianne – Good coffee, sweets and a vegan sandwich for only $2
Zwart Café – Clean and artsy with a Californian vibe
Thanks for reading! If you are looking into traveling to Costa Rica and have further questions, don’t hesitate to leave me a comment bellow!