If you’re looking for a manageable itinerary for a long weekend (i.e., 4-day trip) to Costa Rica…
We live in Kentucky and were surprised at how easy it is to get to Costa Rica—an hour-long flight from Louisville to Atlanta then a 3-hour-45-minute flight from Atlanta to Costa Rica. We flew into Liberia, the smaller airport, and made our way quickly through customs and easily located the rental car company. We landed around noon and were in our 4-wheel drive automatic rental car by 1:15 p.m.—off to stay in an Airbnb container house in the Monteverde/Santa Elena area.
On our way, we stopped into BBQ Tres Hermanas, off the Interamericana, the highway we got on in Liberia that took us toward Monteverde. While the restaurant is definitely more expensive than the smaller sodas (where you can get great inexpensive Costa Rican food, like the “typical breakfast,” gallo pinto–rice and black beans–and fried eggs), the food was good, as was the service, and we were able to use a debit card, saving our colones (pronounced: “cologne-ace”) for later. Perry tried a burger (made with beef and pork), and I had ceviche and smashed plaintains, both of which were an excellent introduction to the food to come during the rest of the trip. We toasted Coronas, then asked for our bill. $38 for food, drinks (3 beers), tax, and the 10% service charge added at restaurants and bars.
The drive from Liberia to Monteverde took us a little under 3 hours, and that included a few missed turns because the GPS was a little tricky to follow in some of the small towns off the highway. (I got the $10 per day international phone plan through my provider so we wouldn’t feel totally unmoored.)
We stayed in a cool container house within walking distance of downtown Santa Elena.
After dropping our bags and car off, we walked into town. First stop: Panadoria Jiménez, a family-owned bakery, where we got espresso and espresso-sized coffee tiramisu (~$3 total). Such rich cream!
We made a loop then wandered into Bar Amigos (recommended to us by the rental car agent in Liberia). Perry got an Imperial (a Costa Rican beer), I got some rum, and we shared our first of many Chiliguaro shots (basically a delicious mini Bloody Mary with Costa Rican sugarcane spirit Guaro Cacique). After some more walking and a perusal of the grocery store, we stopped into Taco Taco for some spicy margaritas and to decide on dinner plans. We ended up at the backside bar at Restaurant Varvilla, where complimentary tapas come with drink orders. I got Yuca Frita (fried yucca), and Perry got Higado (a liver taco).
After these appetizers, we walked across the street to Soda Coati, where Perry had casado (rice and black beans) with chicken in a spicy broth, and I had some vegetarian empanadas. The table salsa was so perfectly acidic and bright—we probably used a quarter of the large container!
We ended the night in the rooftop hammocks at the Airbnb, pretty exhausted from a day of travel and orientation. (For those of you who want a less low-key first night, this area is a great place to book a night hike, most of which start around 6 p.m.)
The sun sets around 6:30 p.m. during May and rises around 5:30 a.m. I woke with the sun on our second day, but managed to go back to sleep until 7 a.m. in hopes of getting on a later schedule. We made delicious Costa Rican coffee and drank it on the rooftop before making the short drive over to Sky Adventures, where we had a 10:30 a.m. zip-lining excursion planned. Happily, the facility includes a restaurant. I got delicious (and adorably presented) tomato soup with avocado, plus a cloud forest coffee (which, to my surprise, turned out to be a frozen coffee milkshake type drink [insert shrug emoji] [insert magical ideas about what I thought cloud forest coffee might consist of].
We opted for the 2-hour Sky Trek zipline adventure, which is a circuit of eight ziplines, along with a gondola ride up to the starting point. Just in case you need some “brave juice,” there’s a bar when you get off the gondola. Perry decided to have some tequila.
The guides were absolutely fantastic—hilarious and informative, especially about the plant life…and tarantulas (we saw one in its hole after it was pointed out to us). Zip-lining was absolutely exhilarating (not gonna lie: at times, speeding along the longer zip-lines, I questioned the soundness of my decision to bring us on this excursion). The views were phenomenal and unobstructed. The tree canopies support such a rich ecosystem–plants growing within trees, etc.
We opted to buy the photo and video package ($30 for photos and videos of both of us) because how often do you have pictures of yourself soaring through the sky? There’s complimentary Costa Rican coffee with sugar set up for guests at the end of the trails that you can sip on while looking through your photos.
We headed out from Monteverde after zip-lining, making our way toward Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa (a ~3 hour drive). Other than a short delay because of construction, the drive was good. The views of Lake Arenal and the Arenal Volcano are super (we wondered at first if we would know the volcano when we saw it: yep, yep, we certainly did).
We wanted to catch a lake view outside of the car so stopped at Toad Hall, a brightly painted bar/restaurant and hotel that we hit right after the construction traffic. Here, we got to swoon over territorial hummingbirds and the resident snack-thief Luna, a beautiful kitty hanging out on the terrace with us. We also got to see the fascinating hanging nests of the Montezuma oropendola, one of the many tropical birds in the area. These birds have such stunning yellow tail feathers, which contrast with their dark bodies, and a startling birdsong.
On the restaurant terrace, cooled by the brief rain we’d just driven through, we shared the “world famous” tacos (rolled, Costa Rican style), saving a few nibbles for Luna.
From there, we only had about a 30-minute drive left to get to Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa, where we’d already secured a day pass (which included dinner, parking, and towels). We headed to our respective changing rooms and suited up then headed off to explore the wondrous, Jungle Book-esque network of hot springs.
The steaminess only accentuated the lush greens and dark rocks, and there are so many different pools that rarely were we in one with other resort visitors—it felt like we had the place to ourselves!
After hanging out for a while in the top natural pools, we headed down to the resort pool (also fed by hot springs) and swim-up bar. I got the best frozen drink I’ve had in my life: a Coco Loco Reload (coconut cream, coconut water, rum, mint, and bitters, all blended together with ice). Perry got a piña colada in a pineapple then we headed back up into the natural springs (you can take drinks with you).
Watching the sunset from one of the many alcoves was, without exaggeration, magical.
Around 7 p.m., we headed back to the changing rooms to get ready for our 7:30 p.m. dinner. Happily, the changing room had a hairdryer and several lotions. Dinner was a buffet, with several salads, a ceviche station, several pizzas, a meat station with chimichurri sauce, pastas, tilapia in white sauce, paella, and several two- to three-bite desserts, including a pretty incredible strawberry mousse in a dark chocolate cup. There were even to-go cups for coffee, so we took some for the drive to our Airbnb, Ti-fakara Lodge, a short walk away from La Fortuna Waterfall.
At the complimentary breakfast at the lodge, I finally got to try the “typical breakfast”: gallo pinto (black beans and rice), fried eggs, cheese, sour cream, and tortillas.
We considered swimming at La Fortuna Waterfall, but at $18 a piece for admission, we felt the price was too steep for a short dip (we knew we wanted to make it to hike to our next destination by noon). Perry had to change our flat tire in the lodge parking lot before we could get on the road for Rio Celeste Waterfall after breakfast. (Some of those roads we’d been on were BUM-PY!) Thankfully, we hadn’t turned our room key in yet, so he could shower again before heading to those blue waters with their endearing origin story (the site where god dipped his sky-blue paintbrush when he was done with Earth Art: Water Features 101).
The drive to Tenorio Volcano National Park was under two hours, and there’s an official parking lot right by the ticket office ($12 per person fee for park entrance), so we felt safe leaving our packed car for a small fee ($4) while we hiked. (There are a few shops and restaurants across from the parking lot, should you need water or food before your hike.) Thankfully, Perry decided to take the umbrella (after I decided to leave my raincoat in the car—because it was warm and not raining when we parked—and, incidentally, missed my one perfect opportunity to wear my raincoat). I’d read online that the hike would take ~3 hours, but, even with our water-gazing and coati-stalking stops, we made it to the end of the trail and back in 2 hours (May, the start of rainy season, is outside of peak season, so the un-crowded trail may have been one of the reasons).
About a quarter way in to the hike, rain started coming down, light at first, then pretty heavy, but we shared Perry’s umbrella until it let up. The rain didn’t affect the famed color of the Rio Celeste waterfall either, happily. Right when we got to the end of the trail, the rain stopped. At the end of the trail, you get to see where the chemical reaction takes place: brown water becomes jewel-blue water—it looks like someone’s just drawn a diagonal line down the river to mark the shift!
Though the waterfall is technically the first stop, we saved it for last on our walk back—and we’re happy we did, as we got to see it unimpeded by rain. (The rain held off from picking up again until we were nearly back at the park entrance.)
We headed to Tamarindo around 2 p.m. (a ~3 hour drive) and arrived right at 5 p.m., after stopping for some roadside coconuts ($1 per coconut) after we passed through Liberia. The route to Tamarindo is well marked, so we navigated with ease at this point in the trip.
We stayed in Hotel in the Shade, a short walk from the beach.
After quick showers, we walked down to find a restaurant or bar with beachside seating so we could catch the early sunset. Happily, we came upon happy hour at Jonny Tamarindo and got 2-for-1 Pura Vida cocktails (like Tequila Sunrises, but with Cacique Guaro instead of tequila). (“Pura Vida” is a catch-all feel-good phrase/way of life in Costa Rica.)
From there, we headed to the Bamboo Sushi Club, recommended by the staff at the hotel, and went big, ordering the Love Boat, a tuna-centric sushi platter with 44 pieces for ~$40, and some hot sake. (The hotel staff said tuna was the way to go.) The restaurant is nestled in a courtyard behind some businesses, but they’ve turned the space into an oasis: great ambiance—dark, cool, and woody, with several fountains.
We decided to take a walk on the beach after dinner and waded in the warm ocean water, popping out at Volcano Brewing Co. to play rummy and try some $5 local micro-brewed cervezas (beers): Perry had the IPA, and I had Witch’s OCK Pale Ale (we liked both).
Our last stop on our way to the hotel was the nearby Oveja Negra (the “Black Sheep”), where there was free music on the outside patio and a lively crowd. The space also hosts a surf camp.
We ended the night on our balcony, admiring the lit-up courtyard and dreaming beachy dreams aloud to one another.
Inspired by the warmth of the ocean water on our walk the night before, we decided to get up at 6:30 a.m. for an early swim. After we suited up, we bought to-go coffee at the café in our hotel and were on the beach by 7 a.m., stowing our outerwear on some rocks near one of the beachfront hotel entrances. We floated over some good-sized waves and bodysurfed alongside a private surf lesson we eavesdropped on.
We liked Oveja Negra so much we decided to stop in again for breakfast. I got a $6 plate of gallo pinto, eggs, and toast, and Perry got a $6 plate of Huevos Rancheros. Coffee included.
For our last stop, we wandered through a farmer’s market where I ended up buying a necklace and a sturdy 83-cent flower.
We left around 10:45 a.m. to make the hour-and-fifteen-minute drive back to the rental car drop-off near Liberia airport then got on the shuttle for the five-minute ride to the airport.
While we only explored a concentrated bit of the country, the daily drives felt manageable for our short trip, and we liked Costa Rica so much that we’ll be sure to make it back. We hope this itinerary will be helpful to some of you who only have a small window to visit, but who want to pack in a lot of different things: cloud forests, waterfalls, hot springs, beaches, oh my!