Ultimate Costa Rica 3-Week Trip
Costa Rica is known worldwide for its incredible conservation and protection of wildlife. The locals have a lot of respect for the animals and marine life, and seeing exotic creatures near the towns and villages is a very normal part of everyday life. Government policy reflects this, with strict rules prohibiting building on/near the beaches and laws that work to protect endangered species and natural habitats.
Because of this, the landscapes in Costa Rica are spectacular. You can drive along the roads, spot sloths among the trees, or fall asleep to the sounds of howling monkeys in the rainforest canopy. Magical!
Day 1: San Jose (Arrival)
Arrive in the capital of Costa Rica on Day 1, a bustling city surrounded by lush green nature. Because of all the fantastic places to see on your 3-week trip in Costa Rica, we recommend you stay just one night in San Jose to rest and prepare for the trip after your flight. It’s not the most beautiful city in the world, but if you have some time, consider visiting some of the beautiful gardens in the city or joining a food tour to learn more about typical Costa Rican cuisine.
There is also a great nightlife in San Jose if you want to find some music before heading to the secluded nature of the city.
Recently reviewed hotels in San Jose
The Amón district in San Jose has some nice buildings to see and restaurants to visit, such as Cafe Rojo and the Acá.
Day 2: San Jose to Puerto Viejo
Let the road trip begin! Rent a car in San Jose and start the 4-hour trip to Puerto Viejo. If you are unable to rent a car, don’t worry, as plenty of tour buses depart from San Jose, offering you to your destination.
For the most cost-effective option, hop on one of the local public buses. It may take longer, but it’s inexpensive and gives you a good insight into Costa Rican life.
How to get from San Jose to Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo is about 4 hours drive from San Jose on good roads. Because of this, you don’t necessarily need a car with a high ground clearance (or a 4×4), although you might want one for other destinations in Costa Rica.
By Bus or Shuttle:
The public buses (MEPE) depart from San Jose to Puerto Viejo about five times a day and take about 4.5 hours. It is the lowest way to travel, with tickets starting at around 10 USD. If you want to be picked up at your hotel and have a slightly more comfortable trip, opt for a shared shuttle with other travelers. The price starts from about 50 USD and lasts about 5 hours; it is a little longer because of hotel pickups.
Best hotels in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Puerto Viejo has a lively atmosphere during the day and night. If you do not mind a little noise and music, stay in the city center, close to all amenities. If you want more of a peaceful experience, choose coastal accommodation between Playa Cocles or Manzanillo.
Day 3-5: Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo is the Pearl of the Caribbean coast and a favorite among those travelers looking for laidback vibes. The locals are very friendly, there is a wonderful Rastafari community, and everyday life feels like a holiday.
There are not many things to do in Puerto Viejo, but there is plenty of fun to be found; the beaches are beautiful, white, sandy and lined with palm trees, and there are plenty of outdoor activities from biking to surfing. Puerto Viejo is also home to the fascinating Jaguar Rescue Centre, which plays an integral role in the rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife in the area (spoiler: there are no real jaguars here!).
Day 6: Puerto Viejo to Tortuguero
Head north along the coast to beautiful Tortuguero, a beautiful village in the heart of the famous Tortuguero national park. This is one of the most remote parts of the trip, where accommodation is located on an isolated sandbar strip and boats are used to reach the National park.
If you are not interested in the Tortuguero National Park, you can drive directly from Puerto Viejo to La Fortuna. However, it is a long drive, so it is worth interrupting the trip with a stop at the Bajos del Toro waterfalls on the way. Be aware that you need a car with some space off the ground as the road here can be bumpy.
How to get from Puerto Viejo to Tortuguero
The drive from Puerto Viejo to Tortuguero takes about 4.5 hours. You will travel on the main highway all the way, so there is no need to rent a 4×4.
Please note that you can only enter Tortuguero National Park by boat or light aircraft. You need to drive to La Pavona, where you can park your car in a guarded place for 10 USD per day. From here, hop on a boat and sail for an hour along the river, spotting Cayman Islands and crocodiles!
We recommend joining an organized tour to Tortuguero if you don’t have a car. There are plenty of departures to Puerto Viejo, including your transportation and a 1 or 2-day tour of the National park. If you are travelling by public bus, take the bus to Cariari where you will change to La Pavona.
Best hotels in Tortuguero
For easy access to all the amenities of the village, stay in Tortuguero itself. However, if you want a truly unique experience, you can stay on one of the nearby islands, where you will have to travel by water taxi. A stay in one of these jungle lodges is an unforgettable experience!
Day 7: Tortuguero
Tortuguero means ‘place of turtles’, and that is exactly what you will find; a place where turtles nest, and you can see baby turtles hatch and enter the ocean for the first time.
The primary breeding season is July to October, but there are plenty of other things to see and do in Tortuguero outside these months. One of the main activities is a night walk in the Tortuguero nature reserve, where a guide will take you by boat to the depths of the rainforest. Under the cover of darkness, you will be able to see rare and beautiful animals, such as the red-eyed tree frog.
Day 8: Tortuguero to La Fortuna
Now begins the volcanic part of your 3-week Costa Rica itinerary! Try to get an early start so you can arrive in time in beautiful La Fortuna for lunch and a quick dip in La Fortuna waterfall or the pools under the El Salto rope swing. You can also head straight to La Fortuna’s Hot Springs—just what makes the city so famous!
How to get from Tortuguero to La Fortuna
The drive from Tortuguero to La Fortuna is about 3 hours on a good road, so you don’t need a 4×4 or any space off the ground. We recommend renting a car if you can, once you are in La Fortuna, there are not many transport options and the sights are very remote.
The only viable public transportation option is an organized shuttle bus from Tortuguero to La Fortuna. These depart daily and often also include the boat crossing. Tickets range from 60-70 USD per person, and the transfer takes about 5 hours.
Best hotels in La Fortuna
We recommend staying in one of the hotels with the Hot Springs, as the overnight stay does not cost much more than the day pass. Plus, you get the springs included as part of the package. There are a number of nice resorts (and campsites) to stay in, such as the Tabacon Resort. Here are all your hotel options.
Day 9 of your 3 weeks in Costa Rica: La Fortuna
Enjoy your first full day in La Fortuna, a beautiful natural area with the Arenal Volcano, geothermal springs and the famous Mistico suspension bridges. There are many walks to enjoy in the Arenal National Park, so choose from one of the many trails that envelop the volcano.
Guards also patrol the area and monitor volcanic activity, so it is not peril for visitors. This is good to know, especially since this is the most active volcano in Costa Rica!
Spend your afternoon relaxing in one of the many hot springs on offer. Many of these are linked to hotels, where you need to buy a pass to enter. For those on a budget, there are some great free Springs too.
Day 10: La Fortuna to Monteverde
This may be one of the best trips on your entire Costa Rica 3-week itinerary! Discover an extraordinary road that turns around the great Arenal Lake—in the shadow of the volcano—and ends in the green and lush Monteverde.
Along the way, Stop at Mistico suspension bridges, which are about 30 minutes ‘ drive from La Fortuna. These adrenaline-pumping bridges stand at an altitude of 45 meters above the rainforest, giving you unparalleled views over the rainforest treetops, the volcano, and the opportunity to spot some elusive Costa Rican wildlife.