This post contains my itinerary for five days in Costa Rica, as well as tips for traveling to Costa Rica (taking advantage of travel perks, what to pack). I just returned from a once in a lifetime vacation to Costa Rica with my eldest son, and want to share what we did during our brief stay. A lot of planning went into this vacation to make the most of our five days in Costa Rica.
This is the first time I’ve gone away with my eldest son since he was 2 1/2 (right after the twins were born), and I have to tell you, traveling with an adult child is one of the coolest experiences. Having one-on-one time with my son was awesome and I savored every minute of our time together.
Also, traveling with just two people is much easier than traveling with a family of six, so we were able to experience a lot more in such a short period of time. We were both open minded to trying new experiences, which drove our itinerary to explore as much in five days in Costa Rica as we could.
Itinerary for Five Days In Costa Rica
We packed in a lot in five days in Costa Rica, including scuba diving, hiking around Arenal volcano, seeing La Fortuna waterfall, and taking a raft trip down Peñas Blancas River.
Day 1: Arrived at Liberia Airport and took hotel transportation to Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort in Guanacaste. We were able to use JetBlue points and their family pooling program to book free flights one way. We also got a double upgraded room, a $100 room credit, and free breakfast buffet by booking our reservation through WhatAHotel.com. In addition, we got two free nights at the Andaz by signing up for a Hyatt Chase credit card several months in advance of our trip (you have to spend a minimum amount within the first few months of having the card to qualify for two free night). When you use the Hyatt Chase credit card, you will also avoid getting charged foreign taxes when used overseas.
We arrived in the afternoon, and headed straight to the adult pool and ordered the Caribbean ceviche (fish, shrimp and octopus with coconut milk, tomato and chili pepper) and a chorizo kebab (which is more like a burrito) for lunch from the restaurant Ostra. The ceviche was especially delicious.
We saw lots of howling monkeys in the trees by the pool, including a mom with a baby on her back. Andaz offers cooking classes so we signed up for a Mixology class at Chao Pescao which was excellent. The mixologist at Chao Pescao makes his own flavored bitters (e.g., orange, cocoa) and simple syrups (vanilla, basil, rosemary, orange, carrot, beet), and uses fresh fruit juices for cocktails. Cacique Guaro is a sugar cane liquor that is very popular in Costa Rica (similar to rum). Some of the fruits he used for the class are not available in the U.S. (e.g., naranjillas or lulu fruit) but I am hoping to try mixing my own drinks at home using tropical fruits that I can find.
After our mixology class, we enjoyed dinner at Chao Pescao. The arepas were excellent (we tried the chicken arepas) as was the tuna mango tiradito (thinly sliced raw tuna with mango). Interestingly, the arepas were not stuffed like the Venezuelan arepas I’ve had. We also ordered empanadas which were okay – to be honest, I would not order them again.
Day 2: We got up early to try the bountiful breakfast buffet at Rio Bhongo (which included gallo pinto, tamales, fresh tortillas, papaya and mango) before heading down to the beach to get picked up for a scuba diving lesson. Gallo pinto is Costa Rica’s version of rice and beans that is often eaten at every meal. I think we ate gallo pinto all five days in Costa Rica.
We took a PADI Discover Scuba class through BA Divers, which lasted about 3 1/2 hours. Our instructor, Brian was excellent – he was very kind and patient with me as a timid first time scuba diver. He and his captain picked us up right on the beach at the Andaz. He demonstrated several basic instructions for scuba diving and we were asked to perform each one satisfactorily. I had to ask him to repeat several instructions a few times and he was great. I have to admit I was a bit anxious about this part of our trip, but I am so glad I was able to experience scuba diving for the first time with my son. After two dives, we returned to the hotel. For lunch, we headed to the Dive Bar Restaurant by the marina, a relaxed outdoor eating spot on the water. The fried snapper comes highly recommended and I have to agree, it was exceptionally fresh and delicious.
Later that afternoon, we took a ceviche cooking class at Ostra which was very fun and delicious. Each participant was able to create their own ceviche. I am looking forward to making my own ceviche at home.
We had dinner reservations at Cena Sociale, an Italian restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel (all the hotels on the Papagayo Peninsula provide complimentary transportation along the peninsula). We were so full from the ceviche class that we could barely eat another bite, but we really wanted to check out the Four Seasons. The poor waiter looked so disappointed when all we ordered was a salad and the spiny lobster pasta with creamy roasted garlic zucchini pesto to share. The pasta was amazing and the small portion was actually perfect for us because we really weren’t hungry. The Four Seasons looked like an amazing luxury resort hotel as expected. It had a much larger, grander feel than the Andaz, and appeared more family oriented. However, at more than twice the price of the Andaz, it is definitely a splurge.
Day 3: We left 9AM to travel 3 1/2 hours to the Arenal Volcano area and checked into the Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort. We arranged transportation through Jacamar Naturalist Tours (recommended by Tabacon and they have a desk in the hotel lobby). We stopped at a coffee shop (touristy) along the way to get a beautiful view of Arenal Volcano.
Since I booked our rooms through WhatAHotel.com, we got a huge upgrade from a regular garden room to a two bedroom suite. It was enormous and very comfortable. Breakfast and two welcome cocktails were included and we also got a $75 spa credit.
Tabacon has amazing hot springs across the street from the hotel (5 minute walk). First we had lunch at the swim up bar (food was average). Then we tried at least 4 or 5 of the entry points into the hot springs. The hot springs are pretty hot (most are over 100 degrees), so we dunked in the cool pool first.
I had pre-booked back neck and shoulder massages in Tabacon’s open-air bungalows (we had a $75 spa credit because we booked the hotel through WhatAHotel.com). It was a really cool experience because the flowing hot springs served as the background music. I have to admit I found the massage too hard (and actually painful) and had to ask the masseuse to lay off a bit. If you’re like me and don’t like deep massages, ask about a lighter massage.
We enjoyed a delicious dinner at Los Tucanes at a table next to the lighted pool area. Two raccoons came right up to the table next to ours! When in Costa Rica, remember there is wildlife everywhere!
Day 4: We got up 7AM to try the breakfast buffet at Los Tucanes, and were surprised to find a long line to get in. The night before, two large tour bus groups had checked into the hotel. The breakfast buffet included more local foods than the Andaz, including corn cakes, plantain casserole and something that resembled a quesadilla. Fresh guava, papaya and pineapple were also included.
We packed in two tours. The first tour was a morning hike around the base of Arenal Volcano (2.5 mile hike but uphill so good workout although not too strenuous).
I was disappointed there wasn’t more wildlife to see on the volcano tour, but we did spot a venomous eyelash viper, which are very dangerous.
We learned that when Arenal volcano erupts, it shoots out huge lava rocks. Our guide was knowledgeable and had a great dry sense of humor, but I could have passed on this tour as there was not much to see. I was told by other tourists that the hanging bridges tour was the best way to see animals (not good for those afraid of heights and slightly swinging bridges!).
Our afternoon tour to La Fortuna Falls was amazing and I highly recommend this tour. We walked 500 steps down and 500 steps back up – up was much harder than down! Both tours were booked through Jacamar Naturalist Tours and we found our tour guides very knowledgeable and professional.
Day 5: We decided to pack in one more tour in Arenal before heading back to Guanacaste to try to see more wildlife. We took the morning Safari Floating Adventure tour (3 1/2 hours) through Jacamar Naturalist Tours which was a relaxing raft ride down Peñas Blancas River.
We spotted three monkey troops as we glided down the river, as well an owl, porcupine, iguanas and Jesus Christ lizards (called this because they can run across water). If we had more time, I would have tried the Caño Negro wildlife refuge tour (further away from Tabacon and therefore a full-day tour).
Afterwards, we headed back to the Andaz hotel. Our driver (arranged through Jacamar Naturalist Tours) stopped on the roadside when he spotted some howler monkeys. We also stopped on the road to try casado, the standard Costa Rican plate which typically includes rice and beans, salad, picadillo, plantains, and meat or fish. One of my goals for our five days in Costa Rica was to sample as much local Costa Rican food as we could.
We also tried soursop (guanabana) juice which was delicious and sweet, and
chifrijo that our driver recommended, which is typically served as bar food. Chifijo is a liquidy layered dip of beans, pork (and crunchy pork skin) and pico de gallo. I have to admit I didn’t care for the pork in this dish. The skin was so hard you couldn’t eat it.
After we returned to the Andaz hotel, we went to the pool briefly before having dinner at Marea Restaurant at La Prieta Beach Club. Unfortunately, we arrived after dark so we couldn’t see our surroundings at all. I think this experience would have been much nicer if we had came before sunset. The food was average, although I suspect it might have been better had we enjoyed it with the sunset in view.
Departure Day: Before we left for the airport (a 45 minute ride), we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and did some last minute shopping at the gift store, and hung out at infinity pool for a little bit.
Instead of the breakfast buffet, we decided to order off the menu. My son ordered this baked sweet plantain with a fresh cheese called palmito cheese melted on top with cinnamon. Palmito cheese has a consistency like mozzarella but has more flavor.
I got one last fix of gallo pinto.
We asked our driver to stopped by a coffee shop on the way to the airport to do a little more shopping. One of our drivers had recommended peaberry coffee, so I picked up a pack. The beans are much smaller than regular coffee beans and are supposed to have wonderful flavor.
At the airport, bought some duty-free Cacique Superior Guaca (Costa Rican sugar cane liquor which cannot be found in the US (at least not easily)) and Liquor 45 which was much less expensive at the airport than in the U.S.
Thoughts On Traveling To Costa Rica
- Due to time constraints, we only had four full days on the ground in Costa Rica. It would have been nice to have an extra day to just relax and hang out at the pool, but all in all, it was an amazing trip. I am glad we got to see so much in such a short period of time.
- Highlights of the trip included La Fortuna Waterfalls, Tabacon Hot Springs, and seeing a lot of howler monkeys.
- Disappointments: I would have liked to see some toucans and white faced and spider monkeys; if we had more time, we probably would have spotted some white faced monkeys in Guanacaste. Toucans and spider monkeys are much harder to see apparently.
- Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort: great for couples, and smaller groups; quiet, low-key, excellent service; expect to walk up and down hills to get around, or take complimentary golf cart; tapas restaurant has great arepas; mixology class and ceviche class were excellent.
- Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort: more international vibe; more homey feel; hot springs amazing; Los Tocanes restaurant very good; service excellent; recommend booking local tours in advance or at Jacamar Naturalist Tour desk in the hotel lobby.
- Transportation: Although taxis are readily available, we arranged airport transportation through Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort, and transportation from Andaz to Tabacon through Jacamar Naturalist Tours. Roads can be windy and not clearly marked so unless you’re an adventurous driver (which I am not), I recommend taking a taxi or arranging alternative transportation to get around.
- Tours: I recommend researching and booking tours in advance either through the hotel or a reputable local tour company (Tripadvisor is a great place to check reviews). I communicated with Jacamar Naturalist Tours by email extensively before our trip. Be clear what you want to do and see, as well as what you do not want to do.
- Pros: Almost everyone speaks fluent English as it is the second language in Costa Rica; unless you are visiting very local places, there is no need to change currency to Costa Rican colones.
Tips For Traveling To Costa Rica
- If you’re on E.S.T., stay on your original time zone. We went to bed early and woke up early for tours.
- If you fly JetBlue, sign up for their family pooling program to share travel points and book free airfare.
- Use American Express travel benefits or WhatAHotel.com for extra benefits at the same rate as the hotel charges, e.g., free breakfast, room or spa credit; room upgrades.
- If you’re planning on staying at the Andaz, apply for a Hyatt Chase credit card and spend the minimum required to qualify for two free nights.
- Experience as much as you can but give yourself some downtime if needed. You can have a very different experience in Costa Rica depending on what part of the country you visit, e.g., resort area like Papagayo gulf, casual Tamarindo Beach, Caribbean side, or the city of San Jose.
- If you’re planning on visiting an area more than 3 hours away from the hotel you’re staying at, consider staying a few days in that area. We actually saved money by moving to the Arenal area for a few days. The cost of transportation to Arenal and the Tabacon hotel was less expensive than if we had stayed at Andaz and booked day tours to Arenal from there.
- Buy a waterproof case for your phone if you plan on going in or near the water (also handy if it rains).
- Pack a pair of water shoes or light quick-drying shoes for waterfall hikes (it is very rocky in the water).
- Bring plenty of bug spray and sun tan lotion.
- Pack a light rain jacket and umbrella for occasional downpours.
Food Souvenirs from Costa Rica:
Although we stayed just five days in Costa Rica, we quickly discovered some favorite Costa Rican products that we wanted to bring back to the U.S. I quizzed our drivers for their favorite foods, recipes and local products.
Peaberry coffee – Costa Rica is known for its coffee, but peaberry coffee is a unique coffee bean that grows there. We enjoyed French press coffee during our stay in Costa Rica and I am thoroughly enjoying making fresh ground French press peaberry coffee now that I’m back in the U.S.
Hot sauce – Although Costa Rican food is not spicy, we loved this Costa Rican hot sauce – Monoloco Viejo Verde – at breakfast with our Gallos de Pinto. This cannot be purchased in the U.S. at this point in time.
Lizano Salsa/Sauce – This Costa Rican seasoning sauce which lists carrot paste, onion paste, cauliflower paste, and cucumber paste among its ingredients, is used to season beans, or added to scrambled eggs (per our tour guide). This product can be purchased on Amazon if you don’t have room to bring this home from Costa Rica.
Cacique Guaro – This sugar cane liquor is very popular in mixed drinks in Costa Rica. Cacique Guaro was the base liquor used in many of the drinks the mixologist made during our mixology class at Andaz. This liquor cannot be easily found in the U.S. at this point in time.
We packed a lot into five days in Costa Rica, but next time I would like to go for at least 7 days. I’m hoping to return to Costa Rica to explore more of this beautiful island. I’d love to spend some time on one of the west coast beaches, visit the Caribbean side, hike Celeste waterfalls, take a raft trip down Caño Negro to see more wildlife, and see some toucans, white faced monkeys and spider monkeys. I might even try the hanging bridges, white water rafting and ziplining. Each part of Costa Rica has its own unique character.