Hi guys, in January, we returned from our 5-day road trip in Costa Rica starting in San Jose visiting Manuel Antonio, Herradura and Arenal in December. In this post, I wanted to share with you our road trip itinerary for 5 days in Costa Rica, so you know what to expect and where to stay.
5 days are not enough to see and experience Costa Rica, however, if you only have 5 days to spend in Costa Rica, it’s better than nothing, right? Actually, even in 5 days, you can see a bit of what amazing Costa Rica has to offer – beautiful nature, stunning wildlife and fantastic scenery.
If you enjoy driving yourself rather than buying an organised tour, then Costa Rica is a great option for you. Driving in Costa Rica is actually very easy, and you don’t even need 4×4 unless you’re going to really remote areas. The roads are good, the signs are clear, and the distances in Costa Rica are not too long.
Just in 5 days in Costa Rica, we managed to see quite a lot in Costa Rica and see most of the amazing exotic animals of the county. We also experienced a bit of everything: walking in nature, swimming and enjoying the views of the famous volcano. We never drove more than 3 1/2 hours in one day, so it wasn’t a tiring holiday by any means. So without further ado, let’s get started with our five-day self-drive itinerary for Costa Rica!
Essential information about Costa Rica
Currency: colón, 1 USD = 560 CRC (as of May 2020).
Plug type: same as the US. if you need an adaptor, you can buy this universal adaptor that works anywhere
Any vaccinations needed? Check here.
Things you need to know before visiting Costa Rica:
Hiring a car is very easy, however, there are some charges you need to be aware of. We hired our car directly from Budget. However, we can also recommend checking Rentalcars.com, as they have a great insurance policy. You need to keep in mind that before returning a car in Costa Rica, you need to wash it (there is a wash station next to Budget office and it costs about $5-6 to clean the car). However, if you return the car dirty, you will be charged $100 and even more (up to $250) if it’s filthy. To avoid that, make sure to clean the car before returning.
Costa Rica is a very common touristic destination for Americans, so the prices are relatively high. You can pay in USD pretty much everywhere.
Costa Rica is generally very safe, however, some areas of San Jose should be avoided at night.
Costa Rican food isn’t spicy. Moreover, most of the restaurants in the touristic areas serve international food like pizzas and burgers (and a lot of pasta and rice as well). Unfortunately, we didn’t have an opportunity to try anything outstanding in Costa Rica, as the food was rather bland and pretty expensive.
Best time to go to Costa Rica is April, however, you can visit the country all year long. During some seasons, it’s more likely to rain, and it’s hotter, e.g. in December – January. However, we were fortunate with the weather – it hasn’t rained at all.
5-day road trip in Costa Rica starting from San Jose: the itinerary
Let’s get started with our itinerary for driving for five days in Costa Rica. Here is also a little map of our itinerary and the highlights we managed to see:
Itinerary for a five day road trip in Costa Rica starting in San Jose:
San Jose – Manuel Antonio – Herradura – Arenal – San Jose
here’s our break down day by day:
Day 1: Landing in San Jose, driving to Manuel Antonio, taking the Manuel Antonio night jungle tour. Staying at My Casa B&B
Day 2: exploring the Manuel Antonio National Park and the beaches. Staying in Selina Manuel Antonio
Day 3: spending the morning in Manuel Antonio and then driving to Herradura. Staying in Marriott Los Suenos
Day 4: Driving to Arenal and visiting the ecotermales thermal baths. Staying at Mountain Paradise Spa & Wellness
Day 5: Visiting the animal sanctuary, driving to San Jose and exploring the city at night. Staying at Hotel Presidente San Jose
Day 6: flying back in the morning
So here is our detailed itinerary for five days driving in Costa Rica:
First day in Costa Rica & Manuel Antonio jungle night tour
Before I start describing our itinerary for Costa Rica, I must mention that we went to Costa Rica in December, during the Christmas holidays and it was very busy! Depending on the season, your experience might be a bit different from ours, as, hopefully, everything will be less busy! During the Christmas holidays, the prices generally skyrocket, so we experienced the worst of Costa-Rican prices. During pretty much any other time of the year, it will be much cheaper, and Costa Rica will be much better value.
Hiring a car in Costa Rica in winter
We landed in San Jose quite early. We took an early morning flight from Panama City, where we stayed for 24 hours and managed to explore a bit of the city. So by 10 am, we already passed the security and were ready to pick up our car. As I mentioned before, we hired our car from Budget. They had a very competitive price for a 5-day rental over the New Year, however, we got a rather old car. It was a 10-15-year old Toyota, but in the end, we actually got used to it. It wasn’t too bad. Make sure to book in advance, if you’re heading to Costa Rica for Christmas or during school holidays. By advance, I mean 3-5 months (at least). I also recommend using Rentalcars.com – they have a very competitive insurance policy, and you can compare the prices of different rentals.
Also, I must mention that you need to clean your car (professionally) before you return it, as you will be charged a lot of money (up to $300). Luckily, there are a few car washes near the airport in San Jose, so you can get a professional wash and get the car vacuumed for $3-5. Better than paying $300 upon returning the car that was considered “dirty”. Unfortunately, no one can explain to you what does “dirty” mean, so unless you return it sparkling clean, you can be charged. I haven’t seen it anywhere else in the world, so I guess it’s a rule in Costa Rica.
Driving from San Jose to Manuel Antonio
Once we sorted out all the documents and picked up our car, we headed to Walmart nearby to buy some food for the upcoming days. As you can’t eat inside Manuel Antonio National Park (there aren’t any restaurants), people are advised to bring food with them. Moreover, we wanted to have some snacks with us for the ride. There is a huge Walmart close to the airport, so if you’re in the same situation, I recommend stopping there.
One more thing: this Walmart sells a lot of souvenirs, especially coffee, the same you’ll see in the souvenir shops at the airport. The coffee is almost twice cheaper than at the airport, so if you want souvenirs, you can buy them in Walmart.
The drive from San Jose to Manuel Antonio took around 4 hours in total. There was a bit of traffic, so we spent around 30 minutes in a traffic jam. Apart from that, the road was fast. We actually took a second highway that goes through a very picturesque route, and the views were pretty impressive. However, if you just want to get to Manuel Antonio as soon as possible, take the route suggested by Google.
Where to stay in Manuel Antonio: affordable hotels and guesthouses in Manuel Antonio
As we stopped for lunch in one of the restaurants, we arrived at our guesthouse around 3 pm.
On the first night, we stayed at My Casa B&B. It was a decent guesthouse, and the manager was very helpful and friendly. However, on the second night in Manuel Antonio, we stayed at Selina Hotel & Hostel, and it was much better and much cheaper as well. If you have kids, I’m sure, My Casa B&B would be a better option. However, if you’re a young couple, Selina is just amazing.
We don’t like partying (there are quite a few parties there if you’re into parties), so the best part of us was Selina’s rooftop terrace. It was is absolutely amazing to just sit down, sip a drink and work on something or just chat with your partner/friends. The territory of Selina was also huge and on the territory, there was a sloth with its newborn baby (it was just living on one of the trees) and we were so surprised to see it so close to us one day. It was an unforgettable experience! At 5 pm every day, a couple of toucans would fly close to the hotel, so we could see them from the rooftop terrace. Overall, in Selina, we saw much more wildlife than in Manuel Antonio!
If you’re looking for an affordable hotel or guesthouse in Manuel Antonio, I can wholeheartedly recommend Selina (however, don’t expect anything fancy, it’s a very basic hotel).
We had a night jungle tour booked on the same day (with the pick up around 5 pm), so we had to hurry up, take a shower and prepare for the night tour.
Night jungle tour in Manuel Antonio
On the first evening, we took a night jungle tour in Manuel Antonio. Well, technically, the tour didn’t take place in Manuel Antonio, as it’s not allowed to enter the national park after dark, however, it was in the adjacent territories. We were picked up by a small minibus along with other 10 people and arrived at a base, where there were 40 people more (at least). Then, we did regrouping and in the end, with every guide, there were circa 8 people in total. We were given torched and were briefed by our guide. Our guide, Gregory, was very knowledgeable and fun – he was definitely the best guide. If you have an opportunity, ask to be in Gregory’s team, as you will 100% enjoy the tour!
The tour lasted for about 2 hours, and it was very exciting. We managed to see a lot of spiders, frogs, a giant toad and even a viper. Even at night, it was possible to take some stunning photos and videos. Our guide made sure that everybody in the group was able to see the animals and nobody got injured. Our guide even helped us to take photos. After the tour, we were brought back to our accommodation. I can definitely recommend this tour, as it was one of the best experiences (if not the best) we had in Costa Rica.
If you want to book the same tour as we did, you can do it here. Please note that it’s an adults-only (sort of) tour – there were no kids below 12-14 years old.
Exploring Manuel Antonio National Park in winter
Alright, on the next day (as advised), we woke up very early and by 7:30 am, we have parked the car and bought the tickets. Manuel Antonio has a daily visitor cap, so it’s essential to arrive early on the busy days (e.g. Christmas Holidays). On the way to the park, it’s likely, that you will be stopped by a ranger, who will try to convince you to park 1km away from the entrance saying that the main parking is full. Then, the ranger will convince you to hire them. Don’t fall for this trick, there is a very HIGH chance that the parking isn’t full and you can park straight next to the entrance to Manuel Antonio. And if you want to hire a private ranger, you can do it there as well.
Most people book group tours when visiting Manuel Antonio. We didn’t, and we ended up being a bit disappointed. Even with binoculars, we couldn’t see sloths, as they usually are hidden in the leaves. There were no toucans. The animals we spotted in Manuel Antonio were monkeys, deer and a couple of iguanas. As I mentioned before, we actually saw more animals while staying at Selina hotel.
The weather in Manuel Antonio in winter can be scorching, humid and rainy. Hence, it’s recommended to visit the National Park as early as possible, so you can leave the park around 11 am or mid-day. There is also a great beach inside Manuel Antonio National Park, so don’t forget to bring a swimsuit with you.
Things to do near Manuel Antonio
As we didn’t spend the entire day in Manuel Antonio National Park, we were looking for things to do near Manuel Antonio. We found a great pizza spot for lunch with stunning views. The pizza place is called La Lambretta, and the pizzas were great quality and pretty authentic with amazing ingredients.
After lunch, we spent a bit of time of the terrace of Selina and later in the afternoon, went to check out the zipline located just 5 minutes away from Selina. The Zipline is called Zip Coaster, and it’s a mix of a traditional Zip Line and a Rollercoaster. It costs $10 for a single ride, but it’s really fun. I can definitely recommend it!
In the evening, we went to the famous El Avion Bar that has a part of the plane fitted inside the restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant was rather disappointing – food was terrible and expensive (stay away from Broccoli Nachos – but apart from that, there was nothing even remotely healthy); and cocktails weren’t great either.
Manuel Antonio to Herradura / Jaco
Next morning, we had some work to do, so we spent the entire morning working on the terrace. Selina even has a coworking space (available with an extra charge with super-fast internet). We paid for the coworking and I was even able to upload a video to my YouTube channel from there. We had our breakfast in Selina (it was affordable and really good) and left the hotel around 11:30 am to drive to Herradura. The drive to Herradura / Jaco was predicted to be 1 hour 30 minutes only, however, there was a bit of traffic on the roads, so it took us about 2 hours. We also restocked our snack supplies in one of the supermarkets.
In Herradura / Jaco, we stayed at the Marriott Hotel. We decided to stay in Herradura to visit the beach, however, as it turned out, you can’t really swim in Herradura because of stingy jellyfish. However, Marriott has a very nice big swimming pool, so at least we could swim there.
Looking back at our itinerary, I don’t think I would have stayed in Herradura for one night. Instead, I think, I would have preferred to stay one more night in Manuel Antonio (where it’s possible to swim), or I would head to Arenal and spend two night there.
I don’t have too much to say about Marriott either – it was a good hotel, however, during the Christmas holidays, it was quite overpriced. It didn’t have anything included (not even breakfast), so you need to pay for everything separately.
Herradura to Arenal: Visiting Ecotermales Spa on New Year’s Eve
The journey from Herradura to Arenal takes about 4 hours, so prepare for a long road ahead. We left Marriott in Herradura around 11 am, and by 3 pm, we were already in Arenal.
On the way to Arenal, we stopped by the famous Crocodile bridge, from where you can see a lot of crocodiles. There is a free parking, where you can leave your car and then walk to the centre of the bridge.
It was the 31st of December, so we just went straight to the check-in at our hotel Mountain Paradise Wellness & Spa. Unlike Marriott, Mountain Paradise was a real bargain – we rented a villa for 4 people with a personal swimming pool and for the New Year’s eve just for $250. The place was a bit rustic, but nonetheless, it was absolutely stunning. And the views from the main swimming pool were breathtaking – you could see the Arenal volcano from there.
After checking in, changing and relaxing for a bit, we headed to Ecotermales. Every day, there are two entrance times, from 9 am to 4 pm and from 4 pm to 9:30 pm. The regular package costs $44 and includes an entrance fee, a towel and a locker. If you want to stay for a lunch/dinner, you can buy the second package for $72. We stayed for dinner, and it was pretty decent – it was a buffet with a limited variety, but all the dishes were delicious.
Ecotermales Thermal Spa on New Year’s Eve was a great idea and we definitely enjoyed it. I would say that you don’t need 5 hours to explore the spa, and as the water is pretty hot in most of the pools, you won’t be able to stay there for long. We stayed for about 2.5 hours and got exhausted. So exhausted, that I fell asleep before the New Year has begun.
Exploring Fortuna and visiting Animal Sanctuary Proyecto Asis in Arenal
On the first of January, we woke up around 8 am and finished our breakfast at 10 am. It was our last full day in Costa Rica and we had to head back to San Jose around 3 pm. One option was to explore the Arenal National Park, however, as it required a fair bit of hiking and my mother-in-law just couldn’t make it. Hence, we looked for an alternative option.
One of the options was visiting a wildlife sanctuary in Arenal. I always wanted to see toucans very close to me and the only way to do so (unless you’re fortunate to see one very close in the wildlife) was in one of the animal sanctuaries. We decided to visit Proyecto Asis, but unfortunately, this sanctuary seemed like a zoo for wounded animals and the only visitors were families with small kids. You can’t visit the place without a tour, the tour groups are rather large and the guides are speaking like in a kindergarten.
There was another misunderstanding between the receptionist and us that resulted in them charging us more and then simply refusing to refund us for the service we didn’t receive (we lost $20) – despite the fact that Pepe is a native Spanish speaker, so that was a problem on their end.
Overall, I wouldn’t recommend visiting the Proyecto Asis. If you can, go hiking the Arenal Volcano National Park instead!
Around 5 pm, we arrived in San Jose. We stayed in the city centre, at the hotel called Hotel Presidente. It was a decent hotel, and we even got a room upgrade. The location was very convenient, and most importantly, there was parking and breakfast was also included.
We spent the evening walking around San Jose and while I can’t call it dangerous, I wouldn’t say it’s safe either. In the first 20 minutes, around 5 people approached us asking for money, some people were very peaceful, while some others were a bit aggressive. If I were alone, I wouldn’t walk around San Jose after dark. For dinner, we visited an Argentinian restaurant close to our hotel – Tenedor Argentino. If you eat meat, it’s definitely a must-go place, as steaks were amazing there!
Overall, San Jose looked like a lovely city, but there wasn’t that much to do compared to the rest of Costa Rica, so I was thrilled that we only had one evening there. If you’re deciding whether to stay in San Jose for a day or two or not, I personally can’t recommend staying there for more than one evening.
Summary of our 5-day road trip in Costa Rica in winter visiting Manuel Antonio, Herradura and Arenal
On our last day in Costa Rica, we had a quick breakfast and headed to the airport. As I mentioned before, you need to return your rental car sparkling clean, so we had to find a car wash that was open and was located close to the airport. There are quite a few car wash stations next to the airport, however, on the 2nd of January only one or two were open. We paid around $6 for an express wash and clean and our car was accepted without an extra charge.
Overall, looking back at our 5-day road trip in Costa Rica, I must say that I’m happy with how the trip has turned out. However, I would probably stay 2 nights in Manuel Antonio and 2 nights in Arenal (and 1 more night in San Jose), as Herradura was a bit of a disappointment.
Costa Rica in 5 days is definitely not enough, as there is so much to do and so much to see, however, if your time and budget are limited, you can totally see some of the main highlights of Costa Rica in 5 days.