This post was most recently updated on August 3rd, 2023
If you’ve ever considered going to Costa Rica, I hope this article will be helpful to you. With only four full days to discover Costa Rica highlights, I think my husband and I did a pretty good job. I’d love to share what we enjoyed, so you can “hit the ground running.” In any case, perhaps our tips and experiences will be helpful in your own planning.
This article includes affiliate links to the hotels we stayed in. If you book through them, we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. We would not recommend them if they were not up to our standards.
Day 1 in Costa Rica
Where we spent the first night
Our plane landed late at the San Jose airport and we’d learned it’s best not to drive much at night, so we chose a hotel close to the airport. It turned out to be a gem, and we nearly changed our plans so we could return at the end of our visit. Hotel Brillasol Airport is completely enclosed for privacy and security and feels like an oasis. With a swimming pool, patio seating, and tropical gardens, you definitely don’t feel like you’re close to an airport unless an airplane flies overhead! Rates for a comfortable air-conditioned room and included breakfast were only 29,000 colones (or about $50 USD).
San José Costa Rica Temple
This beautiful temple was our first stop for the day–only 17 minutes drive from the hotel. We had hoped to be able to walk around the temple gardens and enjoy the peaceful feeling there. However, the temple grounds were closed to the public while maintenance was being done. We still enjoyed seeing the temple and taking a few photos before moving on.
After about an hour’s drive from the temple, we arrived at the Tarcoles Bridge over the Tarcoles River. It is more commonly known as the “Crocodile Bridge.” I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the views as we drove here — gorgeous mountains and hills bathed in green! Some of the trees had canopies that spread gracefully in a wide arc, like an open umbrella. They are the national tree of Costa Rica, called the Guanacaste, another of Costa Rica’s highlights for us.
We parked at one end of Tarcoles Bridge, so we could walk to the middle of the bridge and look down into the river. Directly below us were three crocodiles! Soon, two more swam over to meet them. These were NOT tiny crocodiles.They were large adults, probably 6 to 8 feet long. That was really something, to see crocodiles in their natural habitat!
Carara National Park
Only three minutes further, we came to the entrance of Carara National Park. This park showcases plants and animals that can be found in a region where wet and dry forests converge. You can pay a guide to escort you through the park and point out the wildlife to you, but we decided to explore on our own. Admission was about $20 USD for two of us. There is a nice paved trail to walk, with signage for interesting or unique foliage.
Within a few yards of entering the park, my husband had already spotted a black tree frog with neon green spots. We saw brightly colored butterflies, including one as large as an adult hand. We also saw long lines of leaf cutter ants and couldn’t resist staying to watch them for awhile. They are so focused on their work! We also saw agoutis that resemble guinea pigs with longer legs. The trees and foliage are amazing, with their twisting vines, fungus, giant leaves, and flowers. We heard monkeys but could never see them. Unfortunately, there were also mosquitos. This is why you must wear good bug repellant, as you won’t want to take the Zika virus home with you as a souvenir.
Punta Leona Hotel and Resort
Our final destination for the day was only a 30-minute drive from the national park. Punta Leona Hotel is not just a hotel. It is more of a beach resort with several different areas, including villas, hotel rooms, and cottages, and it includes an amphitheatre, playground, swimming pools, miniature golf, restaurants, and its own private beach. It is surrounded by a security fence, and you cannot enter without a reservation.
While we waited for our room to be ready, we ate a late lunch at an open-air restaurant. But first we had to stop and take photos of a tree full of colorful and noisy macaws! We ordered limonados and casados (mine had fish and my husband’s had steak). A casado is a meal of rice, black beans, plantains, salad, a tortilla and a protein. So good! Costa Rican cuisine quickly became one of our Costa Rica highlights!
Our room was a private villa, decorated in turquoise and white, with every amenity you could ever want including a low faucett in the shower for rinsing off beach sand. So of course, we changed into swim suits and headed straight to the beach — Playa Blanca (white beach).
At the beach we took photos, swam in the bathtub warm water, and then watched the sunset. With one special palm tree bent over the sand, I just had to get a photo. And that’s when the thunderstorm begain and it started pouring rain! Ran back to our villa to clean up and go to dinner at the open-air buffet restaurant. It was Costa Rican food at its best: beans, rice, plaintains and other tasty food, plus fruit drinks that were delicious! For an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet, $22 USD seemed a great price.
Day 2 in Costa Rica
PUNTA LEONA RESORT WILDLIFE
We decided to go to the beach early today to get in snorkeling before any thunderstorms rolled in. Boy were we surprised when we got to the breakfast buffet. It’s an open-air restaurant, and there are huge nets draped around the entire restaurant to keep animals from helping themselves. We sat down to eat and became immediately aware that the trees surrounding the restaurant were full of white-faced capuchin monkeys, jumping from tree to tree and watching us eat!
Occasionally a monkey would figure out how to get into the restaurant and grab a banana and scurry off. We were so distracted by their antics that we failed to notice the coatimundi (or pizote) that discovered our table when we got up to get our food. The raccoon-like pizote was large enough that we felt a little threatened, especially by his claws, and we were grateful for the waiter who chased it away for us! Despite this, another of our Costa Rica highlights was being so close to nature.
anOther day at punta leona
If you stay at Punta Leona, you really have no need to go elsewhere. And we didn’t. We spent the entire day swimming, snorkeling, lounging on the beach (there are plenty of lounge chairs), or dining at one of several restaurants, including one overlooking the beach. There’s a mini mart where you can buy snacks, goggles, or even a snorkel mask. We drove our car to the private parking lot at the beach so I could lock up my camera while I was snorkeling. That was pretty convenient.
Snorkeling at Playa Blanca introduced us to quite a few fish — a school of transparent fish, a large bright blue and black fish (maybe a tang?), and some yellow/black fish (clownfish, maybe?) One little fish was bright yellow and turquoise — almost neon!
More beach activities
Besides snorkeling, we also explored tiny tide pools and flew our drone for awhile. For lunch at the beach restaurant, we tried limonadas infused with peppermint leaves – so refreshing! This time we had a hamburger and a chicken sandwich for 16,500 colones total ($28 USD). Couldn’t resist adding a coconut flan for dessert at only 5,000 colones! ($8.50 USD).
After some more snorkeling and an unplanned tumble in the waves, I decided it was time to relax on the beach. I arrived there just in time to watch a raccoon steal a bag of chips from picnickers! It emptied the bag, and then the monkeys came. I had a regular circus of animals jumping and running within feet of me and I was quite entertained! One mother capuchin was leaping from tree to tree with the tiniest of capuchin babies clinging to her fur. Darling!
The most incredible sunset
Later we strolled through the resort, spotting iguanas high up in the trees and going to an onsite butterfly atrium. After another wonderful dinner in the open-air restaurant (this time Italian-themed), we headed to Mantas Beach to photograph the sunset. We had the entire beach to ourselves (perhaps November is not a popular time of year to go to the beach?) We watched the sun slip behind some low-lying clouds on the horizon and were not too impressed. But we lingered awhile, and all of a sudden, the sky lit up with the most beautiful red and orange hues. Truly this was one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever witnessed. What do you think?
I don’t know if there’s something special about Costa Rica’s orientation, but their sunsets were definitely up there at the top of our list of Costa Rica highlights!
Day 3 in Costa Rica
Today we were up early to get a good start on the day. We packed, ate breakfast, checked out and were on the main highway by 8:00 am! We drove about two and a half hours to see the Cartago church ruins. On our way, we passed the capitol city of San José, but it really is NOT a beautiful city. By first world standards, we would consider most of the neighborhoods to be slums. I’m just being honest here. You’ll see a lot of razor wire and barred windows, second level floors built with corrugated metal and lots of dogs roaming around.
CARTAGO CHURCH RUINS
Wondering why we would mention church ruins as a Costa Rica highlight? Well, this church site has a long and very interesting history. There has been a church on this site since the mid-16th century. The first church built here suffered three devastating earthquakes, and each time, it was rebuilt. In the late 1800’s, plans were made to start all over with a new church. It was built up to the point that it was ready to place the roof when the most devastating earthquake of all hit in 1910, leveling the entire town. By now, the locals believed the church site to be cursed and haunted, so no more efforts were made to restore the church. Instead it has been kept as a memorial to the earthquakes and also to the resilience of the people of Cartago. The insides of the ruins have been turned into gardens, and it really is a beautiful and eerie place to visit.
Tip: You’ll need to pay for parking on the streets of Cartago, and you do that by going to the closest store with a sign that indicates they sell “boletos”. Buy your parking ticket and display it on your dashboard.
The oldest church in Costa Rica
While we were in Cartago, a few older men approached us to talk about the ruins. I was worried it was an attempt to get my husband’s wallet (here I am being paranoid!), but I think they sincerely just wanted to visit. Carlos was particularly talkative, and my husband enjoyed the opportunity to use his Spanish. Carlos warned me to watch my camera carefully. Then he told us if we liked old historic buildings, we should check out the oldest church in Costa Rica in the town of Orosi.
So that’s what we did. We drove another half hour to the town of Orosi. It took us awhile to find it; it’s called Iglesia Colonial De Orosi. This church was built 1743-1766 and is still in use today. Inside are wooden pews and an altar with gold detailed painting. I’m surprised it has lasted this long!
Orosi is nestled in a beautiful valley of green. We decided to do some more exploring because the scenery was just breathtaking. Think lush and green…and even more green! Rather than just turn around and retrace our route back to San José, we opted for a route that would take us past Lake Cachí. I never captured a great photo of the lake but we parked near the Cachí Dam to get a picture of the river gorge below. We also availed ourselves of some amazing fried bread with cheese from a street vendor. We bought two of them for 2,000 colones ($3.40 USD) and that served as our lunch for the day.
Hotel in San José
An hour and a half drive back to San José, and we were checking into our hotel, the Sleep Inn Hotel Paseo Las Damas. I was surprised at how nice this hotel turned out to be for the price! We had a beautiful king room, with free wifi and free parking. This hotel is also close to a nice restaurant where we ate all of our meals, Casino Club Colonial. Yes, it was also a casino, which we ignored. The food was great and well-priced; the menu had plenty of variety.
EXPLORING DOWNTOWN San José & the Jade museum
We left the hotel to walk around the city. I was super nervous and left my camera in our room safe. We saw several parks with statues and memorials, the Metallica building (a pink metal school) and a pedestrian shopping area on Central Ave. Not sure I should even include this in my Costa Rica highlights. But as you can see, there were some interesting things to see. Perhaps my apprehension was uncalled for. Still, I’d say travel in San José with caution.
But there was one museum we really liked that is definitely worth mentioning: the Museo del Jade (Jade Museum). Several floors of exhibits included lots of jade artifacts, but also a lot of information about indigenous tribes and history of Costa Rica. In fact, it holds the largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts in the world. This is a top-quality museum and just one more in our long list of Costa Rica highlights.
Day 4 – So many Costa Rica Highlights!
Another super early departure today! Grabbed our breakfast at 6:00 am and were driving off by 6:15 am, for the Poas Volcano.
We’d been told our best chance of seeing the Poas Volcano was by arriving before 9:00 am, so we snagged our permits ($15 each) for the earliest available time of 8:00 am. It was a 90-minute drive, at least, from our hotel. Driving in Costa Rica is just never a sure thing. You can run into construction, roads in need of repair, traffic jams, and much slower speed limits. The last few miles were very beautiful with colorful cafes/shops and tons of thick green foliage, including the largest of ferns I’ve ever seen! Views to the valley below were stunning. We passed many pastures with cows, and also several stands selling strawberries. This is Costa Rica countryside at its best.
We made it to Poas just a little after 7:30 am. Parking was another 2,000 colones (about $3.40). From there we walked into a building with restrooms, an auditorium and offices. A guide met us and showed us an informative film.
By now the weather was very cold and windy, and it was raining. It wasn’t looking good for getting a good view of the volcano. At 8:00 am, we were given helmets to wear and we headed off on a 10-minute walk to the volcano rim, where we could only stay for 20 minutes. (Times are limited not just by reservations, but also to decrease exposure to toxic gases from the volcano).
When we arrived at the rim, we were disappointed to see the crater completely socked in with fog. We couldn’t see a thing but white. The weather was miserable and we shivered under one of the shelter structures. These structures have elaborate light/alarm systems to warn of toxic gases. If the lights had turned red, we’d need to evacuate immediately! In our allotted time, the fog never lifted. No volcano views for us today, but still a highlight because of the incredible drive and what we learned about the volcano.
Sal Y Azucar cafe
After leaving Poas, we stopped at a brightly colored ‘Pura Vida’ souvenir shop that promised “tranquil gifts.” Unfortunately it wouldn’t open for another hour. But the cafe owner next door invited us into his shop and into the backyard to take photos of his gorgeous hydrangea gardens. Sal Y Azucar Cafe was super cute and cozy so we decided to stay and have hot chocolate with banana chocolate chip bread. It was a perfect day for hot chocolate, and there’s nothing like this presentation to make you want to sit and stay awhile:
Besides that, the radio was playing. A Beatles song came on… “Alone Again, Naturally”, in Spanish of course. It was familiar and beautiful, and as I sat there in my escape from the cold, sipping hot chocolate, I started to cry. It was one of those serendipitous moments with no explanation, but it is one of my most cherished Costa Rica highlights. Go visit Sal Y Alzucar, and see if it does the same for you! In Costa Rica, they call this a Pura Vida moment, and we had several.
La Paz Waterfall and gardens
La Paz Waterfall and Gardens was probably the most expensive attraction we visited in Costa Rica — about $45 per person. It was an impromptu decision to go, but I’m so glad we did. It is a beautiful and very-well developed park with so much to see! It’s not just about the waterfalls. There is such an abundance of animal life here, plus exquisite gardens. There are hummingbirds, toucans, macaws, birds of prey, ocelots, pumas, jaguars, frogs, sloths, bulls, and a reptile house. The butterfly enclosure was incredible — one even landed on my head and sat there awhile. The gardens included exotic flowers and orchids. And then there are the paths to the waterfalls — I hadn’t realized there were several waterfalls. The paths included stairs and handrails, so it always felt safe. At one place we could even take a trail to stand behind a waterfall.
By the time you walk to all of the waterfalls, you have walked all the way to the bottom of a hill, and fortunately, there’s a shuttle to take you back to the top. We didn’t have to walk up all those stairs! Our list of Costa Rica highlights is getting longer all the time! We ended up spending about three hours here, including some time browsing in a gift shop. Their restaurant prices were steep, so we decided to look for roadside vendors as we headed to our next stop.
I probably wouldn’t have highlighted our roadside cafe lunch, except that it was such a gem. We left the La Paz Waterfalls parking lot and turned left. I don’t think we’d even gone a mile when we saw this:
We pulled into Soda Campesino’s tiny parking lot and ordered our lunch — more casados. Not even a menu — this is just what you get. But these were the best we had in Costa Rica. And only 10,000 colones for both of us ($17.00 USD). There was an outdoor viewpoint with table for two and we sat there, with a friendly cat to keep us company. You couldn’t ask for a better view at a 5-star restaurant!
caterata del toro
One more stop for the day, and we were running out of daytime! It took us an hour to get to Caterata del Toro from Soda Campesino, and we arrived just before their closing time, but they still let us in! (Cost $14 USD each) This is more than a waterfall also. There’s lodging and a restaurant/snack bar. The trail takes you through a small garden area as well. But we were going as quickly as we could to see the hidden waterfall that cascades 270 feet into an extinct volcanic crater. My words cannot adequately describe how stunning this waterfall is. I could have sat there and watched it forever. There were stairs if you wanted to descend to the bottom, but we were out of time, nor did I think I needed any more adventures on this day. If I could have re-written our script for the day, perhaps I would have come here first and skipped the volcano, but then I may have missed Sal Y Azucar. You just embrace it all and feel gratitude for the amazing moments!
One more Costa Rica moment
We knew it would probably get dark before we could reach San José, and we tried to make the best time we could, but there’s no hurrying in Costa Rica. We just had to laugh when we came upon this scene!
Again, embrace the moments! Costa Rica highlights are sometimes very unexpected. We certainly don’t get to see this back home in San Diego. The one bonus to having to finish our drive in the dark (not a good idea, by the way) was seeing all the Christmas lights Costa Ricans had already put up the first week of November! The last TWO miles into San José city took us 30 minutes! We literally could have walked faster.
Leaving Costa Rica
Hindsight taught us that choosing a hotel in San José had never been a good idea. It wasn’t even the best hub for our explorations in Cartago or Poas Volcano and waterfalls. And now we had further to drive to get to the airport our last morning. We should have gone back to the Brillasol Airport Hotel!
The one thing we could control was how early we left the hotel for our flight out of Costa Rica. So you guessed it — another early morning! But it paid off. It was an easy drive to the rental car drop-off, and we were at the airport by 6:45 am. Customs was a quick stop and the security line was short, too. We weren’t required to remove shoes and they never said anything to my husband, who had forgotten to empty his water bottle. There are actually some great souvenirs in the San José airport, so it was another of our Costa Rica highlights to leisurely wait for our flight’s departure.
Flying home allowed me to see all the volcanoes from the air, which made up for missing Poas Volcano up close. I hope you go to Costa Rica — it may very well be our best four-day vacation ever!
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