Last updated on April 1st, 2022
So you’ve got 10 days to explore Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Your vacation time just got approved, and you’ve booked your flights. Woohoo!
Now it’s time to start planning your itinerary to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Both countries are definitely filled with adventure, from volcanoes to beaches, from jungles to cities, there is something for everyone. It is a great idea to combine them into the same trip if you have the time.
Here is the 10 day Costa Rica and Nicaragua itinerary I used on my trip:
Please note: this itinerary is entirely based upon having a rental car. This is a 10-day road trip across Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This itinerary will take longer if done by public transportation, but it is possible to do with a bus.
Renting a car is a great way to get around in Costa Rica. It does have a higher cost versus public transportation, in exchange for the freedom you will have in mobility and flexible scheduling.
Please add extra time if you choose to do this itinerary via bus to ensure you don’t miss anything. Make sure you learn more about renting a car in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and what not to do when renting a car.
Day 1 – Arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica
Today is the day you finally arrive in Costa Rica after all that planning and packing. So exciting! I know I’m always excited anytime I get to go to the airport!
Aim to fly into San Jose (SJO) as most flights to Costa Rica will.
If you arrive in the afternoon, you can check-in to your accommodation and then head out to explore San Jose.
If you arrive in the evening, you may not have much time to really explore, check-in to your accommodation and either settle in or head out for some dinner nearby.
Day 2 – Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Drive 3 hours from San Jose to Manuel Antonio. Start your day early to maximize your time in this beautiful place.
Unlike me, ensure your GPS (car or phone) sticks to the main roads, and not through the narrow never-ending winding mountain roads, aka the scenic route.
The scenic route is beautiful, but it makes for a bit of a scary drive while you drive super slow on narrow dirt roads filled with potholes trying to avoid going over the edge of the mountain. What an experience that was! I still enjoyed the mountain drive, nevertheless.
Manuel Antonio is known for its beautiful white-sand beaches and Manuel Antonio National Park, which homes a variety of tropical plants and wildlife, including capuchin monkeys and three-toed sloths. I mean, hello, Marcel! I hope you caught my reference there.
A famous national park in Costa Rica, yet Manuel Antonio does not feel crowded. There is plenty of space for everyone to explore its jungle and relax on its beaches.
Note: Manuel Antonio National Park is closed on Mondays and closes early at 4pm, so please plan your time around this to avoid missing it.
Once at the park, there are two options: you can either hire a guide or tour on your own.
I chose to tour on my own, and I was happy I did. It was easy to spot wildlife throughout the park without a guide.
During my visit, I spotted a sloth chilling high up in a tree, and saw and heard multiple capuchin monkeys playing and swinging from one tree to another. It’s so cute to see them in real life!
After you finish the park, head to Playa Espadilla and watch the sunset. Be ready for stunning shades of pink to fill up the sky. It’s still the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen yet!
After sunset, head back to San Jose. Remember, it’s a 3-hour drive back so plan accordingly.
Be careful driving at night in Costa Rica as it can be challenging to drive in a place you aren’t familiar with, especially if you aren’t a confident night driver. Please be safe.
Note: The sunset time varies between around 6pm-7:30pm depending on the time of year. Make sure to check the sunset time to determine if it’s better to head back earlier depending on your driving comfort.
Day 3 – Tamarindo, Costa Rica
Drive 4 hours drive northwest to the small beach town of Tamarindo. Tamarindo is a perfect place to ride the waves surfing or just lay back and relax. Located on the Northern Pacific Coast, it’s temperatures are higher than the San Jose and the rest of the valley.
You will feel the temperature increase the further you drive out of the valley to towards the coast. It was in the 30’s Celsius when I visited in late June. Talk about beach weather!
Start your day by checking out of your accommodations. The 4-hour drive to Tamarindo will bring you closer to entering Nicaragua and is a great place to pause driving between San Jose and the entry to Nicaragua.
After your drive, take the rest of the day to relax and swim at the beach, watch the surfers ride the waves, and chow down on some pizza. Now you might think it’s weird that I mention pizza when talking about Costa Rica, but seriously, the cheese is so different from cheese in Canada, and it made for quite a delicious pizza.
Spend the night in Tamarindo.
Day 4 – Costa Rica – Nicaragua Border Crossing to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
It’s time to head onwards into Nicaragua, but don’t be sad, you will be back to Costa Rica in just a few days to see more! Drive 2.5 hours north to Penas Blancas where Costa Rica borders Nicaragua.
At this point, things get interesting, as driving from Costa Rica to Nicaragua isn’t allowed in a rental car, as you cannot bring a rental car over the border.
You will have to walk across the border to pick up your second rental car waiting on the other side in Nicaragua. But don’t worry, it’s easy to walk across the border.
There is a fee of about $7 to leave Costa Rica via the land border.
Once you’ve crossed the border and picked up your rental car, you can get back on the road towards San Juan del Sur.
San Juan del Sur is a beach town located in southwestern Nicaragua that is a relaxing vacationer’s paradise. Laid-back vibes, sun, sand, good seafood; it’s got it all. That, and many beaches nearby with varying waves for every level of surfer.
Day 5 – San Juan del Sur to Leon, Nicaragua
Walking through San Juan del Sur, you will find small stores, surf shops, and restaurants. I recommend eating breakfast at a restaurant on the beach for the view.
Around midday, you will head to Leon. It takes 4 hours to drive from San Juan del Sur. This will bring you one step closer to tomorrow’s grand adventure.
You will arrive in the late afternoon. Check-in to your accommodation and head out to explore and find dinner.
When I visited, a local band’s music filling the streets in the evening. People gathered around to listen to them play in the middle of the street.
Note: Managua, the capital city, is not included in this itinerary for Nicaragua.
Day 6 – Volcano Boarding in Leon, Nicaragua
Today you get to go volcano boarding! My favourite day of the trip!
Now you might be thinking, “Volcano boarding, what in the world is that?”
Well, simply put, it’s where you hike up a volcano, and then take a “toboggan” down the volcano on the volcanic ash. And oh, is it ever fun!
Volcano boarding was definitely the highlight of this trip for me! It was the one thing I based this entire itinerary around.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! I’m still thinking about my experience of volcano boarding. It makes for a great travel story as you get to share with everyone you meet about what volcano boarding is and what it is like to experience it.
Day 7 – Surfing in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Today is the day to surf.
If you know how to surf, you can rent a board and head to the beach. If you don’t know how to surf, I recommend taking a morning lesson and enjoy the day learning how to surf.
We started our morning with a lesson to learn how to surf. Our lesson included our surfboard rentals for the day, a short sleeve surf top and a lesson from an instructor.
Nothing like a day at the beach, riding the waves, and sipping on fruit smoothies. Enjoy your time surfing San Juan del Sur.
Day 8 – Cross back into Costa Rica to Monteverde
Well, your time in Nicaragua may be ending, it’s time to head back over the border into Costa Rica.
Once over the border, head 3 hours south and up through mountainous roads to reach the beautiful and popular destination of Monteverde.
Monteverde is a biodiverse forest known as “the cloud forest”. Clouds fill up the skies mid-morning and it feels like you are in the clouds. Monteverde is a great place for hiking, ziplining or just spending time in nature.
Be careful on your drive through the mountains. The roads surrounding Monteverde tend to be dirt roads with potholes and can be narrow. It made for quite an unforgettable experience on my visit. Driving in Costa Rica sure taught us some valuable lessons.
Don’t forget to grab some hot cocoa or chocolate at a cafe, as after all, you are in Costa Rica, and Costa Rica makes delicious chocolate. Plus, being in the mountains, even in June, there are cooler temperatures and the hot cocoa will warm you up.
Depending on what time you reach Monteverde, there are a few different options on activities.
If you arrive in the afternoon, you can head out to what locals call “the tree.” It’s a short hike just outside of the main part of town where there is this huge tree of which you can climb up. I was not able to climb very high, however, the group of travelers I visited the tree with managed to climb super high up into the canopy. It was so neat!
In the evening, there is a night hike of which you can walk through the forest and spot tarantulas, snakes and various tropical birds. All while staying at a safe distance of course!
Personally, I’m terrified of spiders, so I stayed really far back during that part of the tour. I managed to get some photos of the spiders on zoom and that was close enough for me.
After the night hike, settle in and get some rest for tomorrow’s early activities.
Day 9 – Ziplining in Monteverde, Costa Rica
Today is ziplining!
Ziplining in Monteverde, Costa Rica is one experience you won’t want to miss.
Now it’s an early start as the first ziplining canopy tour starts around 8am. I’m not a morning person, however, you will want to get there early, as the clouds roll into mid to late morning and will block some of the views, so it’s best to get there early.
During the tour, you will zipline over many canopies, with many lines being between 1-4 km long. It definitely makes for an exciting day! I absolutely loved my experience.
Once you finish your ziplining tour, head back to San Jose where you will spend the remainder of the trip. If you didn’t get a chance to explore San Jose upon arrival, now is the time.
Spend the night in San Jose.
Day 10 – Fly Home
Check out of your accommodation and head to the airport. Remember all the fun memories you’ve made on this trip.
Fly out of San Jose, and while on your flight home, start planning your return trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua or your next adventure elsewhere.
Hope this information helped you plan your itinerary for Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Related Posts – Central America
- 15 Best Things to Do in Monteverde, Costa Rica
- Renting a Car in Costa Rica: What Not to Do
- Volcano Boarding Nicaragua: What You Need to Know
- Surfing in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
- Ziplining in Costa Rica – Monteverde
- 7 Days in Panama Itinerary
- How to Get Around Panama
- Best Places to Go in Panama
- Hike Cara Iguana – Panama
Now that you are back from your trip, I’d love to hear all about your experience.
Did you end up using this itinerary for Costa Rica and Nicaragua or parts of it?
Any questions? Let me know in the comments below.