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Endless beaches, delicious fish tacos, cheeky monkeys and gorgeous sunsets…Costa Rica is a hop, skip and a jump away from the U.S. and makes the perfect week-long escape.

Even in high season, Costa Rica never seems crowded. Everyone’s on island time, even if it’s not an island. This is one laid-back country, so if you’re wanting to party into the wee hours, this might not be the best place for you. But if you want to truly unwind, get close to nature, and enjoy what the locals call ‘pura vida’, you’ll find something truly magical here.

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One week in paradise
Costa Rica has carved out an easy one-week itinerary whether it’s your first time or one of many visits. Land in the capital, San Jose, and head straight to Arenal, an easy 3.5 hour bus trip away. You’ll know when you’ve arrived – Arenal Volcano welcomes you capped by soft clouds. Explore the base of this now-dormant volcano with an exhilarating guided hike, who’ll point out glossy black lava rocks and incredible views of Lake Arenal.

Book a day pass at Tabacon (above) and prepare to be immersed in pure relaxation. Lose yourself in these stunning hot springs, with two dozen baths nestled in an immaculate rainforest landscape. The baths vary in temperature, with steaming hot baths at the top, and a fun swim-up bar at the bottom, where you could easily spend a few hours ordering mai tai after mai tai. A day pass comes with lunch and dinner, with a decent salad bar and other healthy options.

Where to stay: Volcano Lodge and Spa, a spacious and idyllic hotel with pinch-me views of the volcano from every room. Relax after the hike from your patio or in the hot springs (and don’t miss the super-fresh ceviche at the restaurant). The friendly staff can arrange tours in the area.

From Arenal, hop on a morning ferry and bus to Monteverde Cloud Forest, perched high up in the cool air. A 2-hour hike will take you through breathtaking forest where you can see clouds swirl past you, an unforgettable experience.

Where to stay: Los Pinos, cosy cabins in pristine woods close to the Cloud Forest Reserve. They have their own hiking paths and vegetable patch, and after your hike enjoy a cup of warming Costa Rican coffee on your patio along with the sounds of chirping birds. The night stars will blow you away. Pop into the bakery across the road for a slice of their luscious vanilla cake!

Now it’s time to hit the beach, and if you get up early you’ll be at Manuel Antonio by lunchtime. The public beach has small waves and plenty of touts selling trinkets and shaved ice (you’ll need to rent sun chairs and umbrellas to shade yourself from the brutal sun, don’t pay more than 5000 colones, about $10), but don’t miss Manuel Antonio National Park, where you’ll see plenty of cheeky monkeys and other critters. They’re not shy – they’ll come right up to you, so don’t leave any food for them to steal! There are three gorgeous beaches, some secluded, all with calm waters and soft, white sands. Bring a picnic and make a day of it.

Even if you’re not adventurous, spend an afternoon ziplining. Manuel Antonio is one of the best spots in the world for zipping over the top of lush forests like a monkey – it’s so much fun! You’ll spot colourful toucans, butterflies and howler monkeys – the second loudest animal in the world.

Where to eat: Cafe Milagro will become your home away from home, whether you come for breakfast – and you should alternative between the omelette with chorizo and tomatoes, and the fluffy banana pancakes with macadamias – or in the evening for their killer cocktails. They grind their own coffee beans so you can enjoy a cup of real local coffee.

A few doors up, El Gato Pescador is the place to come for fish tacos, run by a lovely team. The tacos come super crispy with an addictive chipotle cream sauce, and they make a great ceviche and fried prawns too.

If you love seafood, park yourself at Mar Luna just before sunset for their happy hour and enjoy their delicious mango daiquiris with platters of simply grilled seafood. They get their seafood fresh every day, and the chef grills lobster, prawns and fish to perfection.

Where to stay: La Colina, almost at the top of the hill, has simple rooms in a tropical setting, with a lovely pool to cool off in the afternoon.

Things to know:
* Pack light and casual – you could easily pack a week’s worth of clothes and shoes in a carry-on bag. A bikini, a couple of summer dresses and exercise gear for hikes (including a wind cheater) is all you need.
* English is widely spoken, but it never hurts to learn a few words of Spanish at least.
* Bring sunscreen, as you’ll need it and it can be expensive to buy.
* The tap water is fine to drink and tastes great.

Have you been to Costa Rica? Where were your favourite places?

Photos: © Julia Blanter