Over an immersive 16 days, you’ll alternate between adventure and leisure in Costa Rica. Some days will be filled with culture in the capital of San José, others you'll spend white-water rafting, and others will involve zip-line excursions over the jungle canopy. If that's not enough, you'll also visit Costa Rica's largest active volcano and even make time for surf lessons.

Highlights

  • Brave the rapids of the wild Pacuare River on a rafting trip
  • Take a dip in La Fortuna Waterfall, the most famous falls in the country
  • Enjoy a sunset catamaran cruise on the Pacific coast
  • Fly over the treetops on a zip-line canopy tour in Monteverde
  • Take a surf lesson in the laid-back beach town of Jacó

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San Jose
Day 2 Rafting Río Pacuare Río Pacuare
Day 3 Free Day in the Jungles of Río Pacuare  Río Pacuare
Day 4 Rafting Class III-IV Rapids - Arrive in Arenal Volcano National Park Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Volcano Hike & La Fortuna Waterfall Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 6 Waterfall Rappelling in Arenal Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 7 Arenal to the Gulf of Papagayo Gulf de Papagayo
Day 8 Beach Day and Sunset Catamaran Sail in Guanacaste Gulf de Papagayo
Day 9 Free Day in Papagayo Gulf de Papagayo
Day 10 Gulf de Papagayo - Transfer to Monteverde Monteverde
Day 11 Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 12 Monteverde to Jacó Jacó
Days 13-14 Free Day in Jacó Jacó
Day 15 Jacó to San José San Jose
Day 16 Depart San José  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José

The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José
The neoclassical Teatro Nacional in San José

Welcome to Costa Rica, the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, a local representative will meet you and escort you to your hotel. The rest of the day you'll have free to explore the city at your leisure.

Perhaps take a stroll through Mercado Central (Central Market), which features over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). Then you could visit the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Church), whose interior combines Greek Orthodox, Neoclassical, and Baroque styles. There's also a pair of popular museums in San José: Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum), and Museo del Jade—the world's largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts.

You'll definitely want to explore Barrio Amón, a popular bohemian district and historic neighborhood home to cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For dinner, perhaps opt for a restaurant in the hills of Escazú. This elevated region on the western edge of the city offers panoramic views of the valley below. 

Day 2: Rafting Río Pacuare

Brave the whitewater on Río Pacuare
Enjoy a scenic drive to the Rio Pacuare

This morning, you'll wake up early, meet your guide, and begin the 2.5-hour drive east out of the city of San José for a day on the river. Located along Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope, Río Pacuare’s deep gorge is considered one of the best river-rafting sites in the world. The Pacuare runs 67 miles from the Talamanca Mountains, in the southwest of the country, to the Caribbean. Along the way, it passes through some of the most diverse topography in Costa Rica. 

Upon arrival at the river and after a guided safety orientation, you'll embark on an adrenaline-pumping trip on class II-III rapids. Throughout the approximately 1.5-hour trip, you'll paddle past impressive tropical scenery through rushing whitewater all the way to the destination: a riverside eco-lodge. Here, you will check into your luxury jungle accommodations and have the rest of the day to explore the surrounding area with your guide.

Day 3: Free Day in the Jungles of Río Pacuare 

Zip-lining is one popular jungle activity 

You've experienced the jungles of the Río Pacuare from the riverbanks, but today you'll venture behind the treeline. Adventure options here include zip-lining over jungle canopy or canyoning El Tesorito Creek, where you'll descend a small waterfall as you rappel down a 98-foot (30-meter) rock face. 

You can also opt for a hike through the jungle to reach the legendary sendero de las mulas (mule trail), which is one of the main routes used by the indigenous Cabécar people. After the initial climb, you'll hike to the Nairi Awari Indigenous Reserve, a real highlight of the excursion that features a hidden waterfall. After a picnic lunch at this scenic spot, you'll start the hike back to the eco-lodge and stop along the trail at a Cabécar indigenous community.

Day 4: Rafting Class III-IV Rapids - Arrive in Arenal Volcano National Park

Expect to get wet on this challenging ride
Expect to get wet on this ride

It's time to brace yourself for an even more exhilarating river trip—this time over class III-IV rapids. As you again travel down the Río Pacuare, this time for 3.5 hours, you'll pass by even more canyons, waterfalls, and virgin rainforest. During the calmer stretches, be on the lookout for various species of birds and other wildlife endemic to the region like toucans and capuchin monkeys. 

At the end of the trip, you'll transfer to the town of La Fortuna, the home base for excursions into Arenal Volcano National Park. Located north of the Tilaran Mountains, the cone-shaped Arenal Volcano stands an impressive 5,479 feet (1,670 meters) high. After checking into your hotel, feel free to head into town for dinner. La Fortuna has over 100 restaurants serving everything from traditional Costa Rican and Italian cuisine to steak and pizza. 

Day 5: Volcano Hike & La Fortuna Waterfall

Lava fields now cover one side of Arenal
Lava fields now cover one side of Arenal

In the early afternoon, you'll head towards the base of the volcano to hike Arenal 1968. This is a network of trails named after Arenal's last major eruption. The event was so catastrophic it transformed some of the region’s topography, and lava fields now dominate one side of the volcano. The trails wind through those lava fields as well as the surrounding rainforest. Along the way, you'll find lookout points featuring prime views of Arenal. 

Later, you'll experience the other star of the region: La Fortuna Waterfall. If Arenal is the most famous volcano in the country, then La Fortuna is its most famous falls. It's located a 15-minute drive from town, at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano. The waters here plunge 210 feet into a tropical lagoon, and a 500-step downhill hike provides the opportunity to see the falls from the bottom up. Besides taking photos, be sure to swim and relax in the La Fortuna River below the waterfall.

Day 6: Waterfall Rappelling in Arenal

Prepare to get wet

Waterfall rappelling, also known as canyoning, is one of the most popular adventure sports in Costa Rica. After a couple of hours hiking along winding rivers through a canyon in the heart of the rainforest, you'll reach your destination. You'll then strap into a harness and rappel down the side of the waterfall. It doesn't get more exciting, feeling the mist and spray of the falls as you rebound off rocky cliffs before ending with a splash into the pool below. 

Never rappelled? Not to worry—there's no experience necessary and expert guides will be there to ensure everyone is safe throughout the experience. The minimum age is 13 years old but exceptions can be made for some 12-year-olds. 

Day 7: Arenal to the Gulf of Papagayo

The beaches of Guanacaste
The beaches of Guanacaste

Road trip time! This four-hour drive takes you west through Guanacaste Province, past volcanic mountains, flatlands, and villages as you head toward the Pacific coast. Stop for a bite on the way, perhaps washed down with a batido (fresh fruit smoothie)—a kid favorite, especially made con leche (with milk). As the plains and tropical dry forest slowly give way to azure seas, it signals your arrival at the Gulf of Papagayo, a large lagoon on the coast.

Once you arrive, you can rest up at your hotel or spend the afternoon exploring the coast by kayak or on a snorkeling tour (perfect for families). On a kayak outing, you'll paddle across the turquoise waters to offshore islands and view underwater coral reefs teeming with exotic fish.

Day 8: Beach Day and Sunset Catamaran Sail in Guanacaste

Plenty of idyllic beaches in the area
There's no shortage of stunning beaches in Guanacaste

Today is all about beach time. After breakfast at your hotel, get out and explore the coastline around Guanacaste. Maybe hit Playas del Coco, which is a popular fishing village with many salsa bars and restaurants. You could even try a little surfing. 

In the evening, you'll board a catamaran in the Golfo de Papagayo for a sunset sail. The boat will drop anchor in a calm bay and you'll enjoy some snorkeling while the crew prepares a dinner feast. While you eat, bask in the sunset over the horizon while making sure to keep an eye out for dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, or even a breaching whale.

Day 9: Free Day in Papagayo

Sensoria, in Rincón de la Vieja National Park
Sensoria, in Rincón de la Vieja National Park

Today can be as relaxing or adventurous as you like. If you've had enough of the beaches, you can opt to head inland to Rincón de la Vieja National Park and hike a jungle trail called Sensoria. It's part of a wildlife sanctuary featuring waterfalls that plunge into turquoise lagoons. Or, you can experience the rainforest from the water during a two-hour safari float down the Corobicí River, where a guide will point out monkeys, bats, lizards, and even crocodiles. 

An optional excursion is a guided trip down the Tenorio River. The class III-IV rapids make it the best river in the Guanacaste area for rafting. After a challenging trip down the rapids led by experts, you'll enjoy lunch before heading back to your hotel in time to catch the sunset.

Day 10: Gulf de Papagayo - Transfer to Monteverde

Monteverde has a cloud-forest eco-system
Monteverde has a cloud-forest eco-system

In the morning you'll head east, to the town of Monteverde. Located in the Tilarán Mountains of north-central Costa Rica, this region ranges in altitude from 4,100 to over 6000 feet and features a cloud-forest eco-system due to the cooler temperatures. Monteverde was actually founded in 1951 by Quakers that emigrated from the USA to avoid the Korean War. Once settled, they started a thriving dairy industry and began conserving vast sections of what is now known as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

Upon arrival, you'll have the day to relax at your hotel. If you can't wait to get out and see the diverse flora and fauna of the region, consider a night hike. On this tour, you'll join a naturalist guide in one of the area's private reserves and do some wildlife spotting. A few of the active nocturnal animals you're sure to spot include bats, frogs, snakes, and other reptiles.

Day 11: Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest

Suspension bridge in the cloud forest
Suspension bridge in the cloud forest

Prepare yourself for an adrenaline-pumping zip-line ride in the country where that activity was invented. You'll start by ascending hundreds of feet above the jungle canopy via a network of trails and suspension bridges. The exotic flora and fauna of the region will be on full display, and our specialized guides will point out the most interesting specimens.

Upon reaching the end of the line, the adventure of whizzing down the mountain begins. You will connect to a zip-line cable that stretches over the treetops and across canyons, ultimately returning you to the starting point. The zip-line excursions in Monteverde are regarded as the most thrilling in the country.

Day 12: Monteverde to Jacó

Jacó Beach, Costa Rica
Jacó Beach, Costa Rica

After breakfast, you'll drive south to the Pacific Coast and the surf village of Jacó. This is the closest major beach town to San José, and thus is a popular destination for weekenders from the capital as well as surfers. To this point, the town is known as much for its great waves as it is for its active nightlife. 

After checking into your hotel, you'll have the remainder of the day free. If you're interested in snapping some great pics of the area, you can hike up to El Miro, an observation deck south of town. Not only does it offer panoramic vistas of the coast, but if you're lucky you might even spot a scarlet macaw nearby. You can also stroll around town and browse the many artisan's shops before hitting the nightclubs once the sun goes down.

Days 13-14: Free Day in Jacó

Perhaps go horseback riding on the beach
Perhaps go horseback riding on the beach

Feel free to spend the next couple of days relaxing. If you're up for more adventure, you can choose between activities such as horseback riding or taking a surfing lesson. To see more of the surrounding central coast, enjoy a nature trek in Carara National Park, a protected area famous for its scarlet macaws and capuchin monkeys. And if you want to see more wildlife, you can get up close with crocodiles on a boat safari on the Tárcoles River.

At the end of each day, in the likely event you've worked up an appetite, you can enjoy a night out for dinner at Jáco Walk. This new shopping plaza features an eclectic variety of restaurants including sushi, Latin fusion, cafés, and specialty restaurants.

Day 15: Jacó to San José

Enjoy one last morning on the beach
Enjoy one last morning on the beach

Today is your last day at the beach, so savor the morning. You can relax on the sand and take a mental snapshot of the scene while enjoying the sound of the waves. Feel free to hike back up to the El Miro lookout point for one last panoramic view of the town.

Depending on your preference, you can head to San José in the morning or in the afternoon. If you decide to go early, you can spend the afternoon exploring the capital.

Day 16: Depart San José

San José at twilight
San José at twilight

It's time to say adiós to Costa Rica. Depending on your departure time, you'll have the morning to explore more of San José, relax in a café, and/or browse some shops before boarding your flight home.

Map

Map of Wild Costa Rica: Beaches, Rivers, and Rainforest - 16 days
Map of Wild Costa Rica: Beaches, Rivers, and Rainforest - 16 days