Experience the best of Costa Rica's rainforest, volcanoes, and Pacific beaches during this 16-day self-drive adventure. You'll explore the jungle via suspension bridges and zip-lines, and even have a free day to go whitewater rafting or relax in the charming town of La Fortuna. Then, it's time to head westward to the Nicoya Peninsula where you'll adjust to the laid-back vibes of three quintessential surf towns: Tamarindo, Nosara, and Santa Teresa.

Highlights

  • Relax in Natural Hot Springs at the base of the Arenal Volcano
  • Explore among the treetops by zipline and suspension bridges
  • Admire the sunset from a catamaran cruise on the Pacific
  • SUP through the mangroves in Nosara
  • Surf world class waves

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Liberia - Transfer to La Fortuna & Hotsprings Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 2 Arenal Zip-Line Tour Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 Chocolate Experience - Swimming in Waterfalls Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Arenal Free Day Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Arenal to Playa Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 6 Private Surf Lesson at Playa Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 7 Sunset Catamaran Adventure Tamarindo
Day 8 Free Day in Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 9 Tamarindo to Nosara - Optional Beach Excursion Nosara
Day 10 Nosara Mangrove Tour - SUP Paddle Board Nosara
Day 11 Nosara - Free Day Nosara
Day 12 Nosara to Santa Teresa Santa Teresa
Day 13 Free Afternoon and Evening Bioluminescent Bay Tour Santa Teresa
Day 14 Free Day in Santa Teresa Santa Teresa
Day 15 Surfing Lesson at Playa Santa Teresa Santa Teresa
Day 16 Santa Teresa to Liberia & Depart Costa Rica  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Liberia - Transfer to La Fortuna & Hotsprings

View of Arenal Volcano
View of Arenal Volcano

Welcome to the land of pura vida! After arriving at Daniel Oduber Quíros International Airport in Liberia, your shuttle service will meet you for a 2.5-hour road trip to La Fortuna, best known as the base for exploring the Arenal Volcano National Park. Located north of the Tilaran Mountains, the cone-shaped Arenal juts out above the San Carlos Plains. After checking into your hotel, you'll have the rest of the day to explore. 

If you want to get close to the volcano, kayaking on Lake Arenal provides spectacular views of its peak, as does a mountain bike ride through the park toward the village of El Castillo. Or, opt for a zip-line tour over the forest canopy, where you'll see the La Fortuna and Pino Blanco Waterfalls, along with the majestic Arenal Volcano.

In the evening, you can soothe your muscles with a relaxing dip in one of the many mineral-rich hot springs in the area. Afterward, you can have dinner in town.

Here are a few restaurant recommendations for your stay in La Fortuna: 

  • Don Rufino, which serves a mix of local and international flavors in charming digs that include an open-air bar overlooking the main street.
  • Café Mediterraneo, a friendly osteria serving up homemade pasta and pizza.
  • La Parrilla de María Bonita, a must-visit for perfectly cooked steak as well as Mediterranean dishes like falafel and baba ghanoush.
  • Rancho Perla, a popular open-air restaurant (you may even spot sloths hanging from the nearby trees) serving well-prepared Costa Rican staples.

Ave Del Paraíso offers daily theme dinners such as Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean, and Costa Rican.

Day 2: Arenal Zip-Line Tour

Zip-lining through the forest (optional add-on)
Zip-lining through the forest

Enjoy a bird's-eye view of Costa Rica—literally. You'll begin the day with a relaxing, scenic ride up a mountain by open-air gondola. The panoramic views broaden the higher you rise, and when you reach the top observation platform you’ll have 360° views of the Arenal landscape.

Now you're in for a treat because it's time for an adrenaline-pumping zip-line tour through the cloud forest (min. age 5 y/o). You'll fly like a bird for miles, from tree to tree and canyon to canyon. You'll journey through untouched nature over eight cables that stretch 2,460 feet and reach heights of 660 feet. Through it all, our knowledgeable naturalist guide will educate you about Costa Rica’s exotic flora and fauna.

Day 3: Chocolate Experience - Swimming in Waterfalls

Cacao pods, beans, and hot chocolate
Cacao pods, beans, and hot chocolate

Start your day in the town of La Fortuna with a two-hour, hands-on tour in which you’ll learn about the origin, history, and production of one of Costa Rica's most famous exports: chocolate. You'll participate in the cacao harvest as well as the drying and grinding of the seeds used to produce creamy cocoa butter. You'll learn how a traditional Costa Rican cocoa drink was developed centuries ago, and, of course, sample the freshly made chocolate.

After your chocolate fix, it’s time to work off all that energy. You'll transfer to La Fortuna Waterfall, at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano, a short drive outside town. This is Costa Rica's most famous waterfall. The water here plunges some 210 feet, and a 500-step downhill hike provides the opportunity to see it from the bottom up. You'll have 30 minutes to swim and relax in the La Fortuna River below the falls.

Day 4: Arenal Free Day

Go on a whitewater rafting adventure
Go on a whitewater rafting adventure

Today you'll have a free day to enjoy the area as you see fit. There's quite a bit to see and do in the Arenal region. One activity that's always enjoyable no matter how many times you do it is a zip-line tour. Another popular excursion is to explore the Arenal region by mountain bike. The 15-mile (25-km) route follows an old road connecting Lake Arenal with the main entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park. From there, you'll pedal towards the village of El Castillo, passing by forests and cattle farms. 

If you're interested in something even more exciting, try braving the rapids of the Balsa or Sarapiquí rivers (min. age 12 y/o). They're globally renowned as having some of the best whitewater rafting conditions in Latin America. After a lesson from a professional guide, you'll enjoy a true adventure as you spend a few hours navigating one of these world-class rivers.

Day 5: Arenal to Playa Tamarindo

Sunset on the Pacific coast
Sunset on the Pacific coast

Road trip time! After breakfast at your hotel in La Fortuna, you'll drive west through Guanacaste, past volcanic mountain ranges, flatlands, and villages as you head toward the Pacific coast. Stop for a bite and enjoy traditional foods, exotic local fruits, or perhaps a batido (fresh fruit smoothie) made con leche (with milk). 

Once you arrive, you can rest up at your hotel or spend the afternoon enjoying a sea kayak and snorkeling tour. As you row from Tamarindo Beach towards the white sands of Capitán Island, enjoy the azure blue and crystalline waters—all the better observe the underwater coral reef and exotic fish.

If you happen to visit between October and March, head to Las Baulas National Marine Park to see leatherback turtles come ashore for a truly memorable experience. Every night during high tide in the nesting season, female leatherbacks make their way up the beach to lay their eggs. It's truly an incomparable sight.

For meals in Tamarindo, here are a few suggestions: 

  • For breakfast, head to charming La Bodega and order one of their fantastic egg sandwiches (like the Kristina, served with tomato, local organic goat chevre, red onion and local smoked trout on a buttered and toasted homemade bread). Homemade banana bread and fresh juices are other standouts. 
  • Pull up a stool at the Green Papaya, which serves some of the best tacos and burritos in town (also vegetarian options) in a casual atmosphere. 
  • Steps from the beach, Surf Shack serves topnotch burgers, onion rings, and milkshakes in an aluminum-sided hut decorated with surf boards. 
  • Nogi's is a perfect  for sunset dining thanks to its beachfront location. They serve a varied menu of seafood and grilled meat; be sure to save room for a slice of their coconut cream pie. 

Day 6: Private Surf Lesson at Playa Tamarindo

Meet your professional surf instructor for a day of catching waves
Meet your professional surf instructor for a day of catching waves

In the morning, enjoy a private surf lesson on Playa Tamarindo. Take the rest of the day to practice riding the waves on your own, or enjoy some well-deserved relaxation on the beach. 

A must-visit spot near Tamarindo for more experienced surfers is Playa Naranjo, which locals have nicknamed "Witch’s Rock." It's located in a national park, is accessible only by boat, and features big surf with both left and right breaking waves. A few miles beyond, you'll reach Ollie’s Point, another great surf locale.

You can also take a yoga class at one of Tamarindo's studios, stroll through town, and/or enjoy a meal at a local café.

Day 7: Sunset Catamaran Adventure

Keep an eye out for dolphins on the tour
Keep an eye out for dolphins on the tour

Spend the morning relaxing on the beaches of Tamarindo. In the afternoon, you'll embark on a sailing trip. The boat will stop in a tranquil bay, drop anchor, and you'll be free to swim and snorkel. It's not uncommon to see schools of tropical fish, sea turtles, and even dolphins frolicking in the surf. Admire the sunset from the water, with a tropical beverage in hand.

Day 8: Free Day in Tamarindo

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 drive east back to Rincón de la Vieja National Park. Here you can hike a jungle trail called Sensoria, which is part of a wildlife sanctuary featuring thermal pools and 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 a variety of animals including monkeys, bats, lizards, and even crocodiles. 

You can also choose to take a guided whitewater rafting trip down the Tenorio River. Its class III-IV rapids make it the best river in the Guanacaste area for rafting. After a challenging trip down the rapids, have lunch and head back to your hotel in time to catch one last sunset.

Day 9: Tamarindo to Nosara - Optional Beach Excursion

There's more surfing opportunities south of Tamarindo
There are more surfing opportunities south of Tamarindo

Today you will hit the road again, this time driving south from Tamarindo towards another great surf spot, Nosara. The trip itself only takes a couple of hours, but there are plenty of places you can stop along the way for a drink, food, or a dip in the water.

For example, Playa Avellanas (just south of Tamarindo) is a famous surfing beach (nicknamed "little Hawaii" for its large waves), and it's also home to Lola's Beach Bar. This is perhaps the most famous watering hole in Guanacaste Province, thanks in large part to Lolita, the resident pig who doubles as the bar's official mascot.

Once you arrive in Nosara you'll check into your hotel. If you still have energy, there are other beaches you can explore nearby, such as Sámara and Carillo.

Day 10: Nosara Mangrove Tour - SUP Paddle Board

Paddling the mangrove wetlands in Nosara
Paddling the mangrove wetlands in Nosara

Nosara is interesting in that it is home to the Boca Nosara, a river mouth where both the Nosara and Montana rivers converge. Where these rivers meet the ocean is a section of mangrove wetlands home to an abundance of marine life. It's also the departure point for many kayak and SUP tours in Nosara. 

Today you'll paddle around while also taking in the region's exotic flora and fauna. Birders will enjoy the sights of egrets, kingfishers, and spoonbills, and you might even get lucky and spot a crocodile or two. Tours typically involve a stop at a remote beach where you'll enjoy some fresh fruit.

SUP tour duration: Two hours

Day 11: Nosara - Free Day

Embark on a waterfall hike
Embark on a waterfall hike

This is your day to spend however you please. You can certainly relax in a beachside hammock all day with nothing but a book and the sound of the waves to keep you company. But if you want to get out and explore, here are some great ideas for nearby excursions.

  • You can embark on a waterfall hike into the heart of Nosara. This easy-to-moderate trek is ideal for any traveler, young or old. Along the way, you'll cross various running streams until the hike culminates at a natural pool and plunging waterfall where you, of course, will be able to take a dip.
  • Travel an hour north out of town, past the city of Nicoya, to Barra Honda National Park. This small protected area is a geological wonder in that it's home to a network of over 40 limestone caverns, with one major one being open to the public. It makes for a great caving tour, and you can go with a group or on your own (there are tour guides at the cave entrance and will provide all necessary safety equipment). If you're traveling on your own, a 4x4 vehicle is recommended to arrive here.
  • Just a few miles south of Nosara are some more stunning beaches ideal for surfing and/or swimming. On a self-drive tour you can make your way down the Nicoya Peninsula to the prime surf destination of Playa Guillones (the breaks here are ideal for beginner and intermediate wave riders); then travel further down to Sámara, a little coastal community known for its art galleries, laid-back vibe, and beautiful beach; and finally hit Playa Carillo, a wide and inviting beach relatively free of the tourist hordes. 

Day 12: Nosara to Santa Teresa

Playa Santa Teresa
Playa Santa Teresa

This morning you'll drive south to Santa Teresa, renowned for its excellent surf, beautiful beaches, and friendly, laid-back atmosphere. After checking in to your hotel, the rest of the day is yours to surf or explore. One idea for the afternoon is to visit Playa Tambor, which is set on Bahía Ballena and is renowned for its beautiful beaches and abundant marine life. Or perhaps rent a kayak or standup paddle board at the nearby fishing village of Pochote for a paddle through the mangroves. Along the way, you'll spot water birds like egrets, herons, and ibises. 

Here are a few restaurant recommendations for your stay in Santa Teresa

  • Enjoy a meal with your feet in the sand at Banana Beach, which offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner (as well as potent tropical cocktails) overlooking the water. Note: it's cash only.
  • Burger Rancho serves up a long list of patties (including veggie options) as well as salads, seafood, and smoothies in an airy, wood-filled space that includes TVs for watching the game.
  • Zuma Restaurant is a favorite for Israeli fare like hummus, shish kababs, and falafel, as well as Costa Rican dishes. They also mix a lengthy menu of smoothies that hit the spot for breakfast or a healthy post-surf snack.
  • Soda Tiquicia is an easy stop for casados (traditional Costa Rican meals with rice, meat, beans, and salad) in a casual, family-friendly space. 

Day 13: Free Afternoon and Evening Bioluminescent Bay Tour

Bioluminescence at dusk
Bioluminescence at dusk

Make your way to Playa Tambor, where you'll have the morning and afternoon free to explore as you like. 

Some recommended options include:

  • Nature Hiking in the Curú Wildlife Refuge: Located in Paquera, this private refuge is considered one of the best places in the Nicoya Peninsula for nature and wildlife lovers. Here you'll find lots of different ecosystems with a wide variety of species, such as monkeys, iguanas, and macaws, on this 90-minute guided hike. You'll also learn about organic agriculture, sustainable use of the land, animal behavior, and how the locals use various plants as natural remedies and medicines.
  • Curú Wildlife Refuge and Isla Tortuga: Combine a trip to Curú with a stopover at the neighboring Isla Tortuga, one of the region's best snorkeling spots. Take a boat from Curú to the snorkeling spot, about 15 minutes away. When you've had enough snorkeling for the time being, head toward the island for some fresh fruit and play time on the beach. After a two-hour break, sail back to the beach at Curú on a different route that will take you by the majestic Rainbow Rock formation jutting out of the sea.
  • Horseback riding: Explore the beautiful Nicoya Peninsula from a different vantage point and go horseback riding on the beach, through the jungle, inside the Curú Wildlife Refuge, or in the hills above the bay. 
  • Fishing: Try your hand at fishing informally or ask your guide about booking a half-day deep sea fishing trip, where you can catch Marlin, Tuna, Mahi Mahi, and more.
  • Simply relax on the golden beaches of Tambor, where the waves are placid and the sand is flat at low tide — perfect for soccer or beach volleyball. Or maybe go for a peaceful walk along the 2.5-mile-long (4km) beach path around the bay.

In the evening, set out on a bioluminescent tour of the bay. This three-hour interactive trip starts with a short sea kayaking excursion from the beach at the Curú Wildlife Refuge to Quesera Beach, about a 20-minute paddle away. Take a break on the fine white sands of Quesera and watch the sunset as you snack on fresh fruit and sip on refreshing drinks.

Feel free to take a dip in the crystal clear waters as your guide explains the phenomenon of bioluminescence emitted by the surrounding flora and fauna. Then don your snorkeling mask and follow your guide to the best spots to observe the natural neon blue light in the water around you. 

Day 14: Free Day in Santa Teresa

Fish for marlins, mahi-mahi, and more
Fish for marlins, mahi-mahi, and more

You have the freedom to explore Santa Teresa and the nearby area. When it comes to activities there's something for everyone: 

  • Playa Santa Teresa has some of the best and most consistent waves in all of Costa Rica, making it a great choice for beginners who want to try a surf lesson. 
  • Go on a guided horseback ride through the hills of nearby fishing hamlet Mal País, ending with a sunset ride along the beach. 
  • Unwind with a yoga session (there are several studios in town) or a standup paddleboarding lesson along the shore. 
  • Spend the morning sport fishing for mahi-mahi, tuna, sailfish, and marlin, then bring your catch to Banana Beach Restaurant and have them prepare it for you.
  • Rent an ATV to explore the forest trails and visit some of the area's more remote beaches.

Day 15: Surfing Lesson at Playa Santa Teresa

Time to hit the waves
Time to hit the waves

Today you'll take a private, two-hour surf lesson in the waves of Playa Santa Teresa, some of the best and most consistent in all of Costa Rica. Beginners will gain confidence under the tutelage of expert teachers, while more advanced surfers can expect to hone their technique. 

After your lesson, you can hike along the coastline towards nearby Playa Carmen, another star of Costa Rica's Pacific beaches. Go for a dip in the tidal pools here, or head back into town. Santa Teresa attracts expats from around the world, and everyone seems to be clutching a surfboard or yoga mat. The long gravel road that runs along the beach is great for people watching and people meeting. You could even rent a vintage Land Rover or hop on an ATV and cruise the coast yourself.

Day 16: Santa Teresa to Liberia & Depart Costa Rica

Liberia, Costa Rica
Liberia, Costa Rica

It's time to say adiós to Costa Rica! After breakfast, you'll begin the drive to the airport in Liberia for your return flight home.

Map

Map of Arenal and the Nicoya Peninsula Road Trip- 16 Days
Map of Arenal and the Nicoya Peninsula Road Trip- 16 Days