On this 15-day trip, you will experience the best of the country's tropical flora and fauna. From rainforest hikes to snorkeling in coral reefs.  You'll visit the famous Arenal volcano, see tons of exotic wildlife in Tortuguero National Park, and surf world-class waves in the laid-back beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

Highlights

  • Experience the history and Culture of San Jose
  • Enjoy a river-safari boat tour and volcano and waterfall hikes near Arenal Volcano
  • Cruise the waterways of Tortuguero in a canoe and watch sea turtles nest
  • Visit a wildlife rescue center in Puerto Viejo
  • Try surfing on the Caribbean shores of Puerto Viejo

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San Jose
Day 2 San José City Tour San Jose
Day 3 San José to Arenal, Coffee Plantation Tour Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Hanging Bridges & Hiking in the Arenal 1968 Reserve Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 River Float & Chocolate Tour in Arenal Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 6 Free Day for Adventures Around Arenal Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 7 Arenal to Tortuguero National Park Tortuguero
Day 8 Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero Tortuguero
Day 9 Tortuguero -> Transfer to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca Puerto Viejo
Day 10 Sloths, Monkeys & Beach Time Puerto Viejo
Day 11 Rainforest Hike & Kayak adventure in Punta Uva Puerto Viejo
Day 12-13 Puerto Viejo Free Day Puerto Viejo
Day 14 Puerto Viejo -> Transfer to Braulio Carrillo National Park and San José San Jose
Day 15 Depart San José  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José

The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José
The Neo-Classical 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), featuring over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). Then visit the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Church), whose interior combines Greek Orthodox, Neoclassical, and Baroque styles, and features wood carvings and stained-glass windows. 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.

Be sure to explore Barrio Amón, a historic neighborhood home to cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of this area’s historic buildings have been converted into hotels, restaurants, and galleries, making Amón a popular bohemian district.

For dinner, 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. That said, San José is filled with great restaurants serving everything from traditional to forward-thinking fusion cuisine.

Day 2: San José City Tour

Teatro Nacional at night
Teatro Nacional at night

On a private tour beginning at noon, your guide will show you a slice of Costa Rica's rich culture and history with a tour of beautiful museums and historical sites in San José. It begins with an orientation and drive through "the lungs of San José," La Sabana Metropolitan Park. Next, you'll take a walking tour through the historic Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late 19th century, which offers free guides on the hour (check the theater's events calendar to take in a performance this evening). 

Continue with a visit to one of the city's best museums like the Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum), which holds the largest Pre-Columbian gold collection in all of Latin American. Or you can head to the Museo Nacional, housed in former military barracks, featuring a collection of important cultural artifacts as well as a butterfly garden. Then you'll head to the Universidad de Costa Rica, the oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning in the country, the Corte Suprema de Justicia de Costa Rica (Supreme Court)and other points of interest, stopping along the way for a bit of souvenir shopping.

Day 3: San José to Arenal, Coffee Plantation Tour

Today, you'll learn about the process of harvesting coffee
Today, you'll learn about the process of harvesting coffee

After breakfast, it's on 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. Along the way, you'll visit a Coffee Plantation in the village of Naranjo where you'll learn about one of the country's most important exports, coffee, seeing how it's grown, harvested, and roasted. 

After check in at your hotel, you'll have the rest of the day to explore on your own. 

If you want to get close to the volcano, kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Arenal (optional) provides spectacular views of its peak. Or, opt for a zip lining tour through the forest canopy, where you'll cross canyons, and take in the Fortuna and Pino Blanco Waterfalls, along with the majestic Arenal Volcano.

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, which offers daily theme dinners such as Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean and Costa Rican.

Day 4: Hanging Bridges & Hiking in the Arenal 1968 Reserve

Arenal, one of Costa Rica's most majestic landmarks, towers over the countryside
Arenal, one of Costa Rica's most majestic landmarks, towers over the countryside

Head out early to spend the day exploring the jungle canopy. You'll wander along well-marked trails that lead you over suspension bridges high above the treetops —some that are hundreds of feet long—for a once-in-a-lifetime view of Arenal Volcano. You'll also get an up-close look at the incredible biodiversity that occurs in this region, where upland and lowland rainforest meet. More than 350 bird species can be found in this park alone. 

After lunch, take an optional hike to Arenal 1968. This private reserve is named for the volcano’s eruption of that same year, which completely changed some of the region’s topography: lava fields now predominate on one side of Arenal. Trails wind through those lava fields as well as through the rainforest, offering beautiful views of the volcano. This is a more challenging hike—if you're looking for something more mellow, there are plenty of easier trails in the area.

Optional tour: Soothe your muscles with a dip in the mineral-rich waters of Tabacón’s hot springs, used as therapeutic baths for more than 200 years. We recommend Tabacón Thermal Resort, which offers day passes and includes a spa where treatments are given in outdoor bungalows. End the day with dinner at the Resort’s Ave Del Paraíso restaurant, serving Costa Rican dishes like olla de carne, a typical beef rib soup made with fresh vegetables.  

Day 5: River Float & Chocolate Tour in Arenal

Look out across Arenal Volcano National Park
Look out across Arenal Volcano National Park

This morning, you'll be part of a safari float on the Peñas Blancas River. This 3-hour river tour puts you in direct contact with the areas abundant wildlife and beautiful natural scenery and it's a perfect activity for first-time rafters or families with small children.

After lunch, which is served alongside spectacular views of Arenal Volcano, you'll get a hands-on lesson where you'll learn about the origin, history, and current production of one of Costa Rica's most famous exports: chocolate. Participate in the harvest of cacao and the drying and grinding of the seed that produces creamy cocoa butter. You'll also learn how the traditional chocolate drink was developed centuries ago, and, of course, sample the chocolate freshly made onsite.

From here, you'll have the rest of the day to relax in La Fortuna.

Day 6: Free Day for Adventures Around Arenal

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 is a zip-line tour. There's nothing quite like flying over the treetops with a birds-eye-view of Costa Rica.

Another popular excursion is to explore the Arenal region by mountain bike. The 25 km (15-mile) route follows an old road connecting the dam of Lake Arenal with the main entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park. From there, you'll pedal towards the village of El Castillo, passing along forests and cattle farms. You can stop for snacks on the shore of Lake Arenal (and maybe take a dip) before heading back to the hotel. 

If you're interested in something even more adventurous, try whitewater rafting on the Balsa or Sarapiquí Rivers. After a lesson from your professional guide, you'll begin your two-hour journey down one of Costa Rica’s most exciting rivers with over 30 class III and IV rapids. About halfway through your trip, you’ll stop on shore for a traditional Costa Rican lunch. After the second leg of the rafting journey, you’ll transfer back to your hotel.

Day 7: Arenal to Tortuguero National Park

Typical denizen of Tortuguero National Park
Typical denizen of Tortuguero National Park

You’ll depart early in the morning for Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean coast, stopping en route for a typical Costa Rican breakfast—perhaps of gallo pinto (rice and beans), the unofficial national dish, often served with eggs or cheese.

Getting to Tortuguero is an adventure in and of itself. You’ll take the Guapiles Highway through the Zurqui Tunnel, which acts as a literal gateway from the urban world to the tropical forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park. Despite being bisected by a busy road, this area feels remote and breathtaking, featuring flora and fauna at a variety of elevations.

Next, you’ll drive through the town of Guapiles, past banana plantations on the way to the boat dock. Once aboard for the approximately 90-minute trip, everyone can relax, enjoy the refreshing waves—and maybe make a game of spotting fish, birds, amphibians, and reptiles of every stripe as you enter this biodiverse paradise.

Once you arrive, the rest of the day is free for you to relax in your hotel or you can take a short guided hike to the town of Tortuguero, which will introduce you to the local sights. 

While you're in Tortuguero, here are a few recommended restaurants: 

  • Dorling Bakery opens early, making it a great choice for a breakfast of homemade banana bread or cinnamon rolls.
  • Tibetan prayer flags and a river view give Budda Cafe a tranquil vibe. It’s a pleasant, family-friendly setting for pizzas, salads, cocktails and crepes. 
  • Located on the north end of main street, Miss Junie's is a popular choice thanks to delicious Caribbean staples like jerk chicken, whole snapper and coconut-curry mackerel with rice and beans. 
  • Rest up from a hike in the park at Soda Doña María. Located just north of the park entrance, it serves fresh juices, burgers, and casados. 

Day 8: Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero

Turtle hatchling on the beach
Turtle hatchling on the beach

Tortuguero is unique in that, unlike many national parks in Costa Rica, it almost exclusively revolves around the water. Today you'll hop in a canoe and navigate the network of arterial waterways that snake around this protected area. Keep your camera at the ready because you'll be on the hunt for various denizens of the reserve, including manatees, spectacled caimans, river otters, and rare birds. Among these, you'll likely spot macaws, toucans, and kingfishers.

Back on terra firma, you'll have plenty of time to explore Tortuguero's 22-mile expanse of beach. It's a favorite nesting area for three different species of turtle: the hawksbill, leatherback, and green sea turtle. All of these nest in the area from July through October (mostly at night), and seeing the mother turtles lay their eggs is an unforgettable experience. If you come from February to July, you'll spot the leatherback, which at 6 to 7 feet long and up to 1,500 pounds, is the largest sea turtle in the world.

Day 9: Tortuguero -> Transfer to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

Sunset in Puerto Viejo
Sunset in Puerto Viejo

After breakfast, you’ll travel south to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Located on the southern Caribbean coast, this surfer community is known for its colorful buildings, beautiful beaches, and Afro-Caribbean culture (and cuisine). Most of all, it exudes a friendly, laid-back attitude. 

After checking into your hotel you can enjoy the evening in town. Puerto Viejo may be a small surf village but it has a world-class dining scene. You can find fresh seafood, authentic Caribbean fare, quality Italian (including pizzas), and even homemade PB&J sandwiches here.

Day 10: Sloths, Monkeys & Beach Time

Three-toed sloth lounging in the trees
Three-toed sloth lounging in the trees

This morning, you'll head to the Jaguar Rescue Center, a home and rehabilitation facility for ill, injured and orphaned animals. The rescue center was named after a baby jaguar brought for rehabilitation back in 2007. While your chances of seeing a jaguar at the center these days are slim, you'll see monkeys, wild cats, three-toed sloths, and anteaters, among others. The center offers public and private tours of their facilities—a treat for animal lovers of all ages. 

The rest of the day is for lazing on the beach or browsing the boutiques of Puerto Viejo. Another option is to explore the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, which includes several rare habitats like lowland rainforests, wetlands, and mangrove swamps, as well as a beautiful stretch of beach. The refuge is the nesting area for several species of turtles, manatees, crocodiles, caimans, tarpons, and dolphins.

Day 11: Rainforest Hike & Kayak adventure in Punta Uva

Kayaking on the river at Punta Uva
Kayaking on the river at Punta Uva

Today you will have the opportunity to take one of the best tours in the area. You'll hike in the rain forest and kayak at beautiful Punta Uva. This quiet beach is known for its calm reef-protected water and white sand.

During this activity, you will enjoy the beauty of the Caribbean side of Costa Rica from land, ocean, and river. You'll embark on a magical kayaking journey paralleling a coast full of cliffs, caves, and the most amazing rainforest. After kayaking, you can either relax on the beach or join your naturalist guide for a short hike into the rainforest. On the hike, you can take photos of the different animals you will encounter such as monkeys, sloths, and birds. Then you will take a break at the beach to relax, swim and enjoy some fresh fruit and snacks.

Day 12-13: Puerto Viejo Free Day

Bicycle by the beach in Puerto Viejo
Bicycle by the beach in Puerto Viejo

After breakfast at your hotel, you'll have free time to stroll around Puerto Viejo. Perhaps watch the surfers at Salsa Brava, the Caribbean's most infamous surf break. Better yet, take a beginner lesson with expert teachers. Even if this isn't your first time out on the water, you can still brush up on your skills. If you do decide to try your luck at Salsa Brava, know that it's an expert-level break—there's a sharp reef here that shreds boards and bodies on a regular basis. 

Spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying Puerto Viejo at your own pace. Maybe stop in at a beach bar and enjoy a sundowner with your feet in the sand.

Day 14: Puerto Viejo -> Transfer to Braulio Carrillo National Park and San José

Wild river in the Braulio Carrillo National Park
Wild river in the Braulio Carrillo National Park

After breakfast, you'll transfer northwest to Braulio Carrillo National Park. With more than 100,000 acres of rolling hills and dark-green vegetation, this is Costa Rica's largest protected area. Uncrowded hiking trails ranging from easy to difficult are a highlight here. The park is also home to animals such as capuchin monkeys, jaguars, deer, tapir, raccoons, armadillos, and anteaters. Families with young children can opt to experience the rainforest by aerial tram, located on the eastern flank of the park. This open-air gondola takes you on a tour of the canopy; it can fit up to four passengers and a guide. 

Then it's on to San José where you'll have your evening free to explore the city and see or do anything you may have missed at the beginning of your trip.

Day 15: 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 Arenal & The Caribbean Coast - 15 Days
Map of Arenal & The Caribbean Coast - 15 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Apr 24, 2019