This itinerary is one of the shortest, yet most action-packed options for travelers looking for a compact Costa Rica experience. Zip-line, rappel, and horseback ride your way throughout the Arenal region and enjoy some of the best volcano views the country has to offer.


  • Drive to Arenal from San José and get a chance to stop by a topiary garden.
  • Ride a horse into the wilderness and zip-line across treetops.
  • Rappel down eight waterfalls and go for a dip in the pools or hot springs.
  • Spend a night in San José exploring local architecture, markets, and cuisine.

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The Arenal region, about 56 miles (90 km) away from San José, is a prime destination for both accessible adventure activities as well as spectacular views of one of Costa Rica's most famous volcanos. It's convenience makes it the most ideal place for a shorter experience in Costa Rica, and can also be combined with other tours in a longer overall visit. This tour includes one full day in Arenal, with two other half days to make room for the travel time from and to San José.

This tour mainly focuses on activities in the rainforests and canyons of the volcano's vicinity instead of direct treks up to the crater or detailed wildlife observing. However, there are still plenty of opportunities to spot all kinds of plants and animals and appreciate a wide variety of ecosystems. This tour is best for those who are physically fit, push themselves out of their comfort zones, and want a brief taste of the adventures that Costa Rica is known for.

Brief Itinerary

Day Destination Activity
Day 1 San José (Arrival) / Arenal Zarcero Gardens, La Paz waterfall (optional)
Day 2 Arenal  Horseback Riding, Zip-lining, Hot Springs
Day 3 Arenal / San José Rappelling
Day 4 San José (Departure)  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival to San José / Transfer to Arenal Volcano

Unique topiaries of the Zarcero Gardens
Unique topiaries of the Zarcero Gardens

Arrive early in the capital city of San José and make your way to La Fortuna, the closest town to Arenal Volcano.

If you have extra time, there are plenty of side excursions along the way. Here are some worth checking out:

  • Zarcero Gardens in front of the local church are the main highlights of the quaint town of Zarcero. Originating from the 1960s, the topiary gardens feature a collection of animal cuts including a dinosaur and elephant. This is a great pit stop for some unique photos and a quick lunch.
  • La Paz Waterfall Garden is located on the slopes of Poás Volcano and contains over 2 miles (3.5 km) of scenic trails. Follow the trails to discover five picturesque waterfalls, a butterfly observatory, hummingbird garden, and a snake and frog habitat. Private tours are also available.

Driving to Arenal is relatively straightforward and will not require a 4x4, but given the unfamiliar conditions, poor GPS and cell signal, and a shortage of road signs, it's best to arrive in Arenal before the sun sets. For a few ideas of what the area has to offer, read over this list of the best things to do in Arenal.

Day 2: Arenal Volcano – Horseback riding / Zip lining / Hot Springs

Horseback riding through the jungle in La Fortuna
Horseback riding through the jungle in La Fortuna

Start your morning with some horseback riding and hiking near the plains of Arenal. Ride your horse through rolling pastures, shaded forests, and gentle hills up to a 213 ft  (65 meter) high, majestic waterfall.   From there,  you can get a fantastic view of the San Carlos Valley and the surrounding tropical forest and go for a refreshing swim. If you're interested in staying in a hotel with access to hot springs, read over this list of our top picks.

Return by cutting through a 400-hectare private farm, where you can spot toucans, oriels, and other flora and fauna, including one of the largest trees in the region. The trip will traverse three different rivers and several grazing fields full of cattle. Find out about hiking around Arenal Volcano here.

Continue your adventure after lunch with a zip-line tour in the forest canopy in one of the top zip-lining destinations in the world. Starting from an 18-meter tall observation tower, 10 cables ranging from 200 to 800 meters in length will carry you across canyons, waterfalls, and treetops, each providing a different experience.

Finally, wrap up your day by soaking in the famous volcanic hot springs, enjoying a massage, and sampling some local delicacies for dinner.

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Day 3: Arenal - Waterfall rappelling / Return to San José

Rappelling down a waterfall
Rappelling down a waterfall

Get ready for a waterfall rappelling tour that kicks off with a 25-meter descent down a suspended bridge. Then, continue rappelling down a quadruple waterfall series within a tropical canyon. By the end of the tour, you will have descended eight waterfalls and have experienced the thrill of the lifetime, all while being surrounded by the natural beauty of the rainforest. Learn more about the best active experiences in Costa Rica.

Lunch in Arenal or on the road back to San José. In San José, you can relax for the rest of the day, or attend an evening tour of the city.  The evening tour will introduce you local vendors and authentic Costa Rican flavors in the Central Market, view stunning architecture including the National Theater and enjoy a gourmet 3-course meal and wine.

For more travel advice, check out 24 Hours in San José and look over our list of the best luxury and boutique hotels in San José.

Day 4: Departure

Downtown San Jose
Downtown San Jose

If your flight is later in the afternoon, maybe you can squeeze in a visit to one of the sights of San José city.  There are numerous to choose from.  

  • Mercado Central (Central Market): The central market opens early so you can explore that first thing in the morning.  It's one of the oldest and most representative places to visit in San José.  In the Central Market, you will see the hustle and bustle of local life, it's where folks gather and debate the local politics, and where old recipes handed down generation after generation are cooked in large steaming pots for your delight.  For tourists, it is also a great place to get that last minute souvenir for friends and families.
  • Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum): The museum is located underground, almost like a vault to protect the largest collection of pre-columbian gold in Latin America.  Don't let the facade of the building stop you from going in, once inside, it is a very modern museum, with some amazing history about Costa Rica and the pre-columbian inhabitants in the region.
  • Museo Nacional (National Museum): The Museo Nacional is hard to miss, it is in a bright yellow building that used to be a military barracks (Bellavista Fortress).   Now the building is hosting a range of exhibits that show case the country from pre-columbian times to modern day Costa Rica.  A favorite for many visitors is the butterfly garden that is inside the museum, a nice piece of serenity in the otherwise hustle and bustle of a capital city.

Also check out our top restaurant recommendations in San José. Then it's time to say goodbye to Costa Rica. Fly out from San José back home, or continue to explore the rest of the country and discover more of its charms.

Looking for other ideas for Costa Rica?

Looking for other ideas for your trip to Costa Rica? We have some great ideas for how to spend 5 days in Costa Rica and how to spend 6 days in Costa Rica. Read more about how many days to stay in Costa Rica here.

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Map of Arenal Expedition Self Drive Tour - 4 Days
Map of Arenal Expedition Self Drive Tour - 4 Days