This itinerary combines mountain excursions with a bit of a beach holiday and some aquatic adventure. You'll arrive in Liberia, the hub of Costa Rica's Guanacaste Province. From there, drive to Arenal Volcano National Park, where you'll hike to a waterfall, relax in natural hot springs, and raft world-class whitewater. Then it's west to the Monteverde to see the cloud forest canopy via suspension bridges and a zip-line tour. A drive south will take you to Manuel Antonio, a unique destination with a combination of the beach, jungle and national park. After a couple days enjoying the beach and wildlife in Manuel Antonio, you'll return to San Jose for your journey home.

Highlights

  • Experience hot springs, waterfalls, and whitewater in Arenal
  • Cruise over the cloud forest canopy on a zip-line in Monteverde
  • Explore the wildlife and nature in Manuel Antonio National Park

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Liberia - Drive to La Fortuna Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 2 Arenal Hanging Bridges & La Fortuna Waterfall Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 Arenal - Whitewater Rafting on the Sarapiquí River Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Waterfall Canyoning Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Drive from Arenal to Monteverde - Night Nature Tour Monteverde
Day 6 Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 7 Drive from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 8 Horseback Riding Day Trip from Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 9 Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 10 Drive from Manuel Antonio to San José San Jose
Day 11 Depart San José  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Liberia - Drive to La Fortuna

View of the valley, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
View of the valley, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Welcome to Costa Rica! Liberia is the northern hub of Guanacaste Province, an area famous for both its Pacific beaches and inland mountainous regions. 

After touching down at Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport, you'll pick up your rental car and drive about 2.5 hours east to the town of La Fortuna, best known as the base for embarking into Arenal Volcano National Park. You won't miss the namesake monolith—Arenal juts out above the San Carlos Plains like an arrowhead. After checking into your hotel, you'll have the rest of the day to explore on your own.

Day 2: Arenal Hanging Bridges & La Fortuna Waterfall

Suspension bridge at Mistico Hanging Bridges Park
Suspension bridge at Mistico Hanging Bridges Park

Today, you will experience the best of the Arenal Volcano region. Head out early to Mistico Hanging Bridges Park, a network of hiking trails that involves crossing 15 bridges—some hundreds of feet long—before arriving at lookout points affording sweeping views of Arenal Volcano. You'll also get an up-close look at the incredible biodiversity in this region. More than 350 bird species can be found here alone. 

Next, it’s time to head to La Fortuna Waterfall at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano, a short 15-minute drive outside town. The falls plunge some 210 feet, and a hike down 500 steps to the base provides an opportunity to see it from the bottom up. You can swim and relax in the La Fortuna River, located right below the falls.

Free afternoon and evening on your own to explore the area and visit any of the thermal waters located in the area.

Day 3: Arenal - Whitewater Rafting on the Sarapiquí River

Raft one of the country's most exciting rivers, the Sarapiquí
Raft one of the country's most exciting rivers, the Sarapiquí

After an early rise and breakfast at the hotel, you’ll transfer by car to the Sarapiquí River for your whitewater rafting adventure. After a lesson from your professional guide, you'll embark on a seven-mile river journey featuring over 30 class III and IV rapids. About halfway through the trip, you’ll take a break on shore for some tropical fruit and a traditional Costa Rican lunch. After the second leg of the rafting journey, you’ll be driven back to your hotel.

Duration: 8 hrs
Departs: 8:30 am from Arenal

Day 4: Waterfall Canyoning

Off into the canyons
Off into the canyons

Today you will participate in an unforgettable adventure: rappelling down the sheer face of a 165-foot (55-meter) waterfall. After hiking into a canyon at the heart of the rainforest and traveling along winding rivers, you'll reach your destination. Now it's time to rappel down the plunging falls under the watchful eye of expert guides. Never rappelled? Not to worry—there's no experience necessary and the minimum age is 13 years old (exceptions can be made for some 12-year-olds).

Canyoning duration: Four hours

Day 5: Drive from Arenal to Monteverde - Night Nature Tour

Monteverde is popular for its canopy tours
Monteverde is popular for its canopy tours

After breakfast, you’ll leave La Fortuna for Monteverde. Known as the "Green Lung” of Costa Rica, this biodiverse region is located in the mountainous northwest of the country. Be sure to head out early, as the 3.5-hour trip will take you almost all the way around Lake Arenal.

That's not to say you won't have ample opportunity to stop and enjoy the scenery. On the southwest side of Lake Arenal, for example, there's the hillside village of Tilaran. This laid-back mountain town is all charm and makes a great place to stop and stretch your legs. Activities include horseback riding over the hills and windsurfing on the lake. There are good birding opportunities here as well, with herons and egrets a common site. 

If you get peckish on the drive, pull off at a roadside soda for a local lunch. Typical options at these traditional, family-run eateries include the casado, a combo plate featuring rice, beans, and your choice of chicken, beef, pork, or fish. 

Eventually, you'll arrive in Monteverde and the famous 26,000-acre Cloud Forest Reserve, home to countless species of flora and fauna. Suspension bridges throughout the reserve allow for walks above the forest canopy—keep your eyes peeled for the colorfully plumed resplendent quetzal, the David Bowie of birds. The reserve’s marked trails also pass through exotic fauna and flora, including the greatest number of orchid species on the planet (a whopping 500) with new ones discovered regularly. 

After the sun goes down, you'll have the chance to see nocturnal wildlife on a guided night tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest. A naturalist will point out sloths, armadillos, and kinkajous, as well as sleeping birds. You'll see and hear even more wildlife than during the daytime, like agoutis, porcupines, grey foxes, tarantulas, and frogs.

In between your arrival at Monteverde and the night hike, you'll no doubt want to enjoy a nice dinner. Head to nearby Santa Elena, a charming town with a heavy Quaker influence that’s known for excellent coffee and cheese. Here are a few restaurant suggestions that can be found here: 

  • Orchid Coffee serves a menu of smoothies, salads, and sandwiches. Sweet-toothed visitors will appreciate the café’s extensive hot chocolate menu made with authentic Costa Rican cacao and mixed with unique ingredients like cardamom and orange.  
  • El Jardin Bar & Restaurant wins visitors over with its tree-top setting, friendly service, and fresh homemade bread served alongside every meal. 
  • Tree House Restaurant & Café was built around an old higueron (fig) tree and serves well-prepared Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo in a romantic, open-air setting.

Day 6: Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest

Bridge walk, Monteverde
Bridge walk, Monteverde

Sky Adventures Monteverde Park is an aerial amusement park that literally raises jungle excitement to the next level. Its Sky Tram network of gondolas transport visitors from one adrenaline pumping activity to another.

First, you'll start with a guided Sky Walk, which combines trails and suspension bridges that ultimately reach heights of up to 984 feet above the jungle canopy. The flora and fauna of the region will be on full display, and our specialized guides will point out the most interesting specimens. Later, you'll ride in an open-air Sky Tram gondola. During this journey, you'll ascend over the rainforest and enjoy sweeping views over the mountains. 

Upon reaching the end of the line, the exhilarating 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 at Sky Adventures' main building. Sky Trek is regarded as the most thrilling zip line in the country—it makes sense, considering that Monteverde is the birthplace of the canopy tour as we know it.

Day 7: Drive from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio

A Manuel Antonio resident just hanging around
A Manuel Antonio resident just hanging around

This morning, you'll drive from the highlands of Monteverde south into Punta Arenas Province and ultimately the central Pacific coast. That's where you'll find Manuel Antonio National Park, a tropical dream of a locale where you can unwind on one of four beautiful beaches. If you're hungry for more adventure, go for a hike on one of the park's many signposted trails. They afford prime views of capuchin monkeys, sloths, and over 200 species of birds. Snorkeling is also accessible from multiple points along the beaches. 

But before you arrive, you'll need to get behind the wheel and complete the 3.5-hour road trip. If you aren't squeamish, you can pull over at "crocodile bridge." Located on Route 34 on the Pacific coast, this bridge over the Río Tárcoles is a favorite spot of congregating crocodiles. Snap as many photos as you want, just don't get too close. 

If you're an avid surfer you'll definitely want to stop a little further down the coast at Jacó. This seaside party town is increasingly popular with wave riders due to its good surf conditions, so feel free to catch a wave or just enjoy a leisurely seaside lunch. But don't stay too long—there are beaches of equal and even greater beauty at Manuel Antonio, just another hour down the coast.

After arriving at Manuel Antonio and checking into your hotel, you can spend the remainder of the day relaxing. In the evening, head to the adjacent town of Quepos for dinner and sunset views. Some recommended restaurants include:

  • Gabriella's. Treat yourself to some fine dining at this local institution. Go for the seafood—whether it's the pan-seared scallops, ceviche, or snapper, you won't be disappointed. The steaks are nothing to sneeze at, either.
  • Cafe Agua Azul. Come during sunset because the second-floor patio dining here might offer the best bay views in the entire area. Agua Azul excels at fresh fish and delectable desserts like homemade brownies and bread pudding.
  • Manuel Antonio Falafel Bar. For something different head to this casual middle-eastern joint. It offers great falafel, shawarma, hummus, and a salad bar any vegetarian would love. 

Day 8: Horseback Riding Day Trip from Manuel Antonio

Today you'll explore Tocori Private Ecological Reserve on horseback
Today you'll explore Tocori Private Ecological Reserve on horseback

Today you'll explore Costa Rica's exotic plants and wildlife during a ride through the rainforest to the Tocori Private Ecological Reserve, just minutes away from Manuel Antonio. You'll explore the waterfalls in Tocori and enjoy a swim in the mountain springs before a snack of fresh local fruits and a tropical drink. After the return ride to the ranch, you'll enjoy a lunch of typical Costa Rican casado before returning to Manuel Antonio.

Day 9: Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park

Wild beaches of Manuel Antonio
Wild beaches of Manuel Antonio

Today you'll wake up early and explore the roughly 1,680 acres (680 hectares) of Manuel Antonio National Park. This is a true gem of Costa Rica, in that the park is home to virgin rainforest running all the way from the mountains down to the coast, where white-sand beaches and coral reefs await.

You'll start your hike on the trails within the park. The walk is easy with mostly flat trails—perfect for families with kids. A naturalist guide will point out the more than 300 species of mammals and birds that call this reserve home, including three-toed sloths, hawks, iguanas, and several different species of monkeys. You'll also have time to enjoy the park's expansive white sand beaches on this half-day tour.

What you do the remainder of the afternoon is up to you! Continue exploring the trails on your own, indulge in the sand and sea, or switch gears and visit the nearby adventure park, MidWorld, for zip-lining and ATV tours.

Hiking distance: 1 mile (1.7 km)

Day 10: Drive from Manuel Antonio to San José

Farewell, Manuel Antonio
Farewell, Manuel Antonio

Today is your last day in Costa Rica, so take the morning to relax at your hotel, visit the National Park, and enjoy the beach one final time. 

You can linger in Manuel Antonio till evening and then drive back to San José. Or, if you want to see more of the capital, then head back around noon and you'll have a chance to take a night tour of the city.  On this guided walking tour, you'll meet local vendors and taste authentic cuisine in the Mercado Central, check out architectural wonders including the National Theater, and savor a three-course gourmet meal paired with some of Costa Rica's best wine.

Night tour duration: 3.5 hours (with English-speaking guide)

Day 11: 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 coffee shop, or browse some shops before boarding your flight home.

Map

Map of Arenal, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio Self-Drive - 11 Days
Map of Arenal, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio Self-Drive - 11 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated May 10, 2019