This 10-day itinerary showcases three of Costa Rica's most popular destinations: Arenal, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio. In Arenal, you'll paddleboard past the volcano on the lake, traverse tropical forests on suspension bridges, and soak in the region's hot springs. Monteverde offers the chance to spot monkeys, birds, and more of the country's wildlife as you zip-line through the Cloud Forest Reserve, while Manuel Antonio provides downtime at the beach, where days end with spectacular Pacific Coast sunsets.

Highlights

  • Enjoy waterfall hikes & paddle-boarding in Arenal Volcano National Park
  • Visit a working coffee farm & learn the secrets to a great Costa Rican brew
  • Take a zip-line tour over the cloud-forest canopy in Monteverde
  • Kayak, snorkel, & take a sunset cruise in Manuel Antonio National Park

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in San José -> Transfer to La Fortuna Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 2 Hanging Bridges & La Fortuna Waterfall Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 Arenal Volcano from Land & Water Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Arenal Free Day Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Boat to Monteverde, with Coffee & Chocolate Tour Monteverde
Day 6 Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 7 Transfer to Manuel Antonio - Free Afternoon Manuel Antonio
Day 8 Damas Island Kayaking Tour Manuel Antonio
Day 9 Morning Free Time - Afternoon Sunset Catamaran Cruise Manuel Antonio
Day 10 Manuel Antonio to San José - Depart Costa Rica  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in San José -> Transfer to La Fortuna

Views across Costa Rica's iconic Arenal Volcano.
Views across Costa Rica's iconic Arenal Volcano.

Welcome to Costa Rica! After arriving at San Jose's Juan Santamaría International Airport, in the capital of San José, you'll transfer 2.5-hours north by car 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. 

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, you can opt for a zip-line tour through the forest canopy, crossing over canyons amid the Pino Blanco Waterfall, with the majestic Arenal Volcano as a backdrop. 

Upon returning to town, be sure to take advantage of the dining scene. Because La Fortuna is such a tourism hub, eateries are popping up all the time. These run the gamut from pizzerias and steakhouses to Mexican, Mediterranean, and local Costa Rican fare. You won't be lacking for dinner options.

Day 2: Hanging Bridges & La Fortuna Waterfall

Mistico Hanging Bridges at Arenal.
Mistico Hanging Bridges at Arenal.

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 area's incredible biodiversity—more than 350 bird species are found here. 

Next, you'll 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 (64 m), and the hike down 500 steps to the base provides an opportunity to see them from a different vantage point. After making the descent, go for a swim and relax in the La Fortuna River, located right below the falls.

The afternoon and evening are yours to explore the area and visit the local thermal waters for a relaxing soak.

Day 3: Arenal Volcano from Land & Water

Paddleboarding on Lake Arenal.
Paddleboarding on Lake Arenal.

Today is packed with outdoor adventure as you embark on a paddleboarding trip around Lake Arenal. This is Costa Rica's largest landlocked body of water, yet the lake is calm, making it ideal for both SUP beginners and experienced boarders. Regardless of your skill level, the surrounding scenery and fluttering of water birds, like herons and anhingas, will make for an unforgettable excursion.

In the afternoon, a bilingual guide will meet you in the lobby of your hotel and you'll embark on a two-hour hiking tour to the base of Arenal, where you'll walk through rainforest trails and over dried lava fields as your guide points out the flora and fauna of the area. Eventually, you'll arrive at an observation point just in time for sunset, which affords excellent views of the rainforest and volcano.

You'll have the evening to relax back in La Fortuna.

Day 4: Arenal Free Day

The lush landscapes of the Arenal region.
The lush landscapes of the Arenal region.

Today you'll have a free day to enjoy the Arenal region at your own pace.

One perennially popular activity is the local zip-line tour. Take a high altitude excursion over the rainforest canopy around Arenal for a high-flying, pulse-pounding adventure as you soar over the treetops with the iconic cone of Arenal Volcano in the background.

Another adventurous option is to explore the Arenal region by mountain bike. A scenic 15-mile (25-km) route follows an old road connecting Lake Arenal with the main entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park. From there, 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 (minimum age of 12.) Costa Rica is 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 memorable afternoon as you spend a few hours navigating one of these world-class rivers.

Day 5: Boat to Monteverde, with Coffee & Chocolate Tour

Coffee beans ready for the harvest.
Coffee beans ready for the harvest.

After breakfast in La Fortuna, transfer to Monteverde. Bypass the road trip and make the journey by boat, sailing across the tranquil waters of the lake. At the shores of Lake Arenal, you'll be welcomed by your captain, step on board, and begin the 3.5-hour journey to the opposite shore. 

Upon arrival, you'll officially enter the Monteverde region of Costa Rica. From the lakeshore, transfer by shuttle to a working coffee farm for a 2.5-hour educational guided tour. Participate in the entire farm-to-cup process, from picking the beans to roasting them. Of course, frequent coffee tastings are provided. 

After checking into your hotel, take the evening to enjoy nearby Santa Elena, a charming town with a heavy Quaker influence that’s known for excellent coffee and cheese. A few local restaurant suggestions include:

  • Grab a seat on the front porch of local favorite Orchid Coffee, which serves a menu of smoothies, salads, and sandwiches. Sweet-toothed visitors will appreciate the café’s extensive hot chocolate menu made with Costa Rican chocolate and mixed with unique ingredients like cardamom and orange. 

  • El Jardin Bar & Restaurant wins visitors over with its lovely setting overlooking the trees, friendly service, and fresh homemade bread served alongside every meal.
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  • Built around an old higueron (fig) tree, the Tree House Restaurant & Café serves well-prepared Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo in a romantic, open-air setting.

Day 6: Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest

One of the high-altitude suspension bridges in the cloud forest.
One of the high-altitude suspension bridges in the cloud forest.

Prepare yourself for an adrenaline-pumping zip-line ride in the country where the 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 your specialized guides will point out the most interesting specimens and residents of the cloud forest's remarkable ecosystem.

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. Monteverde's zip-line excursions are regarded as the most thrilling in the country.

Day 7: Transfer to Manuel Antonio - Free Afternoon

Snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters around Manuel Antonio.
Snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters around Manuel Antonio.

This morning, you'll be picked up from Monteverde and driven 3.5 hours to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast. Wind down on one of the park's four beautiful beaches, which are some of the best in Costa Rica. If you're hungry for more adventure, you can also hike on one of the park's many trails (following the signs) and get up close with capuchin monkeys, sloths, and over 200 species of birds. Snorkeling is also accessible from multiple points along the beaches. 

In the evening, head to the town of Quepos for dinner, where you can find a table with a sunset view.

Day 8: Damas Island Kayaking Tour

Spot wildlife like iguanas on your kayaking tour.
Spot wildlife like iguanas on your kayaking tour.

Just outside of Quepos and Manuel Antonio is the incredibly biodiverse Damas Island, the setting for today's adventure. You'll get back on the water this morning as you explore the protected inland waterways of the Damas Estuary by open-seat kayak. Paddle under the shade of the jungle mangroves surrounding Damas Island on an intimate guided tour of this delicate rainforest ecosystem. Don't forget your camera—the mangroves are home to a plethora of wildlife, including sloths, monkeys, several species of birds, and boa constrictors!

Feel free to stop along the way to enjoy local fruits and refreshments. When you've had enough kayaking, tuck into a hot Tico-style (Costa Rican) meal at one of the many local restaurants in Manuel Antonio National Park.

Day 9: Morning Free Time - Afternoon Sunset Catamaran Cruise

It's not uncommon to spot dolphins on this sailing tour.
It's not uncommon to spot dolphins on this sailing tour.

Spend today at your leisure, choosing from some of the following options: 

  • Explore the incredible biodiversity of the park on a guided tour. A naturalist will point out the more than 300 species of mammals and birds that call the reserve home, including sloths, hawks, iguanas, and several different species of monkeys. You'll also have time to spend exploring the park's expansive white sand beaches.

  • Tour the Damas Island Estuary on a guided boat tour through the mangroves.

  • Take a surf lesson.

  • Simply relax on the white sands of Playa Manuel Antonio.

In the late afternoon, embark on a sunset dinner cruise. Stop in a calm bay, drop anchor, and swim or snorkel while the crew prepares a feast. Dinner is perfectly timed so you can watch the sunset while keeping an eye out for dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, or even breaching whales.

Day 10: Manuel Antonio to San José - Depart Costa Rica

Bid Costa Rica's beautiful beaches farewell.
Bid Costa Rica's beautiful beaches farewell.

It's time to say goodbye to Costa Rica! After breakfast, make the 2.5-hour trip to San José, where you'll depart from Juan Santamaría International Airport.Coffee beans ready for the harvest.

Map

Map of Best of Costa Rica: Arenal, Monteverde & Manuel Antonio - 10 Days
Map of Best of Costa Rica: Arenal, Monteverde & Manuel Antonio - 10 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Jan 8, 2020