On this 9-day trip, you will experience the best of the country's tropical flora and fauna. From rainforest hikes to snorkeling in coral reefs.  This itinerary is ideal for travelers going to Costa Rica during the "green season" (May - November), as the Caribbean coast stays relatively dry during these rainy months. It's also the best time to see turtles nesting on the beaches in Tortuguero National Park (July-October).

Highlights

  • Explore Tortuguero by boat
  • Visit the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo
  • Relax on Caribbean beaches
  • Snorkel in Cahuita National Park

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San Jose
Day 2 San José to Tortuguero National Park Tortuguero
Day 3 Explore Tortuguero Tortuguero
Day 4 Tortuguero -> Transfer to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca Puerto Viejo
Day 5 Sloths, Monkeys & Beach Time Puerto Viejo
Day 6 Hiking and Snorkeling in Cahuita National Park Puerto Viejo
Day 7 Puerto Viejo Free Day Puerto Viejo
Day 8 Puerto Viejo -> Transfer to Braulio Carrillo National Park and San José San Jose
Day 9 Depart San José  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José

Afternoon street scene in downtown San José
Afternoon street scene in downtown San José

Welcome to Costa Rica, the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaría International Airport, in the capital of 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. The Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum), holds a large collection of Pre-Columbian gold artifacts, and the Museo del Jade (Jade Museum) features 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, you might want to 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. No matter where you go, though, the whole city is filled with delectable restaurants serving everything from traditional local to forward-thinking fusion cuisine.

Day 2: San José to Tortuguero National Park

Rainforest on the banks of the Tortuguero River
Rainforest on the banks of the Tortuguero River

After breakfast, you’ll depart early in the morning for Tortuguero National Park, on the northern Caribbean coast, stopping en route for a snack. Maybe try the gallo pinto (rice mixed with black beans), Costa Rica's unofficial national dish, often served with eggs or cheese.

Getting to Tortuguero is an adventure in itself. On this nearly four-hour road trip, you'll head northeast out of town, leaving the concrete jungle of San José behind as you enter the tropical rainforests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. As you wind around the green mountains at various altitudes, exotic flora and fauna will present itself depending on the elevation. Squirrel monkeys can be found here, as can scarlet macaws.

After passing small towns and banana plantations you'll reach a small boat dock along the network of canals that feed into the Tortuguero River. Once aboard for the approximately 90-minute trip, you can relax and enjoy the ambiance as you zip along the calm waters—maybe make a game of spotting fish and birds as you enter Tortuguero National Park. Once you arrive, the rest of the day is free for you to relax in your hotel (where meals are included). If you do decide to dine out, the area isn't lacking for restaurants—you'll find everything from pizza and crepes to jerk chicken and fresh-baked banana bread.

Day 3: Explore Tortuguero

Be on the lookout for monkeys
Be on the lookout for monkeys

Tortuguero is unique in that, unlike many national parks, 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 77,032-acre protected area. Keep your camera at the ready because you'll be on the hunt for various denizens of the reserve, including howler and capuchin monkeys, 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, loggerhead, and green sea turtle. All of these nest in the area from July through October, 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 4: 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 5: 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 6: Hiking and Snorkeling in Cahuita National Park

Nurse sharks
Nurse sharks

After breakfast, you'll take a short drive south to Cahuita National Park for an easy jungle hike followed by a swim at the beach. Fronted by the turquoise sea, hikers will find flat, well-maintained trails that run parallel to the shore, allowing you to weave back and forth between the sand and trail for frequent swimming and snorkeling breaks.

On land, keep an eye out for colorful crabs, monkeys, and several species of exotic birds. Meanwhile, the seafloor off the coast of Cahuita is as much a jungle as the rainforest, with tropical fish, stingrays, octopus, and nurse sharks on view for snorkelers.

Day 7: 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 8: 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 9: 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 Caribbean Coast Adventure - 9 Days
Map of Caribbean Coast Adventure - 9 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Aug 19, 2019