This self-guided road trip is ideal for those who love nature, beaches, and adventure activities. It covers all of Costa Rica's highlights, starting at the famous Arenal Volcano. From there, on to the Gulf of Papagayo on the northern Pacific coast. It's the perfect spot to snorkel and take a sunset sailing cruise. Then, you'll venture into the misty cloud forests of Monteverde—spot rare birds, partake in a zip-line canopy tour, and embark on a nocturnal wildlife excursion. End your trip with hiking and beach time in Manuel Antonio National Park.

Highlights

  • Soak in the natural hot springs of Arenal Volcano National Park
  • Brave the rapids on a whitewater rafting trip
  • Zip-line over the treetops on a canopy tour in Monteverde
  • Do some crocodile spotting in Tárcoles
  • Take a Pacific sunset cruise in the Gulf of Papagayo

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Costa Rica - San José City Tour San Jose
Day 2 Pick Up Rental Car - Drive to Arenal Volcano & Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 Whitewater Adventures at Arenal Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Waterfall Hike & Cooking Class Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Drive from Arenal to Gulf of Papagayo (via Río Celeste) Gulf de Papagayo
Day 6 Snorkeling & Catamaran Cruise in the Gulf of Papagayo Gulf de Papagayo
Day 7 Drive from Gulf de Papagayo to Monteverde - Night Nature Tour Monteverde
Day 8 Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 9 Birdwatching in Monteverde Monteverde
Day 10 Monteverde -> Drive to Tárcoles Tarcoles
Day 11 Tárcoles -> Drive to Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 12 Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 13 Free Day in Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 14 Manuel Antonio to San José, Depart Costa Rica  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Costa Rica - San José City Tour

The Edificio Correos (Post Office) in the city's center
The Edificio Correos (Post Office) in the city's center

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: Pick Up Rental Car - Drive to Arenal Volcano & Hot Springs

Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano

After breakfast, pick up your car: it's time to make the 3.5-hour journey north towards Arenal National Park, home of the 5,357 feet (1,633-meter) volcano of the same name. Take your time, because along the way you'll want to stop and appreciate the scenery.

In fact, you can kick off your Costa Rican eco-adventure by visiting La Paz Waterfall Gardens, just north of San José. This privately run ecological attraction includes five amazing waterfalls accessed through miles of well-maintained walking trails. It's a great place to visit thanks in part to wildlife exhibits devoted to wild cats, snakes, frogs, and even a butterfly observatory and a hummingbird garden.

Another nearby option in the central San José highlands is Zarcero. This charming town comes complete with an impressive colonial church and pretty hedge gardens. It's a great place to stop, relax, and enjoy the sweeping views of the surrounding coffee plantations. It also makes a great jumping off point to Poás, an active stratovolcano home to a crater lake with a shimmering turquoise surface.

After getting back on the road, you'll eventually arrive in La Fortuna, the main town in Arenal National Park. The afternoon is yours to explore the area. You'll likely want to stretch your legs and decompress from the journey, and there's no better way to do it than with a dip in natural hot springs at Tabacón Resort. It features five mineral-rich pools heated by the underground magma. Thermal water flows through the resort, forming the Tabacón River, and the area is home to dozens of cascading waterfalls and over 20 pools of varying temperatures and sizes.

End your day with dinner next to the hot springs at Ave del Paraíso which serves a mix of local Costa Rican and international cuisine. Or check out one of these restaurants we recommend in La Fortuna: 

  • 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.

Day 3: Whitewater Adventures at Arenal

Whitewater rafting on the Balsa River
Whitewater rafting on the Balsa River

Steel yourself for a morning of whitewater rafting on the Balsa River. After breakfast, your local tour operator will pick you up in the hotel lobby. Be sure to wear clothes you don't mind getting wet, and bring along a spare set of dry ones. Listen to the safety instructions your guide provides during the trip to the raft-launch site, and get set for plenty of rapids. 

After the adrenaline rush of your whitewater rafting trip, relax with a traditional Costa Rican lunch on the banks of the river. In the afternoon, you can opt to be dropped off at one of the many hot springs in Arenal to unwind and soothe your muscles in nature's own hydromassage.

Enjoy dinner back in La Fortuna. There are over a hundred restaurants in town, featuring everything from traditional Costa Rican fare to pizza and pasta.

Day 4: Waterfall Hike & Cooking Class

Take a cooking class on typical Costa Rican cuisine
Take a cooking class on typical Costa Rican cuisine

After breakfast in La Fortuna, pay a visit to La Fortuna Waterfall Reserve, where heavy annual precipitation gives you the chance to see a 210-foot waterfall. As you descend downhill on the trail, you'll check out the falls from the very bottom where a natural pool awaits if you want to swim in the fresh water of La Fortuna River.

In the afternoon, take a guided journey to the family-owned Arenal Vida Campesina Farm where you'll find several crops that Costa Rica is best known for: sugar cane, coffee, corn, yucca, cocoa, bananas, and plantains. The trip includes a visit to the mill for fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice and a taste of sugar cane liquor. Next, you'll head to restaurant La Guaria Morada for a cooking class on typical Costa Rican cuisine, followed by a family-style dinner.

Day 5: Drive from Arenal to Gulf of Papagayo (via Río Celeste)

The Gulf of Papagayo
The Gulf of Papagayo

After breakfast, it's time to leave La Fortuna and push west towards the Pacific. This three-hour drive isn't uneventful either. Along the way, you'll leave Arenal Volcano National Park and Alajuela Province as you make your way into Guanacaste Province. This is the home of the cloud forests of Monteverde, as well as the famed beaches of the Pacific coast and the Nicoya Peninsula.

Your destination is the Golfo de Papagayo (Papagayo Gulf), itself a small peninsula located right above the more massive Nicoya Peninsula. However, there's plenty of gorgeous sites to stop at along the way. You'll find the charming mountain village of Tilaran as you make your way around Lake Arenal. It's a laid-back town 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. 

You'll also have the opportunity to stop off at a major national park, Tenorio, as it's on the way. This protected area is famously home to the Río Celeste, which some regard as the most beautiful river in the country (it's certainly one of the most popular). The river gets its celestial blue hue from a rare combination of minerals, and there is a fairytale waterfall at the end of a hiking trail like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. 

The hike to the waterfall is 3.7 miles roundtrip. It can be completed in about three hours, so it makes for a good side excursion. That said, the trail can get muddy (especially during the rainy season from May to mid-November), which can slow things down considerably. 

Upon arrival at the Gulf of Papagayo, check into your hotel and spend the rest of the day unwinding. Perhaps enjoy a cocktail or fruit juice as you watch that beautiful coastal sunset. For dinner, you can stay in and dine at your hotel or venture out to one of the local eateries. Recommended options include:

  • Kaixo, intimate tapas restaurant also does breakfast, sandwiches and is vegetarian-friendly.
  • Abbaco, upscale seafood restaurant using fresh products served with artistic flourishes. Also boasts incredible sea views.
  • Soda Mediterranea, cozy Italian eatery has killer pasta dishes and famously friendly service. The amiable chef is known to prepare special plates for guests. 

Day 6: Snorkeling & Catamaran Cruise in the Gulf of Papagayo

Enjoy a sunset cruise around the gulf
Enjoy a sunset cruise around the gulf

After breakfast at your hotel, the morning is yours to spend however you like, perhaps relaxing on the beaches of Tamarindo. In the afternoon, you'll embark on a sailing trip. The boat will stop in a tranquil bay, drop anchor, and you'll be free to swim and snorkel. There is plenty of marine wildlife to admire on this tour—it's not uncommon to see schools of tropical fish, sea turtles, and even dolphins frolicking in the surf. You'll then be treated to a delicious spread of refreshing tropical fruit and cool drinks.

Day 7: Drive from Gulf de Papagayo 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 its a 4-hour trip and you should aim to get there before dark.

That's not to say you won't have ample opportunity to stop and enjoy the scenery. 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 8: 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 9: Birdwatching in Monteverde

A male resplendent quetzal sits on a tree branch in Monteverde
A male resplendent quetzal sits on a tree branch in Monteverde

Set out early this morning for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the most popular protected areas in the entire country. You'll be able to take part in the reserve's adrenaline-pumping activities later—right now, it's time for some birding. With a knowledgeable guide, you may spot the resplendent quetzal, highland tinamou, Chiriqui quail-dove, black-breasted wood quail, grey-throated leaftosser, and some 30 species of hummingbirds. 

After your birding excursion, it's time for adventure. Strap on a harness and fly over the treetops on an exhilarating zip-line tour. This is the best vantage point from which to experience Monteverde's famed cloud forest.  Afterward, return to your hotel and spend the rest of the day as you see fit.

Day 10: Monteverde -> Drive to Tárcoles

Tárcoles is famous for crocodiles
Tárcoles is famous for crocodiles

Make your way from the Monteverde down to the center of the Pacific Coast to the village of Tárcoles. Sitting on the banks of the Carara River and within the national park of the same name, Tárcoles is known for its colorful macaws as well as the giant crocodiles that congregate on the banks of the river.

Eventually, you'll leave the mountains, enter central Punta Arenas Province, and arrive at Tárcoles. It may be small, but there's plenty to see and do around this village. So take the remainder of the afternoon and explore the area as you see fit.

Perhaps visit Carara National Park. This protected area is considered a "transitional zone"—a refuge for endemic wildlife in a region where human activity is encroaching. The trek to get there is a modest hike accessible to all experience levels, and it crosses through the natural habitat of the scarlet macaw. Since their reintroduction to the park 15 years ago under protected status, these macaws have thrived ever since. 

You can also take a boat tour through the wetlands and mangroves in the area, which is great for wildlife spotting. The tour visits important nesting and mating sites for several bird species, as well as areas populated by various mammals and reptiles. 

If you have the energy, embark on a hike to Bijagual Waterfall. It's hard to find but worth the effort. Follow the signs just past Carara National Park on an hour-long hike up a steep, mossy trail. Meanwhile, keep an eye out for colorful birds and wildlife, such as scarlet macaws and poison dart frogs. Once you get to the waterfall, celebrate and cool off with a refreshing swim. If you go downstream, you'll find some other smaller waterfalls as well.

Back in town, unwind at the end of a long day with a nice meal. Some recommended options include:

  • Los Cocodrilos, an expansive restaurant serving up typical Costa Rican fare like casados (combo plates) of rice, beans, and your choice of meat
  • Ti-Ko, the hilltop eatery known for great surf and turf and even more incredible views from the outdoor dining area. Also vegetarian-friendly. 
  • Vista Mar, an open-air restaurant that serves reliably delicious seafood. Also has good fresh fruit smoothies. 

Day 11: Tárcoles -> Drive to Manuel Antonio

Drive to Manuel Antonio for some beach time
Drive to Manuel Antonio for some beach time

This morning, you'll drive south from the village of Tárcoles to Manuel Antonio National Park, a tropical dream of a locale where you can unwind on one of the park's four beautiful beaches. If you're hungry for more adventure, you can also hike on one of the park's 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 here you must complete the two-hour road trip. Luckily for you, there's no shortage of places to stop and enjoy Costa Rica's famed scenery. If you want more reptile sightings, drive to nearby "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, where you can treat yourself to some fine dining. 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, perfect for sunset dining. 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, a casual middle-eastern joint. It offers great falafel, shawarma, hummus, and a salad bar any vegetarian would love. 

Day 12: Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park

Squirrel monkey in Manuel Antonio
Squirrel monkey in 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 13: Free Day in Manuel Antonio

Playa Espadilla, Manuel Antonio
Playa Espadilla, Manuel Antonio

Today is yours to enjoy unencumbered by schedules. Beyond amazing wildlife hikes, there are a number of activities to choose from. 

Consider an optional boat tour to the Damas Island Estuary. This adventure is a Disney Jungle Cruise come to life. Along with a guide, you'll make your way down a network of mangrove canals as white-faced capuchin monkeys swing from branch to branch and exotic birds fly overhead. You might spot caimans or even a crocodile or two.

Another optional add-on is to take a surfing lesson on the beach. If that isn't for you, then simply stake your claim on a section of white sand and relax with a good book. One of the most ideal beaches in the park is Playa Espadilla, which stretches on for nearly a mile and is great for families as it's a tranquil public beach with lifeguards on hand during the day.

Optional Damas Island Estuary Tour: 4 hours (with an English-speaking guide; lunch included)

Day 14: Manuel Antonio to San José, Depart Costa Rica

Farewell, Manuel Antonio
Farewell, Manuel Antonio

It's time to say goodbye to Costa Rica! After breakfast, you'll be driven back to San José where you'll depart Juan Santamaría International Airport for your journey home.

Map

Map of Classic Costa Rica Self-Drive Adventure - 14 Days
Map of Classic Costa Rica Self-Drive Adventure - 14 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Mar 18, 2019