Taking a road trip through Costa Rica gives you the freedom and flexibility to explore where you want. You'll pass through stunning natural scenery — from lush cloud forests to picturesque beaches — in seven days of scenic driving. This tour can be extended or shortened depending on how much time you have.

Highlights

  • Explore San José, Costa Rica's capital, known for its colonial architecture
  • Go biking, hiking, and zip lining in two volcanic national parks
  • Discover Monteverde's cloud forest, home to hundreds of various wildlife
  • Relax, surf, and snorkel in the beach town of Tamarindo
  • Encounter endangered leatherback sea turtles at Las Baulas National Marine Park

Overview

This itinerary is designed to be flexible so you can take advantage of having your own transportation. SUVs and other vehicles suited for rough terrain can be rented near all major airports (with an additional tax) and from other large companies such as Alamo. It's best to avoid smaller companies running special promotions, as those deals are often too good to be true and will come with hidden "insurance" costs. Given the small size of Costa Rica and how accessible it is by vehicle, you'll be able to visit the jungle, volcanoes, and great beaches in the same 7-day trip. 

Brief Itinerary

Day Destination Overnight
Day 1 San José (Arrival) San José
Day 2 San José - La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano La Fortuna
Day 3 Arenal Volcano - Monteverde Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 4 Monteverde Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 5 Monteverde Cloud Forest - Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 6 Tamarindo/Las Baulas National Marine Park Tamarindo
Day 7 Tamarindo - Liberia (Departure)  

If you have a few extra days, think about adding a day or two in Monteverde or Tamarindo.  If you have less time, choosing between Monteverde and Arenal is a good idea.

Detailed Itinerary 

Day 1: Downtown San José

Costa Rica's National Museum

Welcome to Costa Rica! Arrive in San José, and if your flight arrives earlier in the day, head downtown and take your time to explore the city. Costa Rica's capital features a plethora of impressive plazas and historic buildings, all of which are accessible to tourists.

For starters, tour the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum as well as the post office building. If you are interested in architecture, you should visit the Teatro Nacional (National Theater), often said to be the grandest building in the entire city. Also, check out the National Museum, a transformed military barrack painted in a dazzling golden color.

Day 2: San José to Arenal Volcano (La Fortuna)

Arenal Volcano

Leave your hotel after an early breakfast and start driving towards Arenal Volcano. There are many interesting places to stop over on your drive to Arenal, take some time to explore one of them.  

  • Poás Volcano National Park is a great side trip if you have time, where you can hike up to the massive crater. You can even look inside, where a lake of sulfur and rainwater constantly bubbles and churns. However, since Poás Volcano has been rather active recently (last eruption June 6, 2017), the hike may be off limits, check with the park before you arrive.  Entrance fee: $15
  • On the slopes of Poás volcano is the La Paz waterfall garden.  With over 2 miles (3.5 km) of trails in the garden, you can explore the 5 striking waterfalls, a Butterfly Observatory, Hummingbird Garden, Serpentarium and a Frog Exhibit on your own.  There is also the option of a private tour if you want to learn more about the wildlife and nature around you.  Entrance fee: $42 adults / $26 children
  • Zarcero Gardens.  Zarcero is a small town that is known for their topiary gardens located just in front of the church.  No, Edward scissor hands didn't have a role in their making, it was created by Evangelisto Blanco in the 1960s.  Hang out with the Dinosaur, elephant and other animals and shapes cut from the bushes for some photo ops, and grab some lunch before continuing on your way.  

Drop off your luggage at the hotel once you arrive in La Fortuna, the regional hub near Arenal Volcano. Spend the afternoon zip lining, crossing hanging bridges, and walking through jungle trails, while admiring views of nature and the volcano itself. Then, relax after a long day by going to the Tabacón Hot Springs and Resort, a set of natural pools in an ideal tropical alcove. After a refreshing soak, return to your hotel for the night.

Day 3: Adventures around Arenal and Monteverde

Crossing a hanging bridge in Monteverde Cloud Forest

This morning, try some extra activities around Arenal National Park before we hit the road. The options are endless, from white-water rafting to mountain biking, horseback riding to hiking the Rio Fortuna Waterfall.  

Next, head to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, 4 hours away by car. The drive will go along a road that curves around Lake Arenal and you will get stunning glimpses of jungles and lush hills. Parts of the journey will pass through foggy conditions and unpaved roads, so be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to get there to Monteverde before sundown. Rest up and prepare for tomorrow’s engaging ecotour.

Day 4: Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve

A colorful quetzal bird

Wake up early for a comprehensive tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, a unique rainforest ecosystem and one of the world's most biodiverse regions. Venture into acres of virgin forests and see a wide variety of rare animals, including quetzal birds, amphibians, three-wattled bellbirds, sloths, and monkeys. Make sure to bring a light extra layer, as the temperature regularly reaches a daily high in the mid-60s (F). Additionally, frequent showers can make the ground quite wet, especially in the summer, so rain and hiking gear are also highly recommended.

Continue to explore the area through more activities such as birding or hiking in the afternoon. You can also visit some of the nearby coffee, chocolate, or sugarcane plantations, or seek out the charming Butterfly Garden or Orchid Garden

Day 5: Monteverde to Tamarindo

Sunset in Tamarindo

Spend the morning in Monteverde, a good opportunity to fit in any activities that you weren't able to fit in yesterday. Make sure that you book your activities early, as you want to hit the road by lunchtime to get to Tamarindo at a reasonable hour. Total drive time is around 4 hours.

Tamarindo is a small beach town with only 500 inhabitants, but in peak tourist season this number can swell up to ten times as much. It's best to visit during the dry season from November to April, as the weather will be pleasant and rains can be avoided. In the months of November and December, waves up to 12 feet high crash into the shores, making it the perfect challenge for experienced surfers. Once you get into town, take some time to wind down and watch the sunset on the beach before calling it a night.

Day 6: The Beach at Tamarindo

Today, it's time to fully experience the white sand, seaside breezes, and delicious food of Tamarindo Beach. Spend the morning swimming and tanning, or try surfing, snorkeling, or scuba diving by taking some local lessons. When lunchtime comes around, hundreds of food stalls cooking up Costa Rican street delicacies are only a short walk away. Be sure to browse the stalls and check out the interesting trinkets offered for sale.

Once the daylight has faded, go on the Leatherback Turtle Tour at Las Baulas National Marine Park for a truly memorable adventure if you happen to visit between October and March. Every night in season during high tide, female leatherback turtles make their way up the beach to lay eggs.  Remember to reserve a guide in order to legally enter the beach area at night and refrain from flash photography. Watch the turtles come and go, or hatchlings head to the water for their first swim, is a once-in-a-lifetime sight.

Day 7: Farewell

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Unfortunately, the time has come to say "adiós" to Costa Rica.  Drive the to nearby Liberia airport to fly back home.