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
  • Explore the area surrounding Costa Rica's largest volcano
  • 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

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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 Highlights 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 Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 5 Monteverde Cloud Forest - Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 6 Tamarindo/Las Baulas National Marine Park Tamarindo
Day 7 Tamarindo - Liberia (Departure)  

Detailed Itinerary 

Day 1: Downtown San José

Costa Rica's National Museum
Costa Rica's National Theater

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: San José to Arenal Volcano (La Fortuna)

Arenal Volcano
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. 

  • 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 its 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
Crossing a hanging bridge in Monteverde Cloud Forest

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 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 4: Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest

A colorful quetzal bird
Soar over the treetops of the Cloud Forest

Prepare yourself for an adrenaline-pumping zip-line ride in the country where that 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 our specialized guides will point out the most interesting specimens. 

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

Day 5: Monteverde to Tamarindo

Relax on Costa Rica's famous Pacific Coast
Relax on the beaches of Costa Rica's famous Pacific Coast

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

Tamarindo is known for its excellent surf and breathtaking sunsets

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
Leatherback Sea Turtle

Unfortunately, the time has come to say "adiós" to Costa Rica.  Spend the morning enjoying your last few moments of pura vida before beginning your drive to nearby Daniel Oduber Quíros International Airport in Liberia for your flight back home. 

Ready to Start Planning Your Trip?

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Looking for other self-drive tours in Costa Rica?

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Map

Map of Classic Costa Rica: 7-Day Self-Drive Tour
Map of Classic Costa Rica: 7-Day Self-Drive Tour
Yenyi
Published by Yenyi Fu, updated May 24, 2019