Experience the country from both coasts on this two-week trip. You'll visit San José, Tortuguero National Park, the towering Arenal Volcano, Monteverde's cloud forest, and the remote beaches of Guanacaste. There will be plenty of activities to choose from along the way: watch sea turtles hatch on a Caribbean beach, sample locally produced chocolate, and take a surf lesson in the glittering Pacific.

Highlights

  • Spot monkeys and rare birds at Tortuguero National Park
  • Brave the whitewater rapids of the Sarapiquí River
  • Experience the production process of Costa Rican coffee and cacao
  • Zip-line across the Monteverde Cloud Forest
  • Relax on the remote beaches of Guanacaste

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San Jose
Day 2 San José to Tortuguero National Park Tortuguero
Day 3 Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero Tortuguero
Day 4 Drive to Arenal - Whitewater Rafting on the Sarapiquí River Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Hike Arenal 1968 - Visit Tabacón Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 6 Chocolate Experience and Swimming in Waterfalls Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 7 Boat from Arenal to Monteverde - Coffee Tour Monteverde
Day 8 Sky Walk, Sky Tram and Sky Trek Zipline Monteverde
Day 9 Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve Guided Hike Monteverde
Day 10 Monteverde to the Gulf of Papagayo Gulf de Papagayo
Day 11 Beach Time and Sunset Catamaran Cruise Gulf de Papagayo
Day 12 Day of Adventure - Zipline, Horseback Riding, and Hot Springs  Gulf de Papagayo
Day 13 Free Day in Papagayo Gulf de Papagayo
Day 14 Depart Costa Rica  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José

The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José
The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José

Welcome to the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, you'll transfer to your hotel. The rest of the day is free for you to explore the capital. Suggested activities include: 

  • Taking a stroll through Mercado Central (Central Market), the largest in the city, with over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). It's the perfect spot for an inexpensive lunch of casado, a local dish of rice, beans, and meat, served with tortillas. 
  • Visiting the Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late 19th century, which offers free guided tours on the hour.
  • Exploring a pair of museums. First, visit the Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum), which holds one of the largest Pre-Columbian gold collection in all of Latin America. Continue on to the Museo del Jade (Jade Museum), dedicated to preserving the archaeological heritage of the region. With over 7,000 items on display, the museum features the largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts on earth. Most are dated between 500 and 300 BCE.
For a casual dinner try Tiquicia, a hilltop stalwart featuring views of the Central Valley below. It serves up delicious local fare accompanied by live folk music on weekends. Or, for special-occasion dining, try Restaurante Grano de Oro, a local favorite helmed by French chef Francis Canal, who uses European techniques to prepare Costa Rican-fusion cuisine paired with an excellent wine list.

Day 2: San José to Tortuguero National Park

A sea turtle at Tortuguero National Park
A sea turtle at Tortuguero National Park

After breakfast, you’ll depart 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. It's 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 want to dine out around Tortuguero, here are a few recommended restaurants: 

  • Dorling Bakery opens early, making it a great choice for a breakfast of homemade banana bread or cinnamon rolls.
  • Budda Cafe, where Tibetan prayer flags and a river view create a laid-back family-friendly setting for pizzas, salads, and crepes. 
  • Located on the north end of Main Street, Miss Junie's is a popular choice for Caribbean staples like jerk chicken and whole snapper. 
  • Soda Doña María, positioned near the park entrance, it serves fresh juices, burgers, and casados.

Day 3: Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero

Canoe trips are an ideal way to spot wildlife at Tortuguero National Park
Canoe trips are an ideal way to spot wildlife at Tortuguero National Park

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: Drive to Arenal - Whitewater Rafting on the Sarapiquí River

Raft one of the country's most exciting rivers, the Sarapiquí
Raft one of the country's most exciting rivers, the Sarapiquí

After an early rise and breakfast at the hotel, you’ll embark by car to the entrance of Arenal Volcano National Park. This area is home to the 5,437-foot-high peak of the same name. It is one of Costa Rica’s most famous landmarks and is still classified as an active volcano.

On the way, you'll stop for a whitewater rafting adventure on the Sarapiquí River. After a lesson from your professional guide, you'll begin the seven-mile river journey featuring over 30 class III and IV rapids. About halfway through the trip, you’ll take a break on shore for some refreshing tropical fruit and a traditional Costa Rican lunch. Then, after the second leg of the rafting excursion, you’ll transfer to your hotel.

Day 5: Hike Arenal 1968 - Visit Tabacón Hot Springs

No shortage of photo ops around Arenal
No shortage of photo ops around Arenal

Today, after breakfast you can have a free morning to relax. In the early afternoon, you'll visit Arenal 1968, a private reserve named after the year of the last major eruption of the volcano. The event was so catastrophic that it transformed some of the region’s topography: lava fields now dominate one side of Arenal. Hiking trails wind through those lava fields as well as the surrounding rainforest. Along the way, you'll find lookout points featuring prime views of the volcano. 

After hiking the trails, soothe your muscles with a dip in the mineral-rich waters in and around the Tabacón Thermal Resort. These hot springs have been used as therapeutic baths for more than 200 years, and the resort includes a spa where various treatments, like couples massages, are performed in outdoor bungalows. 

Day 6: Chocolate Experience and Swimming in Waterfalls

Taking a dip at the base of La Fortuna Waterfall
Taking a dip at the base of La Fortuna Waterfall

Start your day in the town of La Fortuna with a two-hour, hands-on tour in which you’ll learn about the origin, history, and production of one of Costa Rica's most famous exports: chocolate. You'll participate in the cacao harvest as well as the drying and grinding of the seeds used to produce creamy cocoa butter. You'll learn how a traditional Costa Rican cocoa drink was developed centuries ago, and, of course, sample the freshly made chocolate.

After your chocolate fix, it’s time to work off all that energy. You'll transfer to La Fortuna Waterfall, at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano, a short drive outside town. This is Costa Rica's most famous waterfall. The water here plunges some 210 feet, and a 500-step downhill hike provides the opportunity to see it from the bottom up. You'll have 30 minutes to swim and relax in the La Fortuna River below the falls.

Day 7: Boat from Arenal to Monteverde - Coffee Tour

The peaceful waters of Lake Arenal
The peaceful waters of Lake Arenal

After breakfast in La Fortuna, you'll transfer to Monteverde, but this is no ordinary route. You'll bypass the road trip and instead travel by water. After arriving at the shores of Lake Arenal, your captain will welcome you, you'll board the boat, and you'll begin the 3.5 journey to the other side of the lake. 

You're now officially in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica. From the lakeshore, you'll transfer by shuttle to a working coffee farm for an educational guided tour. You'll participate in the entire farm-to-cup process, from picking the beans to roasting them. Of course, frequent coffee tastings will be provided. After the tour, check into your hotel and relax for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe visit nearby Santa Elena, a charming town with Quaker influences known for excellent coffee and cheese. It boasts excellent restaurants, and here are a few suggestions: 

  • For a late lunch, Orchid Coffee serves a menu of smoothies, salads, and sandwiches. Sweet-toothed visitors will appreciate the café’s extensive hot chocolate menu. The drinks are 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, friendly service, and fresh homemade bread served with every meal. 
  • Built around an old higueron (fig) tree, the Tree House Restaurant & Café serves Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo in a romantic, open-air setting.

Day 8: Sky Walk, Sky Tram and Sky Trek Zipline

Zip-lining over the cloud forest
Zip-lining over the cloud forest

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, and this makes sense considering that Monteverde is the birthplace of the canopy tour as we know it.

Day 9: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve Guided Hike

Explore the jungle of the Monteverde Cloud Forest
Explore the jungle of the Monteverde Cloud Forest

After breakfast at your hotel, you’ll transfer a short distance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the jewels in Costa Rica's ecological crown. Known as the "green lung of Costa Rica" due to its rich biodiversity, this 26,000-acre reserve is located high in the mountainous northwest region of the country, and thus receives much precipitation. The views of the misty cloud forest here are the stuff of postcards.

But Monteverde offers much more than sweeping panoramas. On a guided tour you'll get an up-close look at the incredible biodiversity that occurs in this region, where upland and lowland rainforest meet. More than 350 bird species exist here alone, including the aptly named resplendent quetzal. In other words, it's a nature lover’s paradise.

In the afternoon you'll return to your hotel and have the rest of the day to spend as you like.

Day 10: Monteverde to the Gulf of Papagayo

Beyond the arid, volcanic valleys of Guanacaste lie Pacific beaches
Beyond the arid, volcanic valleys of Guanacaste lie Pacific beaches

Road trip time! This four-hour drive takes you west into Guanacaste Province, past volcanic mountain ranges, flatlands, and villages as you head toward Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Stop for a bite and enjoy a traditional lunch or maybe a batido (fresh fruit smoothie). As the plains and tropical dry forests slowly give way to azure seas, you’ll arrive at your destination—the Gulf of Papagayo, where you'll check into your hotel. 

You can spend the remainder of the day relaxing on the tranquil beach. Perhaps enjoy a beer at one of the local beach bars. Maybe kayak around the bay.

Day 11: Beach Time and Sunset Catamaran Cruise

Sunset over the Pacific in Papagayo
Sunset over the Pacific in Papagayo

There's no shortage of secluded bays and inviting beaches in Guanacaste Province. And after so much activity, you're likely eager for a day relaxing on the sand. If you happen to be a surfer (or just want to learn), Papagayo is the place. You'll find both beginning and advanced waves in the village of Tamarindo, as well as a number of surf schools. This laid-back surfer haven is also home to some of the best restaurants in the country. 

In the evening, you'll board a catamaran for a sunset sail. The ship will stop in a tranquil bay, drop anchor, and you'll explore the crystalline waters while the crew prepares a dinner feast. While you eat, enjoy the sunset over the Pacific horizon while keeping a sharp eye out for dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, or even a breaching whale.

Day 12: Day of Adventure - Zipline, Horseback Riding, and Hot Springs

Enjoy some horseback riding
Enjoy some horseback riding

You'll begin the day bright and early with a morning pick-up from your hotel. You will transfer an hour or so east to the foot of Rincón de la Vieja National Park. This is home to another active volcano, and like at Arenal, you'll find trails and waterfalls here. Upon arrival, get ready for your adventure to start.

First, you'll embark on a 40-minute horseback-riding excursion. Marvel at the surrounding views as you make your way higher and higher into the park. Your destination: the first of many zip-line platforms. All told you will whiz over the forest canopy on 12 different zip lines, including one that is 320-feet high.  

After the adrenaline rush of the zip line, it will be time for lunch at a local restaurant. After eating, relax in the natural hot springs before heading back to your hotel.

Day 13: Free Day in Papagayo

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

Today can be as relaxing or adventurous as you like. If you've had enough of the beaches, you can opt to head back to Rincón de la Vieja. Hike a jungle trail called Sensoria, which is part of a wildlife sanctuary featuring thermal pools and waterfalls that plunge into turquoise lagoons. Or, you can experience the rainforest from the water during a two-hour safari float tour on the Corobicí River, where a guide will point out monkeys, bats, lizards, and even crocodiles. 

You can also choose a guided trip down the Tenor River. It’s the best river in the Guanacaste area for rafting. After a challenging trip down the rapids led by experts, you'll enjoy lunch before heading back to your hotel in time to catch one last sunset.

Day 14: Depart Costa Rica

Savoring memories
Savoring memories

It's time to say adiós to Costa Rica! After breakfast, you'll transfer to the airport and catch your international flight home.

Map

Map of Coast to Coast Adventure: Tortuguero, Arenal, Monteverde, & Guanacaste - 14 Days
Map of Coast to Coast Adventure: Tortuguero, Arenal, Monteverde, & Guanacaste - 14 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Jul 1, 2019