Experience both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Costa Rica — and all that's in between — on this 9-day adventure. Starting in the bustling capital of San Jose, you'll make your way to Tortuguero National Park, where you'll watch sea turtles hatch on the beach. Then head inland to Arenal Volcano and its magnificent rainforest trails. After a long day of hiking, soothe your muscles in the natural hot springs at Tabacón. After a river wildlife safari and a chocolate lesson, you'll travel to the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Papagayo. Here you'll go snorkeling and surfing, and end your journey with a spectacular sunset cruise around the bay.

Highlights

  • Watch sea turtles hatch on the beaches of Tortuguero
  • Go hiking around Arenal Volcano
  • Participate in the cacao harvest and make your own hot chocolate
  • Relax on the spectacular 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 Transfer to La Fortuna Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Hike Arenal 1968 - Tabacón Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 6 River Float & Chocolate Tour in Arenal Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 7 Arenal to the Gulf of Papagayo Gulf de Papagayo
Day 8 Beach Day and Sunset Catamaran Sail in Guanacaste Gulf de Papagayo
Day 9 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 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: Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero

Baby turtle on the beach
Baby turtle on the beach

Tortuguero is unique in that, unlike many national parks in Costa Rica, 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 protected area. Keep your camera at the ready because you'll be on the hunt for various denizens of the reserve, including manatees, spectacled caimans, 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, leatherback, and green sea turtle. All of these nest in the area from July through October (mostly at night), 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: Transfer to La Fortuna

La Fortuna Waterfall
La Fortuna Waterfall

After breakfast, you'll make the three-hour trip to the town of La Fortuna, best known as the base for exploring Arenal Volcano National Park. Located north of the Tilaran Mountains, the cone-shaped Arenal juts out from the San Carlos Plains like a giant arrowhead. After checking into your hotel, you'll have the rest of the day to explore on your own. 

If you want to get close to the volcano, kayaking on Lake Arenal provides awesome views of its peak, as does a mountain-bike ride toward the village of El Castillo. Or, opt for a zip-lining tour through the forest canopy, where you'll not only cross canyons but pass by waterfalls as well—and all with a view of the majestic Arenal Volcano in the background.

For dinner, enjoy one of La Fortuna's over 100 restaurants. The cuisine here runs the gamut from traditional Costa Rican, Mediterranean, Italian, and pizza. There's even an Argentine steakhouse.

Day 5: Hike Arenal 1968 - Tabacón Hot Springs

A hot spring near Arenal
A hot spring near Arenal

After breakfast, you can take the 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. 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.

End the day with a nice dinner at the resort’s restaurant, which serves Costa Rican dishes as well as international fare.

Day 6: River Float & Chocolate Tour in Arenal

Look out across Arenal Volcano National Park
Look out across Arenal Volcano National Park

This morning, you'll be part of a safari float on the Peñas Blancas River. This 3-hour river tour puts you in direct contact with the areas abundant wildlife and beautiful natural scenery and it's a perfect activity for first-time rafters or families with small children.

After lunch, which is served alongside spectacular views of Arenal Volcano, you'll get a hands-on lesson where you'll learn about the origin, history, and current production of one of Costa Rica's most famous exports: chocolate. Participate in the harvest of cacao and the drying and grinding of the seed that produces creamy cocoa butter. You'll also learn how the traditional chocolate drink was developed centuries ago, and, of course, sample the chocolate freshly made onsite.

From here, you'll have the rest of the day to relax in La Fortuna. For dinner, a few suggested restaurants are: 

  • Café Mediterraneo, a friendly osteria serving up homemade pasta and pizza. 
  • La Parrilla de María Bonita, 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.
  • Don Rufino, a local favorite, provides a more upscale option a varied menu that includes risotto, ceviche, and steak. The bar overlooks the street, which makes for excellent people watching, too. 

Day 7: Arenal to the Gulf of Papagayo

Arid, volcanic valleys of Guanacaste
Arid, volcanic valleys of Guanacaste

Road trip time! This four-hour drive takes you west through Guanacaste, past volcanic mountain ranges, flatlands, and villages as you head toward the fabulous Pacific Coast. Stop for a bite and enjoy traditional foods, fresh local fruits, or perhaps a batido (fresh fruit smoothie)—a kid favorite, especially made con leche (with milk). As the dry plains and tropical dry forests slowly give way to azure seas, you’ve arrived at your destination, Papagayo, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

Once you arrive, you can rest up at your hotel or spend the afternoon exploring with a sea kayak and snorkeling tour that's ideal for families. You'll paddle across the turquoise waters of Tamarindo Beach to the white sand of Capitán Island, you'll have the chance to see the coral reef teeming with exotic fish.

Day 8: Beach Day and Sunset Catamaran Sail in Guanacaste

Plenty of idyllic beaches in the area
Plenty of idyllic beaches in the area

Today is all about beach time. After breakfast at your hotel, get out and explore the coastline around Guanacaste. Maybe hit Playa del Coco, which is a popular fishing village with many salsa bars, restaurants, and nightlife. You could even try a little surfing. 

In the evening, you'll board a catamaran in the Golfo de Papagayo for a sunset sail. The boat will drop anchor in a calm bay and you'll enjoy some snorkeling while the crew prepares a dinner feast. While you eat, bask in the sunset over the horizon while making sure to keep an eye out for dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, or even a breaching whale.

Day 9: Depart Costa Rica

One last view of Costa Rica
One last view of Costa Rica

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 Volcano, & Guanacaste - 9 Days
Map of Coast to Coast Adventure: Tortuguero, Arenal Volcano, & Guanacaste - 9 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Jul 1, 2019