Experience the best Costa Rica has to offer on this family-friendly 11-day adventure. You'll watch sea turtles on the Caribbean beaches of Tortuguero National Park, hike around Arenal Volcano, zip-line through the cloud forest of Monteverde, and finally relax on the remote, Pacific beaches of Guanacaste. Along the way, you'll make your own hot chocolate and coffee from bean to cup, swim under a waterfall—and maybe even catch a wave.

Highlights

  • Watch sea turtles hatch on the beaches of Tortuguero
  • Relax in volcanic hot springs
  • Participate in the cacao harvest and make hot chocolate from scratch
  • Go zip-lining through the jungle canopy at Monteverde
  • Enjoy an unforgettable sunset cruise in Papagayo

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José, Children's Museum & Dinner with a View San Jose
Day 2 San José to Tortuguero National Park Tortuguero
Day 3 Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero Tortuguero
Day 4 Fly from Tortuguero to Arenal Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Hike Arenal 1968 - Tabacón Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 6 Chocolate Experience - Swimming in Waterfalls Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 7 Boat from Arenal to Monteverde - Coffee Tour Monteverde
Day 8 Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 9 Monteverde -> Transfer to the Gulf of Papagayo Gulf de Papagayo
Day 10 Beach Time - Sunset Catamaran Cruise Gulf de Papagayo
Day 11 Depart Costa Rica  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José, Children's Museum & Dinner with a View

Downtown San José 
Downtown San José 

Welcome to the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaria International Airport in San José, Costa Rica's capital city, a representative will meet you and drive you to your hotel. After checking in to your hotel, you'll have the day to explore on your own. 

Suggested activities include: 

  • Take a stroll through the San José Central Market, the largest in the city, with over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants—perfect for an inexpensive lunch of casado, a traditional dish of rice, beans, and meat served with tortillas. 
  • Visit the Museo de los Niños, a children's museum with more than 40 rooms of interactive experiences on topics ranging from the human body to outer space. 
  • Explore Spirogyra Butterfly Garden, located in downtown San José amidst the city's lush botanical garden. Kids will love seeing the butterflies in their natural habitat and learning more about different species. 
  • Visit the Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late 19th century, which offers free guided tours on the hour. You can also check their calendar to take in dance, music, and theatre performances.

For a casual kid-friendly dinner spot Tiquicia, a hilltop stalwart that serves up delicious local fare accompanied by live folk music on weekends and views of the Central Valley.

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

Tortuguero's long coastline
Tortuguero's long coastline

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: Fly from Tortuguero to Arenal

View of Arenal Volcano at sunset
View of Arenal Volcano at sunset

After an early breakfast at the hotel, you have time for a last stroll on the beach before catching your flight to the area surrounding Arenal Volcano National Park, home of the 5,437-foot-high peak that is one of Costa Rica’s most famed landmarks—and until 2010, the country’s most active volcano. 

After you arrive, the afternoon is yours to explore the area. If you want to get close to the volcano, kayaking on Lake Arenal provides spectacular views of its peak, as does a mountain bike ride through the park toward the village of El Castillo. Or, you can opt for a zip-line tour through the forest canopy, crossing over canyons amid the Pino Blanco waterfall, with the majestic Arenal volcano as a backdrop.

Upon returning to town, be sure to take advantage of the dining scene. Because La Fortuna is such a tourism hub, eateries are popping up all the time. These run the gamut from pizzerias and steakhouses to Mexican, Mediterranean,and local Costa Rican fare. You won't be lacking for dinner options.

Here are a few recommended restaurants for your stay in La Fortuna:

  • Cafe Mediterraneo, a friendly osteria serving up homemade pasta and pizza.
  • La Parrilla de Maria 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.
  • Ave Del Paraiso serving Costa Rican dishes as well as international fare.

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: Chocolate Experience - Swimming in Waterfalls

Cacao pods, beans, and hot chocolate
Cacao pods, beans, and hot chocolate

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-hour journey to the other side of the lake. 

Upon arrival, you'll officially be 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. You'll find various restaurants here, including vegetarian options and those serving Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo (rice with chicken).

Take a night nature tour of Monteverde. On this three-hour hike, you'll be accompanied by a naturalist guide who will point out many nocturnal animals and insects. These include bats, red-eyed tree frogs, snakes, and coatis.

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

Day 9: Monteverde -> Transfer 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 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 10: Beach Time - 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 11: 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 Family Adventure - 11 Days
Map of Coast-to-Coast Family Adventure - 11 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Mar 18, 2019