Get your adrenaline pumping with this active 8-day itinerary showcasing Costa Rica's magnificent natural wonders. Starting in the capital of San José, you'll journey through a land of rivers, jungles, waterfalls, and volcanoes to reach the spectacular white-sand beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park. Along the way, enjoy a perfect blend of thrilling activities and relaxing downtime as you brave whitewater rapids, hike high into the rainforest's canopy, and sail and swim off the pristine Pacific coast.

Highlights

  • Brave the rapids of the wild Pacuare River on a rafting trip
  • Enjoy waterfall hikes & soak in natural hot springs in Arenal Volcano National Park
  • Discover the white sand beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Watch the sunset over the Pacific on a catamaran cruise
  • Explore the vibrant capital of San José

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San José
Day 2 San José to Río Pacuare - Whitewater Rafting Río Pacuare
Day 3 Río Pacuare - Transfer to Arenal Volcano National Park Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Hanging Bridges & La Fortuna Waterfall Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Arenal to Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 6 Morning Free Time - Afternoon Sunset Catamaran Cruise Manuel Antonio
Day 7 Manuel Antonio, Return to San José San José
Day 8 Depart San José  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José

Teatro Nacional in San José
Teatro Nacional in San José

Welcome to the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaria International Airport in San José, the rest of your day is free, so you can explore Costa Rica's vibrant capital city as you wish. Suggested activities include: 

  • Stroll through Mercado Central (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. 

  • Explore Barrio Amón, a historic neighborhood that's home to cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the area's historic buildings have been converted into hotels, restaurants, and galleries, making this a popular district. 
  • Visit the Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late-19th century, which offers free guided tours on the hour. 

  • Explore Spirogyra Butterfly Garden, located in the city's lush botanical garden. 

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 Jose to Río Pacuare - Whitewater Rafting

Brave the whitewater on Río Pacuare
Brave the whitewater rapids of Río Pacuare

This morning, you'll wake up early, meet your guide, and begin the 2.5-hour drive east out of the city of San José for a day on the river. Stop en route for a classic Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto (rice, black beans, and eggs) before arriving at the Río Pacuare (Pacuare River).

Located along Costa Rica's Caribbean slope, Río Pacuare's deep gorge is considered one of the best river-rafting sites in the world. The Pacuare runs 67 miles (108 km) from the Talamanca Mountains, in the southwest of the country, to the Caribbean coast. Along the way, it passes through some of the most diverse topography in Costa Rica. Here it's not uncommon for rafters to spot several species of tropical birds as well as monkeys, ocelots, and (much less frequently) jaguars. 

After a guided orientation, you'll embark on today's adrenaline-pumping trip on class II-III rapids. You'll paddle past impressive tropical scenery through rushing whitewater all the way to your destination: a riverside eco-lodge. Here, you will check into your luxury jungle accommodations and have the rest of the day to explore the surrounding area with your guide.

After lunch, hike through the lodge's protected forest to an idyllic waterfall, enjoy a couple's massage, or simply relax and enjoy the nature and tranquility of this remote tropical dreamland.

Day 3: Río Pacuare - Transfer to Arenal Volcano National Park

Lush jungle surrounding Arenal Volcano
Lush jungles surround Arenal Volcano

It's time to brace yourself for an even more exhilarating river trip—this time over class III-IV rapids. As you again travel down the Río Pacuare, you'll pass canyons, waterfalls, and virgin rainforest. During the calmer stretches, be on the lookout for various species of birds and other wildlife endemic to the region like toucans and capuchin monkeys. 

After arriving at the end of the trip, you'll hop in a car and transfer to the town of La Fortuna, the perfect home base for exploring Arenal Volcano National Park. Located north of the Tilaran Mountains, the cone-shaped Arenal Volcano juts out above the San Carlos Plains and stands an impressive 5,479 feet (1,670 m). 

Upon arrival, check into your hotel and spend the remainder of the day relaxing. For dinner, enjoy one of La Fortuna's over 100 restaurants. The cuisine here runs the gamut from traditional Costa Rican to Mediterranean and Italian. There's even an Argentine steakhouse.

Day 4: Hanging Bridges & La Fortuna Waterfall

Mistico Hanging Bridges at Arenal
Mistico Hanging Bridges at Arenal

Head out early to spend the day exploring the jungle canopy. You'll wander along well-marked trails that lead you over suspension bridges high above the treetops—some that are hundreds of feet long—for a once-in-a-lifetime view of Arenal Volcano. You'll also get an up-close look at the area's incredible biodiversity—more than 350 bird species are found here. 

Next, you'll head to La Fortuna Waterfall at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano, a short 15-minute drive outside town. The falls plunge some 210 feet (64 m), and the hike down 500 steps to the base provides an opportunity to see them from a different vantage point. After making the descent, go for a swim and relax in the La Fortuna River, located right below the falls.

The afternoon and evening are yours to explore the area and visit the local thermal waters for a relaxing soak.

Day 5: Arenal to Manuel Antonio

Look for squirrel monkeys on the hiking trails
Look for squirrel monkeys on the hiking trails

This morning, you'll transfer to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast. After checking in to your hotel, you can take your pick and wind down on one of the park's four beautiful beaches. If you're hungry for more adventure, you can also hike one of the park's many trails (following the signs). Get up close to capuchin monkeys, sloths, and over 200 species of birds. Snorkeling is also accessible from multiple points along the beaches. 

In the evening, head to the town of Quepos for dinner at Gabriella's for pretty sunset views over a meal of fresh fish or steak.

Day 6: Morning Free Time - Afternoon Sunset Catamaran Cruise

It's not uncommon to spot dolphins on this sailing tour
It's not uncommon to spot dolphins on this sailing tour

Spend today at your leisure, choosing from some of the following options: 

  • Explore the incredible biodiversity of the park on a guided tour. A naturalist will point out the more than 300 species of mammals and birds that call the reserve home, including sloths, hawks, iguanas, and several different species of monkeys. You'll also have time to spend exploring the park's expansive white sand beaches.

  • Tour the Damas Island Estuary on a guided boat tour through the mangroves.

  • Take a surf lesson.

  • Simply relax on the white sands of Playa Manuel Antonio.

In the late afternoon, embark on a sunset dinner cruise. Stop in a calm bay, drop anchor, and swim or snorkel while the crew prepares a feast. Dinner is perfectly timed so you can watch the sunset while keeping an eye out for dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, or even breaching whales.

Day 7: Manuel Antonio, Return to San José

San José's Parque Nacional
San José's Parque Nacional

Take the morning to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and any last activities (or sunrise swims) around Manuel Antonio.

Then it's time to begin the 3-hour drive back to San José, where you'll have the evening to explore the city and take advantage of anything you may have missed at the beginning of the trip. If you prefer, your specialist can also organize a 30-minute flight. Then, the rest of the day is yours to spend in the capital, where you can check out the city's local restaurants, plazas, and historic sites.

Day 8: Depart San José

San José at twilight
San José at twilight

It's time to say adiós to Costa Rica. Depending on your departure time, you'll have the morning to explore more of San José, relax in a café, or browse some shops before boarding your flight home.

Map

Map of Costa Rica Adventure: Whitewater, Jungles & Beaches - 8 Days
Map of Costa Rica Adventure: Whitewater, Jungles & Beaches - 8 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Feb 8, 2020