This self-guided road trip is ideal for those who love nature. You will visit the highlights of the country, from the infamous Arenal volcano to the misty cloud forest, to the beautiful beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula.  Along the way, you will zip through trees on zip lines, swim in waterfalls, and also have a chance to spot the wildlife (from monkeys to the resplendent quetzel) on naturalist lead walks.

Highlights

  • Embark on a rafting trip down the wild Sarapiquí River
  • Learn the secrets of authentic Costa Rican cuisine in a cooking class
  • Fly over the treetops on a zip-line adventure in Monteverde
  • Road trip the Nicoya Peninsula to Playa Sámara
  • Enjoy a sunset catamaran cruise on the Pacific

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Costa Rica - San José City Tour San Jose
Day 2 Pick Up Rental Car - Drive to Arenal Volcano & Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 Waterfall Hike & Cooking Class Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Arenal - Whitewater Rafting on the Sarapiquí River Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Drive from Arenal to Monteverde - Night Nature Tour Monteverde
Day 6 Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 7 Drive from Monteverde to Playa Sámara Playa Sámara
Day 8 Explore Isla Chora Playa Sámara
Day 9 Sámara: Barra Honda Cave Spelunking Playa Sámara
Day 10 Playa Sámara -> Drive to Playa Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 11 Sunset Catamaran Adventure Tamarindo
Day 12 Tamarindo -> Drive to San José San Jose
Day 13 Depart San José  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Costa Rica - San José City Tour

The Edificio Correos (Post Office) in the city's center
The Edificio Correos (Post Office) in the city's center

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: Pick Up Rental Car - Drive to Arenal Volcano & Hot Springs

Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano

After breakfast, pick up your car: it's time to make the 3.5-hour journey north towards Arenal National Park, home of the 5,357 feet (1,633-meter) volcano of the same name. Take your time, because along the way you'll want to stop and appreciate the scenery.

In fact, you can kick off your Costa Rican eco-adventure by visiting La Paz Waterfall Gardens, just north of San José. This privately run ecological attraction includes five amazing waterfalls accessed through miles of well-maintained walking trails. It's a great place to visit thanks in part to wildlife exhibits devoted to wild cats, snakes, frogs, and even a butterfly observatory and a hummingbird garden.

Another nearby option in the central San José highlands is Zarcero. This charming town comes complete with an impressive colonial church and pretty hedge gardens. It's a great place to stop, relax, and enjoy the sweeping views of the surrounding coffee plantations. It also makes a great jumping off point to Poás, an active stratovolcano home to a crater lake with a shimmering turquoise surface.

After getting back on the road, you'll eventually arrive in La Fortuna, the main town in Arenal National Park. The afternoon is yours to explore the area. You'll likely want to stretch your legs and decompress from the journey, and there's no better way to do it than with a dip in natural hot springs at Tabacón Resort. It features five mineral-rich pools heated by the underground magma. Thermal water flows through the resort, forming the Tabacón River, and the area is home to dozens of cascading waterfalls and over 20 pools of varying temperatures and sizes.

End your day with dinner next to the hot springs at Ave del Paraíso which serves a mix of local Costa Rican and international cuisine. Or check out one of these restaurants we recommend in La Fortuna: 

  • Café Mediterraneo, a friendly osteria serving up homemade pasta and pizza.
  • La Parrilla de María 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.

Day 3: Waterfall Hike & Cooking Class

Take a cooking class on typical Costa Rican cuisine
Take a cooking class on typical Costa Rican cuisine

After breakfast in La Fortuna, pay a visit to La Fortuna Waterfall Reserve, where heavy annual precipitation gives you the chance to see a 210-foot waterfall. As you descend downhill on the trail, you'll check out the falls from the very bottom where a natural pool awaits if you want to swim in the fresh water of La Fortuna River.

In the afternoon, take a guided journey to the family-owned Arenal Vida Campesina Farm where you'll find several crops that Costa Rica is best known for: sugar cane, coffee, corn, yucca, cocoa, bananas, and plantains. The trip includes a visit to the mill for fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice and a taste of sugar cane liquor. Next, you'll head to restaurant La Guaria Morada for a cooking class on typical Costa Rican cuisine, followed by a family-style dinner.

Day 4: 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 transfer by car to the Sarapiquí River for your whitewater rafting adventure. After a lesson from your professional guide, you'll embark on a 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 tropical fruit and a traditional Costa Rican lunch. After the second leg of the rafting journey, you’ll be driven back to your hotel.

Duration: 8 hrs

Day 5: Drive from Arenal to Monteverde - Night Nature Tour

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 Monteverde 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 6: Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest

Suspension bridge in the cloud forest
Suspension bridge in the cloud forest

Today you'll enjoy 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 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. The whole excursion is regarded as the most thrilling zip-line adventures in the country.

Day 7: Drive from Monteverde to Playa Sámara

Samara: paradise at the Pacific Coast
Samara: paradise at the Pacific Coast

Today the Pacific Coast is in your sights. You’ll depart Monteverde for a three-hour drive to the beautiful coastal hamlet of Playa Sámara (Sámara Beach), on the Nicoya Peninsula’s western shore. Famous for its golden sand and gentle waves, Sámara's horseshoe-shaped beach is wide and inviting. The area has a thriving fishing and farming economy, and its laid-back feel makes it a favorite of travelers and locals alike.

Since this is a road trip, why not stop and enjoy the lovely Costa Rican scenery along the way? On the Nicoya Peninsula, there are many coastal villages and beaches you can stop on your way south to Sámara. With a slight detour, you can hit the tropical cove of Playa Hermosa, the crescent-shaped white sands of Playa Flamingo, and the popular surf village of Tamarindo. Note that the coastal roads are rougher than Costa Rica's main highways, so if you do travel south along this route it will take you longer to reach Sámara (it's about 1.5 hours just from Tamarindo).

Further south and just above Sámara, you can stop at Nosara. This coastal village is known as the unofficial wellness capital of the country. Residents here routinely live to be 100, and there's no shortage of activities to replenish mind, body, and soul. Make a pit stop for some yoga on the beach, book a surf lesson, or take a leisurely river cruise with a naturalist guide. You can also visit the Sibu Wildlife Sanctuary, which rescues and rehabilitates exotic animals. You'll tour the grounds, visit their greenhouse, and get up close and personal with wildlife residents like monkeys and coatis.

Once you arrive at Playa Sámara, the options for activities are many. Laze on the beach, enjoy a snorkel through the aquamarine sea, or join a whale/dolphin-spotting boat tour. There’s plenty to do on land, too.  Hike through a mango plantation (includes all the mangos you can eat) and into the Werner Sauter Biological Preserve to spot monkeys, birds, and butterflies with a guide. You can also explore the region on horseback, starting on the beach before heading into the hills.

While in Sámara, consider dining in one of these restaurants:

  • Bouticafé Bohemia, a colorful and charming option serving healthy breakfast and lunch options like smoothies and salads. It's also a perfect stop for your morning coffee.
  • Gusto Beach, an upscale beachside restaurant serving everything from pizza to ceviche.
  • Lo Que Hay, a convivial taqueria and pub serving six taco options. Its beachside setting makes it the perfect spot to watch the sunset with your feet in the sand and a cold drink in hand.
  • LuvBurger offers gluten-free, vegan fare (tacos, salads, burgers, and sandwiches) right on the sand. 

Day 8: Explore Isla Chora

Explore the coral reef on a snorkel trip
Explore the coral reef on a snorkel trip

Today join a kayak and snorkeling tour to investigate the nooks and crannies of this exceptionally unique coastal area. 

After breakfast, grab a paddleboard or kayak, and set out with your guide to the petite Isla Chora (Chora Island), a 25-45 minute paddle across the lagoon from Sámara.

Once there, snorkel around the island’s reefs keeping on the lookout for sea turtles, then savor some well-earned snacks and beverages on the beach. And be sure to check out the island’s iguanas as they sun themselves on the hillside. 

Tour duration: 2.5 hrs

Day 9: Sámara: Barra Honda Cave Spelunking

Spelunking
Spelunking

Climbing down into the depths of the earth on the Barra Honda Cave Spelunking tour is an amazing adventure. Spelunking, or cave exploration, is an enticing activity allowing you to explore ancient caves that were created hundreds of years ago by tectonic activity. 

You’ll be picked up from your beach area hotel then driven to the beautiful Barra Honda National park. When you reach park headquarters you will be greeted by your guide who will take you on a 30-minute hike up to the entrance to the caves. Your guide will be sure to point out any interesting wildlife you may come across along the way that lives in this region such as monkeys, iguanas, sloths, and anteaters to name a few. The slightly rugged but well-maintained path provides an opportunity to experience the park’s rare protected dry tropical forest environment. You’ll also stop at a scenic lookout to get a panoramic view of the Gulf of Nicoya.

During your exploration, your guide will carefully lead you into different chambers along a slippery, rocky floor and point out any cave creatures you may encounter including bats, snakes, and frogs. The steady drip of water on calcium has created hundreds of gorgeous rock formations including stalactites and stalagmites bringing beauty and life into this underground world.

This full day tour includes transportation from Nosara, Punta Islita, and Samara, park entrance, guide, safety equipment, lunch, and drinks. 

Tour time: 8 hrs

Day 10: Playa Sámara -> Drive to Playa Tamarindo

Visit Las Baulas National Marine Park to see nesting leatherback turtles
Visit Las Baulas National Marine Park to see nesting leatherback turtles

Today you'll be following the windy roads about 55 miles (95km) up the coast from Playa Sámara to the surf haven of Tamarindo. However, plan on this journey taking quite a bit longer than the expected 3 hrs, as you'll want to stop and take in the amazing sights and beautiful beaches along the way. Here are some ideas for exactly what to do.

Just north of the town of Nosara, at the Refugio Nacional Ostional (Ostional Wildlife Refuge), you'll find one of the greatest biological wonders in the country. This protected mile of beach is where hundreds or even thousands of olive ridley sea turtles come during nesting season to lay their eggs. The peak time is from August-December, but the turtles lay their eggs all year, particularly the week before the new moon.

If you're looking for a bit of paradise of the "Blue Lagoon" variety, stop in at San Juanillo. Located just up the road from Ostional. This little fishing village is a bit remote, so you're guaranteed to avoid masses of tourists. It's a great place to come and mingle with the locals while enjoying the crystalline waters and soft white sands.

Further north, just south of Tamarindo you can stop at Playa Avellanas. This long crescent beach is where some serious wave riders come to ply their trade. Waves here can reach as high as 18-feet, which is why the area is nicknamed "little Hawaii." If the waves are too gnarly for your liking, feel free to relax at Lola's and enjoy lunch and a beer. This is probably the most famous beach bar on the entire Nicoya Peninsula, thanks to its resident pig, Lolita (replacement of the original Lola). 

If you happen to visit between October and March, head to Las Baulas National Marine Park to see leatherback turtles come ashore. Every night during high tide in the nesting season, female leatherbacks make their way up the beach to lay eggs. Watch the turtles come and go before the hatchlings follow suit into the water, a once-in-a-lifetime sight. 

You'll find that the laid-back surf town of Playa Tamarindo has some excellent restaurants. A few options include:

  • La Bodega, a charming café that serves fantastic egg sandwiches (go for the Kristina, served with tomato, local goat cheese and smoked trout on toasted bread), homemade banana bread, and fresh juices.
  • Green Papaya, a popular taco bar serving some of the best tacos and burritos in town (vegetarian options available) in a casual atmosphere.
  • Surf Shack, where you can grab topnotch burgers, onion rings, and milkshakes in an aluminum-sided hut decorated with surfboards.
  • Nogi's, a spot known for its beachfront location—a perfect pick for sunset dining. They serve a varied menu of seafood and grilled meat; be sure to save room for a slice of their coconut cream pie.

Day 11: Sunset Catamaran Adventure

A sunset cruise on the Pacific
A sunset cruise on the Pacific

Spend the morning relaxing on the beaches of Tamarindo. In the afternoon, you'll embark on a sailing trip. The boat will stop in a tranquil bay, drop anchor, and you'll be free to swim and snorkel. It's not uncommon to see schools of tropical fish, sea turtles, and even dolphins frolicking in the surf. Admire the sunset from the water, with a tropical beverage in hand.

Day 12: Tamarindo -> Drive to San José

Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late 19th century, which offers free guided tours
Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late 19th century, which offers free guided tours

After breakfast, you'll pack you up and transfer back to San José. After checking in at your hotel, you'll have the rest of the day to explore and catch any of the sites and museums you may have missed the first time around.

Day 13: 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, and/or browse some shops before boarding your flight home.

Map

Map of Costa Rica Self-Drive Vacation - 13 Days
Map of Costa Rica Self-Drive Vacation - 13 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Apr 25, 2019