This self-drive tour is ideal for families who love animals and exploring the outdoors. You'll spot plenty of the country's adorable mammals like sloths and monkeys, as well as rare species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and tropical fish. Along the way, stay at unique eco-lodges


  • Get to know the culture and history of San José 
  • See nocturnal critters on a guided night hike
  • Spot wildlife on a Sarapiquí river safari
  • Hike and snorkel your way through Cahuita National Park

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Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José & Pick Up Rental Car San Jose
Day 2 Drive to Sarapiquí, Guided Night Hike Sarapiquí
Day 3 Sarapiquí River Safari Sarapiquí
Day 4 Sarapiqui to Puerto Viejo Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Day 5 Hiking & Snorkeling in Cahuita National Park Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Day 6 Sloths, Jaguars & Beach Time in Puerto Viejo Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Day 7 Surfing in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Return to San José San Jose
Day 8 Depart San José  

Detailed overview

Day 1: Arrive in San José & Pick Up Rental Car

A bird's-eye view of Costa Rica's capital city
A bird's-eye view of Costa Rica's capital city

Welcome to Costa Rica! After you've picked up your rental car, get settled in your hotel in San José. If your flight arrives earlier in the day, take the afternoon to explore the city by foot. The capital city features bustling streets, green parks, grand plazas and European-inspired architecture showcasing centuries of history.

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 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.
  • Check out a pair of fascinating museums. First, visit the Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum), which holds the largest Pre-Columbian gold collection in all of Latin American. Continue on to the Jade Museum, dedicated to preserving the archaeological heritage of the region. The museum features the largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts in the world with over 7,000 items on display, most dated between 500 BC and 300 BC.

For a casual dinner try Tiquicia, a hilltop stalwart that serves up delicious local fare accompanied by live folk music on weekends and views of the Central Valley. For fine dining, there's Restaurante Grano de Oro, a local favorite helmed by French chef Francis Canal who prepares Costa Rican ingredients using European techniques.

For more travel advice, check out 24 Hours in San José. 

Day 2: Drive to Sarapiquí, Guided Night Hike

Be on the lookout for tree frogs and other animals during a nighttime hike
Be on the lookout for tree frogs and other animals during a nighttime hike

Wake up in San José and enjoy breakfast at your hotel, then begin the two-hour drive to the beautiful, lush region of Sarapiquí, surrounded by lush rainforests and renowned for its rich biodiversity.  On the way you'll stop for a cable car ride through over two miles of through the treetops.

This afternoon you'll check into Selva Verde Lodge, nestled within a 500-acre private reserve. Join one of Selva Verde's naturalists for an exciting nighttime tour along the trails with a naturalist, who will help you spot nocturnal animals including tree frogs, leaf mimicking insects, kinkajous, and bats. Afterward, relax in your comfortable rainforest bungalow as the sounds of nature send you off to sleep.

Learn more about the top nature experiences in Costa Rica.

Day 3: Sarapiquí River Safari

The Sarapiqui River
The Sarapiqui River

This morning, you will enjoy a relaxing boat safari on the Sarapiquí River, a tributary of Río San Juan, the river that marks the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. As you glide along the water, be on the lookout for animals in the water and on land including sloths, iguanas, crocodiles, and birds. Your guide will help identify the flora and fauna, and provide information about the river's history and role in Costa Rica's vibrant ecosystem. 

The afternoon is yours to spend as you like. Visit the Serpentarium, where you can get up close to more than 60 different species of reptiles and amphibians like the poison dart frog and a Burmese python. Or, opt for a tour through Tirimbina’s rainforest. You'll cross the longest hanging bridge in the region to a traditional cacao plantation where you'll have the chance taste the cacao bean at its different stages in the process of chocolate making.

Find out more about how many days to spend in Costa Rica here.

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Day 4: Sarapiqui to Puerto Viejo

Braulio Carrillo National Park is home to 150 different types of mammals
Braulio Carrillo National Park is home to 150 different types of mammals

After breakfast, you'll drive to Braulio Carrillo, the country's largest national park with more than 100,000 acres of rolling hills and dark-green vegetation. Uncrowded hiking trails both short and long, ranging from easy to difficult are a highlight and home to animals such as white-faced monkeys, jaguars, deer, tapir, raccoons, armadillos, and anteaters. Families with young children can opt to experience the rainforest by aerial tram, located on the eastern flank of the park. This open gondola takes you on a tour of the canopy; it can fit up to four passengers and a guide.

Then, it's on to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, located on the southern Caribbean coast. This surfer town has an excellent range of guesthouses for all budgets, colorful buildings, Afro-Caribbean culture and food, and a friendly, laid-back attitude. You'll check in to Tree House Lodge located in nearby Punta Uva, within the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, for a stay in one of their five beautiful treehouses created from sustainable wood and situated along Playa Chiquita.  

A few restaurants recommended during your stay are: 

  • Miss Lidia's Place is a popular pick for Caribbean fare and ice-cold batidos (fresh-fruit drinks) served in a casual, open-air dining room.
  • A Mi Modo serves wood-fired pizzas beneath thatch umbrellas on the restaurant's sandy patio.
  • Koki Beach, an oceanfront restaurant with sunset views, offers quality seafood and meat along with produce from local, organic suppliers.
  • La Pecora Nera in nearby Playa Cocles serves upscale Italian and an extensive wine list on a romantic, candlelit patio.

For more ideas and inspiration, read Best Things to Do in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

Day 5: Hiking & Snorkeling in Cahuita National Park

Tropical fish, stingrays, octopus, and nurse sharks on view for snorkelers at Cahuita National Park
Tropical fish, stingrays, octopus, and nurse sharks on view for snorkelers at Cahuita National Park

After breakfast, you'll take a short drive south to Cahuita National Park for an easy jungle hike followed by a swim at the pristine beach. Fronted by the turquoise sea, hikers will find flat, well-maintained trails that run parallel to the beach, allowing you to weave back and forth between the sand and trail for frequent swimming and snorkeling breaks.

On land, keep an eye out for colorful crabs, white-faced and howler monkeys, as well as several species of exotic birds. Meanwhile, the seafloor off the coast of Cahuita is as much a jungle as the rainforest, with tropical fish, stingrays, octopus, and nurse sharks on view for snorkelers.

Read more about the best active experiences in Costa Rica.

Day 6: Sloths, Jaguars & Beach Time in Puerto Viejo

Meet the residents at the Sloth Sanctuary
Meet the residents at the Sloth Sanctuary

This morning, you'll head to the Jaguar Rescue Center, a home and rehabilitation facility for ill, injured and orphaned animals. During your guided tour, you'll see monkeys, wild cats, sloths, anteaters and more. The center offers public and private tours of their facilities, and animal lovers of all ages will enjoy the chance to see and interact with the wildlife here 

The rest of the day is for enjoying the beach or shopping around the colorful boutiques of Puerto Viejo. Another option is to explore the Gondoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, which includes several rare habitats like lowland rainforests, wetlands, and mangrove swamps, as well as a beautiful stretch of beach. The refuge is also the nesting area for several species of turtles, manatees, crocodiles, caimans, tarpons, and dolphins. Hike the beach trail, hit the water (and the area's coral reef) via kayak or snorkel gear, or simply relax on the beach. 

Check out our Ultimate Guide to Puerto Viejo for more ideas.

Day 7: Surfing in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Return to San José

A surfer rides the waves in Puerto Viejo
A surfer rides the waves in Puerto Viejo

This morning should be dedicated to enjoying the Caribbean waves. Puerto Viejo is well known for Salsa Brava, a break that should be on every advanced surfer's bucket list. There are plenty of options for beginners, too, with Playa Cocles and Playa Negra offering waves and sandy stretches that work well for surfers of all levels. You can also opt for a private or group lesson with the pros at Surf the Jungle.  

In the afternoon, you'll drive back to San José—a journey of about 4.5 hours—where you'll check in to your hotel. This evening you can take advantage of anything you may have missed at the beginning of the trip! You can read about our top restaurant recommendations in San José here.

Day 8: Depart San José

The Plaza Juan Mora Fernandez
The Plaza Juan Mora Fernandez

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 or relax in a coffee shop before boarding your flight at Juan Santamaria International Airport.

Looking for Other Ideas for Costa Rica?

Looking for other ideas for your trip to Costa Rica? We have some great ideas for how to spend 8 days in Costa Rica, plus a list of family-friendly 8-day itineraries. Read more about the best time of year to visit here.

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Map of Costa Rica Wildlife Road Trip - 8 Days
Map of Costa Rica Wildlife Road Trip - 8 Days