In this two-week tour, you can experience Costa Rica's main attractions as well as its lesser-known marvels. Drive along coasts, rainforest roads, and hills to discover the natural sights that make Costa Rica the most visited country in Central America.

Highlights

  • Explore the beaches and wildlife of Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Hike jungle trails and kayak through mangrove wetlands
  • See macaws and crocodiles from the bridges of Tarcoles
  • Discover Monteverde's cloud forests both day and night
  • Relax at the resort beaches of Tamarindo

Planning a trip to Costa Rica?

Whether you want to explore jungles, beaches, volcanoes, or a mix of everything, our local experts can help you craft the perfect trip. Get in touch now

Overview

This extensive itinerary is a nature-focused, flexible choice for travelers looking for a more independent and thorough experience in Costa Rica. Most of the destinations are situated on the Pacific Coast, making for a convenient south-to-north drive over the timespan of the trip.

Renting a car in Costa Rica is very simple to do with kimkim.  Our local specialist will help you book the car, and ensure you have all the technology needed (GPS) to help you navigate the tour.  Having your own car gives you the ultimate freedom, to explore a local farmer stand or a slightly off the beaten path waterfall.

Brief Itinerary

Day Overnight
Day 1 San José (Arrival)
Days 2-5 Manuel Antonio National Park
Days 6-7 Tarcoles
Days 8-9 Monteverde
Days 10-13 Tamarindo
Day 14 San José (Departure)

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Welcome to Costa Rica

San Jose's National Theatre
San Jose's National Theatre

Welcome to Costa Rica, the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose,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 Jose: 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 Amon, a historic neighborhood home to cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of this areas historic buildings have been converted into hotels, restaurants, and galleries, making Amon a popular bohemian district.

For dinner, opt for a restaurant in the hills of Escazu. This elevated region on the western edge of the city offers panoramic views of the valley below. That said, San Jose is filled with great restaurants serving everything from traditional to forward-thinking fusion cuisine. You can read about our top restaurant recommendations in San José here.

Day 2: The Drive to Manual Antonio

Central Pacific Coastline
Central Pacific Coastline

Check out early, pick up your car, and start your journey toward the Central Pacific Coast, a hub of ecological diversity featuring a group of astonishing national parks.

The roads are great in this part of the country, the drive to Manuel Antonio National Park takes around 3 hours.  

For this part of the tour, you will be staying near the famous Manuel Antonio National Park.  After checking-in, enjoy the hotel facilities and the beaches nearby for now. Tomorrow, the real fun begins.

Days 3-5: Discovering Manuel Antonio National Park

Squirrel Monkey in Manuel Antonio
Squirrel Monkey in Manuel Antonio

In the next few days, you will be able to continue visiting the rugged beaches and coastline of Manuel Antonio National Park. These activities below are fantastic options for venturing further into the area and opening your eyes to local natural wonders:

  • Hike in Manuel Antonio National Park (Entrance fee: $16 per person, guided tour with Spanish and English-speaking guide: $55 per person): This hike will take you across winding creeks of crystal-clear water and vivid green tropical forests. You will be able to see the various regional species of monkeys on the trail. Also, be on the lookout for other animals such as sloths, coatis, toucans, and iguanas. Important: the park is closed on Mondays.

  • Kayak or Boat Tour in Las Damas Islands (Guided tour with Spanish and English-speaking guide: $50 per person):  The wetlands of Las Damas Islands are renown for their swaths of mangroves. Protected under the RAMSAR Convention for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, the area has seen a flourishing of flora and fauna. Get up close to various rare plants and animals as you navigate the waterways of this unique ecosystem.

There are more things to do inside the park and nearby, including, diving, whale watching, whitewater rafting, fishing, sailing, to name a few.

For the more adventurous, you can also take a drive down to Marino Ballena National Park and Corcovado National Park.  For those into snorkeling and scuba diving, Isla del Caño is also around the area. Here are some of the highlights for those areas:

  • Mario Ballena National Park was created to protect the abundant marine life on the coast of Ballena. During December to March and August to October, you might be able to see humpback whales, while dolphins are seen year round in the waters nearby. To seek them out, book a whale or dolphin watching tour (depending on the season). Additionally, on land, you can observe many types of monkeys, such as capuchin, howler, and squirrel monkeys, as well as sloths, raccoons, and perhaps even the rare ocelot or puma.

  • Corcovado National Park is Costa Rica's premier wildlife viewing destination, as its rainforests host an unbelievable amount of biodiversity - over 140 species of mammals (including the jaguar and endangered Baird's tapir), 400 species of birds, and 116 species of reptiles. Guided day hikes into the park are also great opportunities to spot anteaters, sloths, howler monkeys and more. If you want to visit Corcovado National Park, consider extending your vacation by a couple of days and staying two nights in nearby Uvita.

Day 6: Depart to Tarcoles

American Crocodile
American Crocodile

Make your way up the center of the Pacific Coast to the village of Tarcoles. Tarcoles may be small, but there's plenty to see and do around this village. So take the remainder of the afternoon and explore the area as you see fit.

Perhaps visit Carara National Park for some hiking and the chance to spot a Scarlet Macaw. This protected area is considered a refuge for endemic wildlife in a region where human activity is encroaching. 

If you have the energy, embark on a hike to Bijagual waterfall. It's hard to find but worth the effort. Follow the signs just past Carara National Park on an hour-long hike up a steep, mossy trail. Meanwhile, keep an eye out for colorful birds and wildlife, such as scarlet macaws and poison dart frogs. Once you get to the waterfall, celebrate and cool off with a refreshing swim. If you go downstream, you'll find some other smaller waterfalls as well.

Back in town, unwind at the end of a long day with a nice meal. Some recommended options include:

  • Los Cocodrilos, an expansive restaurant serving up typical Costa Rican fare like casados (combo plates) of rice, beans, and your choice of meat
  • Ti-Ko, a hilltop eatery known for great surf and turf and even more incredible views from the outdoor dining area. Also vegetarian-friendly.
  • Vista Mar, an open-air restaurant that serves reliably delicious seafood. Also has great fresh fruit smoothies.

Day 7: Discover Tarcoles

A Scarlet Macaw native to Central and South America
A Scarlet Macaw native to Central and South America

Take the day to explore Tarcoles through one of these activities:

  • Tarcoles River Bridge: Observe large numbers of American Crocodiles, which can grow up to 7 meters long, in the river below. Macaws and other species of dazzling birds can also be spotted overhead.

  • Visit the Carara National Park:  In a region becoming increasingly dominated by human agriculture, Carara National Park is considered a "transitional zone", or in other words, an essential refuge for endemic wildlife. The trek to Carara National Park, a modest hike accessible to all experience levels, also crosses into the natural habitat of the Scarlet Macaw. These macaws were reintroduced to the park 15 years ago under protected status and have thrived ever since. 

  • Boat Tour:  This tour will give you a comprehensive overview of the characteristic swamp and mangrove wildlife. It will cover an important nesting and mating site for several bird species, and mammals and reptiles can also be found nearby. Lunch will be served on site.

Day 8: Depart to Monteverde

Suspension bridge in the Cloud Forest
Suspension bridge in the Cloud Forest

You will continue your journey to Monteverde, a small village situated on the mountainside of Tilaran Cordillera near high-altitude cloud forests. Decades ago, a group of pacifist Quakers from the US dodged the draft for the Korean War and ended up in Costa Rica. After realizing the shared values between them and the locals, they then founded Monteverde. Today, Monteverde is one of Central America's most prominent eco-tourism sites, deemed the "jewel in the crown of cloud forests".

Arrive and check in at the eco-lodge where you will be staying, and start exploring right away if you have time.

At some point, 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 cafes 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 & Cafe built around an old higueron (fig) tree, this spotserves well-prepared Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo in a romantic, open-air setting.

Day 9: Exploring Monteverde's Cloud Forest

View over the treetops in Monteverde
View over the treetops in Monteverde

Here are some interesting activity options within the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve:

  • Hike in the Children's Eternal Rainforest (Entrance fees: $12 per person, guided tour with Spanish and English-speaking guide: $30 per person): The largest private reserve in Costa Rica, the Children's Eternal Rainforest in the northeast contains more than 20,000 hectares of protected tropical forest. It was founded due to the BEN fundraising campaign, which started in 1987 in Sweden in the US and soon extended to children and adults all over the world. More than half of all terrestrial vertebrae in Costa Rica have been identified in the reserve, including about 60 species of amphibian, 100 species of reptiles, 425 species of bird and 121 species of mammals.

  • Forest Night Walk (guided tour with Spanish and English speaking guide: $30 per person): A night walk in the forest is a truly special experience, as it will allow you to spot nocturnal animals that only come out at night.

  • Zip-line ($50 per person for a 3-hour tour): Glide from tree to tree, accompanied by expert guides and safety equipment, across the canopy of the cloud forest. You will see the area through an entirely new perspective and may even cross the path of monkeys, sloths, and other animals that live up in the trees.

Day 10: Off to the Pacific Coast

Pacific Coastline
Pacific Coastline

For the final part of the itinerary, you will travel to Tamarindo, a seaside town constantly buzzing with energy and activity. Most of Tamarindo consists of a famous resort area, where you can find a large range of restaurants, shops, and other things to check out. Of course, the beaches are the main highlight of Tamarindo: Playa Tamarindo and Playa Grande, both part of Las Baulas National Park, are located in the northern part of Nicoya Peninsula and are some of the best beaches in Costa Rica.

After checking in at the hotel, simply relax with the luxury accommodations of the resort hotel or head to the nearby beaches right away.

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

  • La Bodega a charming cafe 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 (vegetarianoptions 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 locationa 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 11-13: Relax in Tamarindo

Playa Avellana, a popular surfing spot
Playa Avellana, a popular surfing spot

Continue to experience the resort hospitality and natural beauty of Tamarindo. Be sure to go on excursions offered in the Las Baulas National Park region, such as boat tours, surf lessons, horseback riding, kayaking, and hikes. From fine dining to street vendors, peaceful beaches to adventurous treks, Tamarindo has something for everyone. 

Once the daylight has faded, go on the Leatherback Turtle Tour at Las Baulas National Marine Park for a truly memorable adventure if you happen to visit between October and March. Every night in season during high tide, female leatherback turtles make their way up the beach to lay eggs.  Remember to reserve a guide in order to legally enter the beach area at night. 

Day 14: Back to San Jose

Liberia International Airport
Juan Santamaria International Airport

It's time to leave Tamarindo. You'll depart early in the morning for Juan Santamaria International Airport to drop your car off at the car rental agency and say goodbye to Costa Rica.

Ready to Start Planning Your Trip?

Our specialists can help you customize this itinerary or help you discover the perfect regions in Costa Rica to fit your travel style. Get started now

Map

Map of Costa Rica Essentials: Self-Drive Tour - 14 Days
Map of Costa Rica Essentials: Self-Drive Tour - 14 Days

Recent Trip Reviews

Related trips planned by kimkim specialists
susan

Costa rica essentials: self-drive tour - 14 days, Costa Rica - Nov 22 - Dec 1, 2018

Traveler: susan u. - Local specialist: Sylvia Jurado

Thank you so much kimkim for connecting us with Sylvia. She helped us put together a magical adventure in Costa Rica. It really was the trip of a lifetime with my son and daughter-in-law. With Sylvia's guidance we had a diverse itinerary chock full of adventure that immersed us in the beauty and culture of this most amazing country. Sylvia was very responsive on the kimkim platform and arranged for several phone conferences during our planning stages. She listened to our preferences and... read more

Thank you so much kimkim for connecting us with Sylvia. She helped us put together a magical adventure in Costa Rica. It really was the trip of a lifetime with my son and daughter-in-law. With Sylvia's guidance we had a diverse itinerary chock full of adventure that immersed us in the beauty and culture of this most amazing country. Sylvia was very responsive on the kimkim platform and arranged for several phone conferences during our planning stages. She listened to our preferences and several times we tweaked and fine tuned the itinerary to get the experience we wanted. When we were "in country" she was available to help us with any issues that arose. We enjoyed private transport the entire trip, and the drivers and ALL the guides were friendly and extremely knowledgeable. Pura Vida!!
Gracias kimkim.
Gracias Sylvia.