Experience Costa Rica's most spectacular national parks on this 15-day tour. You'll catch glimpses of sea turtles and monkeys in Tortuguero National Park and spot hundreds of bird species in the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Then it's time to head to the countries largest and most famous volcano, Arenal, for a mix of wildlife and heart pumping excursions. Finally, you'll end the trip in  Manuel Antonio, where you'll snorkel among colorful fish and traverse jungle trails.

Highlights

  • Take a canoe ride down the waterways of Tortuguero National Park
  • Brave the rapids of the Sarapiquí River
  • Enjoy a waterfall hike in Arenal Volcano National Park
  • Fly over the treetops on a zip-line adventure in Monteverde
  • Enjoy a guided hike of Manuel Antonio and a sunset catamaran cruise

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San Jose
Day 2 San José to Tortuguero National Park Tortuguero
Day 3 Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero Tortuguero
Day 4 Tortuguero to La Fortuna Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Arenal - Whitewater Rafting on the Sarapiquí River Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 6 Hanging Bridges & Hiking in the Arenal 1968 Reserve Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 7 Free Day in Arenal Volcano National Park Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 8 Boat from Arenal to Monteverde - Nocturnal Nature Tour Monteverde
Day 9 Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 10 Santa Elena Birdwatching & Jungle Hike Monteverde
Day 11 Monteverde to Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 12 Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 13 Kayaking - Damas Island Manuel Antonio
Day 14 Snorkeling & Sunset Catamaran Cruise in Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 15 Manuel Antonio to San José, Depart Costa Rica  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José

The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José
The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José

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: 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 4-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

Turtle hatchling on the beach
Turtle hatchling on the beach

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.

Duration: 3 hrs

Day 4: Tortuguero to La Fortuna

La Fortuna Waterfall
La Fortuna Waterfall

After breakfast, you'll make the 3-hour trip to the town of La Fortuna, best known as the base for exploring Arenal Volcano National Park. Located north of the Tilaran Mountains, the cone-shaped Arenal juts out from the San Carlos Plains like a giant arrowhead. After checking into your hotel, you'll have the rest of the day to explore on your own. 

If you want to get close to the volcano, kayaking on Lake Arenal provides awesome views of its peak, as does a mountain-bike ride toward the village of El Castillo. Or, opt for a zip-lining tour through the forest canopy, where you'll not only cross canyons but pass by waterfalls as well—and all with a view of the majestic Arenal Volcano in the background.

For dinner, enjoy one of La Fortuna's over 100 restaurants. The cuisine here runs the gamut from traditional Costa Rican, Mediterranean, Italian, and pizza. There's even an Argentine steakhouse.

Day 5: 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 6: Hanging Bridges & Hiking in the Arenal 1968 Reserve

Hanging bridge in the jungle surrounding Arenal Volcano
Hanging bridge in the jungle surrounding Arenal Volcano

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 incredible biodiversity that occurs in this region, where upland and lowland rainforest meet. More than 350 bird species can be found in this park alone. 

After lunch, take an optional hike to Arenal 1968. This private reserve is named for the volcano’s eruption of that same year, which completely changed some of the region’s topography: lava fields now predominate on one side of Arenal. Trails wind through those lava fields as well as through the rainforest, offering beautiful views of the volcano. This is a more challenging hike—if you're looking for something more mellow, there are plenty of easier trails in the area.

Optional tour: Naturally heated thermal springs are plentiful here, and several places nearby offer the chance to soak in the relaxing waters. Kids will clamor for a visit to Ecotermales or Tabacon Hot Springs, with five main springs, dozens of cascading waterfalls and warm pools of varying temperatures, plus a cold-water pool with a thermal slide (and a swim-up bar for the adults).

Day 7: Free Day in Arenal Volcano National Park

Tour the rainforest after dark to spot nocturnal wildlife
Tour the rainforest after dark to spot nocturnal wildlife

After breakfast, you'll have a free day to explore the area as you wish. 

If you're up for an evening adventure, you can discover the nocturnal wildlife of this area on a night walk hosted by Danaus Eco-Center. The trail, which is easy enough for beginners, takes hikers through the biodiverse rainforest where you’ll spot nocturnal animals like sloths, bats, and frogs. Throughout the walk, an experienced naturalist will provide insight into everything you see (and hear) in the dark.

Night walk: 1.5-2 hours

Day 8: Boat from Arenal to Monteverde - Nocturnal Nature Tour

Cloud forest in Monteverde
The Monteverde Cloud Forest

After breakfast at your resort in La Fortuna, you'll transfer to the Monteverde region of Costa Rica. This is no ordinary route; you'll skip the drive and board a boat, which will take you across the tranquil waters of Lake Arenal. On this 3.5-hour boat ride, you'll have ample opportunity to spot local birds like herons and anhingas. 

When you arrive at Monteverde, take the afternoon and evening to enjoy nearby Santa Elena, a charming town with Quaker influences known for excellent coffee and cheese. There are also plenty of dining options featuring delectable Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo (rice with chicken).

In the evening, spot nocturnal wildlife at its most active on a guided night tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. A naturalist will point out sloths, armadillos, and kinkajous, as well as sleeping birds and frogs.

Night hike: Two hours

Day 9: 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 10: Santa Elena Birdwatching & Jungle Hike

A blue throated toucanet
A blue-throated toucanet

This morning you'll embark on a guided hike of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, home to some of the country's most exotic birds including the resplendent quetzal, hummingbird, black guan, toucanet, and more. You'll also see mammals like howler monkeys, agoutis, coatimundis, tapir, and pumas. A naturalist at the reserve will help you spot the animals, and provide information about the area and its wildlife. 

The afternoon is free for you to spend on your own in and around Monteverde and Santa Elena.

Day 11: Monteverde to Manuel Antonio

Some of Costa Rica's most beautiful beaches are in Manuel Antonio
Some of Costa Rica's most beautiful beaches are in Manuel Antonio

This morning, you'll be picked up from Monteverde and drive 3.5 hours to the Pacific coast and Manuel Antonio National Park, where you can take your pick and wind down on one of the park's four beautiful beaches—some of the best in Costa Rica. If you're hungry for more adventure, you can also hike on one of the park's many trails (following the signs) and 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 to watch the sunset over fresh seafood and steak.

Day 12: Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park

Squirrel monkey in Manuel Antonio
Squirrel monkey in Manuel Antonio

Today you'll wake up early and explore the roughly 1,680 acres (680 hectares) of Manuel Antonio National Park. This is a true gem of Costa Rica, in that the park is home to virgin rainforest running all the way from the mountains down to the coast, where white-sand beaches and coral reefs await.

You'll start your hike on the trails within the park. The walk is easy with mostly flat trails—perfect for families with kids. A naturalist guide will point out the more than 300 species of mammals and birds that call this reserve home, including three-toed sloths, hawks, iguanas, and several different species of monkeys. You'll also have time to enjoy the park's expansive white sand beaches on this half-day tour.

What you do the remainder of the afternoon is up to you! Continue exploring the trails on your own, indulge in the sand and sea, or switch gears and visit the nearby adventure park, MidWorld, for zip-lining and ATV tours.

Hiking distance: 1 mile (1.7 km)

Day 13: Kayaking - Damas Island

Spot everything from monkeys to large iguanas among the mangroves

Just outside of Quepos and Manuel Antonio is the incredibly biodiverse Damas Island, the setting for today's adventure. You'll get back on the water this morning as you explore the protected inland waterways of the Damas Estuary by open-seat kayak. Paddle under the shade of the jungle mangroves surrounding Damas Island on an intimate guided tour of this delicate rainforest ecosystem. And don't forget your camera — the mangroves are home to a plethora of wildlife, including sloths, monkeys, several species of birds, and boa constrictors!

Feel free to stop along the way to enjoy local fruits and refreshments. When you've had enough kayaking, tuck into a hot Tico-style (Costa Rican) meal at one of the many local restaurants in Manuel Antonio National Park.

Day 14: Snorkeling & Sunset Catamaran Cruise in Manuel Antonio

Go for a sunset swim while the crew prepares dinner
Go for a sunset swim while the crew prepares dinner

After breakfast at your hotel, the morning is yours to spend however you like:

  • You can explore the incredible biodiversity found within park during 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 or simply relax on Playa Manuel Antonio.

In the afternoon, you'll embark on a sunset dinner cruise. Stop in a calm bay, drop anchor and swim while the crew prepares a feast. While you dine, you'll marvel at the sunset over the horizon while keeping an eye out for dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, or even a breaching whale.

Day 15: Manuel Antonio to San José, Depart Costa Rica

Farewell, Manuel Antonio
Farewell, Manuel Antonio

It's time to say goodbye to Costa Rica! After breakfast, you'll transfer 2.5 hours by road to San José where you'll depart Juan Santamaría International Airport for your journey home.

Map

Map of Costa Rica: Ultimate National Parks Tour - 15 Days
Map of Costa Rica: Ultimate National Parks Tour - 15 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Apr 24, 2019