This 9-day self-drive adventure covers three of Costa Rica's most distinct, exotic, and naturally beautiful regions: Arenal Volcano National Park, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and the Guanacaste Province's Pacific coast. Set off from the capital of San José to explore the lush jungles and imposing volcanoes of Arenal, then make your way to the cloud forests of Monteverde for zip-lining and wildlife spotting. Head for the coast to end your trip on the spectacular beaches of the Guanacaste Province, where you can surf, snorkel, and go dolphin watching on a sunset catamaran cruise.

Highlights

  • Enjoy river rafting & waterfall hikes in Arenal Volcano National Park
  • Zip-line over the cloud forest canopy in Monteverde
  • See nocturnal wildlife up close on an evening jungle tour
  • Take a sunset catamaran cruise around the Gulf of Papagayo
  • Relax on the Guanacaste Province's picture-perfect beaches

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San José
Day 2 San Jose Transfer to Arenal, Rafting on the Río Balsa Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 La Fortuna Waterfall - Free Afternoon Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Arenal to Monteverde by Boat with Nocturnal Nature Tour Monteverde
Day 5 Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 6 Monteverde Transfer to the Gulf of Papagayo Gulf of Papagayo
Day 7 Beach Day & Sunset Catamaran Sail in Guanacaste Gulf of Papagayo
Day 8 Free Day in Papagayo Gulf of Papagayo
Day 9 Transfer to San José, Depart Costa Rica  

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 Transfer to Arenal, Rafting on the Río Balsa

Rio Balsa's rapids are calm enough for beginners to enjoy
Rio Balsa's rapids are calm enough for beginners to enjoy

After an early breakfast at the hotel, you'll drive to the area surrounding Arenal Volcano National Park, home of the 5,437-foot (1,657 m) high peak that is one of Costa Rica's most famed landmarks—and until 2010, the country's most active volcano. 

First, though, you'll stop for a rafting adventure on the Río Balsa, the perfect river for beginners and families with younger children as the class II and III rapids are exciting but not dangerous. After a lesson from your professional guide, you'll begin your journey on the water. Your guide will point out monkeys, sloths, and toucans during the excursion, which includes a stop along the riverside for a delicious lunch and tropical fruit snack. 

After the trip, you'll continue to your hotel in La Fortuna. In the evening, you can soothe your muscles with a relaxing dip in one of the many mineral-rich hot springs in the area, and enjoy a leisurely dinner at one of the town's many restaurants. Some local favorites include: 

  • Don Rufino, which serves a mix of local and international flavors in charming digs that include an open-air bar overlooking the main street.

  • 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.

  • Ave Del Paraíso offers daily theme dinners such as Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean, and Costa Rican.

Day 3: La Fortuna Waterfall - Free Afternoon

The beautiful La Fortuna Waterfall.
The beautiful La Fortuna Waterfall.

Today, you'll experience the other star of the Arenal region: La Fortuna Waterfall. Located a 15-minute drive from the town of La Fortuna, at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano, the waters here plunge 210 feet (64 m) into a tropical lagoon, and a 500-step downhill hike provides the opportunity to see the falls from the bottom up. Besides taking photos, be sure to swim and relax in the La Fortuna River below the falls.

The afternoon is free for you to enjoy as you please. If you want to get close to the volcano, kayaking on Lake Arenal provides spectacular views of its peak, as does a mountain bike ride through the park toward the village of El Castillo. Or, opt for a zip-lining tour through the forest canopy, where you'll cross canyons, and take in the Fortuna and Pino Blanco Waterfalls, along with the majestic Arenal Volcano.

Day 4: Arenal to Monteverde by Boat with Nocturnal Nature Tour

A guide will point out animals like sloths during the night tour
A guide will point out animals like sloths during the night tour

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 favorites like ceviche and arroz con pollo (rice with chicken). Local restaurant suggestions include: 

  • Grab a seat on the front porch of local favorite Orchid Coffee, which serves a menu of smoothies, salads, and sandwiches. Sweet-toothed visitors will appreciate the café's extensive hot chocolate menu made with Costa Rican chocolate and mixed with unique ingredients like cardamom and orange. 

  • El Jardin Bar & Restaurant wins visitors over with its lovely setting overlooking the trees, friendly service, and fresh homemade bread served alongside every meal.

  • Built around an old higueron (fig) tree, the Tree House Restaurant & Café serves well-prepared Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo in a romantic, open-air setting.

This evening, you'll have the chance to see the wildlife of the Cloud Forest Reserve at their most active on a guided night tour. A naturalist will point out sloths, armadillos, and kinkajous, as well as sleeping birds. You'll have the chance to hear and see different animals than during the daytime, like agoutis, porcupines, gray foxes, tarantulas, and frogs.

Day 5: Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest

One of the cloud forest's high-altitude suspension bridges
One of the cloud forest's high-altitude suspension bridges

Today is devoted to an adrenaline-pumping zip-line ride through the cloud forests of Monteverde. 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 your specialized guides will point out the most interesting specimens and residents of the forest's remarkable ecosystem.

Upon reaching the end of the line, the 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. Monteverde's zip-line excursions are considered the most thrilling in the country and are an unmissable highlight of any Costa Rican vacation.

Day 6: Monteverde Transfer to the Gulf of Papagayo

The golden hills and dry forest of Guanacaste Province
The golden hills and dry forest of Guanacaste Province

Road trip time! This four-hour drive takes you west into Guanacaste Province, past volcanic mountain ranges, flatlands, and villages as you head toward Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Stop for a bite and enjoy a traditional lunch or maybe a batido (fresh fruit smoothie). As the plains and tropical dry forests slowly give way to azure seas, you'll arrive at your destination—the Gulf of Papagayo, where you'll check into your hotel. 

You can spend the remainder of the day relaxing on the tranquil beach, enjoying a beer at one of the local beach bars, or kayaking around the bay.

Day 7: Beach Day & Sunset Catamaran Sail in Guanacaste

There's no shortage of stunning beaches in Guanacaste
There's no shortage of stunning beaches in Guanacaste

There's no shortage of secluded bays and inviting beaches in Guanacaste Province. And after so much activity, you're likely eager for a day relaxing on the sand. If you happen to be a surfer (or just want to learn), Papagayo is the place. You'll find both beginner and advanced waves in the village of Tamarindo, as well as a number of surf schools. This laid-back surfer haven is also home to some of the best restaurants in the country. 

In the afternoon, you'll board a catamaran for a sunset sail. The ship will stop in a tranquil bay, drop anchor, and you'll explore the crystalline waters while the crew prepares a dinner feast. While you eat, enjoy the sunset over the Pacific horizon while keeping a sharp eye out for dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, or even a breaching whale.

Day 8: Free Day in Papagayo

Sensoria, in Rincón de la Vieja National Park
Sensoria, in Rincón de la Vieja National Park

Today can be as relaxing or adventurous as you like. If you've had enough of the beaches, opt for an outing to Rincón de la Vieja National Park and hike a jungle trail called Sensoria. It's part of a wildlife sanctuary featuring waterfalls that plunge into turquoise lagoons. Or, you can experience the rainforest from the water during a two-hour safari float down the Corobicí River, where a guide will point out monkeys, bats, lizards, and even crocodiles. 

An optional excursion is a guided trip down the Tenorio River, whose class III-IV rapids make for the best rafting in the Guanacaste area. After a challenging journey down the rapids led by experts, you'll enjoy lunch before heading back to your hotel in time to catch the sunset.

Day 9: Transfer to San José, Depart Costa Rica

Adiós Costa Rica!
Adiós Costa Rica!

It's time to say adiós to Costa Rica! After breakfast, you'll begin the hour-long drive to Liberia and the airport. Catch your flight to San José, and connect to your international flight home.

Map

Map of Costa Rica Road Trip: Volcanoes, Cloud Forests & Pacific Beaches - 9 Days
Map of Costa Rica Road Trip: Volcanoes, Cloud Forests & Pacific Beaches - 9 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Oct 29, 2020