This self-guided road trip is ideal for those who love adventure. Visit Costa Rica's highlights, from the famous Arenal Volcano to the misty cloud forests of Monteverde and powdery beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park. Along the way, you'll fly over the treetops on a zip line tour, swim in waterfall lagoons, and spot wildlife on nature walks and snorkeling excursions.

Highlights

  • Soak in natural hot springs at the base of Arenal Volcano
  • Traverse hanging bridges over the cloud forest in Monteverde
  • Learn the secrets of authentic Costa Rican cuisine in a cooking class
  • Kayak and snorkel off the coast in Manuel Antonio National Park

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San Jose
Day 2 Pick Up Rental Car - Drive to Arenal Volcano & Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 Arenal Hanging Bridges & Arenal 1968 Reserve Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Waterfall Hike & Cooking Class Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Drive from Arenal to Monteverde - Night Nature Tour Monteverde
Day 6 Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 7 Drive from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 8 Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 9 Sea Kayaking & Snorkeling at Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 10 Drive from Manuel Antonio to San José San Jose
Day 11 Depart San José  

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: 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 spring.  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 3: Arenal Hanging Bridges & Arenal 1968 Reserve

The hanging bridges at Mistico afford breathtaking views of Arenal and an astounding array of wildlife
The hanging bridges at Mistico afford breathtaking views of Arenal and an astounding array of wildlife

Head out early to Mistico Hanging Bridges Park, where visitors can wander along trails and kids will get a kick out of crossing 15 bridges—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.

Day 4: 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 5: Drive from Arenal to Monteverde - Night Nature Tour

Monteverde is popular for its canopy tours
Monteverde is popular for its canopy tours

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.

Day 6: Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest

Bridge walk, Monteverde
Bridge walk, Monteverde

Sky Adventures Monteverde Park is an aerial amusement park that literally raises jungle excitement to the next level. Its Sky Tram network of gondolas transport visitors from one adrenaline pumping activity to another.

First, you'll start with a guided Sky Walk, which combines trails and suspension bridges that ultimately reach heights of up to 984 feet above the jungle canopy. The flora and fauna of the region will be on full display, and our specialized guides will point out the most interesting specimens. Later, you'll ride in an open-air Sky Tram gondola. During this journey, you'll ascend over the rainforest and enjoy sweeping views over the mountains. 

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 at Sky Adventures' main building. Sky Trek is regarded as the most thrilling zip line in the country—it makes sense, considering that Monteverde is the birthplace of the canopy tour as we know it.

Day 7: Drive from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio

A Manuel Antonio resident just hanging around
A Manuel Antonio resident just hanging around

This morning, you'll drive from the highlands of Monteverde south into Punta Arenas Province and ultimately the central Pacific coast. That's where you'll find Manuel Antonio National Park, a tropical dream of a locale where you can unwind on one of four beautiful beaches. If you're hungry for more adventure, go for a hike on one of the park's many signposted trails. They afford prime views of capuchin monkeys, sloths, and over 200 species of birds. Snorkeling is also accessible from multiple points along the beaches. 

But before you arrive, you'll need to get behind the wheel and complete the 3.5-hour road trip. If you aren't squeamish, you can pull over at "crocodile bridge." Located on Route 34 on the Pacific coast, this bridge over the Río Tárcoles is a favorite spot of congregating crocodiles. Snap as many photos as you want, just don't get too close. 

If you're an avid surfer you'll definitely want to stop a little further down the coast at Jacó. This seaside party town is increasingly popular with wave riders due to its good surf conditions, so feel free to catch a wave or just enjoy a leisurely seaside lunch. But don't stay too long—there are beaches of equal and even greater beauty at Manuel Antonio, just another hour down the coast.

Day 8: Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park

Wild beaches of Manuel Antonio
Wild beaches of 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.

Day 9: Sea Kayaking & Snorkeling at Manuel Antonio

Explore the coral reef and abundant sea life together at Manuel Antonio National Park
Explore the coral reef and abundant sea life together at Manuel Antonio National Park

After breakfast at your hotel, take the day to enjoy Costa Rica’s Pacific coast in a two-person, open-seat ocean kayak. This guided adventure begins near Pez Vela Marina in Quepos and winds along Manuel Antonio's coastline, one of the most unforgettable stretches of coast the country.

There will be ample time to relax on the secluded beach of Biesanz Bay, where you can go for a swim and enjoy a picnic on the sand. You'll also have the chance to see the area's gorgeous coral reef and marine life during a snorkel journey along the shore.

Day 10: Drive from Manuel Antonio to San José

Farewell, Manuel Antonio
Farewell, Manuel Antonio

Today is your last full day in Costa Rica, so take the morning to relax at your hotel, visit the National Park, and enjoy the beach one final time. 

You can linger in Manuel Antonio till evening and then drive back to San José. Or, if you want to see more of the capital, then head back around noon and you'll have a chance to take a night tour of the city.  On this guided walking tour, you'll meet local vendors and taste authentic cuisine in the Mercado Central, check out architectural wonders including the National Theater, and savor a three-course gourmet meal paired with some of Costa Rica's best wine.

Day 11: 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 coffee shop, or browse some shops before boarding your flight home.

Map

Map of Costa Rica Self-Drive Adventure - 11 Days
Map of Costa Rica Self-Drive Adventure - 11 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Mar 18, 2019