This road trip itinerary is a truly off-the-beaten-path nature excursion. Head to the remote beaches and rainforest of the Osa Peninsula before a scenic drive up the Pacific coast. You'll experience white-sand beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park, along with the cloud forest ecosystem of Monteverde where you'll hike over the jungle canopy via suspension bridges. Finally, you'll pay a visit to Arenal, an active volcano and one of Costa Rica's most famous landmarks.

Highlights

  • Explore the Osa Peninsula, including biologically diverse Corcovado
  • Scuba dive in the protected marine reserve of Isla del Caño
  • Zip-line over the rainforest canopy in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
  • Brave the rapids on a whitewater rafting trip near the famous Arenal Volcano
  • Take a dip in La Fortuna Waterfall—the most famous falls in the country

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Costa Rica - Experience San José's Culture and History San Jose
Day 2 Fly to Osa Peninsula - Explore Puerto Jiménez Puerto Jiménez
Day 3 Corcovado National Park Hike Puerto Jiménez
Day 4 Scuba Diving Isla del Caño Corcovado National Park
Day 5 Drive from Puerto Jimenez to Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 6 Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 7 Drive from Manuel Antonio to Monteverde Monteverde
Day 8 Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve Guided Hike Monteverde
Day 9 Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 10 Drive to Arenal Volcano - Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 11 Whitewater Adventures at Arenal Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 12 Arenal Hanging Bridges - La Fortuna Waterfall Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 13 La Fortuna -> Drive back to San José San Jose
Day 14 Depart San José  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Costa Rica - Experience San José's Culture and History

The Edificio Correos (Post Office) in the city's center
The Edificio Correos (Post Office) in the city's center

Welcome to Costa Rica, the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaria International Airport, in the capital of 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 own pace.

Take a stroll through Mercado Central (Central Market), the largest in the city, with over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). These sodas are perfect spots for an inexpensive lunch of casado—a traditional dish of rice, beans, and meat, served with tortillas. Then visit the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Church), whose interior combines Greek Orthodox, Neoclassical, and Baroque styles, and features wood carvings and stained-glass windows.

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, you might want to 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. No matter where you go, though, the whole city is filled with delectable restaurants serving everything from traditional local to forward-thinking fusion cuisine.

Day 2: Fly to Osa Peninsula - Explore Bahía Drake

Corcovado National Park
Corcovado National Park

In the morning you'll board a flight to Bahía Drake (Drake Bay), one of the main villages on the secluded Osa Peninsula. This peninsula is located on the southern Pacific coast of the country, and while not inaccessible per se, it is one of the least developed regions in Costa Rica. It's also the gateway to the famed Corcovado National Park, located directly south of Drake. This famous protected area is known for its virgin rainforests and wind-swept beaches, which are all the more evocative due to the relative lack of crowds.

Upon arrival to Bahía Drake, you'll check into your hotel. You'll now have the entire day to relax and enjoy the beaches until your heart's content. At night, it's time to head out. Despite Drake's remoteness, there are a number of fine restaurants here, many of which are doing some of the best seafood in the country.

Day 3: Corcovado National Park Hike

You might spot a jaguar within the park
You might spot a jaguar within the park

This day trip into the rainforest is a chance to explore Parque Nacional Corcovado, home to a breathtaking range of wildlife, including the endangered giant anteater, harpy eagle, tapir, and felines like the jaguar, puma, and margay. From the hotel, you’ll take a 25-minute boat ride along the west coast of the Osa Peninsula. After the wet landing (boats go in stern first and drop you a few feet from the beach), you’ll begin the rainforest journey.

During the hike, your bilingual naturalistic guide will point out many of the diverse species along the trail. You may see capuchin, spider, and howler monkeys, as well as white-lipped peccaries, scarlet macaws, coati, and countless other birds and insects. The trails are clearly marked and easy to navigate, ascending and descending through the rainforest.

After the morning hike and break for lunch, you'll enjoy more wildlife sightings as you hike another trail to a cascading waterfall. There will be time to relax and swim in the refreshing natural pools here before you return to the ranger station and catch the boat back to the hotel. While on the water, be on the lookout for humpback whales or dolphins breaching and spinning in the ocean.

Day 4: Scuba Diving Isla del Caño

The marine reserve is home to various corals
The marine reserve is home to various corals

Today, you'll have the pleasure of exploring the waters of the Caño Island Biological Reserve on a scuba diving excursion. This protected marine area is located just off the northern tip of the Osa Peninsula, by Bahia Drake (Drake Bay). The area is home to an abundance of marine life including reef sharks, sea turtles, parrot fish, eels, manta rays, puffer fish, snappers, sea cucumbers, octopus, and many more. There's also a wide variety of coral-building organisms and 19 different species of coral, such as fan, head, and brain coral. 

You'll board a 30-foot Island Hopper and an expert will offer a safety lesson geared for all ages and experience levels. Then it's time to plunge into the water. Visibility is 30-100 feet throughout the year, making Caño Island a perfect site for underwater photography.

Day 5: Drive to Manuel Antonio

Beach on the Osa Peninsula
Beach on the Osa Peninsula

After a delicious breakfast, it's time to continue your trip—and now it's you behind the wheel. In the morning you'll transfer by boat to the village of Sierpe and pick up a rental car. Then you'll embark on the coastal road north to Manuel Antonio National Park. The drive is around two hours, but along the way you'll have time to stop at small coastal towns such as Uvita and Dominical.  

There are a handful of coves and bays around these little villages, many featuring white-sand beaches and turquoise waters. If you have time, do stop and explore the Marino Ballena National Park, which is also located in the Uvita area. It was named because of the humpback whales that migrate just offshore—get lucky and you might spot one or two.

You can spend the afternoon making pit stops along the coast at your leisure. Then check into your hotel in Manuel Antonio whenever you happen to arrive.

Day 6: Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park

Howler monkeys can be found in Manuel Antonio
Howler monkeys can be found in Manuel Antonio

Today you'll wake up early and explore the incredible biodiversity found within the roughly 680 hectares (1,680 acres) of Manuel Antonio National Park. This is a true natural 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. 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.

Day 7: Drive from Manuel Antonio to Monteverde

The Monteverde region of Costa Rica
The Monteverde region of Costa Rica

After breakfast, you’ll hop back in your rental and drive northwest to the highland rainforest region of Monteverde. The area is known for its sprawling cloud forests and diverse flora. Monteverde features the greatest number of orchid species on the planet—over 400—with new ones discovered regularly. 

After check-in at your hotel, you can spend the afternoon relaxing. Take the evening to enjoy nearby Santa Elena, a charming town with a heavy Quaker influence that’s known for excellent coffee and cheese. You'll find various restaurants here, including vegetarian options and those serving Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo (rice with chicken).

Day 8: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve Guided Hike

A hiking trail in Monteverde
A hiking trail in Monteverde

After breakfast at your hotel, you’ll transfer a short distance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the jewels in Costa Rica's ecological crown. Known as the "green lung of Costa Rica" due to its rich biodiversity, this 26,000-acre reserve is located high in the mountainous northwest region of the country, and thus receives much precipitation.

Besides offering sweeping views of misty cloud forest, the reserve is home to countless varieties of wildlife. More than 130 species of mammals live here, as do 400 bird species, including the aptly named resplendent quetzal. In other words, it's a nature lover’s paradise.

In the afternoon you'll return to your hotel and have the rest of the day to spend as you like.

Day 9: 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, and this makes sense considering that Monteverde is the birthplace of the canopy tour as we know it.

Day 10: Drive to Arenal Volcano - Hot Springs

Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano

After an early breakfast, you’ll be driving to the outskirts of Arenal Volcano National Park. This area is home to the 5,437-foot-high peak of the same name—it's one of Costa Rica’s most famed landmarks. After you arrive and check into your hotel, you can explore the area on your own schedule.

All that driving got you feeling stiff? Tonight, soothe your muscles with a dip in the mineral-rich waters of the natural hot springs at the Tabacón Resort. These geothermal pools are time-tested—they've been used as therapeutic baths for more than 200 years

In the evening, enjoy a traditional dinner next to the hot springs.

Day 11: Whitewater Adventures at Arenal

Whitewater rafting on the Balsa River
Whitewater rafting on the Balsa River

Steel yourself for a morning of whitewater rafting on the Balsa River. After breakfast, the local tour operator will pick you up in the hotel lobby. Be sure to wear clothes you don't mind getting wet, and bring along a spare set of dry ones. Pay close attention to the safety instructions your guide provides during the trip to the raft-launch site, and get set for plenty of rapids. 

After the adrenaline rush of your whitewater rafting trip, relax with a traditional Costa Rican lunch on the banks of the river. In the afternoon, we will drop you off at one of the wide variety of hot springs in Arenal (optional) to unwind and soothe your muscles in nature's own hydromassage.

Enjoy dinner back in La Fortuna. There are over a hundred restaurants in town, featuring everything from traditional Costa Rican fare to pizza and pasta.

Day 12: La Fortuna Waterfall - Free Afternoon

Hiking trails surrounded by tropical greenery
Hiking trails surrounded by tropical greenery

Today, you will experience the other star of the Arenal Volcano region: La Fortuna Waterfall. If Arenal is the most famous volcano in the country, then La Fortuna is easily the most famous waterfall. It's located a short 15-minute drive from the town of La Fortuna, at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano. The waters here plunge 210 feet 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.

Then it's back to your hotel where you'll spend the rest of the day unwinding. If you want to indulge in the hot springs one more time, no one will blame you.

Day 13: La Fortuna -> Drive back to San José

Cacao beans
Cacao beans

Enjoy your last morning in La Fortuna. Take a stroll around the central plaza, or re-visit the La Fortuna Waterfall.

If you like, you'll have enough time for a chocolate-making tour. In this hands-on program, you’ll learn about the origin, history, and production of one of Costa Rica's most famous exports: chocolate. You'll participate in the cacao harvest, as well as the drying and grinding of the seeds used to produce creamy cocoa butter. You'll learn how a traditional Costa Rican chocolate drink was developed centuries ago, and, of course, sample the freshly made chocolate.

After lunch, it's time to transfer back to San José and drop off your rental car. You'll still have much of the evening to explore the city and take advantage of anything you may have missed at the beginning of the trip.

Day 14: 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 - 14 Days
Map of Costa Rica Self-Drive Adventure - 14 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Jun 7, 2019