This itinerary is perfect for those who want a vacation filled with tropical beauty and adventure. Take a self-drive tour of Costa Rica that begins in the cloud forests of Monteverde, where you can hike over suspension bridges and zip-line over the forest canopy. Then it's off to Arenal Volcano National Park—your days here will be spent trekking around the base of the volcano, soaking in natural hot springs, and embarking on waterfall hikes.

Highlights

  • Fly over the treetops on a zip-line canopy tour in Monteverde
  • Soak in natural hot springs at the base of Arenal Volcano
  • Brave whitewater rapids on a rafting trip down the Balsa River
  • Try your hand at making (and tasting) chocolate in La Fortuna

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San Jose
Day 2 San José to Monteverde Monteverde
Day 3 Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 4 Monteverde -> Drive to Arenal Volcano & Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Volcano Hike & Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 6 Arenal Free Day Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 7 La Fortuna - Drive back to San José San Jose
Day 8 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: San José to Monteverde

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

After breakfast, pick up your rental car for your 3-hour drive north from the central valley into Guanacaste Province and the Monteverde region.

This being Costa Rica, there's no shortage of ecological wonderland between the capital and Monteverde. So feel free to stop and take in the sights along the way. Just north of San José, for example, you'll find  La Paz Waterfall Gardens. 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 hummingbird garden.

Further along on your road trip, you can also stop at "Crocodile Bridge." Located right before you reach the Pacific coast on Route 34, 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.

Eventually, you'll arrive in the Monteverde region, famous for the 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, a rare and exotic bird. The reserve’s marked trails also highlight the greatest number of orchid species on the planet (a whopping 500!) with new types discovered regularly. 

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 café’s 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 & Café is built around an old higueron (fig) tree, and serves well-prepared Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo in a romantic, open-air setting.

Day 3: 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 4: Monteverde -> Drive to Arenal Volcano & Hot Springs

Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano

Today, you'll hit the road again. Travel northeast to the town of La Fortuna, located in Arenal Volcano National Park. Monteverde and Arenal may be close on the map, but this 3.5-hour trip will take you almost the entire way around Lake Arenal

Naturally, the long drive allows for some great opportunities to stop off and enjoy the countryside. 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. 

You can also make a short detour to Tenorio National Park, as it's located just north of the lake. This protected area is famously home to the Río Celeste, which some regard as the most beautiful river in the country (it's certainly one of the most popular). The river gets its celestial blue hue from a rare combination of minerals, and there's a fairytale waterfall at the end of a hiking trail. 

The hike to the waterfall is 3.7 miles roundtrip. It can be completed in about three hours, so it makes for a good side excursion. That said, the trail can get muddy (especially during the rainy season from May to mid-November), which can slow things down. 

For lunch, you can do like the locals and pull off at one of the many roadside sodas. Typical options at these 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 La Fortuna, which sits in the shadow of Volcan Arenal, a 1,633-foot (5,357-foot) volcano. After checking into your hotel, you can enjoy views of the volcano from your balcony or as you relax in a jacuzzi. If you have the energy after your drive, you can also enjoy a zip-line tour over the jungle canopy. For a soothing experience, soak in one of the many naturally heated geothermal pools located at the base of Arenal.

Day 5: Volcano Hike & Hot Springs

A hot spring near Arenal
A hot spring near Arenal

After breakfast, take the morning to relax. In the early afternoon, you'll visit Arenal Volcano National Park to walk on the lava flow of 1968, the year of the last major eruption of the volcano. The event was so catastrophic that it transformed some of the region’s topography: lava fields now dominate one side of Arenal. Trails wind through those lava fields as well as the surrounding rainforest. Along the way, you'll find lookout points featuring prime views of the volcano. 

After hiking the trails, soothe your muscles with a dip in the mineral-rich waters by visiting one of the hot springs in the area.  These hot springs have been used as therapeutic baths for more than 200 years, and the resort includes a spa where various treatments, like couples massages, are performed in outdoor bungalows.

You can choose to end the day with a nice dinner at the resort’s restaurant, which serves Costa Rican dishes as well as international fare.

Arenal Volcano Hike: 2 hours

Day 6: Arenal Free Day

Go on a whitewater rafting adventure
Go on a whitewater rafting adventure

Today you'll have a free to enjoy as you see fit. There's quite a bit to see and do in the Arenal region. One activity that's always enjoyable is a zip-line tour. There's nothing quite like flying over the treetops with a birds-eye-view of Costa Rica.

If you're interested in something even more adventurous, try whitewater rafting on the Balsa or Sarapiquí Rivers. After a lesson from your professional guide, you'll begin your two-hour journey down one of Costa Rica’s most exciting rivers with over 30 class III and IV rapids. About halfway through your trip, you’ll stop on shore for a traditional Costa Rican lunch. After the second leg of the rafting journey, you’ll transfer back to your hotel.

Day 7: La Fortuna - Drive back to San José

La Fortuna Waterfall
La Fortuna Waterfall

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

If you're interested, 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. Learn how a traditional Costa Rican chocolate drink was developed centuries ago—and, of course, sample 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 8: 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 - 8 Days
Map of Costa Rica Self-Drive Adventure - 8 Days