This 10-day self-drive itinerary takes you off the beaten path to discover Costa Rica's highlights at your own pace. After an evening in San José, embark from the capital and drive north to explore the cloud forests of Monteverde by zip-line. Journey west to the Pacific coast and the surf village of Tamarindo for sea kayaking and wildlife spotting, then make your way inland to La Fortuna. Here you'll explore the lush landscapes of Arenal Volcano National Park, hike the brilliant blue Río Celeste, and visit a working coffee plantation.

Highlights

  • Drive to Monteverde & enjoy a canopy zip-line tour
  • Try surfing & sea kayaking along the coast of Tamarindo
  • Visit a working coffee farm & learn the secret to great Costa Rican brew
  • Discover the waterfalls & hot springs of Arenal Volcano National Park

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San José
Day 2 San José to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 3 Sky Tram & Suspension Bridge Walk Monteverde
Day 4 Monteverde Transfer to Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 5 Private Surf Lesson at Playa Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 6 Beach Day & Sunset Catamaran Sail in Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 7 Tamarindo to La Fortuna via Rio Celeste Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 8 Coffee Farm Tour & Tabacon Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 9 La Fortuna - Drive back to San José San José
Day 10 Depart San José  

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 José to the Monteverde Cloud Forest

La Paz is famous for its waterfalls
La Paz is famous for its waterfalls

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. Suggested restaurants include:

  • 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 treetop 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: Sky Tram & Suspension Bridge Walk

Explore the cloud forests from above
Explore the cloud forests from above

Sky Adventures Monteverde Park is an aerial amusement park that 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 (300 m) above the jungle canopy. The region's flora and fauna will be on full display, and your 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 across the mountains. 

Arriving at the end of the line, the exhilarating adventure of whizzing down the mountain begins. Connect to a zip-line cable that stretches over rainforest treetops and across clifftops, finally returning you to the starting point. Sky Trek is known as the most thrilling zip line in the country, and Monteverde is renowned as the birthplace of the canopy tour in Costa Rica.

Day 4: Monteverde Transfer to Tamarindo

Playa Tamarindo on Costa Rica's Pacific coast
Playa Tamarindo on Costa Rica's Pacific coast

It's time to leave the hilltops of Monteverde as you travel east. The landscapes will change as you leave the rainforests behind and enter the tropical dry forest and vast savannahs of Guanacaste Province. After three hours, you'll enter Liberia, the region's capital.

Continue onward over paved and dirt roads towards the Nicoya Peninsula. After an hour, you'll arrive at the ocean and your destination: the popular surf haven of Tamarindo. This small community teems with activity, famous for its sunny beaches and world-class surf.

Day 5: Private Surf Lesson at Playa Tamarindo

A surfer at sunset on Playa Tamarindo
A surfer at sunset on Playa Tamarindo

In the morning, enjoy a private surf lesson on Playa Tamarindo. Take the rest of the day to practice riding the waves on your own, or enjoy some well-deserved relaxation on the beach. 

A must-visit spot near Tamarindo for more experienced surfers is Playa Naranjo, which locals have nicknamed "Witch's Rock." It's located in a national park, is accessible only by boat, and features big surf with both left and right breaking waves. A few miles beyond, you'll reach Ollie's Point, another excellent surf locale.

You can also take a yoga class at one of Tamarindo's studios, stroll through town, or enjoy a meal at a local café.

Day 6: Beach Day & Sunset Catamaran Sail in Tamarindo

Keep an eye out for dolphins on the tour
Keep an eye out for dolphins on the tour

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), Tamarindo is the place. You'll find both beginner and advanced waves here, 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 7: Tamarindo to La Fortuna via Rio Celeste

A bridge over the brilliant blue Río Celeste
A bridge over the brilliant blue Río Celeste

Today you'll start heading to Arenal, but stop along the way for a hike in Río Celeste, one of the true natural wonders of Costa Rica. The river's electric blue hue is the result of a mixture of sulfur and carbonate, which is produced by the nearby Tenorio Volcano. You'll trek along the river, hiking rainforest trails for approximately four hours. You'll trek alongside on rainforest trails for approximately four hours. Eventually, you'll reach the jewel in the crown of this river: the Río Celeste Waterfall.

After the hike, get back on the road and drive two hours southeast to Arenal Volcano National Park and the town of La Fortuna. For dinner, choose from one of the town's 100+ restaurants. Solid options include: 

  • Don Rufino, an upscale grill serves up big portions with a decent wine list and vegetarian options.

  • Café Mediterraneo, for Italian classics like homemade fresh pasta and wood-fired pizza.

  • Rancho Perla, a ranch-style eatery serving Costa Rican staples like beef, chicken, and seafood. Get lucky, and you might spot toucans, iguanas, and even sloths in the trees near your table.

Day 8: Coffee Farm Tour & Tabacon Hot Springs

Learn about the coffee harvesting process, from farm-to-cup
Learn about the coffee harvesting process, from farm-to-cup

This morning you'll head to a local farm for a tour centered around one of Costa Rica's most famous exports: coffee. You'll participate in the entire farm-to-cup process, from picking the beans to roasting. 

Afterward, spend the evening relaxing with a dip in the mineral-rich waters of Tabacon's hot springs, used as therapeutic baths for more than 200 years. Tabacon Thermal resort also offers day passes and includes a spa where treatments are given in rustic bungalows.

Day 9: La Fortuna - Drive back to San José

La Fortuna Waterfall lies at the base of a dormant volcano
La Fortuna Waterfall lies at the base of a dormant volcano

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. 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 some delicious freshly made chocolate.

After lunch, it's time to drive 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 10: 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 café, or browse some shops before boarding your flight home.

Map

Map of Costa Rica Self-Drive Adventure: Monteverde, Tamarindo & Arenal - 10 Days
Map of Costa Rica Self-Drive Adventure: Monteverde, Tamarindo & Arenal - 10 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Oct 28, 2020