Take an epic road trip through Costa Rica’s diverse landscapes on this 15-day self-drive adventure. Starting in the capital of San José, you'll drive from the sapphire rivers of Río Celeste to the lush lowlands of Boca Tapada, tour the farms and forests of Sarapiquí, and head for the Talamanca Mountains to birdwatch in Quetzales National Park. Then make your way to Uvita to unwind on the beaches of the southern Pacific coast, exploring the protected seas and rich marine life of Marino Ballena National Park.


  • Hike to the brilliant blue Río Celeste Waterfall
  • Float down the Boca Tapada on a river safari
  • Learn farm-to-table cooking in Sarapiquí
  • Search for the resplendent quetzal in the Talamanca Mountains
  • Sea kayak with dolphins & whales in Marino Ballena National Park

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San José
Day 2 Drive to Río Celeste Bijagua / Río Celeste
Day 3 Río Celeste Hike Bijagua / Río Celeste
Day 4 Drive to Boca Tapada, San Carlos & Night Walk Boca Tapada
Day 5 Safari Float Raft in Boca Tapada Boca Tapada
Day 6 Drive to Sarapiquí & Cooking Lessons Sarapiquí
Day 7 Chocolate Tour & Horseback Riding  Sarapiquí
Day 8 Butterfly Garden Tour & Drive to Turrialba Turrialba
Day 9 Free Day in Turrialba Turrialba
Day 10 Drive to Los Santos Area Savegre
Day 11 Quetzal Birdwatching Savegre
Day 12 Drive to Uvita Beach Uvita
Day 13 Sea Kayaking at Marino Ballena Marine Park Uvita
Day 14 Drive to San Jose San José
Day 15 Departure Costa Rica San José

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José

Welcome to Costa Rica!
Welcome to Costa Rica!

¡Bienvenidos a Costa Rica! After arriving at the airport, pick up your rental and head for your accommodation in the metropolitan capital of San José.

San José is home to almost two-thirds of the country's total population and vividly maintains its culture, art, and history. A myriad of theaters and museums make the capital a city full of treasures to enjoy. If you arrive early, feel free to explore the city at your leisure.

Be sure to visit Barrio Amón, a historic neighborhood that is 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 it a frequented bohemian district. 

For dinner, opt for a restaurant on the hills of Escazú. This elevated region on the western edge of the city offers breathtaking panoramic views of the valley below. That said, San José's culinary offerings cover everything from traditional Costa Rican food to forward-thinking fusion cuisine.

Day 2: Drive to Río Celeste

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

Today you'll drive three hours north to reach the Río Celeste area. Your destination is Bijagua de Upala, a village near the entrance of Tenorio Volcano National Park that's the perfect spot for a quiet getaway. As the gateway to the brilliant blue waters of the Río Celeste river, this little town has become more popular while keeping a rural feel, with stunning mountain scenery, fantastic bird watching, and friendly locals. Get settled in at your hotel, and rest up for a memorable hiking excursion in the morning. 

Day 3:  Río Celeste Hike

The stunning Río Celeste Waterfall

Today you'll experience one of the country's most beautiful waterways: the sky blue Río Celeste, located inside Tenorio Volcano National Park. Local legend has it that after God was done painting the sky he washed his paintbrushes in this river, hence the name, which translates to "River of the Sky." The scientific explanation says the vivid blue color is due to a mixture of sulfur and carbonate, which originates in the dormant Tenorio Volcano, located nearby. 

Hike the scenic rainforest trails of Tenorio National Park's cloud forest, stopping along the way at Los Teñideros, the site where two brooks meet and cause the chemical reaction that gives the river its electric turquoise color. You will then continue the hike until you reach the cherry on the cake, the spectacular Río Celeste Waterfall.

The river is surrounded by rainforest and is home to many species of wildlife including sloths, anteaters, and a variety of exotic birds. Despite Río Celeste's unparalleled beauty, this is one of the lesser-visited locations in Costa Rica, so you can avoid crowds and appreciate the untouched nature of your surroundings. After the hike, drive back to the hotel. The rest of the day is free to relax at your hotel or explore on your own.

Day 4: Drive to Boca Tapada, San Carlos & Night Walk

Boca Tapada is home to Toucans and other exotic birds
Boca Tapada is home to toucans and other exotic birds

Drive three hours east today to reach Boca Tapada, located in the northern lowlands near the mouth of the San Carlos River. This off-the-beaten-path part of Costa Rica is home to hundreds of pineapple and sugar cane plantations as well as a rich biodiversity of plants and animals. Boca Tapada is famous as one of the few remaining nesting sites of the endangered great green macaw. One of the area's newest additions is the Maquenque Eco Preserve, which has a mission of preserving the rare bird's habitat as well as other species whose habitat is dependent on the wetlands around Boca Tapada.

In the evening, experience the forest coming to life after dark with an unforgettable guided night walk. Visit the gardens and the hotel ́s forest, where you can experience the sights and sounds of alligators, frogs, nocturnal birds, snakes, and spiders, as your naturalist guide shares fascinating information on the area's flora and fauna. 

Day 5: Safari Float Raft in Boca Tapada

Safari Float Raft
Float down the Boca Tapada river

This morning you can enjoy the tranquility of the rainforest with a trip down the Tres Amigos River by raft, spotting exotic animals like crocodiles, tortoises, iguanas, monkeys, and waterfowl along the way.

During this tour, your naturalist guides will explain how to paddle and manage your canoes safely, as well as providing lots of interesting information about the region and its wildlife.

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Day 6: Drive to Sarapiquí & Cooking Lesson

Hanging bridges in Sarapiquí

Today you'll embark on a 1.5-hour drive southeast to the Sarapiquí region. Located in the Heredia province, Sarapiquí is known for its rich biodiversity and adventure activities, making it a prime destination for nature seekers. Surrounded by lush green forests and banana and cacao plantations, Sarapiquí boasts several private nature reserves such as La Tirimbina and La Selva. As one of Costa Rica’s last remaining areas of primary rainforest, it's also home to over half of the country’s total species of birds. The species diversity is astounding, with more than 1,850 plants, 448 birds, 70 bats, and five of Costa Rica’s six felines.

In the afternoon, take an unforgettable cooking lesson to learn about Costa Rican agriculture and cuisine. You'll visit an organic farm to see production techniques, help harvest produce from the field, and learn how to create delicious traditional dishes. After helping to cook a meal in a traditional firewood kitchen, you'll sit down and enjoy the finished products.

Day 7: Chocolate Tour & Horseback Riding 

Saddle up and ride into the Costa Rican countryside

This morning you'll learn all about the rich and extraordinary history of the cacao tree in Costa Rica. The tour includes a guided walk across the Tirimbina Hanging Bridge to an old cacao plantation, as well as through a forested section where you will observe how the product originally developed here. A guide will reveal the secrets of transforming cacao fruit into chocolate, as you experience the chocolate-making process first-hand and even have the opportunity to treat your taste buds to real organic rainforest chocolate!

In the afternoon, saddle up for a horseback riding adventure. You'll begin at the barn, where you'll be assigned all the necessary equipment and a horse that matches your experience and ability. Learn the basics of horse handling and safety before mounting up for some practice in the corral. When you're ready, it's time to head out with your horse onto trails that run through pastureland, jungle, and rivers. Accompanied by a guide and wrangler, you'll have a unique opportunity to see some of Costa Rica’s beautiful countryside and may even spot birds and other wildlife. 

Day 8: Butterfly Garden Tour & Drive to Turrialba

Learn about butterflies at the Pierella Ecological Garden

Hit the road again this morning, stopping first for a visit to the Pierella Ecological Garden. Pierella is a family-owned destination where you can learn about butterflies in their natural habitat. Here, view the entire life cycle of these beautiful insects and learn of their importance to tropical ecosystems. The garden is immersed in dense rainforest, away from roads and residential areas, making it a haven for native birds and wildlife. After learning about the butterflies, you can go for a walk around the trails, where your hosts will point out other animals such as sloths, frogs, and insects. At the end of the tour, have a delicious regional lunch.

After lunch, continue to Turrialba, located in the rural part of the Cartago Province. Conveniently located between San José and the Caribbean coast, this region is known for its green rolling hills and volcano of the same name. Turrialba´s rich volcanic soil is ideal for the growth of coffee, sugar cane, macadamia, and other crops. It's also famous for cheesemaking and open-air fruit and vegetable markets that offer some of the best produce in Costa Rica.

This charming little town is also home to an important pre-colonial archeological site. Guayabo is Costa Rica’s only pre-Columbian site that is open to public access, and these ruins provide a fantastic insight into what life circa 1000 BCE to 1400 CE must have been like.

Day 9: Free Day in Turrialba

See exotic birds in the gardens of CATIE

Today is free for you to explore Turrialba at your own pace. Fun local excursions include:

  • Rafting the Pejibaye River. This is a rafting adventure fit for the entire family as you'll travel through easy yet exciting class II and III rapids. In between the rapids you can jump out of the boat and go for a swim.
  • An archeological hike to Guayabo de Turrialba. Sitting in the shadow of the Turrialba Volcano, this ancient city was once home to over 10,000 indigenous people who mysteriously vanished just before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. The ruins here are Costa Rica's most important archaeological site, and they've been declared a national monument. A guide will walk you through the park while explaining the findings of the excavations and the history of the people that once lived there. 
  • A tropical plantation tour to the campus headquarters of Costa Rica's Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE). Accompanied by a local guide, you'll tour the property and visit nearby coffee plantations and sugar cane fields. You'll also visit CATIE's interactive botanical garden, which features an abundance of exotic tropical fruits, medicinal plants, lurid orchids, bromeliads, and a century-old kapok tree. 

Day 10: Drive to Los Santos Area

The lush Talamanca Mountains

Today you will continue your journey south, traveling about three hours south to the Los Santos area, nestled in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountain Range. The surrounding region is a famous birding destination, mostly because here you can find the shy and much-coveted resplendent quetzal. The Savegre River, one of the cleanest rivers on the planet, also passes through this region and is a popular fishing spot due to its abundance of trout. This area is also home to Los Quetzales National Park and is known for its high-quality coffee production.

After checking into your accommodation, you'll have the afternoon to relax or go out and explore the area on your own.

Day 11: Quetzal Birdwatching

Today's main attraction is Quetzales National Park, famous among birding enthusiasts as one of the best places to view the resplendent quetzal. With its vivid green and red plumage, it has an earned reputation as one of the world's most beautiful birds.

Embark on an early birding tour in search of the resplendent quetzal. You stand a good chance of spotting one, as the cool climate in this higher-altitude region is attractive to the quetzal, as are the berries produced by the many aguacatillo trees here. With its metallic green plumage, crimson breast, and long, flowing tail feathers, watching a quetzal soar through the air is a unique and breathtaking experience.

Day 12: Drive to Uvita Beach

Photo taken by Bianca C
Whales and dolphins can be seen most of the year in Marino Ballena National Park

Located on Costa Rica's south Pacific coast, the small town of Uvita is your destination today. Home to small shops, bars, and restaurants, the quiet and idyllic town stretches from the mountains to the beach and serves as the primary entrance to the beautiful Marino Ballena National Park. Protecting both coastline and sea, the park is most well-known for the humpback whales that migrate here annually to rear their young. The backdrop for the area is just as spectacular, with towering lush green mountains shrouded in clouds that quickly descend to sea level. Dolphins and whales can be observed most of the year, except for May and June. The best months are August, September, and October, followed by January and February.

Day 13: Sea Kayak & Snorkel at Marino Ballena Marine Park

Kayak and snorkel in the protected waters of Marino Ballena National Park

Today you'll enjoy some sea kayaking and snorkeling with a local guide. After breakfast, head to Marino Ballena National Park, which is located on the southern side of Punta Uvita (better known as the "whale's tail"). This kayak trip starts at low tide, as the waves on this beach are calmer during this time and allow for some good snorkeling out at the reef. After 30-45 minutes of paddling, you'll be treated to sweeping views of the Costa Rican mountains back on shore. Upon arrival at the reef, your guide will offer brief instructions for snorkeling, at which point you can dive in. The snorkeling excursion typically lasts from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, and you're likely to see lots of diverse marine life.

Kayaking continues to a small mangrove forest, where you can spot sea birds, toucans, and some small reptiles before heading back to shore.

Day 14: Drive to San José

 San José's Teatro Nacional
 San José's Teatro Nacional

Today you'll leave the beach paradise of Uvita and drive back to civilization in San José. After checking in at your hotel, you'll have the rest of the day to explore and catch any of the sites and museums you may have missed the first time around.

Day 15: Depart Costa Rica

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 the city, relax in a café, or browse some shops before driving to the airport to return your rental car and board your flight home. Safe travels!

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