The Central American nation of Costa Rica may be small, but it boasts a diverse amount of wildlife. There are 850 bird species here alone, and you can witness the most exotic specimens on a cross-country road trip. Over 15 days, you'll visit some of the most remote mountain regions flourishing with the rarest species including motmots, herons, hummingbirds, and the iconic scarlet macaw.

Highlights

  • Hike along rainforest trails and view exotic bird species like macaws and toucans
  • Go on early-morning birding adventures to see exotic birds at their most active
  • Visit world-famous biological research stations that study tropical ecosystems
  • View the elusive resplendent quetzal in its natural habitat
  • Enjoy birdwatching on the Pacific coast and visit havens for scarlet macaws

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in San José - Transfer to Poás Poas National Park
Day 2 Transfer to Boca Tapada Boca Tapada
Day 3 Birding at Boca Tapada Boca Tapada
Day 4 Drive from Boca Tapada to Sarapiquí Sarapiquí
Day 5 Birding at a Biological Research Station Sarapiquí
Day 6 Morning Birding - Transfer to the Turrialba Valley Turrialba
Day 7 Morning Birding at Turrialba Turrialba
Day 8 Drive to the Talamanca Mountains San Gerardo de Dota
Day 9 Quetzal Safari in Los Quetzales National Park San Gerardo de Dota
Day 10 Transfer to Puntarenas Province Las Cruces
Day 11 Drive to Piedras Blancas La Gamba
Day 12 Early Birding on the Southern Pacific Coast La Gamba
Day 13 Transfer to T√°rcoles Tarcoles
Day 14 Morning Birding - Carara National Park Tarcoles
Day 15 Transfer to the Airport - Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in San José - Transfer to Poás

The impressive blue-throated toucanet
The impressive blue-throated toucanet

Welcome to Costa Rica!

After arriving at Juan Santamaría International Airport, in the capital of San José, you'll pick up your rental car and drive north 45 minutes to just outside the town of Poás. Located in the national park of the same name, the town is situated near the Poás Volcano and the northern Caribbean plains. Your destination is a remote mountain lodge perfect for birding.

After checking in, you'll be able to head out and explore on foot. Exotic bird species you might see around the lodge include the blue-throated toucanet, yellow-thighed finch, slaty flowerpiercer, ruddy-capped nightingale-thrush, gray-breasted wood-wren, hairy woodpecker, spot-crowned woodcreeper, flame-throated warbler, chestnut-capped brushfinch, mountain Elaenia, black guan, scintillant hummingbird, red-billed pigeon, and prong-billed barbet.

Just before dinnertime at the lodge, there's a good chance you'll see the bare-shanked screech-owl and dusky nightjar.

Day 2: Transfer to Boca Tapada

The reserve around Selva Lodge is home to toucans and other exotic birds
Boca Tapada is home to toucans and other exotic birds

Wake up and enjoy breakfast at your hotel. You'll then hop in your rental car and begin the drive north towards the Nicaraguan border. This is a scenic trip that lasts a little over two hours that passes by the rainforest-covered mountains of the Central Valley before reaching Costa Rica's northern plains.  

When lunchtime rolls around, do like the locals and pull off at one of the many roadside "sodas." These family-run eateries are the life-blood of the country and serve delicious homemade fare. Typical options include the casado, a combo plate featuring rice, beans, and your choice of chicken, beef, pork, or fish. 

Your drive continues to the Boca Tapada region, situated on the San Carlos River just a few kilometers south of the Nicaraguan border. This bucolic area is far off the tourist trail and offers secluded nature and a number of excursions, such as boat rides on the river and, of course, great birding. 

You'll be staying at a local eco-lodge in the rainforest that sits on almost 150 acres and is home to over 410 bird species. This makes for ideal conditions for nature photography, and it's the perfect spot for a birding excursion. There are even bird feeders in the gardens around the lodge, so you don't have to travel far to view some of the most exotic species. 

Day 3: Birding at Boca Tapada

Hummingbirds of Costa Rica
Hummingbirds of Costa Rica

Today's birding adventure starts early, at 5:30 am, when most of the birds in the area are waking up and beginning their daily routine. Along with a naturalist guide, you'll hike through the rainforest in search of both native and migratory species. Types of birds you can spot include the green macaw, scarlet macaw, toucans, oropendolas, honeycreepers, tanagers, euphonias, and jacamars.

You'll return to your ecolodge at 7:30 am to enjoy a delicious breakfast. As a bonus, you'll be able to see hummingbirds, woodpeckers, parrots, and toucans, fluttering right near the restaurant terrace as you eat. Next up is a brisk rainforest hike in which a knowledgable local guide reveals even more secrets about the jungle. Afterward, if you still have the energy, you can opt for an afternoon boat ride on the San Carlos River to observe more wildlife while floating down to the Nicaraguan border.

Day 4: Drive from Boca Tapada to Sarapiquí

Tanagers are common birds in Costa Rica
Tanagers are common birds in Costa Rica

In the morning you'll embark on a 1.5-hour drive east to the Sarapiqui region. It is known throughout Costa Rica for its rich biodiversity and thus is a prime destination for nature seekers. Upon arrival in town, you'll continue a short distance to your hotel and check-in. After that, you will have the afternoon at leisure to explore the surroundings. If you're up for some wildlife spotting, there are a number of sites within easy hiking distance.

At the La Tirimbina Rainforest Center, you can enjoy a self-guided hike along the nature trails within this 850-acre biological reserve. Their five miles of hiking trails pass through mid-elevation premontane forest and include hiking on suspension bridges that cross over the Sarapiquí River. A walk here is filled with unique rainforest vegetation as well as different species of wildlife and exotic birds. 

Later you can opt for a visit to Selva Verde, a lodge nestled within a 500-acre private reserve. In the evening, you'll have the option to join one of Selva Verde's on-site naturalists for a nocturnal nature tour, and they will point out exotic species like tree frogs, stick insects, kinkajous, bats, and spiders.

Day 5: Birding at a Biological Research Station

Blue heron
Blue heron

Today you'll arrive at a rainforest biological station that is one of the world's most important sites for tropical ecosystem research. Each year, more than 250 scientists from 25 countries and thousands of international students come here to study tropical ecology. Major research projects focus on forest dynamics, biodiversity, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestering, and native species reforestation. 

It's also one of the finest birdwatching locales in all of Costa Rica. Its excellent network of hiking trails run through a variety of habitats, from dense primary rainforest to open pastures and valleys. Birdwatching tours begin at 5:45 am and last approximately two hours. Some species that you can see include various herons, the bare-necked umbrellabird, red-capped manakin, and the rufous-tailed jacamar.

In the afternoon, you can enjoy the exotic scenery and abundant wildlife in the region on an optional horseback tour. Thrill-seekers can experience more adrenaline-fuelled activities such as whitewater rafting and zip-line canopy tours.

Day 6: Morning Birding - Transfer to the Turrialba Valley

The collared aracari
The collared aracari

Another fantastic day is in store as you awake early for a drive to La Tirimbina Rainforest Center for a morning birdwatching tour. Over the course of 2.5 hours, a local English-speaking guide will share their knowledge about the region and its wildlife as you hike along the river to primary and secondary forests in search of different species. Some of the birds you'll see are tanagers, honeycreepers, and herons. Other rare species include the sunbittern, snowy cotinga, collared aracari, and black-crested coquette. 

Afterward, you'll return the hotel for breakfast and then embark on a three-hour drive to Turrialba. Conveniently located between San Jos√© and the Caribbean coast, this region is known for its green rolling hills and volcano of the same name. Turrialba¬īs 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.

Your destination in Turrialba is a family-owned lodge on a 140-acre reserve. The main building is done in the Spanish-colonial style, and there's a large indoor/outdoor dining area offering great birding vantage points while you eat. The lodge also features a premier birding viewpoint upstairs in the ranch's main building.

Day 7: Morning Birding at Turrialba

The lanceolated monklet, a type of puffbird
The lanceolated monklet, a type of puffbird

The area around the lodge is home to many resident and migratory birds. Over 430 species have been recorded in this region, and today you can choose between four different birding tours accompanied by English-speaking guides. The options include: 

  • La Mina. This local birding spot is adjacent to a river and offers probably the best chance in Costa Rica to spot the elusive sunbittern. Other exotic river birds you can see here include the torrent tyrannulet, American dipper, migrant waterthrushes and the occasional tanager.
    Duration: 2+ Hours / Distance: 20 minutes from Rancho
  • R√≠o Tuis Valley. There's a hiking trail leading into the Zona Protectora Rio Tui, a vast forest reserve that takes up over 100,000 acres, and the birding is excellent all along it. Here there are flocks of tanagers and a variety of raptors while at higher altitudes you can see azure-hooded jays. It's also the most reliable locale in the country to spot the enigmatic lanceolated monklet.
    Duration: 2+ Hours / Distance: 20 minutes or less from Rancho Naturalista
  • C.A.T.I.E. The Centro Agron√≥mico Tropical de Investigaci√≥n y Ense√Īanza (C.A.T.I.E) offers a chance to see birds you won‚Äôt otherwise see at the ranch. These include aquatic birds like boat-billed herons and purple gallinules. Keep an out for green ibises feeding in the open on the grassy grounds. The wide-open setting here is also great for photography.
    Duration: 2+ Hours / Distance: 30 minutes from Rancho Naturalista
  • Base of Cerro Silencio. The base of Cerro Silencio mountain offers great birding including opportunities to see tanagers, red-fronted parrotlets, hawk-eagles and a host of other birds that thrive at higher altitudes. If you want to hike all the way up the mountain, it takes a full day.
    Duration: 2+ Hours / Distance: 30 minutes or so from Rancho

Day 8: Drive to the Talamanca Mountains

The elusive resplendent quetzal
The elusive resplendent quetzal

In the morning you'll continue your adventure with a 3.5-hour drive from Turrialba deep into the heart of the Talamanca Mountains and the community of San Gerardo de Dota. You can stop along the way for an optional visit to the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, the Irazu Volcano (11,259 feet3,432 meters). On this break from the road, you'll stroll the various hiking trails and can peer into the volcano's three volcanic craters. One of them even has an impressive turquoise lagoon in it. 

Afterward, you'll continue the drive southeast of San Jos√© to the city of Cartago, where you can visit the most famous church in¬†the country, the¬†Nuestra Se√Īora de los √Āngeles Basilica, and In the late afternoon, you'll reach San Gerardo de Dota. Enjoy the cool mist in this high-altitude valley surrounded by cloud forests brimming with oak trees. It's this unique forest that's the habitat of one of the most beautiful birds in the world, the resplendent quetzal.

After checking into your mountain hotel, you can spend the rest of the day relaxing. The hotel is remote, so we recommend enjoying dinner at its stellar restaurant. Be sure to sleep well and save energy because tomorrow we will look for the resplendent quetzal.

Day 9: Quetzal Safari in Los Quetzales National Park

The resplendent quetzal in flight
The resplendent quetzal in flight

The small town of San Gerardo de Dota sits next to a quiet road in the Talamanca Mountains. The main attraction here is Los 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.

In the morning you'll embark on an early (5 am) 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.

After the tour, you'll go back to your hotel for breakfast, and then you'll have the rest of the day free. You can choose between a number of leisure activities, be it hiking the trails around the hotel, lazing by the pool, or simply relaxing on the restaurant patio and looking for more birds.

Day 10: Transfer to Puntarenas Province

Butterfly species at the reserve include the exotic blue morpho
Butterfly species at the reserve include the exotic blue morpho

Wake up early, because today you have a four-hour drive waiting for you. This road trip will take you from the highlands of the country south along Ruta 2 to San Isidro del General. The town is centered around a lovely square with a landscaped park and large church. The highlight is a weekly farmers market with over 200 vendors selling every kind of fruit and vegetable you can imagine plus prepared foods and artisanal products. 

After a short break in town, you'll continue the drive to a biological research station located in Puntarenas Province. It's a nature reserve and research center encompassing 657 acres of unspoiled forest, which is home to over 400 species of birds, 100 species of mammals, and over 800 species of butterflies. Also within the station is a botanical garden which features hundreds of different plants from around the world in a 30-acre site. 

Day 11: Drive to Piedras Blancas

The scarlet-thighed dacnis
The scarlet-thighed dacnis

For your last morning at the biological station, you can embark on an optional two-hour birding tour accompanied by a local guide. If you don't want to travel far, you can stay close to the station. Feeders near the dining hall offer chances to see the scarlet-thighed dacnis, blue-crowned motmot, and various tanagers. After the tour, you'll enjoy breakfast at the lodge.

Upon checking out of your hotel, you'll embark on an hour drive west to a rainforest lodge located near Piedras Blancas National Park. Hidden away in the jungle, it's a hotspot for birders and nature lovers wishing to experience a remote rainforest environment undisturbed by mass tourism. The lodge offers a variety of tours and excursions including to the nearby Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park. Other activities include hiking, horseback riding, and kayaking off the coast.

Day 12: Early Birding on the Southern Pacific Coast

Red-capped manakin

Another great birding tour awaits in the form of a two-hour hike. With an experienced guide, you'll travel the forest trails in the Golfo Dulce region. There are many exotic species in the area, including trogons, motmots, woodpeckers, manakins, curassows, and the famous black-cheeked ant tanager. Animals sighted around the trails include agoutis, coatis, and caimans. The hike departs around 6 am and returns in time for breakfast. You can then spend the remainder of the day on optional nature excursions.

Day 13: Transfer to T√°rcoles

Scarlet macaws are common in T√°rcoles

Today you'll hop in your rental car and make the drive north to the central Pacific coast and the village of Tárcoles. Located within Carara National Park, Tárcoles is known for its colorful macaws as well as the giant crocodiles that congregate on the banks of the adjacent Tárcoles River. 

After checking into your eco-lodge, you'll be able to go on a birding excursion with a private guide. There are always interesting species on hand, like the chestnut-mandibled toucan, fiery-billed aracari, pale-billed woodpecker, and various types of trogons (slaty-tailed, gartered, black-headed, etc.). Plus, groups of scarlet macaws often fly overhead, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. 

The forest trails in this region are worth a visit because there's a good chance of spotting the long-tailed manakin, a colorful bird known for performing choreographed dances to attract females. You can also spot the black-faced antthrush and other interesting species. 

Day 14: Morning Birding - Carara National Park

The long-tailed manakin

Accompanied by your guide, you'll embark on a birding tour along the trails around your eco-lodge. There are always interesting species on hand, like the chestnut-mandibled toucan, fiery-billed aracari, pale-billed woodpecker, and various types of trogons (slaty-tailed, gartered, black-headed, etc.). Plus, groups of scarlet macaws often fly overhead, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. 

The small forest trail right behind the hotel is also worth a visit because there's a good chance of spotting the long-tailed manakin, a colorful bird known for performing choreographed dances to attract females. More than the manakin, this trail affords opportunities to spot the black-faced antthrush and other interesting species. 

After the tour, you'll have the rest of the day free to explore. We recommend visiting Carara National Park. This protected area encompasses 12,900 acres and includes both tropical dry scrub and southern Pacific rainforest, which makes it home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. Some 360 of birds call this area home, most famously the scarlet macaw. Travelers come from far and wide to see the largest remaining wild population of these birds in the country.

Day 15: Transfer to the Airport - Departure

Farewell, Costa Rica
Farewell, Costa Rica

After enjoying a leisurely breakfast at your hotel, you'll make the drive back to San José and Juan Santamaría International Airport. You'll then drop off your vehicle at the car rental service and transfer to the terminal to catch your flight home. We wish you a safe flight and hope to greet in Costa Rica again soon. Hasta luego and pura vida!

Map

Map of Costa Rica Self-Drive Birding Adventure - 15 Days
Map of Costa Rica Self-Drive Birding Adventure - 15 Days