Combine a beach holiday and jungle adventure in one self-drive vacation. Arrive in Liberia and head to Tenorio National Park, where you'll hike along the electric blue waters of the Río Celeste. Next up is Arenal Volcano National Park, a hotbed of adventure activities. After a waterfall trek and whitewater rafting excursion, drive to Monteverde for a zip-line tour of the cloud forest canopy and a guided wildlife night hike. Finally, it's off to the beaches of Sámara and Tamarindo on the Nicoya Peninsula for surfing and relaxation.

Highlights

  • Experience hot springs, waterfalls, and whitewater in Arenal
  • Zip over the Monteverde Cloud Forest on a canopy tour
  • Visit the charming beach towns of Costa Rica's Pacific coast
  • Take a private surf lesson at Playa Tamarindo

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Costa Rica - Experience San José's Culture and History San Jose
Day 2 Drive to Arenal, Rafting on Rio Balsa Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 Waterfall Canyoning Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Horseback Riding in Arenal Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Boat from Arenal to Monteverde - Nocturnal Nature Tour Monteverde
Day 6 Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 7 Monteverde to Playa Sámara Playa Sámara
Day 8 Sámara Beach Free Day Playa Sámara
Day 9 Sámara to Playa Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 10 Private Surf Lesson at Playa Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 11 Kayaking at Tamarindo Estuary Tamarindo
Day 12 Depart Costa Rica from Liberia  

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 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: Drive to Arenal, Rafting on Rio Balsa

Rio Balsa's rapids are calm enough for beginners to enjoy
Rio Balsa's rapids are calm enough for beginners to enjoy

After an early breakfast at the hotel, you’ll drive to the area surrounding Arenal Volcano National Park, home of the 5,437-foot-high peak that is one of Costa Rica’s most famed landmarks—and until 2010, the country’s most active volcano. 

First, though, you'll stop for a rafting adventure on the Rio Balsa, the perfect river for beginners and families with younger children as the class II and III rapids are exciting but not dangerous. After a lesson from your professional guide, you'll begin your journey on the water. You guide will point out monkeys, sloths, and toucans during the trip, which includes a stop along the riverside for a delicious lunch and tropical fruit snack. 

After the trip, you'll continue on to your hotel in La Fortuna.

Day 3: Waterfall Canyoning

Off into the canyons
Off into the canyons

Today you will participate in an unforgettable adventure: rappelling down the sheer face of a 165-foot (55-meter) waterfall. After hiking into a canyon at the heart of the rainforest and traveling along winding rivers, you'll reach your destination. Now it's time to rappel down the plunging falls under the watchful eye of expert guides. Never rappelled? Not to worry—there's no experience necessary and the minimum age is 13 years old (exceptions can be made for some 12-year-olds).

Canyoning duration: Four hours

Day 4: Horseback Riding in Arenal

This three-hour ride takes you along ancient paths and up the mountain
This three-hour ride takes you along ancient paths and up the mountain

Today's 3-hour horseback ride takes you along the ancient paths surrounding the Arenal Volcano. The trip begins at the stables where a seasoned guide will help riders saddle up. From the base of the mountain, the group will travel up through secondary forests, cattle fields, and a primary forest that takes you through a lagoon. Along the way, your guide will point out the local flora and fauna. Continue upwards until you reach the highest point where you'll be met with incredible views of Arenal (be sure to bring your camera). After taking in the scenery, you'll make your way back down the mountain. The rest of the day is yours to spend at leisure around La Fortuna.  

Day 5: Boat from Arenal to Monteverde - Nocturnal Nature Tour

Cloud forest in Monteverde
Cloud forest in Monteverde

After breakfast at your resort in La Fortuna, you'll transfer to the Monteverde region of Costa Rica. This is no ordinary route: you'll skip the drive and board a boat, which will take you across the tranquil waters of Lake Arenal. On this 3.5-hour boat ride, you'll have ample opportunity to spot local birds like herons and anhingas. 

When you arrive at Monteverde, take the afternoon and evening to enjoy nearby Santa Elena, a charming town with Quaker influences known for excellent coffee and cheese. There are also plenty of dining options featuring delectable Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo (rice with chicken).

In the evening, spot nocturnal wildlife at its most active on a guided night tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. A naturalist will point out sloths, armadillos, and kinkajous, as well as sleeping birds and frogs.

Night hike: Two hours

Day 6: 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 7: Monteverde to Playa Sámara

Samara: paradise at the Pacific Coast
Samara: paradise at the Pacific Coast

Today the Pacific Coast is in your sights, and you’ll depart Monteverde for the beautiful coastal hamlet of Playa Sámara (Sámara Beach), on the Nicoya Peninsula’s western shore. Famed for its golden sand and gentle waves, Sámara Beach is one of the safest in the country. The area teems with tropical life, has a thriving fishing and farming economy, and its laid-back feel makes it a favorite of travelers and locals alike.

The options at Playa Sámara are many and varied: Frolic in the sand and sun, head down to the water for a snorkel through the aquamarine waters, or sign up for a surfing lesson in mellow waves ideal for novices. You can also explore Sámara above the waves, experiencing the region’s rich sea life aboard a whale, dolphin, or turtle watching tour. 

There’s plenty to do beyond the beach, too. Take a guided hike through a mango plantation (where you’re welcome to eat all the mangos you like) and into the Werner Sauter Biological Preserve to spot monkeys, birds, and butterflies. You can also explore the region’s wildlife on horseback, starting with a ride along the water then then heading into the hills to view iguanas, birds, and more.

When hunger strikes, here are restaurants we recommend: 
 

  • A perfect stop for morning coffee, colorful and charming Bouticafé Bohemia also serves healthy breakfast and lunch options like smoothies and salads. 
  • Lo Que Hay, a convivial taqueria and pub serving six taco options. Its beachside setting makes it the perfect spot to watch the sunset from the sand, cold drink in hand.
  • Locanda Playa Samara is a favorite by day for its with comfortable sun beds and menu of light bites, and for wood-oven baked pizzas served at tables shaded by thatched-roofs right on the beach. 
  • LuvBurger offers gluten-free, vegan fare (tacos, salads, burgers, and sandwiches) right on the sand. 

Day 8: Sámara Beach Free Day

Palo Verde National Park offers fine birding
Palo Verde National Park offers fine birding

You’re on your own today. Perhaps you'll take a guided tour to Palo Verde National Park, a large protected area of tropical dry forest (and a prime spot for bird-watching). If you're in the mood for adventure, there’s spelunking at nearby Barra Honda, a conservation area home to a network of limestone caverns. Or, if you'd rather be on the water, head out for some sportfishing or a dolphin/whale-watching cruise (seasonal). You may just want to chill out, enjoy your hotel or head into Sámara, to check out its cafes, art galleries, and neighborly vibe.

Palo Verde guided hike duration: Four hours
Spelunking tour duration: Six hours
Dolphin/whale-watching tour: 3.5 hours

Day 9: Sámara to Playa Tamarindo

Visit Las Baulas National Marine Park to see nesting leatherback turtles
Visit Las Baulas National Marine Park to see nesting leatherback turtles

Today you'll head north to Playa Tamarindo. Once you arrive, you can rest at your hotel or spend the afternoon exploring the bay on a sea kayak and snorkeling tour. As you row through toward the white sands of Capitán Island, don't forget to look down at the underwater coral reef and sea life that surrounds it.

If you happen to visit between October and March, head to Las Baulas National Marine Park to see leatherback turtles come ashore. Every night during high tide in the nesting season, female leatherbacks make their way up the beach to lay eggs. Watch the turtles come and go before the hatchlings follow suit into the water, a once-in-a-lifetime sight. 

You'll find that the laid-back surf town of Playa Tamarindo has some excellent restaurants. A few options include:

  • La Bodega, a charming café serving fantastic egg sandwiches (go for the Kristina, served with tomato, local goat cheese and smoked trout on toasted bread), homemade banana bread, and fresh juices.
  • Green Papaya, a popular taco bar serving some of the best tacos and burritos in town (vegetarian options available) in a casual atmosphere.
  • Surf Shack, serving up topnotch burgers, onion rings, and milkshakes in an aluminum-sided hut decorated with surfboards.
  • Nogi's, the restaurant known for its beachfront location (a perfect pick for sunset dining). They serve a varied menu of seafood and grilled meat; be sure to save room for a slice of their coconut cream pie.

Day 10: Private Surf Lesson at Playa Tamarindo

A surfer at sundown on Playa Tamarindo
A surfer at sundown 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 and 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 great surfing 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 11: Kayaking at Tamarindo Estuary

Be on the lookout for capuchin monkeys
Be on the lookout for capuchin monkeys

On the agenda for today is more aquatic fun as you immerse yourself in nature. Costa Rica is one of the most bio-diverse nations on the planet, and there are few better places to experience an abundance of its wildlife than this estuary. Located adjacent to the town, between Tamarindo Beach and Playa Grande, this is where the Tamarindo River meets the Pacific.

The estuary itself takes up about 1,200 acres, and all of it is teeming with wildlife. On a brisk tour through the mangroves and wetlands, you'll likely able to spot many different animals. These include flying fish, iguanas, crocodiles, sharks, monkeys, and of course a number exotic avian species like egrets and motmots. 

Estuary kayak tour: 2.5 hours

Day 12: Depart Costa Rica from Liberia

Liberia, Costa Rica
Liberia, Costa Rica

It's time to say adiós to Costa Rica! After breakfast, you'll begin the drive to the airport in Liberia for your return flight home.

Map

Map of Costa Rica Volcanoes & Pacific Coast Adventure - 12 Days
Map of Costa Rica Volcanoes & Pacific Coast Adventure - 12 Days