Explore the highlights of Costa Rica, from volcanos and jungles to beach and surfing 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 Liberia - Drive to Río Celeste Tenorio National Park
Day 2 Hiking in Río Celeste - Drive to La Fortuna Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 3 Hanging Bridges & La Fortuna Waterfall Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 4 Arenal - Whitewater Rafting on the Sarapiquí River Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Drive from Arenal to Monteverde - Night Nature Tour Monteverde
Day 6 Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 7 Drive from Monteverde to Playa Sámara Playa Sámara
Day 8 Sámara Beach Free Day Playa Sámara
Day 9 Playa Sámara -> Drive to Playa Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 10 Private Surf Lesson at Playa Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 11 Free Day in Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 12 Depart Costa Rica from Liberia  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Liberia - Drive to Río Celeste

Liberia
Liberia

Welcome to Costa Rica! Liberia is the northern hub of Guanacaste Province, an area famous for both its Pacific beaches and inland mountainous regions. After touching down at Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport you'll pick up your rental car and drive about two hours east to just outside Tenorio National Park, where Río Celeste is located.

Along the way you can stop at another national park, Rincón de la Vieja, which is located 40 minutes from Liberia. The park is home to a 6,266-foot (1,916-meter) active volcano of the same name. From the outskirts, it's a 45-minute walk along a scenic forest trail to the Las Pailas park entrance. The Las Pailas trail offers premium vantage points of the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano. At the park entrance, you'll also find the Oropendola Waterfall and its crystalline lagoon (perfect for swimming).

After arriving at Tenorio National Park, you will have the afternoon to relax at your hotel. Try and rest up, because you've got some hiking to do the next day. For dinner, there are some restaurant options in the nearby town of Bijagua. Options include:

  • Pizzería El Barrigon, a small pizza place great for families. It also does good burgers and locale fare.
  • La Choza del Maiz, serving solid, homemade standards like rice and chicken with friendly service. 

Day 2: Hiking in Río Celeste - Drive to La Fortuna

Bridge over the Rio Celeste
Bridge over the Rio Celeste

Today you'll hike 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. Along the way, you'll stop at Los Teñideros, the point where two brooks meet and form this turquoise-colored river. 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. Also has vegetarian options.
  • Café Mediterraneo, an Italian restaurant where you can't go wrong. They make their own fresh pasta and have a wood-fired pizza oven.
  • 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 3: Hanging Bridges & La Fortuna Waterfall

Swimmers at the base of La Fortuna Waterfall
Swimmers at the base of La Fortuna Waterfall

This morning, you'll head out early to Mistico Hanging Bridges Park, where visitors of all ages can wander along trails and cross up to 15 bridges—some that are hundreds of feet long—for a once-in-a-lifetime view of Arenal Volcano. You'll also get an up-close look at the incredible biodiversity that occurs in this region, where uplands and lowlands rainforest meet. More than 350 bird species can be found here alone. 

Next, it’s time to head to La Fortuna Waterfall, at the base of the dormant Chato volcano, a short drive outside town. The falls drop some 210 feet, and a 1,500-foot downhill hike provides the opportunity to see it from the bottom up and the chance to swim and relax in the La Fortuna River.

Afterward, treat yourself to an unforgettable hot springs experience at Tabacón hot springs.  There are five springs source of highly mineralized water that is heated underground by the Arenal Volcano’s magma. Thousands of gallons of this perfect water naturally emanate every minute. The thermal water flows throughout the resort, forming the Tabacon River. You will find dozens of cascading waterfalls and warm pools along the riverbed, of varying temperatures, water flows and degree of privacy.  Some pools are vast and calm, others are small and afford privacy for those wishing to disappear in a secluded nook.  

Finally, complete your evening by enjoying a traditional dinner next to the hot springs at the Ave del Paraíso which serves a mix of local Costa Rican and international cuisine.

Day 4: Arenal - Whitewater Rafting on the Sarapiquí River

Raft one of the country's most exciting rivers, the Sarapiquí
Raft one of the country's most exciting rivers, the Sarapiquí

After an early rise and breakfast at the hotel, you’ll transfer by car to the Sarapiquí River for your whitewater rafting adventure. After a lesson from your professional guide, you'll embark on a seven-mile river journey featuring over 30 class III and IV rapids. About halfway through the trip, you’ll take a break on shore for some tropical fruit and a traditional Costa Rican lunch. After the second leg of the rafting journey, you’ll be driven back to your hotel.

Duration: 8 hrs
Departs: 8:30 am from Arenal

Day 5: Drive from Arenal to Monteverde - Night Nature Tour

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

After breakfast, you’ll leave La Fortuna for Monteverde. Known as the "Green Lung” of Costa Rica, this biodiverse region is located in the mountainous northwest of the country. Be sure to head out early, as the 3.5-hour trip will take you almost all the way around Lake Arenal.

That's not to say you won't have ample opportunity to stop and enjoy the scenery. 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. 

If you get peckish on the drive, pull off at a roadside soda for a local lunch. Typical options at these traditional, 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 Monteverde and the famous 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, the David Bowie of birds. The reserve’s marked trails also pass through exotic fauna and flora, including the greatest number of orchid species on the planet (a whopping 500) with new ones discovered regularly. 

After the sun goes down, you'll have the chance to see nocturnal wildlife on a guided night tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest. A naturalist will point out sloths, armadillos, and kinkajous, as well as sleeping birds. You'll see and hear even more wildlife than during the daytime, like agoutis, porcupines, grey foxes, tarantulas, and frogs.

In between your arrival at Monteverde and the night hike, 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 was 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 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: Drive from Monteverde to Playa Sámara

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

Today the Pacific Coast is in your sights. You’ll depart Monteverde for a three-hour drive to the beautiful coastal hamlet of Playa Sámara (Sámara Beach), on the Nicoya Peninsula’s western shore. Famous for its golden sand and gentle waves, Sámara's horseshoe-shaped beach is wide and inviting. The area has a thriving fishing and farming economy, and its laid-back feel makes it a favorite of travelers and locals alike.

Since this is a road trip, why not stop and enjoy the lovely Costa Rican scenery along the way? On the Nicoya Peninsula, there are many coastal villages and beaches you can stop on your way south to Sámara. With a slight detour, you'll can hit the tropical cove of Playa Hermosa, the crescent-shaped white sands of Playa Flamingo, and the popular surf village of Tamarindo. Note that the coastal roads are rougher than Costa Rica's main highways, so if you do travel south along this route it will take you longer to reach Sámara (it's about 1.5 hours just from Tamarindo).

Further south and just above Sámara, you can stop at Nosara. This coastal village is known as the unofficial wellness capital of the country. Residents here routinely live to be 100, and there's no shortage of activities to replenish mind, body, and soul. Make a pit stop for some yoga on the beach, book a surf lesson, or take a leisurely river cruise with a naturalist guide. You can also visit the Sibu Wildlife Sanctuary, which rescues and rehabilitates exotic animals. You'll tour the grounds, visit their greenhouse, and get up close and personal with wildlife residents like monkeys and coatis.

Once you arrive at Playa Sámara, the options for activities are many. Laze on the beach, enjoy a snorkel through the aquamarine sea, or join a whale/dolphin-spotting boat tour. There’s plenty to do on land, too.  Hike through a mango plantation (includes all the mangos you can eat) and into the Werner Sauter Biological Preserve to spot monkeys, birds, and butterflies with a guide. You can also explore the region on horseback, starting on the beach before heading into the hills.

While in Sámara, consider dining in one of these restaurants:
 

  • Bouticafé Bohemia , a colorful and charming option serving healthy breakfast and lunch options like smoothies and salads. It's also a perfect stop for your morning coffee.
  • Gusto Beach, an upscale beachside restaurant serving everything from pizza to ceviche.
  • Lo Que Hay, a convivial taqueria and pub serving six taco options. Its beachside setting makes it the perfect spot to watch the sunset with your feet in the sand and a cold drink in hand.
  • 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: Playa Sámara -> Drive 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 be following the windy roads about 55 miles (95km) up the coast from Playa Sámara to the surf haven of Tamarindo. However, plan on this journey taking quite a bit longer than the expected 3 hrs, as you'll want to stop and take in the amazing sights and beautiful beaches along the way. Here are some ideas for exactly what to do.

Just north of the town of Nosara, at the Refugio Nacional Ostional (Ostional Wildlife Refuge), you'll find one of the greatest biological wonders in the country. This protected mile of beach is where hundreds or even thousands of olive ridley sea turtles come during nesting season to lay their eggs. The peak time is from August-December, but the turtles lay their eggs all year, particularly the week before the new moon.

If you're looking for a bit of paradise of the "Blue Lagoon" variety, stop in at San Juanillo. Located just up the road from Ostional. This little fishing village is a bit remote, so you're guaranteed to avoid masses of tourists. It's a great place to come and mingle with the locals while enjoying the crystalline waters and soft white sands.

Further north, just south of Tamarindo you can stop at Playa Avellanas. This long crescent beach is where some serious wave riders come to ply their trade. Waves here can reach as high as 18-feet, which is why the area is nicknamed "little Hawaii." If the waves are too gnarly for your liking, feel free to relax at Lola's and enjoy lunch and a beer. This is probably the most famous beach bar on the entire Nicoya Peninsula, thanks to its resident pig, Lolita (replacement of the original Lola). 

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 that serves 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, where you can grab topnotch burgers, onion rings, and milkshakes in an aluminum-sided hut decorated with surfboards.
  • Nogi's, a spot 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: Free Day in Tamarindo

Sensoria, in Rincón de la Vieja National Park
Sensoria, in Rincón de la Vieja National Park

Today can be as relaxing or adventurous as you like. If you've had enough of the beaches, drive two hours east to Rincón de la Vieja National Park. Hike a jungle trail called Sensoria, which is part of a wildlife sanctuary featuring thermal pools and waterfalls that plunge into turquoise lagoons. Or, you can experience the rainforest from the water during a two-hour safari float down the Corobicí River, where a guide will point out monkeys, bats, lizards, and even crocodiles. 

You can also choose to take a guided whitewater rafting trip down the Tenorio River. Its class III-IV rapids make it the best river in the Guanacaste area for rafting. After a challenging trip down the rapids, have lunch and head back to your hotel in time to catch one last sunset.

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 Arenal, Monteverde & Pacific Coast Self-Drive Tour - 12 Days
Map of Costa Rica Arenal, Monteverde & Pacific Coast Self-Drive Tour - 12 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Jun 6, 2019