This itinerary is specifically tuned for wildlife lovers. Expect to get up early and stay out late to see monkeys, lizards, birds, insects and other spectacular fauna that inhabit the virgin rainforest, cloud forest and swampy estuaries covered here. The trip begins with a southwest journey from San José to Parque Nacional Corcovado (Corcovado National Park) before continuing northwest along the Pacific coast. Next head inland to Monteverde for birdwatching and spotting wildlife in the unique eco-system of the cloud forest.

Highlights

  • Explore the Osa Peninsula, including the biologically diverse Corcovado National Park
  • Embark on a wildlife tour in Monteverde
  • Volunteer in a animal rescue center in Arenal

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San Jose
Day 2 Fly to Osa Peninsula - Explore Bahía Drake Corcovado National Park
Day 3 Corcovado National Park Hike Corcovado National Park
Day 4 Snorkeling, Dolphins and Whales Tour Osa Peninsula Corcovado National Park
Day 5 Osa Peninsula -> Drive to Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 6 Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 7 Horseback Riding Day Trip from Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 8 Transfer to Monteverde Monteverde
Day 9 Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 10 Boat from Monteverde to Arenal & Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 11 Proyecto Asis Rescue Center Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 12 Chocolate Making Class, Then Back to San José San Jose

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José

The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José
The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José

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: Fly to Osa Peninsula - Explore Bahía Drake

Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula
Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula

In the morning you'll board a flight to Bahía Drake (Drake Bay), one of the main villages on the secluded Osa Peninsula. This peninsula is located on the southern Pacific coast and is one of the least developed regions in Costa Rica. It's also the gateway to the famed Corcovado National Park, located directly south of Drake. This famous protected area is known for its virgin rainforests and wind-swept beaches, which are all the more evocative due to the relative lack of crowds.

Upon arrival to Bahía Drake, check into your hotel. You'll now have the entire day to relax and enjoy the beaches until your heart's content. At night, tuck into dinner at your lodgings. Drake's remoteness and limited restaurant options mean most accommodations offer all-inclusive meals.

Alternative airport: Puerto Jiménez

Day 3: Corcovado National Park Hike

Coast of Corcovado National Park
Coast of Corcovado National Park

This day trip into the rainforest is a chance to explore Parque Nacional Corcovado, home to species including the endangered giant anteater, harpy eagle, tapir, and jungle cats like the jaguar, puma, and margay. From the hotel, it's a 25-minute boat ride south down the coast of the Osa Peninsula. After the wet landing (boats go in stern first and drop you a few feet from the beach) near the San Pedrillo ranger station, you’ll begin the rainforest journey.

During the hike, your bilingual naturalistic guide will point out wildlife along the trail. You may see capuchin, spider, and howler monkeys, as well as white-lipped peccaries, scarlet macaws, coatis, and countless other birds and insects. The trails are clearly marked and easy to navigate, ascending and descending through the rainforest.

After the morning hike and a break for lunch, you'll enjoy more wildlife sightings as you trek to a cascading waterfall. There will be time to relax and swim in the natural pools before you return to the ranger station and catch the boat back to your hotel. While on the water, be on the lookout for humpback whales or dolphins breaching the ocean's surface.

Day 4: Snorkeling, Dolphins and Whales Tour Osa Peninsula

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This tour starts between 7 AM or 8 AM from Puerto Jimenez and last around three hours. This tours will bring you to the gulf’s surroundings with its calm waters, in pursuit of dolphins, turtles, and whales (depending on the season, Aug- Sep).

You will also visit the best spots in the area to snorkel, located in front of the Piedras Blancas National Park.

Day 5: Osa Peninsula -> Drive to Manuel Antonio National Park

The postcard beaches of Manuel Antonio
The postcard beaches of Manuel Antonio

After breakfast, it's time to continue your trip—now with you behind the wheel. In the morning you'll transfer by boat to the village of Sierpe and pick up a rental car. Then take the coastal road north to Manuel Antonio National Park. The drive is around 2 hours, but along the way you'll have time to stop at a number of small coastal towns.

One such town is Sierpe. This area (located at the junction of the Terraba and Sierpe rivers) is home to the Terraba Sierpe National Wetlands, Latin America's largest mangrove reserve. Boat tours traverse the network of waterways in these mangrove forests, and guides point out all manner of exotic creatures, from monkeys and caimans to waterbirds like herons and kingfishers. 

After driving about an hour north, you'll pass through Uvita and Dominical. There are a handful of coves and bays around these little villages, many featuring white-sand beaches, and turquoise waters. If you have time, stop and explore the Marino Ballena National Park, which is also located in the Uvita area. It was named because of the humpback whales that migrate just offshore—get lucky and you might spot one or two.

You can spend the afternoon making pit stops along the coast at your leisure. When you do finally arrive in Manuel Antonio, check into your hotel and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening relaxing.

  • Gabriella's, treat yourself to some fine dining at this local institution. Go for the seafood—whether it's the pan-seared scallops, ceviche, or snapper, you won't be disappointed. The steaks are nothing to sneeze at, either.
  • Cafe Agua Azul, come during sunset because the second-floor patio dining here might offer the best bay views in the entire area. Agua Azul excels at fresh fish and delectable desserts like homemade brownies and bread pudding.
  • Manuel Antonio Falafel Bar, for something different head to this casual middle-eastern joint. It offers great falafel, shawarma, hummus, and a salad bar any vegetarian would love. 

Day 6: Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park

Squirrel monkey in Manuel Antonio
Squirrel monkey in Manuel Antonio

Today you'll wake up early and explore the roughly 1,680 acres (680 hectares) of Manuel Antonio National Park. This is a true gem of Costa Rica, in that the park is home to virgin rainforest running all the way from the mountains down to the coast, where white-sand beaches and coral reefs await.

You'll start your hike on the trails within the park. The walk is easy with mostly flat trails—perfect for families with kids. A naturalist guide will point out the more than 300 species of mammals and birds that call this reserve home, including three-toed sloths, hawks, iguanas, and several different species of monkeys. You'll also have time to enjoy the park's expansive white sand beaches on this half-day tour.

What you do the remainder of the afternoon is up to you! Continue exploring the trails on your own, indulge in the sand and sea, or switch gears and visit the nearby adventure park, MidWorld, for zip-lining and ATV tours.

Hiking distance: 1 mile (1.7 km)

Day 7: Horseback Riding Day Trip from Manuel Antonio

Today you'll explore Tocori Private Ecological Reserve on horseback
Today you'll explore Tocori Private Ecological Reserve on horseback

Today you'll explore Costa Rica's exotic plants and wildlife during a ride through the rainforest to the Tocori Private Ecological Reserve, just minutes away from Manuel Antonio. You'll explore the waterfalls in Tocori and enjoy a swim in the mountain springs before a snack of fresh local fruits and a tropical drink. After the return ride to the ranch, you'll enjoy a lunch of typical Costa Rican casado before returning to Manuel Antonio.

Day 8: Transfer to Monteverde

The Monteverde region of Costa Rica
The Monteverde region of Costa Rica

After breakfast, you’ll transfer to the highland rainforest region of Monteverde. This area is known for its misty cloud forests and diverse flora. Monteverde features the greatest number of orchid species on the planet, with new ones discovered regularly. 

After check-in at your hotel, spend the afternoon relaxing. Take the evening to enjoy nearby Santa Elena, a charming town with a heavy Quaker influence that’s known for excellent coffee and cheese. You'll find various restaurants here, including vegetarian options and those serving Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo (rice with chicken).

Day 9: Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest

Suspension bridge in the cloud forest
Suspension bridge in the cloud forest

Today you'll enjoy an adrenaline-pumping zip-line ride in the country where that activity was invented. You'll start by ascending hundreds of feet above the jungle canopy via a network of trails and suspension bridges. The exotic flora and fauna of the region will be on full display, and our specialized guides will point out the most interesting specimens.

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. The whole excursion is regarded as the most thrilling zip-line adventures in the country.

Day 10: Boat from Monteverde to Arenal & Hot Springs

The peaceful waters of Lake Arenal
The peaceful waters of Lake Arenal

After breakfast in Monteverde, you'll transfer to Arenal/La Fortuna, but this is no ordinary route. You'll bypass the road trip and instead travel by water. After arriving at the shores of Lake Arenal, your captain will welcome you, you'll board the boat, and you'll begin the three-hour journey to the other side of the lake. 

Upon arrival, you'll officially be in the Arenal region of Costa Rica.  

In the afternoon, head to a hot springs complex to enjoy a relaxing evening in the hot springs. Amidst the tropical rainforest, you will enjoy of 25 thermal water pools are filled by crystalline waterfalls, for the use and enjoyment of all visitors. The purity of the water will make you feel like you are floating in an oasis of healing, with birds singing all around and the sound of falling water that invites you to relax and recover your wellness and quality of life. At the end of the evening enjoy a delicious dinner at the restaurant within the hot springs complex.

Day 11: Proyecto Asis Rescue Center

You can help care for animals like white-faced capuchin monkeys at Proyecto Asis
You can help care for animals like white-faced capuchin monkeys at Proyecto Asis

Today you'll visit Proyecto Asis, a rehabilitation and rescue center for local animals. The tour, lead by one of the naturalists, begins with a brief introduction to the center, followed by a walk along the trails around the reserve, stopping in front of each animal enclosure to learn about them. While the animals at the center vary, visitors will likely see ant eaters, snakes, monkeys, parrots, and sloths. Volunteer tours also offer you the chance to help care for the animals during your visit, preparing food and helping to feed them.

Day 12: Chocolate Making Class, Then Back to San José

The Edificio Correos (Post Office) in San Jose
The Edificio Correos (Post Office) in San Jose

Start your last morning in La Fortuna with a hands-on program in which you’ll learn about the origin, history, and current production of one of Costa Rica's most famous exports: chocolate. Participate in the harvest of cacao, the drying and grinding of the seed that produces creamy cocoa butter, learn how the traditional chocolate drink was developed centuries ago, and, of course, sample the freshly made chocolate.

After lunch, it's time to begin the drive back to San José, where you'll have the evening to explore the city taking advantage of anything you may have missed at the beginning of the trip.

Map

Map of Highlights of Costa Rica Wildlife - 12 Days
Map of Highlights of Costa Rica Wildlife - 12 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated May 31, 2019