This 11-day itinerary allows you to enjoy a comprehensive Costa Rican experience that will take you from the Caribbean to the Pacific coast and everything in between. Beyond the virgin rainforest and exotic wildlife, however, you'll also get to experience Costa Rica through its delicious flavors, be it local cuisine or the famed coffee grown in its volcanic soil.

Highlights

  • Take a food tour of Costa Rica's capital, San José
  • Spot sea turtles at Tortuguero National Park
  • Relax in Natural Hot Springs at the base of the Arenal Volcano
  • Travel to the Nicoya Peninsula and laze on the famed beaches of Costa Rica's Pacific Coast

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Costa Rica - Foodie Tour San Jose
Day 2 Flight to Tortuguero National Park Tortuguero
Day 3 Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero Tortuguero
Day 4 Transfer to Sarapiquí - Optional Rafting Trip Sarapiquí
Day 5 Transfer to La Fortuna Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 6 Hike Arenal 1968 - Tabacón Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 7 Transfer to Rincón de la Vieja - Optional Innertubing Rincon de la Vieja
Day 8 Transfer to the Pacific Coast - Beach Day Playa Sámara
Day 9 Sámara Beach Free Day Playa Sámara
Day 10 Transfer to the Central Valley - Optional Coffee Tour Alajuela
Day 11 Depart San José  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Costa Rica - Foodie Tour

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 the capital of San José, a local representative will meet you and escort you to your hotel. 

In the afternoon, a private car will take you to the downtown area to begin your Foodie Tour in Barrio Escalante. It's a walking tour, and on this gastronomic odyssey, you'll stop in at a variety of restaurants (none located further than 10 minutes apart). At each one, you'll be welcomed by either the chef, manager, or owner with a cocktail. You'll then get to the heart of Costa Rican cuisine by sampling dishes prepared with fresh ingredients sourced within the country. The chefs will explain the concept of each dish as well as the modern twist they have added to the nation's food scene through their restaurants.

Day 2: Flight to Tortuguero National Park

Jungle-fringed river in Tortuguero
Jungle-fringed river in Tortuguero

After breakfast, you’ll depart early in the morning for a half-hour flight to Tortuguero National Park, on the northern Caribbean coast. A driver will meet you at the airport and transfer you to the lodge where you will reside during your stay. 

If you have the energy, take the remainder of the day to get out and explore. Tortuguero encompasses some 47,000 acres of mostly wetland area of the Caribbean coast. Networks of freshwater canals and rivers meander through the park and are thus the preferred mode of transport here. Some animals you'll likely spot in the area include howler and capuchin monkeys as well as exotic water birds like tiger herons.

Day 3: Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero

Tortuguero's long coastline
Tortuguero's long coastline

Tortuguero is unique in that, unlike many national parks in Costa Rica, it almost exclusively revolves around the water. Today you'll hop in a canoe and navigate the network of arterial waterways that snake around this protected area. Keep your camera at the ready because you'll be on the hunt for various denizens of the reserve, including manatees, spectacled caimans, river otters, and rare birds. Among these, you'll likely spot macaws, toucans, and kingfishers.

Back on terra firma, you'll have plenty of time to explore Tortuguero's 22-mile expanse of beach. It's a favorite nesting area for three different species of turtle: the hawksbill, leatherback, and green sea turtle. All of these nest in the area from July through October (mostly at night), and seeing the mother turtles lay their eggs is an unforgettable experience. If you come from February to July, you'll spot the leatherback, which at 6 to 7 feet long and up to 1,500 pounds, is the largest sea turtle in the world.

Day 4: Transfer to Sarapiquí - Optional Rafting Trip

The Sarapiquí River
The Sarapiquí River

Today you'll transfer by boat and vehicle about four hours inland to Sarapiquí. This is a rich agricultural area known for farming pineapple, palm hearts, pejibaye, and guanábana. It's named after its major waterway, the Sarapiquí River, which is one of the premier rafting rivers in Costa Rica. You can spend the afternoon relaxing amid the surrounding nature and enjoying your hotel facilities, or you can book an optional tour, such as:

  • Taking a Chocolate tour at a biological reserve. This involves a guided walk through the rainforest to an old cacao plantation. You'll learn the ancient chocolate cultivation methods and will do some tasting, including imbibing an ancient hot chocolate recipe passed down through the generations by local indigenous groups. 
  • Rafting on the Sarapiquí River. The class III/IV rapids of the Sarapiquí are perfect for beginner and intermediate rafters who want to enjoy the beauty of the region while on an active adventure. After a safety orientation and paddling instruction with a professional guide, you'll enter the river for a couple of brisk hours braving some rapids.
  • Zipping over the treeline on a canopy tour. Costa Rica is the birthplace of the zip-line tour as we know it, so why not partake in this adrenaline-pumping tradition? On this outing, you'll fly from tree to tree under the supervision of professional guides.

Day 5: Transfer to La Fortuna

La Fortuna Waterfall
La Fortuna Waterfall

After breakfast, you'll make the three-hour trip to the town of La Fortuna, best known as the base for exploring Arenal Volcano National Park. Located north of the Tilaran Mountains, the cone-shaped Arenal juts out from the San Carlos Plains like a giant arrowhead. After checking into your hotel, you'll have the rest of the day to explore on your own. 

If you want to get close to the volcano, kayaking on Lake Arenal provides awesome views of its peak, as does a mountain-bike ride toward the village of El Castillo. Or, opt for a zip-lining tour through the forest canopy, where you'll not only cross canyons but pass by waterfalls as well—and all with a view of the majestic Arenal Volcano in the background.

For dinner, enjoy one of La Fortuna's over 100 restaurants. The cuisine here runs the gamut from traditional Costa Rican, Mediterranean, Italian, and pizza. There's even an Argentine steakhouse.

Day 6: Hike Arenal 1968 - Tabacón Hot Springs

A hot spring near Arenal
A hot spring near Arenal

After breakfast, you can take the morning to relax. In the early afternoon, you'll visit Arenal 1968, a private reserve named after the year of the last major eruption of the volcano. The event was so catastrophic that it transformed some of the region’s topography: lava fields now dominate one side of Arenal. Trails wind through those lava fields as well as the surrounding rainforest. Along the way, you'll find lookout points featuring prime views of the volcano. 

After hiking the trails, soothe your muscles with a dip in the mineral-rich waters in and around the Tabacón Thermal Resort. These hot springs have been used as therapeutic baths for more than 200 years, and the resort includes a spa where various treatments, like couples massages, are performed in outdoor bungalows.

End the day with a nice dinner at the resort’s restaurant, which serves Costa Rican dishes as well as international fare.

Day 7: Transfer to Rincón de la Vieja - Optional Innertubing

Typical valley in Guanacaste Province
Typical valley in Guanacaste Province

Today you'll push further westward and into Guanacaste Province, where the highland jungle turns into lowland dry forest. This 3.5-hour journey ends at Rincon de la Vieja National Park. Upon arrival, you'll check-in at the hotel and the afternoon is yours to enjoy as you see fit. One idea is to book an optional tour. These include: 

  • Hiking in Rincon de la Vieja National Park. Accompanied by an English-speaking guide, you'll trek through the tropical forest of this protected area. The park is situated around a volcano of the same name, and on your hike, you'll discover unique volcanic landforms such as boiling mud ponds and bright yellow sulfur lakes (note: the park is closed Mondays). 
  • Horseback riding. A guided horseback excursion takes you along the trails of the park forest, stopping to swim at one of the rivers in the area.
  • Tubing. You will travel down a river on an inner-tube with the assistance of an English-speaking guide. It's a refreshing activity perfect for the entire family. 

Day 8: Transfer to the Pacific Coast - Beach Day

Sámara Beach, Costa Rica
Sámara Beach, Costa Rica

Today you will transfer three hours to the Nicoya Peninsula and ultimately to the little seaside town of Sámara. Upon arrival, you'll check-in at your five-star lodge. From then on, you'll have the rest of the day to spend however you like. You can opt to stay in town, but the real star here is the beach—and it's impressive. Much of Sámara's three-miles of crescent-shaped coastline is fringed with palm trees and soft white sands stretching out to the azure waters of the Pacific. So grab a beer or tropical fruit juice, stake out your place on the beach, and enjoy an afternoon without a care in the world.

Day 9: 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 take a guided tour to Palo Verde National Park. This 45,000-acre protected area is home to tropical dry forest that makes for prime bird-watching. If you desire a physical challenge, 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 the charming town of Sámara, with its cafes, art galleries, and neighborly vibe.

Day 10: Transfer to the Central Valley - Optional Coffee Tour

La Paz Waterfall
La Paz Waterfall

You will transfer 4.5 hours back east to the province of Alajuela, where Poás Volcano is located. It's a fertile region dotted with coffee plantations, strawberry fields, and hydrangea gardens. After checking to your lodge you'll have a free day to enjoy its amenities or embark on another excursion. 

Perhaps tour a coffee plantation. Costa Rica is the 10th largest coffee producer in the world. Since 1986 this nation has grown only the highest quality Arabica beans, as these coffee plants thrive in the nutrient-rich volcanic soil of the region. At this local coffee finca (farm) you will learn about the harvesting and roasting process, and then finish the tour by enjoying a freshly brewed cup.

Or visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. There's a lot to see and do at this popular eco-theme park, including visiting a wild-animal rehabilitation center. There's also a path that leads through the surrounding cloud forest to a network of beautiful waterfalls, including the star of the show: La Paz.

(Note: since April 2017, the Poas volcano is listed as active and closed until further notice; however the province of Alajuela is open to the public).

Day 11: Depart San José

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 San José, relax in a coffee shop, or browse some shops before boarding your flight home.

Map

Map of Costa Rica's Essentials - 11 Days
Map of Costa Rica's Essentials - 11 Days