Costa Rica is a nation as biodiverse as it is beautiful and the best way to experience all this nature and beauty is by touring the country's many national parks, reserves, and protected areas. Also, no trip to Costa Rica is complete without visiting the famous Pacific coast. This nearly two-week itinerary delivers both these highlights with plenty of time to kick back, relax, and enjoy the Costa Rican way of living "Pura Vida!"

Highlights

  • Laze on the white-sand beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Relax in the natural thermal springs in Arenal
  • Embark on a nocturnal wildlife tour in Monteverde
  • Get pampered at an outdoor spa in Guanacaste Province

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Costa Rica - Experience San José's Culture and History San Jose
Day 2 San José to Manuel Antonio - Optional Hiking Manuel Antonio
Day 3 Manuel Antonio - Catamaran and Snorkeling Trip Manuel Antonio
Day 4 Manuel Antonio to Arenal Volcano Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Wildlife Spotting at the Caño Negro Refuge Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 6 Boat from Arenal to Monteverde - Nocturnal Nature Tour Monteverde
Day 7 Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve Guided Hike Monteverde
Day 8 Monteverde to Playa Hermosa Playa Hermosa - Papagayo
Day 9 Palo Verde Boat Tour and Artisan Village Playa Hermosa - Papagayo
Day 10 Total Relaxation at Tizate Wellness Self Sufficient Garden Playa Hermosa - Papagayo
Day 11 Playa Hermosa - Free Day Playa Hermosa - Papagayo
Day 12 Playa Hermosa to Liberia - Depart Costa Rica  

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 the capital of 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 own pace.

Perhaps take a stroll through Mercado Central (Central Market), the largest in the city, with over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). These sodas are perfect spots for an inexpensive lunch of casado—a local dish of rice, beans, and meat, served with tortillas. Then visit the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Church), whose interior combines Greek Orthodox, Neoclassical, and Baroque styles, and features wood carvings and stained-glass windows.

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, you might want to 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. No matter where you go, though, the whole city is filled with delectable restaurants serving everything from traditional local to forward-thinking fusion cuisine.

Day 2: San José to Manuel Antonio - Optional Hiking

Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park

Today you'll head southwest out of San José and travel down the Pacific coast three hours to one of Costa Rica's premier ecological wonderlands: Manuel Antonio National Park. This is a highly coveted national park because it features not only untouched rainforest but four different tropical beaches as well.

After checking into your hotel, spend the day relaxing as you see fit. If you still have the energy, you can hike one of the park's many trails and do some wildlife spotting along the way. Aquatic activities include snorkeling at the beaches or parasailing over the ocean. In the evening, head to the adjacent town of Quepos for dinner and sunset views. Try the famous seafood here—it's as fresh as it comes.

Day 3: Manuel Antonio - Catamaran and Snorkeling Trip

Get ready for some snorkeling
Get ready for some snorkeling

Are you ready for a fun and luxurious outing on the water? Because that's what's on the agenda for today. After transferring to Marina Pez Vela, at Quepos, you'll board the Ocean King catamaran and begin your sea tour. The catamaran itself is 100 feet long and features indulgent amenities like jacuzzis, trampolines, water slides, an expansive bar (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are included), and two levels of common areas that accommodate up to 150 people.

Throughout the tour, the helpful staff will assist with whatever you need and organize all activities. This includes a pitstop a stop at Biesanz Beach, whose turquoise lagoons make for great snorkeling. While on the boat you'll also do some dolphin and whale watching as you enjoy the sunset over the water. 

Afterward, you'll return to the marina in Quepos where a representative will meet you and transfer you back to your hotel.

Day 4: Manuel Antonio to Arenal Volcano

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Arenal Volcano stands at an impressive 1,633-meters (5,358-feet) high

In the morning you will transfer by ground transportation about four and a half hours northwest of Manuel Antonio. 

After arriving in La Fortuna — the closest town to Arenal Volcano — you'll have the rest of the afternoon and evening free to enjoy the area however you see fit. We recommend taking the edge off the day's long journey with a soak in one of the Arenal region's natural hot springs.

For dinner, hit the town and sample one of the over 100 restaurants here. Solid dining options include:

  • Don Rufino upscale grill serves big portions with a decent wine list. Also has vegetarian options.
  • Cafe Mediterraneo you can't go wrong with this Italian restaurant. They make their own fresh pasta and have a wood-fired pizza oven.
  • Rancho Perla this ranch-style eatery serves 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 5: Wildlife Spotting at the Caño Negro Refuge

Howler monkeys are common in Caño Negro
Howler monkeys are common in Caño Negro

After breakfast in La Fortuna, you'll take a day-trip to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge (a two-hour drive each way). It's located in the far north of the country, near the border with Nicaragua, but it's well worth the travel time. 
This ecologically diverse refuge has been named a "world protected area" by Ramsar and is home to an abundance of wildlife.

Touring the area by boat down the Río Frio, you'll spot dozens of the more than 200 species of exotic birds that call this area home. Some avian varieties you can expect to see include spoonbills, jabiru storks, ibises, northern jacanas, ducks, and egrets. You'll see other wildlife, too, such as jaguars, three different species of monkeys, caimans, and turtles. Be sure to keep an eye out for sloths hanging from the treetops during your stop for lunch along the river.

Day 6: 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.

Day 7: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve Guided Hike

The resplendent quetzal
The resplendent quetzal

After breakfast, you’ll transfer a short distance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the jewels in Costa Rica's ecological crown. Known as the "green lung of Costa Rica" due to its rich biodiversity, this 26,000-acre reserve is located high in the mountainous northwest region of the country and thus receives much precipitation. The views of the misty cloud forest here are the stuff of postcards.

But Monteverde offers more than sweeping panoramas. On a guided tour you'll get an up-close look at the incredible biodiversity that occurs in this region, where upland and lowland rainforest meet. More than 350 bird species exist here alone, including the aptly named resplendent quetzal. In other words, it's a nature lover’s paradise.

In the afternoon you'll return to your hotel and have the rest of the day to spend as you like.

Day 8: Monteverde to Playa Hermosa

Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica
Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

This morning you embark on a journey back to the Pacific coast. This time it's a 3-4-hour drive northwest deep into Guanacaste Province. You'll pass volcanic mountain ranges, savanna flatlands, and humble villages as the rainforest fades into tropical dry scrub. On the way, you can stop for a traditional lunch or maybe a batido (fresh-fruit smoothie).

When the dry forests give way to azure seas, you’ll have arrived at your destination, Playa Hermosa and the Gulf of Papagayo, where you'll check into your hotel. You can spend the remainder of the day relaxing on the tranquil beach. Perhaps enjoy a beer at one of the local beach bars and/or kayak around the bay.

Day 9: Palo Verde Boat Tour and Artisan Village

Prepare for a jungle cruise
Prepare for a jungle cruise

If you're an avid birder and/or wildlife enthusiast then you're going to love this full-day excursion. First, you'll transfer to Palo Verde National Park, where you'll embark on a two-hour river trip that's like a Disney Jungle Cruise come to life. As you motor down the Tempisque River, white-faced capuchin monkeys swing from the tree branches on shore as caimans and even the occasional crocodile patrol the waters. Birders will be treated to the sight of various species including tiger herons, ospreys, ibises, and the jabiru.

Afterward, you'll transfer to the small village of Guaitil. It's a hotbed of local culture in that many residents make handcrafted pottery here. This has been the case for generations, and you can browse the various products and appreciate the craftsmanship on display. Perhaps even take an item or two home.

Day 10: Total Relaxation at Tizate Wellness Self Sufficient Garden

Relax with a massage
Relax with a massage

You're in for a treat as you embark one hour from Playa Hermosa for a visit to one of the most popular and diverse wellness spas in the entire country: Tizate Wellness Self Sufficient Garden. Located at the edge of the Tizate River and near to Rincón de la Vieja National Park, the facility features a number of inviting amenities, including natural thermal pools, open-air massage rooms, horseback riding, and even a zip-line tour over the treetops.

You'll be welcomed here with a refreshing cocktail before enjoying a dip in the hot springs and natural mud baths. After a gourmet lunch, it's time for a massage before capping off the day with an informative tour of the organic farm on the premises. So clear your schedule and prepare for a whole lot of pampering.

Day 11: Playa Hermosa - Free Day

Hike to a celestial blue waterfall in Rincón de la Vieja
Hike to a celestial blue waterfall in Rincón de la Vieja

Today can be as relaxing or adventurous as you like. If you've had enough of the beaches, you can opt to head to Rincón de la Vieja National Park, which, like Arenal, is centered around an active volcano. 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 crocodiles. 

You can also choose a guided 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 led by experts, you'll enjoy lunch before heading back to your hotel in time to catch one last sunset.

Day 12: Playa Hermosa to Liberia - Depart Costa Rica

Saying goodbye to Costa Rica
Saying goodbye to Costa Rica

It's time to say adiós to Costa Rica! After breakfast, you'll begin the 40-minute drive back to Liberia and Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport, for your return flight home.

Map

Map of Costa Rica's Relaxation and Wildlife Tour - 12 Days
Map of Costa Rica's Relaxation and Wildlife Tour - 12 Days