If you prefer an active holiday in the great outdoors amid exotic wildlife, then this is the trip for you. Over 12 days of travel throughout Costa Rica, you'll indulge in almost every activity the country is famous for. This includes zip-line tours, canyoning, horseback rides, rafting trips, and kayak excursions. All in all, this itinerary packs 10 vacations worth of experiences into just 12 days.

Highlights

  • Brave the rapids of the Pacuare River
  • Rappel down the side of a waterfall
  • Spot exotic wildlife in the Talamanca Mountains
  • Go on a kayaking excursion in Marino Ballena National Park

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Costa Rica - Experience San José's Culture and History San Jose
Day 2 Rafting Río Pacuare Río Pacuare
Day 3 Free Day in the Jungles of Río Pacuare  Río Pacuare
Day 4 Río Pacuare -> Transfer to Turrialba Turrialba
Day 5 Canyoning and Zipline Turrialba
Day 6 Transfer to San Gerardo de Dota - Optional Birding San Gerardo de Dota
Day 7 Transfer to the Southern Pacific Coast Dominical
Day 8 Kayak in Marino Ballena National Park Dominical
Day 9 Free Day in Dominical Dominical
Day 10 Horseback Ride to Nauyaca Waterfalls  
Day 11 Transfer to San José and Sightseeing San Jose
Day 12 Depart San José  

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: Rafting Río Pacuare

Brave the whitewater on Río Pacuare
Brave the whitewater on Río Pacuare

This morning, you'll wake up early, meet your guide, and begin the 2.5-hour drive east out of the city of San José. Stop en route for a classic Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto (rice, black beans, and eggs) before arriving at the Río Pacuare (Pacuare River). Located along Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope, Río Pacuare’s deep gorge is considered one of the best river-rafting sites in the world. It's now time for you to begin your whitewater rafting adventure.

After a guided orientation, you'll embark on today's adrenaline-pumping trip on class II-III rapids. You'll paddle past impressive tropical scenery through rushing whitewater all the way to the destination: a riverside eco-lodge. Here, you will check into your luxury jungle accommodations and have the rest of the day to explore the surrounding area with your guide.

After lunch, you can hike through the lodge’s protected forest to an idyllic waterfall, or enjoy a couple's massage, or simply relax in your private bungalow or suite and enjoy the nature and tranquility of this remote tropical dreamland.

Day 3: Free Day in the Jungles of Río Pacuare 

Encounter Costa Rica's indigenous community
Encounter Costa Rica's indigenous community

You've experienced the jungles of the Río Pacuare from the riverbanks, now today you'll venture behind the treeline. Rainforest adventure options here include zip-lining over jungle canopy or canyoning El Tesorito Creek, where you'll descend a small waterfall as you rappel down a 30-meter (98-foot) rock face. 

You can also opt for a hike through the jungle to reach the legendary sendero de las mulas (mule trail), which is one of the main routes used by the indigenous Cabécar people. After the initial climb, you'll hike to the Nairi Awari Indigenous Reserve, a real highlight of the excursion that features a hidden waterfall. Enjoy a picnic lunch at this scenic spot before hiking back along the trail to a Cabécar indigenous community.

In the afternoon, return to the eco-lodge and spend one last cozy night in the rainforest.

Day 4: Río Pacuare -> Transfer to Turrialba

Canyon in the Río Pacuare
Canyon in the Río Pacuare

This day on the river will take you past virgin rainforest, cascading waterfalls, and through water-carved canyons as you tackle the strongest rapids (class III-IV) of the trip. Make sure to take in the sights and sounds of the jungle as you go. Take a break along the way to hike uphill to some natural pools featuring stone waterslides. 

Your whitewater adventure ends near the town of Siquirres. From here you will transfer about an hour to the small city of Turrialba, where you will check into your hotel.

Day 5: Canyoning and Zipline

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Today you'll take part in a tour that includes both waterfall rappelling and a canopy zip-line adventure over the treetops. These activities take place in a private reserve of virgin forest only 15 minutes from the center of Turrialba. On this tour, you'll descend four waterfalls, travel across the forest canopy on four different lines, and traverse a 40-meter (131-foot) hanging bridge. Staff will provide all the necessary equipment (and even a raincoat if it happens to be drizzly), but don't forget to wear sturdy walking or hiking shoes, and bring insecticide and a towel.  

The rest of the day is yours to spend as you see fit. Perhaps indulge in an optional activity, such as:

  • Rafting Pejibaye River. This is a rafting adventure fit for the entire family as you'll travel over easy yet exciting class II and III rapids. In between the rapids you can jump out of the boat and go for a swim.
  • Archeological hike to Guayabo de Turrialba. Sitting in the shadow of the Turrialba Volcano, this ancient city was once home to over 10,000 indigenous people who mysteriously vanished just before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. The ruins here are Costa Rica's most important archaeological site, and they've been declared a national monument. A guide will walk you through the park while explaining the findings of the excavations and the history of the people that once lived there. 
  • Tropical plantation tour. This tour involves a visit to the campus headquarters of Costa Rica's Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE). Accompanied by a local guide, you'll tour the property and visit nearby coffee plantations and sugar cane fields. You'll also visit CATIE's interactive botanical garden, which features an abundance of exotic tropical fruits, medicinal plants, lurid orchids, bromeliads, and a century-old kapok tree. 

Day 6: Transfer to San Gerardo de Dota - Optional Birding

More countryside around Dota
More countryside around Dota

Today you will continue your journey south, traveling about 3.5 hours to San Gerardo de Dota, a rural town nestled in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountain Range. The surrounding region is a famous birding destination, mostly because here you can find the shy and much-coveted resplendent quetzal. The Savegre River, one of the cleanest rivers on the planet, also passes through this region and is a popular fishing spot due to its abundance of trout.

After checking into your lodge, you'll have the afternoon to relax or go out and explore the area on your own.

Day 7: Transfer to the Southern Pacific Coast

Sunset off the coast of Playa Dominical
Sunset off the coast of Playa Dominical

Wake up and enjoy a morning walk, which is a nice excuse to do one final bit of birding in this region. You'll be accompanied by a guide who will point out the various species. If you didn't get lucky the previous day, maybe you'll finally catch a glimpse of the reclusive quetzal this morning. This colorful bird is hard to breed in captivity, hence the rarity. Fun fact: the quetzal was once called the "snake bird" by Costa Rica's Pre-Columbian populations due to the long and pointy feathers of its tail. 

You'll then depart 2.5 hours south with your destination being the Pacific coast of the country and Playa Dominical, a beach fit for a postcard. After checking into your eco-hotel, you'll have the afternoon free to enjoy the lodging's amenities, laze on the beach, or explore the surrounding nature via the hotel's jungle trails.

Day 8: Kayak in Marino Ballena National Park

Uvita Beach, Costa Rica
Uvita Beach, Costa Rica

Today you'll enjoy some sea Kayaking and snorkeling with a local guide. After breakfast, you'll head a few kilometers south to Marino Ballena National Park, which is located on the southern side of Punta Uvita (better known as the "whale's tail"). This kayak trip starts at low tide, as the waves on this beach are calmer during this time and allow for some good snorkeling out at the reef.

It will take between 30-45 minutes to paddle out to the reef (depending on your experience level), at which point you will be treated to sweeping views of the Costa Rican mountains back on shore. Upon arrival at the reef, your guide will offer brief instructions for snorkeling, at which point you can dive in. The snorkeling excursion typically lasts from 40 minutes to an hour.

Day 9: Free Day in Dominical

Do some dolphin spotting in a marine reserve
Do some dolphin spotting in a marine reserve

The agenda for today is leisure and more leisure. You can spend the day poolside at the hotel with a tropical cocktail in hand, or head back to Uvita to while away the hours lounging on the sand. You can also partake in an optional tour. These include:

  • Corcovado National Park hike. Avid trekkers will not want to miss this chance to visit one of Costa Rica's most remote and untouched national parks: Corcovado. On this day tour, you'll hike through virgin rainforests abounding with exotic wildlife like howler monkeys, sloths, scarlet macaws, and even jaguars. The number of visitors allowed per day is regulated and reservations fill up quickly, so inquire before booking your trip. 
  • Cano Island snorkeling tour. This tour combines two magnificent jewels of Costa Rica: the Caño Island Biological Reserve and Violin Island. On this day tour, you'll observe an abundance of marine life in their natural habitat. This includes whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and marine birds. You'll also be able to snorkel around one of the healthiest coral reefs on the Pacific coast  Afterward, you'll transfer by boat 30 minutes to Violin Island, a secluded island bordered by the mangrove forests of the Sarapiquí River. Your guides will prepare a picnic lunch, then the rest of the time will be spent swimming in the bay and hiking on the beach.

  • Horseback ride to the Nauyaca Waterfalls at Dominical. This grouping of impressive waterfalls plunges some 45 meters (147 feet) into a lagoon perfect for swimming. A horseback excursion gets you here, and there are rock outcroppings that make ideal diving spots.

Day 10: Horseback Ride to Nauyaca Waterfalls

Nauyaca Waterfalls, Costa Rica
Nauyaca Waterfalls, Costa Rica

Today you'll partake in another famous Costa Rican adventure: a horseback ride to the Nauyaca Waterfalls at Dominical. This grouping of impressive falls plunges some 45 meters (147 feet) into a lagoon perfect for swimming. You'll arrive here on a horseback excursion that leaves in the morning.

On this eight-kilometer (five-mile) journey, you'll follow nature trails surrounded by rainforest. Keep your camera close and be on the lookout for exotic wildlife like capuchin monkeys. Upon arrival at the falls, you'll have a couple hours to enjoy the area and the lagoon. There are also rock outcroppings that make ideal diving spots. 

Afterward, enjoy a traditional lunch before heading home. 

Day 11: Transfer to San José and Sightseeing

National Theater, San José
National Theater, San José

After breakfast, you will leave your hotel and head north four hours back to the capital of San José. You can spend the remainder of the day enjoying all the sights you might have missed your first day here. The historic downtown is filled with many landmarks worth visiting.

Perhaps head over to the "lungs of San José," La Sabana Metropolitan Park, which is the country's largest urban park. Next, you can visit the Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late 19th century, or the Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum), which holds one of the largest Pre-Columbian gold collections in all of Latin America.

Day 12: 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 Wild South - 12 Days
Map of Costa Rica's Wild South - 12 Days