Costa Rica prioritizes the protection of its abundant (and delicate) biodiversity, and national parks and reserves make up nearly a quarter of the country's land. This makes it a fabulous spot for travelers keen on experiencing outdoor activities and spotting wildlife. This immersive 12-day trip includes a guided nature hike in coastal Manuel Antonio National Park, birdwatching and zip-lining in the Monteverde Could Forest Reserve, and aquatic fun in the estuaries of Tamarindo.

Highlights

  • Spot macaws in Carara National Park
  • Laze on the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Zip-line over the tree tops in Monteverde
  • Surf or paddle-board around the bay in Tamarindo
  • Go on a wildlife tour of Tamarindo's estuary

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Costa Rica - San José City Tour San Jose
Day 2 Transfer to Carara National Park and Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 3 Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 4 Free Day in Manuel Antonio Manuel Antonio
Day 5 Transfer to Monteverde Monteverde
Day 6 Birdwatching in Monteverde Monteverde
Day 7 Aerial Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 8 Tour Monteverde's Orchid Garden Monteverde
Day 9 Monteverde to Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 10 Stand up Paddle Board in Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 11 Kayaking at Tamarindo Estuary Tamarindo
Day 12 Tamarindo to Liberia International Airport  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Costa Rica - San José City 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. 

On a guided tour beginning at noon, you will experience a slice of Costa Rica's rich culture and history by visiting museums and historical sites around the city. It starts with a drive to downtown and a visit to "the lungs of San José," La Sabana Metropolitan Park, which is the country's largest urban park. Next, you'll take a walking tour of the historic center, which includes a visits to the Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late 19th century, and the Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum), which holds the one of the largest Pre-Columbian gold collections in all of Latin American.

Other points of interest include the Museo Nacional (which features a butterfly garden), the Universidad de Costa Rica, which is the oldest and most prestigious university in the country, and the Corte Suprema de Justicia de Costa Rica (Supreme Court). You'll also stop along the way for a bit of souvenir shopping.

Day 2: Transfer to Carara National Park and Manuel Antonio

Go macaw spotting in Carara National Park
Go macaw spotting in Carara National Park

In the morning you'll transfer about an hour south to the tiny (just 53 square kilometers) Carara National Park. This area was created originally as a protected area in 1978 but was upgraded to national park status in 1990 due to its popularity. It's easy to see it's appeal: the region is located in a sweet spot between the tropical dry scrub of the northern Pacific coast and the southern Pacific rainforests, making it home to a wide variety of flora and fauna.

Some 360 of birds call this area home, most famously the scarlet macaw. Travelers come from far and wide to see what constitutes the largest remaining wild population of these birds in the country. Today, you'll be treated to this site as well.

Then you'll continue to the Pacific coast and travel 1.5 hours to another of Costa Rica's ecological wonderlands: Manuel Antonio National Park. This is one of Costa Rica's most coveted national parks because it features not only untouched rainforest but four different tropical beaches as well.

After checking into your hotel feel free to 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: Guided Hike of Manuel Antonio National Park

Wild beaches of Manuel Antonio
Wild beaches of Manuel Antonio

Today you'll wake up early and explore the incredible biodiversity found within the roughly 680 hectares (1,680 acres) 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.

Day 4: Free Day in Manuel Antonio

Playa Espadilla, Manuel Antonio
Playa Espadilla, Manuel Antonio

Today is yours to enjoy unencumbered by rigid schedules.  Whatever strikes your fancy is what you can choose to do. Beyond the wildlife hikes, there are a number of activities in which you can partake. 

Consider an optional boat tour to the Damas Island Estuary. This adventure is a Disney Jungle Cruise come to life. Along with a guide, you'll make your way down a network of mangrove canals as white-faced capuchin monkeys swing from branch to branch and exotic birds fly overhead. You might spot caimans or even a crocodile or two.

Another optional add-on is to take a surfing lesson on the beach. If that isn't for you, then simply stake your claim on a section of white sand and relax with a good book. One of the most ideal beaches in the park is Playa Espadilla, which stretches on for nearly a mile and is great for families as it's a tranquil public beach with lifeguards on hand during the day.

Day 5: Transfer to Monteverde

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

After breakfast, you’ll transfer about three hours northwest 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—over 400—with new ones discovered regularly. 

After check-in at your hotel, you can 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 6: Birdwatching in Monteverde

A male resplendent quetzal sits on a tree branch in Monteverde
A male resplendent quetzal sits on a tree branch in Monteverde

Set out early this morning for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. This 26,000 acre reserve is one of the most popular protected areas in the entire country. While you'll be able to indulge in the reserve's adrenaline-pumping activities later, now it's time for some birding, and this is a great area for it. You'll have the opportunity to see the resplendent quetzal as well as the highland tinamou, Chiriqui quail-dove, black-breasted wood quail, Grey-throated leaftosser, and some 30 species of hummingbirds. 

After your birding excursion, it's time for the adventure. Strap on a harness and fly over the treetops on a hair-raising zip-line tour. This is the best vantage point from which to experience Monteverde's famed cloud forest.  Afterward, return to your hotel and spend the rest of the day as you see fit.

Day 7: 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, and this makes sense considering that Monteverde is the birthplace of the canopy tour as we know it.

Day 8: Tour Monteverde's Orchid Garden

Visit the Orchid Garden at Monteverde
Visit the Orchid Garden at Monteverde

You're in for a treat because today you'll be visiting a working orchid farm, the Jardín de Orquídeas (Monteverde Orchid Garden). The farm has replicated the natural habitat of its orchids by growing all varietals outside. There is plenty to see here, too, with more than 460 species of orchids on display. There are so many, in fact, that on any given day you'll find 120 plants in bloom. You'll not only find larger species on display but miniature ones as well (including the smallest orchid in the word). This outdoor tour of the Orchid Garden lasts between 35 to 45 minutes, but if you like it can be extended up to an hour.

The rest of the afternoon is yours to explore however you like! If fluttering works of art are your thing, don't miss the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens, which also features creepy crawlies like insects and spiders. Another option is to visit the smaller, more intimate Curi-Cancha Reserve and walk along the nature trails. There are great birding opportunities here. 

Day 9: Monteverde to Tamarindo

The town of Tamarindo
The town of Tamarindo

It's time to leave the hilltops of Monteverde as you travel east. The landscapes will change as you leave the rainforests behind and enter the tropical dry forest and vast savannahs of Guanacaste Province. After three hours you'll enter Liberia, which is the capital of Guanacaste.

But you aren't done yet. Continue onward over paved and dirt roads towards the Nicoya Peninsula. After an hour you'll arrive at the ocean and the popular surf haven of Tamarindo. This is a small community teeming with activity, famous for its sunny beaches and world-class surf.

Day 10: Stand up Paddle Board in Tamarindo

Spend the day paddle-boarding
Spend the day paddle-boarding

If you'd like to spend a more mellow day on the water while still being active, stand-up paddle-boarding is the excursion for you. Rent a board and hit Tamarindo Bay. Not only will you enjoy the scenery from out on the water, but you'll get a full-body workout, too. If you've never paddle-boarded before that isn't a problem—individual and group classes are readily available in Tamarindo.

If you have the energy and want to make a day of it, consider an optional surfing excursion. There are plenty of private classes available for newbies, and for seasoned pros, there are some great breaks in the area. One must-visit surf spot near Tamarindo is Playa Naranjo, which locals have nicknamed "Witch’s Rock." It's located in a national park and accessible only by boat. Made famous by the film "The Endless Summer II," Naranjo features big surf with both left and right-breaking waves, meaning it is ideal for any surf style. A few miles beyond here is Ollie’s Point, which has right-breaking waves only. This is a big area, so it won’t feel quite as crowded as Witch’s Rock.

Day 11: Kayaking at Tamarindo Estuary

Be on the lookout for capuchin monkeys
Be on the lookout for capuchin monkeys

On the agenda for today is more aquatic fun as you immerse yourself in nature. Costa Rica is one of the most bio-diverse nations on the planet, and there are few better places to experience an abundance of its wildlife than this estuary. Located adjacent to the town, between Tamarindo Beach and Playa Grande, this is where the Tamarindo River meets the Pacific.

The estuary itself takes up about 1,200 acres, and all of it is teeming with wildlife. On a brisk tour through the mangroves and wetlands, you'll likely able to spot many different animals. These include flying fish, iguanas, crocodiles, sharks, monkeys, and of course a number exotic avian species like egrets and motmots. 

Day 12: Tamarindo to Liberia International Airport

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 hour-long drive back to Liberia and Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport, for your return flight home.

Map

Map of Discover Costa Rica: Manuel Antonio, Monteverde, and Tamarindo - 12 Days
Map of Discover Costa Rica: Manuel Antonio, Monteverde, and Tamarindo - 12 Days