- Waterfall hike followed by a soak in Tabacón’s hot springs
- Rafting the rapids on Rio Balsa
- Zip-lining through Monteverde's 26,000-acre Cloud Forest Reserve
- Surfing and kayaking the waters of Playa Sámara
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|Day 1||Arrive in Costa Rica||San José|
|Day 2||San José City Tour||San José|
|Day 3||Volcanos & Waterfalls||La Fortuna|
|Day 4||Activities In & Around Arenal Volcano||La Fortuna|
|Day 5||Outdoor Adventures at Arenal||La Fortuna|
|Day 6||Arenal to Monteverde||Monteverde|
|Day 7||Monteverde to Playa Sámara||Sámara|
|Day 8||Explore Isla Chora||Sámara|
|Day 9||Playa Sámara Free Day||Sámara|
|Day 10||Transfer to San José, Depart Costa Rica|
Day 1: Arrive in Costa Rica
Welcome to the land of pura vida! After touchdown at Juan Santamaria International airport in San José, your shuttle service will take you directly to your first hotel.
After check-in, the rest of the day is yours: relax by the pool, lounge at the hotel, go shopping, or perhaps explore the dynamic downtown. Find out more about the best hotels in San José.
A few ideas include visiting Spanish colonial buildings, like the ornate, neoclassical Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica where you can also take in a performance (National Theater of Costa Rica), or strolling through the food stalls at San José Central Market. Enjoy lunch at a traditional soda (restaurant) and indulge in a casado (a dish of rice, beans and meat, served with tortillas).
Day 2: San José City Tour
After breakfast at your hotel, a private guide will show you a slice of Costa Rica's culture and history with a tour of museums and historical sites in San José. It begins with an orientation and drive through "the lungs of San José," La Sabana Metropolitan Park. Next, you'll take a walking tour through the historic Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late 19th century, which offers free guides on the hour (check the theater's events calendar to take in a performance this evening).
Continue with a visit to one of the city's best museums like the Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum), which holds the largest Pre-Columbian gold collection in all of Latin American. Or you can head to the Museo Nacional, housed in former military barracks, featuring a collection of important cultural artifacts as well as a butterfly garden. Then you'll head to the Universidad de Costa Rica, the oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning in the country, the Corte Suprema de Justicia de Costa Rica (Supreme Court), and other points of interest, stopping along the way for a bit of souvenir shopping. For more ideas on how to spend your time in the capital city, read 24 Hours in San José.
Day 3: Volcanos & Waterfalls
After an early breakfast at the hotel, you’ll meet the shuttle service in the lobby. The destination: Arenal Volcano National Park, home of the 5,437-foot-high peak that is one of Costa Rica’s most famed landmarks—and until 2010, the country’s most active volcano.
First, you’ll head to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a privately run ecological attraction. The park includes five waterfalls accessed through miles of well-maintained walking trails. Kids will love a visit here too, thanks to wildlife exhibits devoted to snakes and frogs, as well as a butterfly observatory and a hummingbird garden.
Lunch will be provided, and in the late afternoon we will continue on to La Fortuna, the village at the foot of the Arenal volcano, which will be your home base for the next two days.
If you’re up for more adventures, here are a few other ways to experience the Arenal region:
Soothe your muscles with a dip in the mineral-rich waters of Tabacón’s hot springs, used as therapeutic baths for more than 200 years. Tabacón Thermal Resort offers day passes and includes a spa where treatments are given in outdoor bungalows. End the day with dinner at the Resort’s Ave Del Paraíso restaurant, serving Costa Rican and international dishes. Learn more about the best hot springs in Arenal.
Discover the wildlife of Arenal after the sun goes down during a night walk hosted by Danaus Eco-Center. The trail, which is easy enough for beginners, takes hikers through the biodiverse rainforest where you’ll spot nocturnal animals like sloths, bats, and frogs as a naturalist provides insight into all you’ll see (and hear) in the dark.
Day 4: Activities In & Around Arenal Volcano
Today is packed with outdoor adventures, starting with a hike at Arenal Volcano National Park. An experienced guide will lead you along the trails to points where you'll get the best views of the volcano, pointing out local flora and fauna along the way and sharing the history of Arenal.
Next, you'll see Arenal from the water with a standup paddle boarding trip on Lake Arenal, Costa Rica's largest landlocked body of water. The lake is calm and pristine, making a stand-up paddleboard session here ideal for beginners or experienced boarders who want a leisurely paddle to take in the breathtaking scenery and spot water birds like herons and anhingas.
Your afternoon concludes with a late-afternoon trip to see the area's majestic ospreys in their natural habitat, watching them swoop through the air as the sun begins to set on Arenal. Read more about the best hikes in the region.
Day 5: Outdoor Adventures at Arenal
Buckle up for a morning of whitewater rafting class II and III rapids on the Balsa River. After breakfast, your local operator will pick you up in the hotel lobby. Be sure to wear clothes you don't mind getting wet, plus a spare set of dry ones. Pay close attention to the safety instructions your guide provides during the trip to the raft-launch site, and get set for plenty of rapids.
After the adrenaline rush of your whitewater rafting trip, relax with a traditional Costa Rican lunch on the banks of the river.
In the afternoon, we will drop you off at one of the wide variety of hot springs in Arenal to unwind—nature's own hydromassage. Want to spend the night at a hotel with access to hot springs? Check out your options.
For dinner, a few suggested restaurants are:
- Café Mediterraneo, a friendly osteria serving up homemade pasta and pizza.
- La Parrilla de María Bonita, a must-visit for perfectly cooked steak as well as Mediterranean dishes like falafel and baba ghanoush.
- Rancho Perla, a popular open-air restaurant (you may even spot sloths hanging from the nearby trees) serving Costa Rican staples.
Day 6: Arenal to Monteverde
After breakfast, you’ll head toward Monteverde, known as the "Green Lung” of Costa Rica due to its biodiversity. Located in the mountainous northwest region of the country, Monteverde is famed for its 26,000-acre Cloud Forest Reserve, home to countless wildlife species. Suspension bridges throughout allow for walks above the forest canopy, with plenty of opportunities to spot the colorfully-plumed resplendent quetzal. The reserve’s marked trails pass through exotic fauna and flora, including 500 orchid species (with new types discovered regularly).
After check-in at your hotel, you’ll spend the afternoon at the Sky Adventures Park, where you’ll have your pick of ways to explore the cloud forest: zip-lining for the action-inclined, sky tram trips for a panoramic perspective, or walks along suspension bridges for up-close encounters with elusive bird species and other wildlife. For more zip-lining information, read this article.
Take the evening to enjoy nearby Santa Elena, a town with a heavy Quaker influence that’s known for excellent coffee and cheese. Here are a few restaurant suggestions:
- Grab a seat on the front porch of local favorite Orchid Coffee, which serves a menu of smoothies, salads, and sandwiches. Sweet-toothed visitors will appreciate the café’s extensive hot chocolate menu made with Costa Rican chocolate and mixed with unique ingredients like cardamom and orange.
- El Jardin Bar & Restaurant wins visitors over with its lovely setting overlooking the trees, and fresh homemade bread served alongside every meal.
- Built around an old higueron (fig) tree, the Tree House Restaurant & Café serves Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo in a romantic, open-air setting.
Learn more about the best boutique hotels in Monteverde.
Day 7: Monteverde to Playa Sámara
Today the Pacific Coast is in your sights, and you’ll depart Monteverde for the beautiful coastal hamlet of Playa Sámara (Sámara Beach), on the Nicoya Peninsula’s western shore. Famed for its golden sand and gentle waves, Sámara Beach is one of the safest in the country. The area teems with tropical life, has a thriving fishing and farming economy, and its laid-back feel makes it a favorite of travelers and locals alike.
The options at Playa Sámara are many and varied. Frolic in the sand and sun, head down to the water for a snorkel, or sign up for a surfing lesson in mellow waves ideal for novices. You can also explore Sámara above the waves, experiencing the region’s sea life on a whale, dolphin, or turtle-watching tour.
There’s plenty to do beyond the beach, too. Take a guided hike through a mango plantation (where you’re welcome to eat all the mangos you like) and into the Werner Sauter Biological Preserve to spot monkeys, birds, and butterflies. You can also explore the region’s wildlife on horseback, starting with a ride along the water before heading into the hills to view iguanas, birds, and more.
When hunger strikes, here are a few restaurants we recommend:
- A perfect stop for morning coffee, colorful and charming Bouticafé Bohemia also serves healthy breakfast and lunch options like smoothies and salads.
- Lo Que Hay, a convivial taqueria and pub serving six taco options. Its beachside setting makes it the perfect spot to watch the sunset from the sand, cold drink in hand.
- Locanda Playa Samara is a favorite by day for its with comfortable sun beds and menu of light bites, and for wood-oven baked pizzas served at tables shaded by thatched-roofs right on the beach.
- LuvBurger offers gluten-free, vegan fare (tacos, salads, burgers, and sandwiches) right on the sand.
Read the Ultimate Guide to Costa Rican Coffee to find out more about the country's coffee tradition.
Day 8: Explore Isla Chora
Today you can investigate the nooks and crannies of this exceptionally unique coastal area. After breakfast, grab a paddleboard or kayak, and set out with your guide to the petite Isla Chora (Chora Island), a 25-45 minute paddle across the lagoon from Sámara.
Once there, snorkel around the island’s reefs (keep your eyes peeled for sea turtles!), then grab some well-earned snacks and beverages on the beach. And be sure to check out the island’s iguanas as they sun themselves on the hillside. Learn more about how many days to spend in Costa Rica.
Day 9: Playa Sámara Free Day
You’re on your own today. Where to begin? Perhaps a guided tour to Palo Verde National Park, one of the world’s foremost examples of a tropical dry forest, for some spectacular bird-watching. If you desire a physical challenge, there’s spelunking at nearby Barro Honda. If you prefer to be on the water, head out for some sportfishing or, if your visiting from July-November or December-March, a dolphin or whale-watching cruise. Read more about the top active experiences in Costa Rica.
Or 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, eclectic vibe. Then enjoy your last sunset in Costa Rica!
Day 10: Transfer to San José, Depart Costa Rica
Sadly, is time to leave paradise—for now. Stroll along the beach at sunrise before the drive back to San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport for your flight home.
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