From the depths of the sea to the jungle treetops, this exciting 12-day itinerary takes you to Costa Rica's top highlights for outdoor adventures and wildlife viewing. Spot vibrantly colored frogs and monkeys on a guided nature walk, boat along the canals of Tortuguero National Park, hike around Arenal Volcano, and dip in natural hot springs nearby. Then zip-line through the trees in the cloud forest and snorkel in Manuel Antonio National Park—all of this and more await you on this outdoorsy journey.

Highlights

  • Explore the canals of Tortuguero National Park and spot wildlife from the water
  • Walk through a rainforest reserve on suspension bridges 
  • Boat and snorkel in the lush settings of Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Soak in natural hot springs heated by volcanic activity
  • Take in dazzling views of the picturesque Rio Celeste

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive & Explore Downtown San José San José
Day 2 Guided Jungle Night Hike Tortuguero
Day 3 Boat Along the Tortuguero Canals Tortuguero
Day 4 Explore the Wilderness of Arenal La Fortuna
Day 5 Hike Around a Volcano & Soak in Hot Springs La Fortuna
Day 6 See Rio Celeste & Tenorio Volcano National Park  La Fortuna
Day 7 Guided Night Walk of Children's Eternal Forest Monteverde
Day 8 Tour Monteverde Cloud Forest & Sky Adventures Park Monteverde
Day 9 Transfer to Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 10 Explore Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 11 Boat & Snorkel in Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 14 Manuel Antonio to San José, Depart  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive & Explore Downtown San José

The National Theater
The National Theater in San José

Welcome to Costa Rica! A driver will transfer you from the airport to your hotel in San José. After settling in, go for a self-guided walking tour of downtown. Depending on your hotel's location, you can walk or take a taxi to your first destination: Mercado Central (Central Market), featuring over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). It's a short walk to Central Park, a small plaza always bustling with activity. Pass various outdoor sculptures as you walk through the park toward Catedral Metropolitana and continue walking down Central Avenue until you reach the 19th-century Teatro Nacional.

Your first museum stop is the Museo del Oro Precolumbino, which is accessible from beneath the Plaza de la Cultura and holds the most extensive Pre-Columbian gold collection in Latin America. Next, head to the Museo del Jade, the world's largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts. As you wander among thousands of unique jade pieces, you'll gain an even deeper appreciation for Costa Rica's rich history. 

Read about the top restaurant recommendations in San José here.

Day 2: Guided Jungle Night Hike

Night Walk Adventure
Night Walk Adventure

Travel this morning from San José to Tortuguero National Park. A driver will pick you up in an air-conditioned minivan and transfer you to the boat dock near Tortuguero. From there, a boat will take you to your hotel in Tortuguero. Read more about the best boutique hotels in the area.

Later, you'll be outfitted with wet weather gear and a flashlight for wildlife spotting. Then you'll embark on a guided twilight adventure through the rainforest. The jungle transforms at night, and you'll have the rare opportunity to witness the transition on this excursion. Your guide will point out various nocturnal animals, insects, and plants along the walk.

Day 3: Boat Along the Tortuguero Canals

Sun on the tree branches
Sun on the tree branches in Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero National Park is one of the world's most important locations for several species of nesting sea turtles. Explore the park's jungle waterways on a motorboat tour that allows you to see the forest and its wildlife from the water.

A 2021 count registered 186 species of birds in the area, along with three monkey species, crocodiles, caimans, toucans, sloths, and much more. You will likely see most of these creatures on your tour. On some of the canals, you can get close to the tangled jungle on the riverbanks, where many animals can be observed. 

Check out this article on the best things to do in the national park.

Day 4: Explore the Wilderness of Arenal

Steam emerging from Arenal, one of Costa Rica's most famous volcanoes
Steam emerging from Arenal, one of Costa Rica's most famous volcanoes

Transfer by land to La Fortuna, the closest town to Arenal Volcano. Later in the afternoon, visit La Fortuna Waterfall Reserve. After paying the entrance fee, you'll cross a small bridge to get to the trailhead. Beyond that is the first observation deck, where you can snap photos with a great elevated view of the waterfall as it plunges into the river below. Then it's time to descend the steps to get close to the waterfall at its base!

As you make your way down the roughly 500 steps along the trail, take breaks to check out the local flora and fauna. Once you reach the falls, cool off with a swim in the refreshing water of La Fortuna River. Enjoy the falls and the river as long as you like before starting the trek back up the stairs. For dinner, hit the town and try out one of La Fortuna's many restaurants. You might spot toucans, iguanas, and even sloths in the trees near your table. 

Day 5: Hike Around a Volcano & Soak in Hot Springs

Arenal Hanging Bridges
A morning walk on the Arenal Hanging Bridges

This morning is your chance to explore the Arenal Hanging Bridges. This trail system features suspension bridges that take you high above the treetops before treating you to a once-in-a-lifetime view of Arenal Volcano soaring above the canopy. With more than 350 avian species found here, birdwatching is superb.

In the afternoon, go for a hike around Arenal Volcano. Start at the entrance of the 1968 Trail, where you'll hit the well-maintained trails that skirt the base of the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal. This 1.5-hour route offers some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in the park, and your naturalist guide will keep a well-trained eye out for exotic birds, monkeys, and other animals along the way. After hiking the trails, your guide will drop you off at Tabacon Hot Springs so you can soothe your muscles with a dip in mineral-rich waters. 

Find out more about hiking around Arenal Volcano here.

Day 6: See Rio Celeste & Tenorio Volcano National Park 

Hike to dreamlike waterfalls
Hike to dreamlike waterfalls

Today you'll venture into Tenorio Volcano National Park for a moderate three-hour hike along the Río Celeste, one of the most stunning natural attractions in Costa Rica. The legend says that after God painted the sky, He washed His brushes in this river, resulting in its famous electric-blue waters.

Highlights along the hike include Los Teñideros, the site where two streams of crystalline water come together and form the "heavenly" blue that gives the river its name. You'll also see the volcano's furnace vents, which expel gases at extremely high temperatures, and the spectacular Río Celeste waterfall. Enjoy a gourmet lunch at the end of the journey.

Day 7: Guided Night Walk of Children's Eternal Forest

You can spot red-eyed tree frogs at night.
Spot red-eyed tree frogs at night
Travel from La Fortuna to Monteverde by car and boat. After crossing Lake Arenal, you'll officially be in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica. A private vehicle will transfer you to your hotel. This evening, go on a nocturnal walk through the Children's Eternal Forest, the largest private reserve in Costa Rica. The tour starts right after nightfall, allowing you to watch the animals awakening and others seeking their nests and caves to sleep.

Day 8: Tour Monteverde Cloud Forest & Sky Adventures Park

Explore the dense jungle of the Monteverde Cloud Forest
Explore the dense jungle of the Monteverde Cloud Forest

Transfer from your hotel to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of Costa Rica's ecological crown jewels. Known as the "green lung of Costa Rica" due to its rich biodiversity, this sprawling reserve is high in the country's mountainous northwest region. On a guided tour, you'll get an overview of the incredible biodiversity of this region, where upland and lowland rainforest meet. More than 350 bird species live here, including the quetzal. It's a nature lover's paradise. Check out the Best Things to Do in Monteverde for more ideas of what to see and do.

At the Sky Adventures Park in the afternoon, you'll have your pick of ways to explore the cloud forest: ziplining for the action-inclined, sky tram trips for a panoramic perspective, or walks along suspension bridges for close encounters with elusive bird species and other wildlife. You'll start with the guided Sky Walk, which combines trails and suspension bridges. Later, you'll ride in an open-air gondola for sweeping views across the mountains. At the end of the line, connect to a zipline cable that stretches over rainforest treetops and across clifftops, finally returning you to the starting point.

See this guide for the best ziplining in Monteverde for more information.

Day 9: Transfer to Manuel Antonio National Park

Sunset at Manuel Antonio Beach
Sunset at Manuel Antonio Beach

After breakfast, you'll transfer to Manuel Antonio National Park in a private, air-conditioned minivan. The drive takes approximately five hours, depending on traffic. You'll stop along the way in the town of Tárcoles and make your way to a bridge over the Tárcoles River. The river is famous for having the largest American crocodile population in Central America, and this is your chance to see these toothy reptiles in the wild. You can usually see at least a dozen sunbathing on the riverbanks or floating in the water from the bridge.

Continue to Manuel Antonio National Park, check in to your hotel, and get some rest before the next day's excursion. If you have the energy or inclination, both the beach and the edge of the national park are close to town, so you can easily spend time here with water sports on Espadilla Beach or a hike on the trails through the forest. You can also explore the adjacent town of Quepos for sunset views. Or you may prefer to take it easy, wandering at your own pace and stopping for dinner in a local restaurant. Here are some dining recommendations for the area.

Day 10: Explore Manuel Antonio National Park 

A capuchin monkey in Manuel Antonio National Park

Today you'll go on a guided tour to explore the pristine natural beauty of the world-famous Manuel Antonio National Park, filled with exotic wildlife such as monkeys, sloths, birds, reptiles, and butterflies. Your picturesque hike will take you to one of the country's best beaches, known for its white sandy beaches and crystalline blue waters. Have your camera ready as your knowledgeable guide points out diverse flora and fauna along the way.

Check out the Ultimate Guide to Manuel Antonio National Park for more information.

Day 11: Boat & Snorkel in Manuel Antonio National Park

Snorkeling in Costa Rica

This morning, board a catamaran at the pier in Quepos for a sailing adventure along the coast. Your guide will highlight notable wildlife and vegetation as you admire the region's islands, cliffs, and rock formations. After touring the coastline, the captain will set anchor at Biesanz Bay, where you can snorkel or relax onboard. You may spot parrotfish, starfish, angelfish, and dolphins from the boat while enjoying a barbecue lunch.

Day 12: Manuel Antonio to San José, Depart

Take in a Costa Rica sunset 
The trip ends today. If there's time before your departure, finish any last-minute souvenir shopping and then transfer to the airport to catch your flight out. Safe travels!

More Great Costa Rica Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these other Costa Rica itineraries, explore different ways to spend two weeks in Costa Rica, or discover the best time to visit Costa Rica.

Map

Map of Highlights of Costa Rica: Tortuguero, Arenal, Monteverde & Manuel Antonio - 12 Days
Map of Highlights of Costa Rica: Tortuguero, Arenal, Monteverde & Manuel Antonio - 12 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Sep 6, 2022