This two-week itinerary includes many of Costa Rica's greatest hits. You'll venture into the country's most beautiful national parks and enjoy zip-lining adventures, nature hikes, beach excursions, and more. All the while you'll spot exotic animals as you traverse some of the most virgin rainforest landscapes in Central America.

Highlights

  • Snorkel and kayak along the coast of Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Zip-line across the canopy of Monteverde Cloud Forest
  • Explore the natural beauty of Arenal and take a dip in the nearby hot springs
  • Hike deep into Tenorio, one of the newest national parks open to the public
  • Relax on the beaches along the Gulf of Papagayo

Overview

This itinerary allows you to explore the coast from the south to north, starting in the nation's capital of San José and ending in Liberia, the capital of Guanacaste Province. It's a flexible route that includes several side trips and optional activities. Not only will you experience rivers, volcanoes, and rainforests on this journey, you'll enjoy relaxing beach time as well.

Even the coast here is diverse. Costa Rica's Pacific shoreline, known for its variation of eco-systems, contains everything from world-class surf beaches to dense mangrove swamps. In the end, whether you are a solo thrill-seeker or a family with children, this plan allows you to experience the best of Costa Rica over two fulfilling weeks.

Brief itinerary

Day Destination Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in San José, Costa Rica San Jose
Day 2 Manuel Antonio National Park  Manuel Antonio
Day 3 Catamaran & Snorkeling Manuel Antonio
Day 4 Free Day on the Beach Manuel Antonio
Day 5 Transfer to Tarcoles Tarcoles
Day 6 Monteverde Cloud Forest - Zip-lining Monteverde
Day 7 Hiking in the Cloud Forest Transfer to Arenal Arenal
Day 8 Hanging Bridges & Hot Springs Arenal
Day 9 Free Day in La Fortuna Tenorio
Day 10 Tenorio Volcano National Park Tenorio
Day 11 Hiking to the Rio Celeste Tamarindo
Day 12 Gulf of Papagayo Tamarindo
Day 13 Free Day on the Beach Tamarindo
Day 14 Liberia (Departure)  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in San José, Costa Rica

San Jose's Post Office Building

Welcome to San Jose! Depending on when you arrive (and how tired you are after the flight), you might have some free time to hit the town and explore. Maybe head downtown and take a stroll among the grand plazas and centuries-old buildings. Here are some other must-visit destinations in the area:

  • Mercado Central (Central Market): A great place to visit if you're a morning person, the central market opens at the crack of dawn and is the oldest such market in San José. This is the center of commerce in the city, with thousands of locals gathering daily to shop for produce, buy and sell various goods, and trade generations-old recipes. Additionally, if you're looking for a last-minute souvenir, this is the place to get something unique—you'll find everything from soccer balls and handicrafts to costumes and handbags.
  • Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum): The exterior of this museum may appear unassuming, but inside it's a different story. Within this building, an underground vault holds one of the largest Pre-Columbian gold collections in all of Latin America. The artifacts here, which include golden figurines and ceremonial adornments, will satisfy both history buffs and casual observers.
  • Museo Nacional (National Museum): The Museo Nacional is hard to miss. It's located in a bright yellow building that used to be a military barracks (the Bellavista Fortress). Now it displays a range of exhibits that highlight the history of the country from pre-Columbian times to modern-day. A favorite for many visitors is the butterfly garden housed in the museum. It offers a bit of serenity amid the hustle and bustle of Costa Rica's capital.

Day 2: Manuel Antonio National Park and Beaches

Manuel Antonio's coast

After an early breakfast, you'll leave San José and transfer about three hours west to the central Pacific Coast, a hub of biodiversity featuring several world-class national parks. You will be staying near Manuel Antonio National Park, a protected area famous for having both virgin rainforest as well as white-sand beaches fronting the Pacific. After checking in to your hotel, you can spend the remainder of the day enjoying the hotel facilities and relaxing on nearby beaches. We recommend visiting the namesake Playa Manuel Antonio, whose over 1,000 feet of white sands curve around a crescent cove with jade and turquoise waters. 

Day 3: Manuel Antonio - Catamaran & Snorkeling

Snorkeling is a popular activity in Manuel Antonio National Park

Today you'll take a snorkeling tour around Manuel Antonio. You'll board a 100-foot catamaran and head out to a nearby reef where you can snorkel among colorful fish and other marine life, or just relax on the boat and spot the dolphins frolicking nearby. Food and drinks are provided on the boat, so there is no need to head ashore.

You'll have the remainder of the day to continue exploring the rugged coastline of Manuel Antonio National Park. The optional, non-included activities below are solid ways to further experience the park's highlights and natural beauty. 

  • Trek into Manuel Antonio National Park: This hike winds through virgin rainforest and over crystal-clear creeks. You will spot multiple monkey species on the trail, as well as sloths, coatis, toucans, and iguanas. The park is closed on Mondays.
  • Kayak or Boat Tour in Las Damas Islands (English-speaking guide available): The Las Damas Islands, protected under the RAMSAR Convention for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Wetlands, contain unique flora and fauna. Get up close and personal with various rare species, such as caimans, boas, anteaters, and herons, as you navigate the waterways between the giant mangroves.

There are more things to do around the park, including whale watching, whitewater rafting, fishing, sailing, and more.

Day 4: Manuel Antonio - Free Day on the Beach

White sand beaches in Manuel Antonio

Activities today include horseback riding on the beach or up to a beautiful waterfall, guided hikes in the park, ocean fishing, sea kayaking, mountain biking, snorkeling, riding scooters, body surfing, boogie boarding, or just sunbathing on the beach.

For those interested in a side excursion, a trip south to either Marino Ballena National Park or Corcovado National Park is possible. Isla del Caño, a marine reserve and top scuba diving site, is also nearby. 

  • Mario Ballena National Park was founded to conserve the abundant marine life in this coastal region of Puntarenas Province. Dolphins thrive year round in these waters, and humpback whales can be spotted between December and March as well as August and October. Booking a whale or dolphin watching tour is the best way to seek them out. On land, you can observe capuchin, howler, and squirrel monkeys, as well as sloths, raccoons, and perhaps even the rare ocelot or puma.
  • Corcovado National Park is Costa Rica's premier wildlife-viewing destination. Its rainforests host a massive array of species that includes over 140 mammals (including the jaguar and endangered Baird's tapir), 400 birds, and 116 reptiles. Guided day hikes into the park are a great way to spot anteaters, sloths, howler monkeys, and more. If you want to visit Corcovado National Park, consider extending your vacation by a couple of days and staying two nights in the nearby village of Uvita.

Day 5: Transfer to Tarcoles

A crocodile on the Tarcoles River Bridge

Make your way up the Pacific Coast to the village of Tarcoles, located near the Carara River National Park. This area is known for its scenic bridge which is an optimum vantage point for wildlife spotting. Take the afternoon to enjoy the surrounding region. Some suggested activities include:

  • Tarcoles River Bridge: No trip to Tarcoles is complete without a visit to the river bridge, where you can observe large numbers of crocodiles in the river below. The area contains one of the largest crocodile populations in the Americas, and some can grow up to 7 meters (23 feet) long! Macaws and other species of tropical birds can also be spotted overhead.
  • Carara National Park: Carara National Park is an important refuge for endemic wildlife. It's considered a "transitional zone" between areas that are increasingly encroached upon by human agriculture and development. An easy hike will take you deep into the park where you'll enter the natural habitat of the scarlet macaw. 15 years ago, these macaws were reintroduced to the park under protected status and have flourished ever since.

  • Boat Tour: This tour, which includes a guide and on-site lunch, places you in the midst of mangrove forest wildlife. You'll stop at a vital nesting and mating site for several bird species. Other mammals and reptiles are also common here. 

Day 6: Monteverde Cloud Forest - Zip-lining

Zip-line adventure in Monteverde cloud forest

After breakfast, you'll travel to Monteverde and enjoy some side trips along the way. Upon arriving in the afternoon, you'll partake in an exciting zip-line tour over cloud forest canopy. Aided by professionally-trained tour guides and state-of-the-art safety equipment, you'll fly from tree to tree and feel the rush of adrenaline as you travel over a network of 16 cables. The tour culminates with its most iconic and heart-pounding activity: the Tarzan swing. On this bungee-like drop, you'll swing hundreds of feet over the ground like the King of the Jungle himself.  

If you aren't too tired after the zip lining, consider some other optional, non-included activities in the area:

  • Children's Eternal Rainforest (English-speaking guide available): This is the largest private reserve in Costa Rica, containing more than 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of protected rainforest. More than half of all terrestrial vertebrates that exist in Costa Rica have been identified in this reserve, including about 60 species of amphibians, 100 species of reptiles, 425 species of birds, and 121 species of mammals.
  • Forest Night Walk (English-speaking guide available): Encounter nocturnal species in this after-dark guided trek.

Day 7: Monteverde Cloud Forest - Hiking to the Reserve

Resplendent quetzal 

In the morning, a bilingual guide will pick you up at your hotel and drive you to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, famous worldwide for its great diversity of flora and fauna. This is one of the few areas where you can observe the rare resplendent quetzal, an aptly named avian species that is regarded as one of the world's most unique and beautiful birds.

In the early afternoon, you'll have some free time. Maybe partake in an optional tour that whisks you off to a working coffee farm to learn about the history and role of coffee in Costa Rican culture (yes, frequent tastings are included). After a traditional Costa Rican lunch, you'll head across Lake Arenal to the town of La Fortuna, gateway to the iconic Arenal Volcano. Check into your hotel and spend the rest of the evening relaxing. 

Day 9: Arenal Volcano – Hanging Bridges / La Fortuna Waterfall / Hot Springs

A natural hot spring in Arenal

This morning you're in for a treat. First, embark on a hike over the famous Arenal Hanging Bridges, a network of 14 suspension bridges affording panoramic views of Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal. Afterward, continue on to the other star of this region, the La Fortuna waterfall, which plunges 35 meters (120ft) along cliffs blanketed in green flora. Hike down to the base where you'll discover gentle cascades and a natural swimming pool—perfect for a quick dip. 

After a refreshing swim, spend the afternoon on your own exploring the town of La Fortuna, enjoying your hotel's amenities, or participating in another optional adventure. You can go on a canopy zip-line tour, visit the butterfly garden, ride an ATV, or get a stress-relieving massage. In the evening, take a soothing dip in one of Arenal Volcano's famous hot springs and enjoy dinner by the waterside.

Day 9: Arenal - Free Day

Arenal Volcano, an icon of Costa Rica. 

Today, finish your Arenal experience with an activity of your choosing. You can immerse yourself in local culture through live folk music, take a tortilla cooking class, pay a visit to a sugar-cane mill, or enjoy a Costa Rican-style lunch at Casona Río Fortuna, once the home of former Costa Rican president Rafael Yglesias Castro. 

If you're hungry for even more adventure, a waterfall rappelling tour is sure to satisfy your adrenaline craving. The tour kicks off with a 25-meter (82-foot) descent down a suspended bridge, continuing on to a series of four waterfalls within a canyon. By the end of the tour, you will have rappelled down a total of eight waterfalls, each surrounded on many sides by virgin rainforest.

You'll eat lunch in Arenal before heading northwest a short way to your next destination, Tenorio National Park.

Day 10: Tenorio Volcano National Park

Waterfall in Tenorio

A well-kept secret, Tenorio is one of the newest national parks in Costa Rica. The park's principal river, the sky-blue Río Celeste, draws curious adventurers eager for a glimpse of its ethereal colors. Refreshingly, the area has not yet become a major tourist site.

The two main attractions here are the Tenorio Volcano, as well as the aforementioned Rio Celeste and its flagship waterfall. Take the evening to relax and gather your strength—you'll be venturing into the park tomorrow. 

Day 11: Tenorio Volcano National Park - Hiking Tour

A bridge over the Río Celeste

Today you'll uncover the beauty of Tenorio National Park on a nature hike. As you walk through this untouched protected area, many of the creatures that live along the banks of the Río Celeste, like sloths and monkeys, will appear along the way. Continue along the trail, which follows the river and gets bluer as you travel further upstream, until you arrive at a waterfall unrivaled in beauty anywhere in the country.  

Before heading back, you'll have time to swim in the blue lagoon at the base of the waterfall and relax on the banks. Spend the evening back in your hotel.

Day 12-13: Gulf of Papagayo - Free Days on the Beach

Sunset over the Gulf of Papagayo

Today you'll drive west into Guanacaste Province and to the Gulf of Papayago, an area of the northern Pacific coast known for its golden beaches and secluded coves. The beaches in this region are famous for their epic surf conditions and long breaks. You'll have ample time to indulge should wave-riding strike your fancy.

You can also experience the area through a variety of other activities, including kayaking through the mangroves around the village of Tamarindo, a city tour of Liberia (capital of Guanacaste Province), snorkeling and diving off the coast, or a relaxing catamaran excursion. If the mood strikes, you can make a quick visit to Rincon de la Vieja for more waterfall adventures, or book a river cruise in Palo Verde National Park.

Day 14: Departure from Costa Rica

It's time to say goodbye to Costa Rica after two weeks of nonstop adventure. A representative will meet you at your hotel and drive you to the Liberia airport for your return flight home. 

Map

Map of Best of Costa Rica - 14 Days
Map of Best of Costa Rica - 14 Days