Trek to aquamarine waterfalls, snorkel with giant manta rays, and boat through pristine waters at sunset on this invigorating 8-day adventure around Costa Rica. Families will love exploring the country's spectacular landscapes on this itinerary that begins in Arenal with volcano hikes, dips in hot springs, and sloth spotting in the wild. The trip then moves on to the surf hub of Tamarindo for several days of kayaking through mangroves, snorkeling around the Catalina Islands, and observing dolphins, crocodiles, and monkeys in their natural habitat.

Highlights

  • See Costa Rica's cutest creatures, sloths, on a hike through the jungle 
  • Boat or kayak down the Río Frio, spotting wildlife along the way
  • Walk along one of Costa Rica's most stunning attractions, the Río Celeste
  • Snorkel with tropical fish off the coast of the Catalina Islands
  • Enjoy sunset views over the water during a catamaran cruise

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Explore the Rainforest After Dark La Fortuna
Day 2 Go on a Sloth and Bird Hike & Dip in Hot Springs La Fortuna
Day 3 Discover the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge  La Fortuna
Day 4 Hike Along the Río Celeste  Tamarindo
Day 5 Kayak Around Tamarindo Mangrove & Estuary  Tamarindo
Day 6 Snorkel Around the Catalina Islands Tamarindo
Day 7 Enjoy a Catamaran Sailing Tour at Sunset Tamarindo
Day 8 Depart Cost Rica  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Explore the Rainforest After Dark

Try and spot the red-eyed tree frog in Ecocentro Danaus
Welcome to Costa Rica! From the San José International Airport, your driver will transfer you to your hotel in La Fortuna (around three hours, depending on traffic). 
 
In the late afternoon, you will head to Ecocentro Danaus, a private ecological reserve located 2.75 miles (4.5 km) east of La Fortuna. Here, you will wait for nightfall to embark on a guided nature hike and discover the reserve's nocturnal creatures. As you walk, your guide will point out a wide variety of insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. You're sure to spot bullfrogs and the iconic red-eyed tree frog, the translucent glass frog, and perhaps the brightly colored poison dart frog, one of the planet's most poisonous frogs. 

Day 2: Go on a Sloth and Bird Hike & Dip in Hot Springs

Look up to see wildlife
A sloth clinging to a tree

Go on a hiking excursion today along the so-called "Sloth Trail." This nature trail cuts through a habitat for sloths (both two-toed and three-toed) who like to hang on the branches of the trees and feed on bright green leaves. On this two-hour guided hike, you'll see a few of these slow-moving animals and perhaps even spy a mother sloth and its baby. During the walk, your bilingual guide will also point out other animals common to this area, like the famous red-eyed tree frog.

In the afternoon, discover the La Fortuna area with a hike around Arenal Volcano and other nearby nature reserves. The trails in the area are generally not strenuous—perfect for a leisurely and informative hike with a naturalist guide. 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.

In addition to the forested parts where you can spot wildlife, you'll also walk through sections of the park devastated by the lava flow of 1968, resulting in little to no vegetation in its surroundings. Your guide will explain the history of the area, both pre-and post-1968 eruption, while also pointing out the unique flora and fauna you will encounter. Of course, the trail also provides magnificent views of the massive Arenal Volcano, the pristine Lake Arenal, and the extinct volcano Cerro Chato.

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. These springs have been used as therapeutic baths for centuries. End the day with a nice dinner at the resort's restaurant, which serves Costa Rican dishes as well as international fare, before being picked up and transported back to your accommodations.

Plan your trip to Costa Rica
Customize your trip with help from a local travel specialist.

Day 3: Discover the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge 

Howler monkeys are common in Caño Negro
Howler monkeys are common in Caño Negro

Take a day trip to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge (a two-hour drive each way). Located in the far north of the country, near the border with Nicaragua, it's well worth the travel time. This ecologically diverse refuge is home to an abundance of wildlife.

You'll have the choice of touring the area by boat or kayak. Making your way down the Río Frio, you'll spot dozens of the more than 200 species of exotic birds that live here. You can expect to see some avian varieties, including spoonbills, jabiru storks, ibises, northern jacanas, ducks, and egrets. You'll see other wildlife, such as caimans, three different species of monkeys, and turtles. Keep an eye out for sloths hanging from the treetops during your stop for lunch along the river.

Day 4: Hike Along the Río Celeste 

The incredibly blue Rio Celeste
The incredibly blue Río Celeste

Today you will transfer to the surf town of Tamarindo, stopping to visit a majestic natural attraction. Río Celeste National Park is a scenic 1.5-hour drive along rustic back roads. You'll take off on a moderate three-hour hike along the Río Celeste river when you arrive. Local legend says that after God painted the sky, he washed his brushes in this river, which resulted in its famous electric-blue waters. 

The hike leads you four miles (7 km) along the river through a rainforest ecosystem home to exotic animals like monkeys, sloths, peccaries, and anteaters. You'll pass by the specific point where two streams merge and produce the reaction in the minerals that give the Celeste its exotic color. The hike culminates with a descent of 253 steps to reach the Catarata Río Celeste, a waterfall of such profound beauty you'll think you've found your own private paradise.

You'll visit a magnificent waterfall, hot water springs (swimming is not allowed due to the park's rules), fumaroles of volcanic gases, and the Borbollones, where exhaust gases at the base of the river give the appearance of boiling water.

Day 5: Kayak Around Tamarindo Mangrove & Estuary 

A mangrove in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse nations on the planet, and there are few better places to experience its abundant wildlife than the Tamarindo Estuary. Located adjacent to the town, between the beaches of Playa Tamarindo and Playa Grande, this is where the Tamarindo River meets the Pacific at an estuary teeming with wildlife and knotted by mangroves.

Touring these mangroves and wetlands by kayak, you are likely to spot many animals, especially as you are traveling quietly, rather than with a boat's engine noise. The fauna here includes flying fish, iguanas, crocodiles, sharks, monkeys, and many fascinating bird species like egrets and motmots.

Day 6: Snorkel Around the Catalina Islands

Snorkeling at the Catalina Islands
Snorkeling at the Catalina Islands
The Catalina Islands are a group of 20 volcanic islands and rock formations that rise above the ocean surface in front of Flamingo Bay. This morning, you will be picked up from your hotel and taken to a local dive shop in Playas del Coco where you'll be given snorkeling gear. Then you'll board the diving boat for a 40-minute ride to the Islands.

The rocky islands may not look like much at first, but below the surface of the indigo waters, you'll find an underwater menagerie of exotic wildlife. You'll see quickly why the Catalina Islands are a world-famous diving location attracting divers of all experience levels. Animals you'll spot include giant manta and devil rays, sea turtles, parrotfish, moray eels, and much more. In the right season, you can even hear humpback whales singing! 

Day 7: Enjoy a Catamaran Sailing Tour at Sunset

Enjoy the sunset aboard a luxury catamaran
Enjoy the sunset aboard a luxury catamaran

Soak up the bright afternoon sun until it transitions into soft pinks and oranges later in the afternoon. You'll be picked up at your hotel and transferred to the landing dock in Playas del Coco. You'll board a catamaran and begin silently gliding along the Gold Coast past picturesque bays, white sand beaches, and tropical jungles. You're likely to spot animals, from dolphins to sea turtles, flying fish, and the occasional breaching whale.

The crew will be serving up plenty of delicious tropical drinks as you make your way to a tranquil bay where you can swim in the crystal clear waters of the Pacific. Snorkel in the bay or enjoy a stroll down the deserted white sand beach. Have dinner on the boat, then sit back and listen to the waves lapping at the sides of the catamaran as you make your way back to shore, taking in gorgeous sunset views along the way.

Day 8: Depart Cost Rica

Sunset in Costa Rica 
The trip ends today. Transfer to the airport to catch your flight out. Safe travels!

More Great 8-Day Costa Rica Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these other 8-day Costa Rica itineraries, with outdoor adventures, family-friendly trips, and best-of tours to hit the highlights. 

Map

Map of Hike, Snorkel & Sail in Costa Rica - 8 Days
Map of Hike, Snorkel & Sail in Costa Rica - 8 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated May 25, 2022