This packed 16-day Costa Rica getaway combines the best locales and activities in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. You'll begin in the historic city of San José, continue to Caribbean beaches, and live like a local at indigenous communities and cattle ranches. You'll also visit some of the nation's most stunning national parks including Tortuguero, Arenal, and Rincón de la Vieja.

Highlights

  • Enjoy a cultural tour of San José
  • Travel down an exotic river to a traditional indigenous village
  • Tour the beaches and waterways of Tortuguero National Park
  • Hike around Arenal Volcano and soak in natural hot springs
  • Spend a day on a working cattle ranch in Rincón de la Vieja

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Costa Rica – Experience San José's Culture San Jose
Day 2 City Tour of San José San Jose
Day 3 San José to the Turrialba Volcano Region Turrialba
Day 4 Local Farm Experience & Coffee Tour Turrialba
Day 5 From Turrialba to the Caribbean Coast Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Day 6 Transfer to Bambú - Boat Ride to Bribri Village Yorkin
Day 7 Waterfall Hike - Transfer to Puerto Viejo Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Day 8 Transfer from Puerto Viejo to Tortuguero Tortuguero
Day 9 Boat Tour of Tortuguero National Park Tortuguero
Day 10 Tortuguero to Arenal Volcano Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 11 Los Campesinos Farm Experience Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 12 Arenal 1968 Volcano Guided Hike - Natural Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 13 Arenal to Rincón de la Vieja National Park Rincon de la Vieja
Day 14 Cowboy for a Day Rincon de la Vieja
Day 15 Rincón de la Vieja to San José San Jose
Day 16 Depart San José  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Costa Rica – Experience San José's Culture

the National Theater in San José
the National Theater in San José

Welcome to Costa Rica, the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, a local representative will meet you and escort you to your hotel. The rest of the day you'll have free to explore the city at your leisure.

Perhaps stroll through Mercado Central (Central Market), which features over 200 shops and food stalls. Then visit the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Church), whose interior combines Greek Orthodox, neoclassical, and Baroque styles. There's also the neo-classical National Theater and the Museo del Jade, which houses the world's largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts.

Be sure to explore Barrio Amón, a bohemian neighborhood home to historic cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For dinner, opt for a restaurant in the hills of Escazú. This elevated region on the western edge of the city offers panoramic views of the valley below. That said, San José is filled with great restaurants serving everything from traditional Costa Rican fare to forward-thinking fusion cuisine.

Day 2: City Tour of San José

The National Theater, San José
The National Theater, San José

You'll have the morning to relax in your Hotel. At around 11:30 am a driver will pick you up and take you on a four-hour tour of the most famous and fun locales in San José. 

During this journey, you'll visit the National Theater, also known as “The jewel of San José," a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture that was built in 1897. Then you'll visit the Museum of Gold, which houses a large collection of Pre-Columbian Gold artifacts, followed by the Central Market, which features over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). Here you'll be able to browse the stalls and local arts and crafts stores.

You'll also stop at the Metropolitan Cathedral, whose interior combines Greek Orthodox, Neoclassical, and Baroque styles. As you travel around the city, your guide will point you out several other historically important buildings. These include the University of Costa Rica, the Atlantic Rail Station, and the National Congress/Legislative Assembly building. Throughout the tour, your guide will reveal contextual and historical insight regarding the locales you visit. 

Day 3: San José to the Turrialba Volcano Region

Turrialba Volcano
Turrialba Volcano

After breakfast, a car service will pick you up and you'll begin the almost two-hour drive east to Turrialba, which is located in Cartago Province. This volcanic region abounds with nutrient-rich soil, which facilitates the growth of local crops including one of Costa Rica's most famous exports: coffee. Also here is Turrialba Volcano National Park, home of the active Turrialba Volcano. Not to worry, because while the volcano occasionally erupts in a spectacle of light and fire, it doesn't threaten nearby populations. 

Day 4: Local Farm Experience & Coffee Tour

From the seed to the bean
From the seed to the bean

After a leisurely breakfast, a car service will pick you up for a drive to a local farm located amid the rolling green hills of the Turrialba region. This is a full-day cultural exchange in which you'll immerse yourself in the daily routine at the farm. It begins with a walk through sugarcane and coffee plantations, where you'll witness first-hand the local production methods as well as learn about environmental conditions that affect the crops.

Then you will visit the stables and animal pens, where you can feed the pigs and sheep, gather eggs from hens, and brush and saddle horses. After all of this work you'll certainly be hungry, which is the perfect excuse to enjoy a traditional, home-cooked Costa Rican lunch.

After eating and with newly fortified energy, you'll walk a short way to a beautiful waterfall located right on the property. The day ends with a visit to the coffee processing facilities where you'll be able to see the life cycle of a coffee plant starting with the seed itself and continuing through the harvest, drying, roasting, and grinding of the bean. There's, of course, a shop here where you can pick up some local coffee to take home.

Day 5: From Turrialba to the Caribbean Coast

The inviting beaches of Puerto Viejo
The inviting beaches of Puerto Viejo

After breakfast, the car service will pick you up for the drive east four hours to the Caribbean coast and the surf village of Puerto Viejo. This small community is known for its epic surf breaks, palm-fringed beaches fronting crystalline waters, and laidback attitude. The town's cultural influences are an interesting mix of Afro-Caribbean, Bribri Indian, Tico (local Costa Rican), and with a dash of hippy counterculture.

Upon arrival in town, you'll check into your hotel and then you can spend the remainder of the day relaxing. Perhaps head out for some snorkeling, surfing, or just sunbathing on the beach. You can find some great nearby beach options at Playa Cocles, Punta Uva and Playa Chiquita. 

In addition to the amazing beaches, Puerto Viejo has two national parks, Cahuita and Manzanillo. These protected areas are the natural habitat of a wide variety of wildlife, including sloths, howler monkeys, and many species of exotic birds. If you have the energy you can visit these parks, or you can opt for a tour of the Jaguar Rescue Center to see recently rescued and rehabilitated animals before they're reintroduced back into the wild.

In the evening enjoy dinner at one of the many restaurants this melting pot has to offer. Here you'll find Caribbean cuisine, fresh seafood, traditional Tico fare, and even Asian fusion and some vegan options. For a fun night out, visit some of Puerto Viejo's raucous bars and enjoy the rollicking Caribbean culture. Or maybe just sip a tropical cocktail or two on the beach while staring up at the stars. 

Day 6: Transfer to Bambú - Boat Ride to Bribri Village

On the way to Yorkín
On the way to Yorkín

It's time for a rich cultural experience deep in the Costa Rican jungle. In the morning a car service will pick you up from your hotel in Puerto Viejo and drive you one hour to the small village of Bambú, located in the Talamanca Mountains. Once there, you'll meet a local guide and embark down the Yorkín River on a 1.5-hour journey in a dugout canoe. Your destination is the village of Yorkín, which is home to the native Bribri people.

Once in Yorkin, you'll enjoy a guided tour of the small village as well as the organic cocoa and banana plantations that surround it. After a snack, you'll hike on a suspension bridge over the river Skui to some natural pools where you can take a refreshing dip. Then it will be time to enjoy a traditional Bribri lunch before meeting with members of Stibrawpa, the local women's association, who will talk about the work they do in the community and about sustainable tourism.

Then it's time for delicious fun as you take part in a chocolate-making demonstration. Of course, at the end of the epxerience, you can sample the fruits of your labor. The Bribri will also show you the art of making palm-thatched or perhaps introduce you to the ancient tradition of archery. You'll receive a quick crash course on the Bribri language in order to learn more about their culture.

In the evening you'll spend some time with an indigenous family and maybe even taste homemade chicha, a fermented corn drink the Bribris offer to special guests. To cap the day, you'll enjoy a delicious dinner prepared with local products grown on the property and cooked over a wood-fired stove. All in all, it's a rewarding trip that offers a lot of fun while supporting the preservation of a fascinating culture and community.

Day 7: Waterfall Hike - Transfer to Puerto Viejo

The Yorkin River
The Yorkin River

Take the morning to enjoy a delicious local breakfast amid the peace and tranquility of this Bribri village. You can then embark on an optional 2.5-hour hike along the river to a stunning waterfall, weather permitting. On this route, you'll enjoy the surrounding nature, observe different species of exotic birds, and appreciate the unique flora and fauna of the rainforest. If you wish, you can even take a dip in the Yorkin River.

From the waterfall, you'll head back down the river in a cayuco, a traditional indigenous canoe. This 1.5-hour trip leads back to the community of Bambú, where a car service will meet you for the one-hour drive to your hotel in Puerto Viejo. Upon arrival, you'll have the rest of the day free to relax and perhaps laze on the beach.

Day 8: Transfer from Puerto Viejo to Tortuguero

Sea turtles come to Tortuguero to lay their eggs
Sea turtles come to Tortuguero to lay their eggs

Today, you'll leave from Puerto Viejo on a nearly three-hour drive to the village of Guápiles, where you'll stop for a delicious Costa Rican breakfast. Try the gallo pinto (rice and beans), the country's unofficial national dish, which is often served with eggs or cheese. After eating you'll arrive at the river dock outside of town. Here you'll board a boat that will travel just over an hour through a system of jungle waterways and rivers until you reach your eco-lodge located in the heart of Tortuguero National Park.

Tortuguero encompasses some 47,000 acres of mostly wetlands on the northern Caribbean coast. Networks of freshwater canals and rivers meander through the park and are thus the preferred mode of transport here. Some animals you'll likely spot in the area include howler and capuchin monkeys as well as exotic water birds like tiger herons. The park is actually home to over 300 species of birds, not to mention an abundance of exotic flora and fauna. 

After a leisurely lunch, you'll head out on a guided tour of the main beach and colorful town of Tortuguero. Your guide will explain the culture and way of life here on the Caribbean coast, as well, as well as the annual occurrence from which Tortuguero derives its name: each year from June through December thousands of marine turtles arrive on the beach to lay their eggs. If you're here at the right time, you might be able to see the hatchlings make their wild dash from the beach to the sea. 

Day 9: Boat Tour of Tortuguero National Park

Take a canoe ride through Tortuguero
Take a canoe ride through Tortuguero

Today you'll get to experience the beauty of this region on a canoe ride through the canals and waterways of Tortuguero National Park with an English-speaking guide. Be sure to keep your camera at the ready because you'll likely spot various denizens of the reserve, including manatees, spectacled caimans, river otters, and rare birds. Common species here include macaws, toucans, and kingfishers.

After a break around noon, you'll visit the fishing village of Tortuguero with your English speaking guide and then return to your lodge. The rest of the day is free to enjoy the amenities of your hotel, be it the swimming pool or tropical garden on site. From July to September you can book a turtle-nesting tour to observe the sea turtles laying their eggs on the beach. It's an evening viewing that begins at around 8 pm, where you'll depart from your hotel to the beach with a private guide.

Day 10: Tortuguero to Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano

After breakfast at the hotel, you’ll transfer one-hour by boat to the dock at Guapiles, where you'll have lunch. Then you'll hop in a private car for the journey two hours west to Arenal Volcano National Park, which is home to the 5,437-foot-high volcano of the same name. It is one of Costa Rica’s most famous landmarks and is still classified as an active volcano. Your destination here is the town of La Fortuna, the main hub for excursions into the park.

After checking into your hotel you can take the rest of the day to get out and explore. There are many nature trails around La Fortuna thick with the rich flora and fauna that comprises this rainforest region. There's also the famous La Fortuna Waterfall, an impressive 200-foot (75-meter) cascade located just a few minutes outside of town. Also on offer are zip-line tours and kayaking around nearby Lake Arenal.

Day 11: Los Campesinos Farm Experience

Spend a day on the farm
Spend a day on the farm

After enjoying breakfast at your hotel, a car service will pick you up and transfer you 10 minutes from La Fortuna to the small town of Agua Azul. This is a full-day excursion in which you'll visit a nearby sustainable farm that uses natural resources while promoting traditional Costa Rican farming practices. The local hosts will welcome you with a fresh fruit juice, at which point you'll embark on a tour of the property. 

This is a hands-on farming experience, and the first order of the day is learning how to milk a cow. Then the party really starts as you sample a local concoction made from fresh milk, chocolate, and homemade liquor. You'll also participate in the processing of sugar cane to extract its sweet juice, which when mixed with organic spearmint liquor makes another potent cocktail. Throughout the experience, you'll observe what's known as alambique, the distillation process which results in artisanal liquor. 

You'll also be able to visit a small ranch and archeological site where you can view some ancient indigenous artifacts. Then, you'll take a relaxing stroll through a beautiful orchid garden, which also abounds with medicinal plants. A guide will be on hand to point out the most interesting species. 

Afterward, you'll gather with the other guests on the tour and everyone will share in a spread of freshly prepared farm favorites like coffee, tortillas, cheese, potatoes, and other hearty fare. Once the tour is over the car service will take you back to the hotel and you can spend the rest of the day relaxing.

Day 12: Arenal 1968 Volcano Guided Hike - Natural Hot Springs

Arenal 1968 Park
Arenal 1968 Park

Take the morning to relax, because in the afternoon you'll embark on an unforgettable hike of Arenal 1968. This private reserve is named for the Arenal Volcano's eruption of the same year. Lava fields now predominate one side of Arenal, and trails wind through those fields, offering beautiful views of the volcano. This is a three-hour hike, and throughout it, your guide will point out the exotic flora and fauna as well as recount the history of the region and the volcano.

Later, you'll transfer to a natural volcanic hot spring where you can take a relaxing dip in thermal waters and soothe your weary muscles after all that hiking. You'll have a full three hours to luxuriate in the hot springs before transferring back to your hotel.

Day 13: Arenal to Rincón de la Vieja National Park

Rincon de la Vieja National Park
Rincon de la Vieja National Park

After breakfast, a car service will transfer you 3.5-hours west to Rincón de la Vieja National Park, which is located in Guanacaste Province. Spread over 34,000 acres, this protected area is home to thick tropical forest, cascading waterfalls, natural hot springs, dozens of rivers, and two volcanoes. The mountains and cloud forests here are home to a wide variety of exotic animals including various monkeys, sloths, tapirs, and even jaguars.

The forest canopy of laurel trees also offers the perfect conditions for bird habitats. Some exotic avian species you'll find in Rincón de la Vieja include rare emerald tucancillos and colorful motmots. Also thriving here are rare flowers like orchids. 

Day 14: Cowboy for a Day

Ranch life
Ranch life

There is a thriving cowboy culture throughout the Americas, especially in Costa Rica. Today you'll live this experience at the rural Hacienda Guachipelin, a ranch located in the heart of Guanacaste Province at the base of the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano. Experience a day as a sabanero, which is the name for cowboys in this province because they spend their days wrangling animals across the Guanacaste savanna.  

It will be an early start, because at about 8 am you'll start the day by helping milk the cows in order to deliver fresh milk to the restaurant for breakfast. After enjoying breakfast yourself, you'll head out on the ranch to help with some of the day's activities. This includes everything from saddling and preparing horses to herding cattle and repairing fences. After working up a hearty appetite you'll settle in for a picnic lunch.

After eating you'll continue working on the ranch, and once this full-day tour comes to a close, the car service will return you to your hotel.

Day 15: Rincón de la Vieja to San José

The stunning countryside of the Central Valley
The stunning countryside of the Central Valley

In the morning you'll say goodbye to Rincon de la Vieja Volcano as your private transfer takes you on a 4.5-hour drive south back to San José.  On the way, you'll pass by towering volcanoes and enjoy the fertile green valleys and rolling hills of Costa Rica's Central Valley. After arriving at your hotel, you can relax after your long journey. 

Day 16: Depart San José

San José at twilight
San José at twilight

It's time to say adiós to Costa Rica. Depending on your departure time, you'll have the morning to explore more of San José, relax in a café, and/or browse some shops before boarding your flight home.

Map

Map of Local Culture & Exotic Nature in Costa Rica - 16 Days
Map of Local Culture & Exotic Nature in Costa Rica - 16 Days