This 10-day adventure allows you to experience Costa Rica from both coasts. Visit San José, check out Tortuguero National Park, marvel at Arenal Volcano, and lounge on the remote beaches of Guanacaste. Enjoy plenty of activities along the way: watch sea turtles hatch on a Caribbean beach, sample locally produced chocolate, or take a surf lesson in the Pacific.

Highlights

  • Spot monkeys and rare birds at Tortuguero National Park
  • Stand-up paddleboard on Lake Arenal
  • Visit the tropical canopy at Mistico Hanging Bridges Park
  • Swim at the base of a waterfall in La Fortuna
  • Sail into the sunset in Tamarindo

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in San José San Jose
Day 2 San José to Tortuguero National Park Tortuguero
Day 3 Monkeys & Turtles in Tortuguero National Park Tortuguero
Day 4 Tortuguero to Guapiles to Arenal Volcano Arenal
Day 5 Arenal Hanging Bridges and Arenal 1968 Reserve Arenal
Day 6 Chocolate Experience & Swimming in Waterfalls Arenal
Day 7 Arenal to Playa Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 8 Beach Time & Sunset Catamaran Cruise Tamarindo
Day 9 Free Day in Tamarindo Tamarindo
Day 10 Depart Costa Rica  

Day 1: Arrival in San José

The National Theater of Costa Rica is an architectural jewel of San José.
The National Theater of Costa Rica is an architectural jewel of San José.

Welcome to the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaria International Airport in San José, Costa Rica's capital city, you'll head to your first hotel to check in and have the day to explore on your own. 

Suggested activities include: 

  • A stroll through Mercado Central (Central Market), the largest in the city, with over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). For lunch, try a traditional casado, a favorite local dish of rice, beans, and meat, served with tortillas. 
  • A visit to the Museo de los Niños, a children's museum with more than 40 rooms of interactive experiences on topics ranging from the human body to outer space. 
  • Explore Spirogyra Butterfly Garden . Located in downtown San José amidst the city's lush botanical garden, kids will love seeing the butterflies in their natural habitat and learning more about different species. 
  • Visit the Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed in the late 19th century, which offers free guided tours on the hour. 

For a casual dinner, we recommend Café de los Deseos in the Bohemian neighborhood of Barrio Otoya for Costa Rican cuisine served at tables hand-painted by local artists. Or, for fine dining, Restaurante Grano de Oro, a local favorite helmed by French chef Francis Canal, who prepares Costa Rican ingredients using European techniques.

Day 2: San José to Tortuguero National Park

The red-eyed tree frog sleeps with the proverbial one eye open in Tortuguera National Park
The red-eyed tree frog sleeps with the proverbial one eye open in Tortuguera National Park

You’ll depart early in the morning for Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean coast, stopping en route for a typical Costa Rican breakfast—perhaps of gallo pinto (rice and beans), the unofficial national dish that is often served with eggs or cheese.

Getting to Tortuguero is an adventure in and of itself. You’ll take the Guapiles Highway through the Zurqui Tunnel, which acts as a literal gateway from the urban world to the tropical forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park. Despite being bisected by a busy road, this area feels remote, featuring a variety of flora and fauna.

Next, you’ll drive through the town of Guapiles, past banana plantations on the way to the boat dock. Once aboard for the approximately 90-minute trip, everyone can relax, enjoy the waves—and maybe make a game of spotting fish, birds, amphibians, and reptiles of every stripe as you enter this biodiverse paradise.

Once you arrive, the rest of the day is free for you to relax in your hotel or you can take a short guided hike to the town of Tortuguero.

While you're in Tortuguero, check out these recommended restaurants: 

  • Dorling Bakery opens early, making it a great choice for a breakfast of homemade banana bread or cinnamon rolls.
  • It's all mellow at Budda Cafe, where Tibetan prayer flags and a river view create a laid-back family-friendly setting for pizzas, salads, and crepes. 
  • Located on the north end of main street, Miss Junie's is a popular pick for Caribbean staples like jerk chicken and whole snapper. 
  • Near the park entrance Soda Doña María serves fresh juices, burgers, and casados, typical Costa Rican lunch plates with meat, rice, and beans.

Day 3: Monkeys & Turtles in Tortuguero National Park

Canoe trips are an ideal way to spot wildlife at Tortuguero National Park
Canoe trips are an ideal way to spot wildlife at Tortuguero National Park

Unlike many national parks, Tortuguero is shown to its best advantage via the water. Today you'll navigate the canals and rivers of this 77,032-acre habitat in search of howler and capuchin monkeys, river otters, and rare birds—macaws, toucans, and kingfishers among them. 

Back on terra firma, explore the 22-mile expanse of beach that's a favored nesting ground for sea turtles like the hawksbill, loggerhead and green, all of which nest in the area from July through October. From February to July, you'll spot the leatherback which, at 6 to 7 feet long and up to 1,500 pounds, is the largest sea turtle in the world.

Day 4: Tortuguero to Guapiles to Arenal Volcano

The majestic Arenal towers above the countryside near La Fortuna
The majestic Arenal towers above the countryside near La Fortuna

After breakfast, you’ll head back by boat and bus to Guapiles for lunch at a local restaurant and then forge ahead to the majestic Arenal Volcano, passing the rural communities of La Virgen and Aguas Zarcas on the way. These are very fertile areas, with vistas of plantations and farms on the way to La Fortuna.

At an elevation of 350 feet, La Fortuna an ideal home base from exploring Arenal Volcano and National Park, located north of the Tilaran Mountains. If you want to get close to the volcano, kayaking or stand up paddle boarding on Lake Arenal provides spectacular views of its peak, as does a mountain bike ride through the park toward the village of El Castillo. Or, opt for a zip lining tour through the forest canopy, where you'll cross canyons, and take in the Fortuna and Pino Blanco waterfalls, along with the majestic Arenal Volcano.

For more on this region, check out our Ultimate Guide to Arenal

Day 5: Arenal Hanging Bridges and Arenal 1968 Reserve

The hanging bridges at Mistico afford breathtaking views of Arenal and an astounding array of wildlife
The hanging bridges at Mistico afford breathtaking views of Arenal and an astounding array of wildlife

Head out early to Mistico Hanging Bridges Park, where visitors can wander along trails which include 15 bridges to cross—some that are hundreds of feet long—for a once-in-a-lifetime view of Arenal Volcano. You'll also get an up-close look at the incredible biodiversity that occurs in this region, where uplands and lowlands rainforest meet. More than 350 bird species can be found here alone. 

After lunch you can take an optional hike to Arenal 1968. This private reserve is named for the volcano’s eruption of that same year, which completely changed some of the region’s topography: lava fields now predominate on one side of Arenal. Trails wind through those lava fields as well as through the rainforest, offering beautiful views of the volcano. This is a more challenging hike, but there are plenty of easier trails in the area for travelers looking for something more laid-back (see article below).

Naturally heated thermal springs are plentiful here, and several places nearby offer the chance to soak in the relaxing waters. We recommend Ecotermales or Tabacon Hot Springs, with five main springs, dozens of cascading waterfalls and warm pools of varying temperatures, plus a cold-water pool with a thermal slide (and a swim-up bar).

Day 6: Chocolate Experience & Swimming in Waterfalls

Taking a dip at the base of La Fortuna Waterfall
Taking a dip at the base of La Fortuna Waterfall

Start your day in La Fortuna with a two-hour, hands-on program in which you’ll learn about the origin, history, and current production of one of Costa Rica's most famous exports: chocolate. Participate in the harvest of cacao, the drying and grinding of the seed that produces creamy cocoa butter, and learn how the traditional chocolate drink was developed centuries ago.

After getting your energy-boost from the chocolate fix, it’s time to head to La Fortuna Waterfall, at the base of the dormant Chato volcano, a short drive outside town. The falls drop some 210 feet, and a downhill hike provides the opportunity to see it from the bottom. Swim and relax in the La Fortuna River below the falls.

Day 7: Arenal to Tamarindo

Beyond the arid, volcanic valleys of Guanacaste lie fantastic Pacific Ocean beaches
Beyond the arid, volcanic valleys of Guanacaste lie fantastic Pacific Ocean beaches

Road trip time! After breakfast at your hotel in La Fortuna, this drive takes you west through Guanacaste, past volcanic mountain ranges, flatlands, and villages as you head toward the Pacific Coast. Stop for a bite and enjoy traditional foods, fresh fruit, or perhaps a batido con leche (fresh fruit smoothie with milk). 

Once you arrive, you can rest up at your hotel or spend the afternoon exploring with a sea kayak and snorkeling tour. As you row from Tamarindo Beach towards Capitán Island, you'll observe underwater coral reef and exotic fish.

If you happen to visit between October and March, head to Las Baulas National Marine Park to see Leatherback Turtles come ashore for a truly memorable experience. Every night during high tide in the nesting season, female leatherback turtles make their way up the beach to lay eggs. Watch the turtles come and go before the hatchlings follow suit into the water, a once-in-a-lifetime sight. 

Here are a few restaurant suggestions during your stay in the laid-back surf town of Playa Tamarindo

  • For breakfast, head to La Bodega and order one of their fantastic egg sandwiches (like the Kristina, served with tomato, organic goat chevre, red onion and local smoked trout on a buttered and toasted homemade bread). Homemade banana bread and fresh juices are other standouts. 
  • Pull up a stool at the Green Papaya, which serves some of the best tacos and burritos in town with vegetarian options in a casual atmosphere. 
  • Steps from the beach, Surf Shack serves up topnotch patties, onion rings, and milkshakes in an aluminum-sided hut decorated with surf boards. 
  • Nogi's is a perfect pick for sunset dining thanks to its beachfront location. They serve a varied menu of seafood and grilled meat; be sure to save room for a slice of their Coconut Cream Pie. 

Day 8: Beach Time & Sunset Catamaran Cruise

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean
Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

Guanacaste is full of bays and beaches and, after so much activity, we recommend spending the day relaxing on the sand. In the evening, board a catamaran for a sunset sail. You'll drop anchor in a calm bay for a snorkel trip while the crew prepares a dinner feast. Watch the sun sink into the horizon while you dine, and be on the lookout for dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, and even breaching whales. 

Day 9: Free Day in Tamarindo

Surfing is a popular option on the Pacific Coast
Surfing is a popular option on the Pacific Coast

Today is free to explore this region in whatever way you prefer. If you're interested in surfing, Playa Tamarindo is the place, with both beginning and advanced waves in and a number of surf schools. Check out this article for more on surfing in Costa Rica. 

Day 10: Depart Costa Rica

Savoring memories after a mountaintop hike in Guanacaste
Savoring memories after a mountaintop hike in Guanacaste

It's time to say adiós to Costa Rica. After breakfast, you'll meet your driver for the brief trip from Tamarindo to Liberia International Airport for your international flight home.

Map

Map of Wildlife & Beaches in Costa Rica - 10 Days
Map of Wildlife & Beaches in Costa Rica - 10 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Mar 18, 2019