Thanks to diverse landscapes, interesting eco-tourism opportunities, and a strong tourism infrastructure, Costa Rica has become one of the most popular destinations to visit in Central America. And while you can certainly book an escorted tour in Costa Rica, renting a car and road tripping yourself gives you much more freedom to see and do everything this country has to offer.
Here’s a sample itinerary for a 10-day road trip around Costa Rica:
Day 1: Arrive
Getting to Costa Rica is easy by plane, with plenty of airlines serving San Jose International Airport. Once you arrive, you’ll want to pick up your rental car. The trick here is to take a shuttle to get your car at a location near the airport, as opposed to picking up your car AT the airport. Airport pick-ups incur extra charges, but most of the major rental agencies also have offices within a 5 minute shuttle ride of the airport.
Day 2-3: Caribbean Coast
The first stop on this trip will be on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. The largest town on this coast is Limón (it’s actually the second-largest city in Costa Rica), however I’m suggesting to skip Limón and head straight to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca – or simply Puerto Viejo for short.
Puerto Viejo is known as Costa Rica’s top backpacker town, but don’t let that influence you too much. Puerto Viejo is also home to the best surfing in Costa Rica, and is close to pretty beaches such as Playa Chiquita, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo.
Along with checking out the nearby beaches, visiting Puerto Viejo is perfect if you’d like to get to know some of Costa Rica’s native flora and fauna. The best places to visit are:
Sloth Sanctuary – Located close to Limón, the Sloth Sanctuary is one of the only places in the world dedicated to rehabilitating and studying both three-fingered and two-fingered sloths. The sanctuary takes in injured and orphaned sloths and does its best to rehabilitate them, while at the same time using the animals to educate people about these unique creatures. Tours of the facility run daily, and if you love sloths (or just want to learn more about them), this is a must-do.
Jaguar Rescue Center – The Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo was started by two Spanish biologists who met and fell in love in Costa Rica and became Puerto Viejo’s de facto veterinarians. You won’t actually find any jaguars here, but the center is home to a whole host of other jungle animals. During a guided tour, you’ll learn about everything from snakes to toucans to green tree frogs to sloths to monkeys.
Day 4-5: La Fortuna/Arenal
From the Caribbean Coast, heading into Costa Rica’s interior will mean a big shift in both landscape and climate. As you climb towards the La Fortuna/Arenal area, you’ll notice more green foliage, cooler weather, and probably more clouds.
La Fortuna is a small town located less than 10 kilometers from the Arenal volcano (a still-active mountain) and less than 20 kilometers from the entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park. Some must-dos here include:
Visiting hot springs – Due to its proximity to an active volcano, the area surrounding La Fortuna is quite active, geothermally speaking. This has resulted in a lot of hot springs and spas opening up for visitors. The most popular hot springs/thermal spas include luxury spots like Tabacon and Baldi, but there are local springs like Paradise Hot Springs that are more affordable, too.
Adventure sports – La Fortuna is one of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica for adventure tourism, and there are plenty of tour operators to choose from. The most popular adventure sports include whitewater rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking, and paddle boarding on Lake Arenal, within view of the volcano.
Hiking – Hiking in and around Arenal National Park is also an option for the outdoor-lover. The most popular hikes include hiking around Arenal volcano itself, as well as hiking to the La Fortuna waterfall. If you want to hike near the volcano itself, be sure to respect signs denoting restricted areas – this is still a very active volcano, after all!
Day 6-7: Monteverde
Sticking to the mountains and rainforest for a couple more days, the next stop is Monteverde and its famous cloud forest. Monteverde is one of Costa Rica’s top eco-tourism destinations, and you can look forward to activities like:
Walking in the clouds – People go to Monteverde to experience the Cloud Forest Reserve, and one of the best ways to do that is to take a canopy tour. There’s a series of bridges and walkways that criss-cross the treetops in and around the cloud forest, and walking them is a must-do in Monteverde.
Zip lining – Another way to experience the cloud forest is to zip line through it. This is one of the most popular things to do in Monteverde, and many tour companies offer packages that combine both the walkways and zip lining.
Coffee tour – Costa Rica is often synonymous with great coffee. If you want to learn more about coffee production in the country, there are a few coffee tours available in Monteverde, including a tour of the Don Juan coffee plantation.
Day 8-9: Manuel Antonio National Park
After a few days in the interior of Costa Rica, it’s time to head back to the coast – except this time, you’ll head to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Manuel Antonio National Park is a small national park just south of the city of Quepos, but is home to some of the most picturesque beaches in all of Costa Rica.
Things to do in/around Manuel Antonio include:
Beach time – There’s a public beach just outside of the national park that offers everything from lounging to parasailing, but there are also beaches inside the confines of the park. You do have to pay an entrance fee to enter the national park (and therefore to visit these beaches), but that usually means that the beaches are quiet and uncrowded.
Hiking – Manuel Antonio National Park is also great for hiking – be sure to look out for both sloths and monkeys if you hit the trails.
Sunset cruise – On your last night in Manuel Antonio, consider booking a sunset cruise on a sailboat or catamaran. You’ll head out in the late afternoon, hop in the water for some snorkeling, perhaps have dinner onboard, and then watch the sun set into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a great, relaxing way to round out your Costa Rica vacation.
Day 10: Back to San Jose and home
Sadly your road trip has come to an end, and it’s now time to head back to San Jose and catch your flight home.
Hopefully you’re going home with some great road trip memories!
3 things to keep in mind while road tripping in Costa Rica:
1. Be aware that the driving times Google Maps tells you may not take into account Costa Rica’s narrow, sometimes bumpy roads – or all the photos stops you’ll make along the way. So always allow yourself some extra driving time.
2. Get fuel before you need it. While you won’t have a problem finding gas stations in Costa Rica’s main cities, driving between them sometimes means taking empty mountain roads with few amenities. If you think you might need fuel before you get to your next destination, fill up your tank as soon as the opportunity arises.
3. Driving in Costa Rica is, for the most part, easy. Yes, some of the mountain roads are narrow (you may not want to head up to La Fortuna in the dark, for example), but they are easy to follow. The only thing to watch out for is potholes in the pavement, and aggressive drivers in some of the larger cities.