Costa Rica (map here) is a popular tourist destination because it offers jaw-dropping scenery, exotic flora and fauna, a variety of accommodations to fit all budgets, and English-speaking locals who are among the friendliest people in all of Central America.
It’s also small enough and close enough to the USA for a “quicky” getaway if you want one…yet it still has enough to offer for longer stays if you have the time and money. Whether you’re a romantic, a sun worshiper, or an eco-tourism fan, Costa Rica has it all! Locals here have an expression that is both a greeting and an attitude: “Pura Vida”, the pure life. I think it describes the respect for nature and love of living that have come to symbolize this tiny country quite nicely.
I developed these Costa Rican itineraries because I found the sheer volume of information available online to be daunting and most of it revolved around a sales pitch for a tour company. What I wanted was a no-nonsense guide that told me not only what I should see, but also what I could afford to miss, depending on my available time and interests. But at the same time, I hate feeling hurried on my vacation. These schedules give you plenty of time for exploring on your own…and the chance to make some mistakes. With that in mind, I developed 3 separate trip options ranging from 1 to 3 weeks, with a 6, 7, and 10 day option as well! I hope you find them to be useful.
Costa Rica-One week Itinerary-Volcanoes and Cloud Forests
Of course this is the toughest one because even though this is a small country, it packs a huge amount of biodiversity and climate within its borders. Here, there are cloud forests, beaches, volcanoes, hot springs, eco-resorts, museums, and all-inclusives. You can spend an entire week just lying in the sun like a lizard being served Pina Coladas by a uniformed wait staff (however that can be done a lot cheaper elsewhere), or you can spend your time zip-lining in the morning and white-water rafting in the afternoon. You can’t see everything in one week, so by necessity I have focused your seven day vacation on what I (and, I hope, most of you) consider to be quintessentially and uniquely Costa Rican.
With that in mind, for this itinerary I will focus on Costa Rica’s volcanoes and cloud forests. I think most people, when they think of this country, have in mind some kind of picture of a caldera at the top of a symmetrical mountain peak surrounded by jungle.
Day one-San Jose’
General info– You should have some time on either bookend of your trip to see the top 3 recommended sites in the capital (see below). With a late afternoon flight on Day One, you probably will only have time to stroll Central Avenue at night. That’s OK. Just make sure you arrange for more time in the city on the last day of your trip so you can take in all the sights at that time. For purposes of our current discussion, I am assuming you have a morning flight with enough time to see 2 of the 3 recommended sights. If you don’t have time now, just do them before you fly out on your last day.
Transfer– I would recommend you pre-arrange for your airport transfer especially if you have never been to this country and/or do not speak Spanish. The hotel does not do free transfers but they can make arrangements for you.
Accommodations– You can see from my review for the Presidente Hotel that it is a good hotel. Wherever you stay, make sure you are within a block or two of Avenida Central, which is a pedestrian boulevard spanning the length of the downtown section of the city.
What to see– In order of importance:
- Museo de Oro Precolombino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum)- I cannot overemphasize the importance of this museum to truly appreciate the early culture of this country. In addition to the beauty of the gold and ceramic treasures on display here you will learn a lot about pre-Columbian life through interactive exhibits and media. A must see!
- Teatro Nacional– This 19th century grand dame is a beautiful example of the neoclassical revival in architecture. It is worth just strolling by to marvel at its ornate columned edifice, but, if you have time, take in a show! The building is just as impressive inside. At the very least, grab a dessert from the in-house cafe’. Yummy! Try the flan with a cup of the fantastic coffee that Costa Rica is so justifiably famous for.
- Catedral Metropolitana- In addition to being a beautiful church, it is right across the street from a public park that is used for sports rallies that also an impromptu food court.
- Avenida Central- You’ll see this just by walking from one of the above attractions to another, so no worries! Just keep your eyes open for fun stuff. I saw a man walking a trained rooster (no leash) here, for example. I also saw a high school dance troupe that wore some lovely costumes performing traditional dances at the local McDonalds. Later, I was able to catch a soccer pep rally under the dome of a park gazebo. In between, I could browse through the many shops and people watch without fear of being run over. This street is not really that touristy, BTW. Mostly I saw locals out for a good time or just going about their business.
Where to Eat
Restaurante el patio del Balmoral-$20 will get you vino and a good dinner in the middle of the capital. Go for it!
Pollo Campero-Casual, clean, and a little bit tight on the space. Good eats fast.
- Safety-Stay on Avenida Central or at most only go one block away. Any further can be dangerous, especially at night. Though Costa Rica is a safe country overall, remember you are in the middle of a big city with all of the good and bad that entails. There are lots of cops on the main route. Take advantage of that safety. Don’t leave it. I would not recommend walking from any hotel even 3 blocks away from there.
- Gambling-The casinos are not worth visiting. Most of them do not have table games. Some of them double as whorehouses. Not recommended!
- Don’t linger in the parks- Parque Central is overrun with illegals from Guatemala. Yes, they have that problem in Costa Rica as well. These vagrants are known to be thieves. Also, if you loiter too long at Parque Nacional, you’ll be hassled by panhandlers. Best to just walk through and enjoy the scenery, especially the giant ficus tree at Parque Espana.
- Money-Most places take dollars. I try to use my credit card as often as possible when in a foreign country because my card has no exchange fee. But if you don’t have the local currency don’t worry! Costa Ricans are happy to exchange dollars, and at a pretty favorable rate in most cases.
- Gratuities-are generally included in the food bill. It’s fine if you want to pay more, but it isn’t expected or necessary.
Day Two-Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna
General Info– While Costa Rica has dozens of active and dormant volcanoes, Arenal is the most famous. Spend a day in the shadow of this perfectly symmetrical tropical beauty exploring the nature trails and enjoying the cooler air at about 4000 feet.
How to get there-
I’d recommend a rental car. Yes, the driving is crazy in town, but as soon as you’re out, which will be quickly, you’ll find it’s easy to drive here. Be careful of a scam where someone bumps you on a deserted street. Do not stop, but continue until you’ve hit a well-lit, public area. I recommend Six-T rentacar. DO keep an eye out for potholes. The roads are generally good, though, except near Montverde. I’d say if you left at a reasonable time in the morning you could still hit the park by the afternoon.
Where to Stay-
Arenal Volcano Inn Hotel– These spotless little suites just outside of La Fortuna have a panoramic view of the mountain (when it’s not covered in fog, which is a lot). The service is impeccable and even the restaurant has fantastic pizza. I wouldn’t personally stay anywhere else, but there are plenty of lower budget options in town. This is one of those times where you could save some money by just being in the area. It is easy to get a view of the volcano from miles around, after all, and if you have a rent a car there’s no need to be so close.
What to See-
I wouldn’t leave without visiting the Arenal Volcano National Park. Hike around on your own as I did or get a professional guide. The guides are better able to spot wildlife. I saw a tiny eyelash pit viper on the Coladas Trail and a giant Ciebo tree astride the Cieba Trail. Large rodents called agouti scurried around in the undergrowth near the trail, and there was a nice panorama where an older lava flow had swept the mountainside clear of the jungle, providing a sweeping view not only of the perfectly conical mountain, but also the deep blue namesake lake below it. Allow at least a half day if you take both trails (Ciebo and Heliconias). After returning to your car, proceed to the excellent Lookout Point, which you can find on your map. Just drive right up to a great photo op of the cone.
Where to eat-
Tonight you should eat in the village of La Fortuna. It has a ton of small town charm and the park in front of the quaint Catholic church makes for a great backdrop for a photo of Mount Arenal looming ominously in the distance. My Hungry Crepes has great food served fast and great coffee with a nice view of the park downtown.
- Gas-Don’t try to pump your own gas. The gas stations are all full service. They will even check the air in your tires! Like returning to 1950’s America…:) Fill up often. there aren’t that many stations.
- GPS-Don’t pay extra for the GPS. They will tell you it is downright dangerous to drive around without their ($10 a day) GPS. You won’t need it. the roads are pretty well marked and there are plenty of friendly locals to ask. Just get a good map and ask directions before you leave. I would only get GPS if you don’t know how to read a map and/or are afraid to ask directions.
- Insurance-$1,000 charge! If you deny their rip-off auto insurance as I did, they will swipe your credit card for a cool grand just in case you wreck their car. I didn’t like it, but there’s no choice. Don’t worry, it’s just in case-they only run it if they have to.
- Photo op-Be ready with your camera. Most of the day this perfect cone is surrounded by mist and is usually covered at the caldera level. The one time I saw it completely clear was very late afternoon. If it does clear, it won’t be for long!
- Gear-Take your backpack wherever you go! Bring plenty of water, a snack, some suntan lotion, bug spray, and of course your camera, as well as a swim suit, a change of socks, and a towel.
- Cops-Obey the laws of the road. Traffic tickets here are horrendously expensive! The speed limit is 90KPH on highways, very slow by our standards. Do not try to bribe an official if you are pulled over. This isn’t Panama.
Day Three-Arenal-Waterfalls and Hot Springs
What to see-La Fortuna Waterfall is worth a visit and easy to get to (down a poor dirt road) not far from town. Allow another half day. Hike down into the canyon with your swimsuits in your backpack. Bring food and water. There’s no concession at the bottom. The trail is steep and not for the badly out of shape or disabled. You can swim in the natural pools at the base of the fall or in one of the smaller pools downstream from it. The water is cool, not bone-chilling. If you like you can zipline over the fall’s deep gorge, go white water rafting, rappelling, or take a horseback ride down to the falls. Maybe go four-wheeling or take a kayak or boat trip on lake Arenal. Any one of these additional activities will make this an all day trip!
As a romantic alternative to the above, do the waterfall in the morning but head to the Tabacon Hot Springs…and stay for the rest of your life. :)) Or, at least stay until dinner. I ate dinner there but felt severely ripped off by the prices. This is an expensive side trip, so don’t go unless you intend to linger. I came expecting some cheesy tourist rip-off but was pleasantly surprised. It is a veritable fantasyland of tiered geothermal hot springs cascading through manicured grounds crisscrossed by delicately arched bridges and cozy bubbling grottos. You can unwind under a cascade of hot water or spend a romantic evening wandering around under the soft glow of tiki torches that line the paths next to the warm burbling streams (I was even able to locate a wild turkey and a coral snake while walking through the park). If you go here, you’ll come back to the hotel, fall into a deep sleep, and you won’t wake up ’til noon, so be warned!
Day Four-Monteverde-Cloud Forest
General info– Today you will have a long scenic drive around Lake Arenal which will provide you with plenty of photo ops along the way. There is also going to be some rough going over some very badly rutted potholed dirt roads once you begin your ascent up into the mountains. Just drive slow and stop for plenty of pix. Don’t worry, you’ll make it! And don’t be afraid to ask for directions. People are very helpful here!
How to get there- Here is where you need good directions or at least a good map, because it’s a long drive. There really aren’t many turns, though. SixT will provide you with some maps which provide detailed directions. Stick with them and you’ll be OK.
Where to stay- The Hotel Ficus is like staying in a tree house. Try to get a room high up overlooking the city and mountains. Clean, comfortable, and very large rooms!
Where to eat- Toad Hall on the way. Very touristy, but a great view and free beer samples! In town, dine at the Ficus Tree restaurant. It’s a fun place with live music and the namesake tree grows right up through the center of the building. And the food ain’t bad, either…:)
What to see- Depending on how much sightseeing you did on the way, you may not have much time today (you could conceivably catch a quick boat tour of Arenal) before driving around it, but I wouldn’t want to be in the position of navigating those dirt roads high up in the mountains at night if I made just one wrong turn). If you’re going to do a night tour, this might be the time to do it. Night tours provide you with the opportunity to see critters that are nocturnal. Expect to see lots of bats, frogs, and spiders, and snakes, with an off-chance of catching a giant anteater on the prowl.
- Arrive early at the Tree House Restaurant or you’ll have trouble finding a seat. You will go many miles without a road sign on your way to Monteverde over some very bad roads.
- If you feel lost, just ask any local you pass by and they will be happy to point you the right way.
Day Five-Monteverde-Cloud Forest
General info- Today you will be taking a tour of the cloud forest, which is an extremely rare ecosystem. Your options are varied, but include zip lining, canopy tours, horseback riding, etc. The idea is to get out and into the forest!
Where to eat – Restaurante Morpho’s in Santa Elena at night. Everything is good here, including the atmosphere and service. Easy to find in Santa Helena.
What to see – You MUST go to Selvatura Park in the Cloud Forest. Here, you can enjoy a guided or unguided canopy tour, a hummingbird aviary, a butterfly graden, insect exhibit, serpentarium, hanging bridges, and a zipline course all in one spot while enjoying the cool, damp, eery cloud forest. This is the best place to zipline in Costa Rica because of the mist and the fact that there are so many runs (one a kilometer long!). The canopy experts are very safe and professional. You can wait in the hummingbird exhibit for your zipline adventure to begin. You should allow 4-6 hours including drive time from Saint Helena, depending on how much you do at the cloud forest. You may still have time to see the bat exhibit, butterfly attraction, orchid exhibit, or even to go horseback riding, depending on how many things you decided to do at the cloud forest. Wherever you are, keep your eyes peeled for the legendary Quetzal bird, which can be seen mostly from January to June.
- Dress appropriately-I was not cold, but some people wished they had a jacket, especially in the morning on the canopy tour. At least wear a long sleeve shirt.
- Fill up your car before leaving. There are no stations on the way to Santa Helena in the mountains.
- Ciebo Tree-You might also want to ask the locals about the hollowed-out Ciebo tree (Kapok) in Santa Helena that you can climb up into. It makes for a great photo op! There are no signs, so you just have to find a trail off a side road. It’s a nice thirty minute diversion in total.
- Skip the official preserve-There is a government owned reserve called Santa Helena. I did not go, but I heard through others that you’re better off skipping it unless you have some extra time.
Day 6 – Back to San Jose’-return home
General Info – This is a long road trip today. If you only have 6 days to see Costa Rica, of course your tour is over, and at this point you head back to San Jose, leaving early depending on your flight time. I did not drive this route, but it is once again down very badly rutted mountain roads much of the way. I would allow 6 hours even though it should take considerably less. If you have 7 days, I would still head back to San Jose’ today because you have no time to get to the beach and enjoy it before your flight anyway. Spend your time in the capital, maybe seeing what you missed on Day One before catching your flight back.
If you have more time, we begin our:
Costa Rica Ten Day Itinerary-Volcanoes, Cloud Forests, and Beaches
So, picking up on:
Day 6-9 Papagayo Gulf
General Info- So, it’s a long way to Papagayo Gulf and its beaches, but you can make it in a little under half a day. In truth, all of the beaches on the Pacific side share most of the same characteristics (as Papagayo): it is drier here, so you will find more sun but less vegetation and humidity than the Atlantic side. I would prefer the Pacific side anyway, but it is also closer and more accessible than the Atlantic, so it makes more sense for a shorter itinerary. This is a purely beach part of your vacation! By now, you have seen enough volcanoes, sloths, hot springs, and waterfalls, and are ready for some fun in the sun relaxation. Papagayo fills the bill! NOTE: IF YOU HAVEN’T YET SEEN ENOUGH NATURE AND JUNGLE, BUT STILL WANT A LITTLE BEACH TIME, YOU CAN SUBSTITUTE MANUEL ANTONIO (SEE DAY 10) HERE INSTEAD OF PAPAGAYO GULF.
How to get there- You’ll have to come down out of the mountains on the same crappy roads you came up on. Just follow the Six-T directions and you’ll be OK, but here, you must make a decision. If you keep the car and drive to the resort, it will sit there while you enjoy the amenities mostly unused. Six-T will meet you so you can turn it back in most anywhere in the country. My rule of thumb would be, if you’re staying 3 days or less at the resort, just keep the car. If not, I’d ditch the car and take public or private transfer to Papagayo. They can arrange this at the hotel or you can do it on your own once you get there.
Where to stay- The Hilton Papagayo Beach Resort in Guanacaste is a great choice for an all-inclusive, but there are hundreds of options all up and down the Pacific side. As all-inclusives go, this one is upper mid range, which is very good indeed. The panoramic view of the bay from some of the rooms can’t be beat. The food is good, the drinks are good, the price is right-what more do you want?
Where to Eat- If you stay at the Hilton, this question is answered for you. You eat at the hotel! In general, go for the meat dishes, which are surprisingly better than the fish. The Grill Del Fuego was my favorite lunchtime eatery. El dorado has a good steak for the night meal. The El Bocadillo Snack bar was also a good place for a lunch bite.
What to see- Definitely snorkel! It’s free, and there is a decent reef you can just walk out and swim to. I would also recommend the bike tour (also free), which takes you to some beaches away from the resort and into some of the local towns as well. You will probably see some monkeys. The spa (pay per service) is quite nice and the gym (free)has decent equipment. The entertainment is pretty lame but some of it, especially during the day, is fun. Volleyball on the beach attracts a good young crowd. Skip the walking tour on the trails around the resort-the “guide” really doesn’t know anything. Just go on your own at sunset, and try to reach the peak on the adult side (high side) as the sun goes down. Bring your camera! For additional bonus points with your girlfriend, bring some champagne! :)) Rent a car and go to one of the other local beaches. Just pick one. All you’re aiming for here is variety. In truth, they’re all nice. Grab a kayak and take it to a more secluded beach. And/or, go on a SCUBA dive at extra cost.
- Gratuities-I would bring some tip money with me, even if I was going to the swim-up bar…just give them the money ahead of time-it’s counterintuitive but it works.
- Water conditions-Ask at the beach if the water is murky-no point in wasting your effort swimming through silt. Sometimes the water on one side (of the little bay) is fine and the other isn’t. Just ask the guy who handles the snorkel gear and he’ll tell you.
- The kayak tour is popular, so you’ll have to reserve it a day early.
- Room placement-Get a room on the side away from the check-in area if you are an adult. This will get you to the more quiet side away from kids with your own adult pool. As an added bonus, this is where the Gym and Spa are. Don’t worry, it’s easy to walk down the beach to attend any of the functions and parties- but be aware that at high tide you will get wet unless you take the shuttle! Try to get a room close to the pool and gym. This will save you a LOT of walking and also you’ll have better WiFi access. But the trade-off is you will sacrifice your view somewhat.
- Iguanas-By now, you should have seen more than a few iguanas on your trip, but if not, you’ll see them aplenty here.
Day 10- return to San Jose’
General Info- This is your last day if you’re on the 10 day tour. If your flight is early out of San Jose’ you should leave on Day 9 and stay overnight in the city (see Day One itinerary for details). Allow 6 hours to make it back to San Jose’.
Costa Rica two week itinerary-Volcanoes, Cloud forests, Beaches, and National parks
With this Itinerary you pick up on Day 10 and continue your vacation, only you will go south down the coast to Manuel Antonio, which has breathtaking views from high cliffs right on the Pacific Ocean as well as plenty of wildlife and even a large National Park right on the beach to enjoy.
Day 10- Papagayo Gulf to Manuel Antonio
How to Get there- It’s a 5 hour drive down the coast, but this time on good roads with plenty of places to stop for dining, sightseeing, or to ask for directions. Allow 5 hours.
Where to stay- I cannot recommend the Parador Resort and Spa highly enough. The view from the terrace alone is worth the price. You can enjoy your free and very good breakfast while enjoying a fantastic view from a commanding height over the azure Pacific.
Where to eat- This is tough because there so many choices. On the way, you will have a lot of roadside options. I truly never had a bad meal in Costa Rica, so you can be a little adventurous. For dinner you MUST eat at El Avion, which is a bluff-front bar and cafe’ constructed from the remains of an old airplane that was used by the CIA to run guns. Great view, great fun!
What to see- You will see plenty from your car on this long drive. Take it easy today. Just enjoy the view from your room, take a dip in the adult pool at the hotel (or enjoy the swim-up bar) or, if you have the energy, take a tour of the hiking trail right on the hotel property.
- Coffee experience-Make sure to watch your coffee being brewed through a chorreador…if you love coffee as I do you will cherish this treat! This was done at my table at a roadside place on the way to Manuel Antonio and it was a memorable brew and a memorable moment! Whether you do it now or later, watch your coffee being made this way in Costa Rica.
- Sloths-If you go to the hallway side of the Parador you will have an open view of the trees behind the rooms of the hotel. At about level 3 you will be at the treetop level and from there you can probably see more than one sloth. But you must carefully look, they are not easy to see! They can appear at first just like a fuzzy ball
- Stock up-on the way to your hotel tonight, your best choice for shopping for consumables is in Quepos town.
Day 11-Manuel Antonio National Park
How to get there- Essentially you just go to the main road from the hotel, take a right, and drive until it ends at a small village near the park entrance. You cannot take your car into the park, so you will have to pay to park near the entrance in an unmarked parking lot. Also, you buy your tickets ($10) at a small kiosk about 100 yards from the entrance, which is kind of odd, then present them at the park gate.
Where to eat- Eat a big breakfast at the hotel (excellent!) and bring along something for your hike. There is water in the park, but bring some bottles. Tonight I would eat at the hotel but there are plenty of local dining options.
What to see- In the Park, along the initial route before turning down to the beach, mostly on the left you will see families of spider and/or howler monkeys. If you take a guide, they know how to call to the animals so that they will come closer. I also got almost close enough to a deer to touch it! Lots of butterflies on the way as well. The entire park is covered in tall trees: you will see cedars, mangroves, silk cottons, coconuts, and more. At the first beach you come to (Manuel Antonio) you will see coatis, and they are unafraid of you, so they are easy to film. Behind the facilities, there are sometimes spider monkeys in the low trees very close to the trail. Of course, there are lizards everywhere. Many people just hang out at this beach, but it is worthwhile to cross over the peninsula (you are still on Park Trail and there is a map) and see the other beach (Espadilla Sur). I saw a huge iguana on a log there. From there, to the left you will find a loop trail that goes up the high bluffs overlooking the ocean. This is called Punta Cathedral. It is a steep hike, but the views are panoramic and it is well worthwhile.
- Rip off! Ignore the men in vests and official looking gear who try to steer you into a parking area near the beach in the village. They will step out into the road and present themselves as park officials and swear they have worked there for “19 years” as they wave you onto a beachside lot. They are liars, and are trying to rip you off. From the correct parking area, you should be able to see the park entrance. From where these guys are, you’ll have to walk about a kilometer. Save your feet and your wallet.
Day 12 -Manuel Antonio
General Info- Today is a relaxation day, but like everywhere in Costa Rica, there is plenty to do if you want to!
Where to eat- The hotel has good food. Enjoy! Bring a snack to the beach. But off property there are lots of possibilities.
What to see- From the hotel, you can walk down to a small beach at the base of the cliffs. Of course it is beautiful. Bring towels from the hotel and just lay out in the sun or enjoy the warm water. In the small bay at this beach, I saw SCUBA divers and kayakers. In fact, this is a great place for kayaking. You can circle the small peninsula and check for wildlife both on and off shore. If you haven’t already, take the short hike on the trail around the hotel.
Day 13- Manuel Antonio to San Jose’
General Info- This is your last day if you’re on the 2 week tour. Since San Jose’ is only 2 hours away, you could make it back in time for a flight from Manuel Antonio. Or you could leave on Day 14 and spend the night in San Jose’, enjoying the sites of the city during the day (see Day one itinerary for details).
Costa Rica 3 Week Adventure-All of the above PLUS Off grid living in wild Costa Rica
With this itinerary you get to explore 2 parts of Costa Rica that most people never get to see. They are on opposite coasts, and they are difficult to access by car. In fact, I took a boat to get to both of them. And while this gives you a kind of adventurous, “Heart of Darkness” type of feeling, you should not undertake this kind of trip unless you like roughing it a little bit and really enjoy what nature has to offer without the luxuries of the more prominent tourist locales.
My opinion is that you should do these trips only if you have time to do the 2 week itinerary I outlined for you. Yes, you do get the feel of splendid isolation and/or a sense of the nostalgic romanticism of the simple life of a beachside village circa 1950 or so. But I can honestly say I saw very little wildlife at either location that I hadn’t already seen before-though I understand that if you’re lucky you might see a tapir, a giant anteater, or even a big cat like a jaguar. But I didn’t, and I suspect that is typical.
What you do get is the undisturbed beauty of miles of (for the most part) empty coast and the simple pleasure of living nearer to the land in an eco-friendly, off grid resort, where you’ll enjoy locally grown organic foods. If that is your pleasure, these are your trips!
That said, since they are on opposite sides of the country, so my suggestion would be to “bookend” your trip with these two locations. So, I would go first to Tortuguero in the Limon Region (the east coast), mainly because that would more logically reconnect you with the first part of the trip I described above (Day 2 at Arenal), and finish up with the Corcovado National Park near Drakes Bay (west coast) after Manuel Antonio on Day 13 and before your return to San Jose’ on the last day for your flight home.
So, I present these two separate journeys as stand-alone travel options:
General information-This is a remote location within a national park on the east coast near the confluence of 4 rivers and a black sand beach. Think Disney’s Jungle Cruise and you get some of the flavor for this part of your trip, where you will see toucans, iguanas, sloths, caymans, poison frogs, and many other bird and reptile species. You’ll also have access to a nice black sand beach and get a glimpse of how the natives live in a small fishing village that hasn’t gone over completely to tourism.
How to get there-I would take a tour bus transfer for this part, at least to get to the lodge from the capital. But whether you are in San Jose’ or not, the Mawamba Lodge can arrange for this part of the journey for you. It will take 3 hours by bus (with tour guide) to get to a small fishing village, from where you and your luggage will be transferred to a boat for the final trip into Tortuguero. This is a fun part of the journey! As you cruise down the La Suerte River, keep your eyes open for caymans and Jesus Christ Lizards. They say that the river is infested with Piranha as well, so keep your hands in the boat! You will spend most of your day getting to the lodge.
Where to stay-The Mawamba Lodge. You will feel like you’re on the set of an old Tarzan movie. Your thatched roof bungalow beckons, sans TV or A/C, but you’ll be cool enough at night with the fan going. Extensive trails connect the cottages with the riverfront dock, very nice swimming pool, dining area, and black sand beach. They have expert guides on staff to help you identify flora and fauna.
Where to eat-That is very simple, as you have no choice! You will eat at the lodge. The fare is simple and healthy and is served buffet style. You won’t be hungry or disappointed.
What to see- You will be very tired after your long trip. I would suggest that you take it easy and cool off in the pool, then stroll down to the beach. This evening, go on a Night Tour, which you can arrange through the on-staff guides at the hotel. On this tour, you’ll see lots of spiders, snakes, poison frogs, and other creepy crawly things.
- Water shoes- You will be slogging through some mud to get to the boat and may get your feet wet. Wear appropriate footwear.
- Bugs- Also, you will need insect repellent to be comfortable in Tortuguero.
General Info-You will want to take the boat tour during the morning today, the nature walk in the afternoon. Relax in the pool to cool off later. They serve cocktails! Then at night you’ll visit the fishing village.
What to see-You can arrange for the morning boat tour at the front desk or have it pre-arranged as part of your total tour package. This will leave very early because that is when the wildlife is most active. You will most likely get a good look at toucans and some of the 1000+ other bird species, caymans, howler monkeys, bats, spider monkeys, and even tayras. This afternoon, enjoy a Nature Walk where you will be shown a variety of plant species like cacao as well as a few animals that you may happen to see on the property grounds. You will also see a butterfly farm and frog garden. At night, stroll down the beach to the colorful village with the other guests to shop or eat. It’s a good photo op!
- Safety-It is dangerous to go into the ocean here. People have drowned. the current is quite strong. Also bull sharks are known to be in the surf.
- Photo ops- Keep your camera ready on the boat tour and on the hotel grounds, where you may see sloths and you definitely will see iguanas, which locals call “The chickens of the trees” as they are kind of tasty.
Today you will leave Tortuguero. If you have taken my advice, you will be able to arrange for Six-T car rental to meet you on the way back from here at a pre-arranged restaurant stop in Guapiles (Grupo Mawamba’s Rio Danta restaurant). Both the lodge and Six-T know the drill and there was no problem with my transfer. You can drive on to Arenal on your own and pick up on Day Two of the itinerary. Allow 3 hours drive time to get from Guapiles to Arenal, but most of the day for the entire journey from the Mawamba Lodge.
The Osa Peninsula
Day one-Manuel Antonio to Drake Bay (Osa Peninsula)
General Info-If you’re following my lead, you’ll be coming from Manuel Antonio on Day 13 of your trip if you are NOT doing Tortuguero and Day 16 if you have included Tortuguero. The Osa Peninsula has been called by National Geographic
“the most biologically intense place on earth”, and for good reason. This remote region literally teems with wildlife. 400 species of birds, 100 of mammals, macaws, monkeys, and more. Offshore, humpback whales and even sea lions can sometimes be sighted.
How to get there- Allow 2 hours to get to Sierpe by rental car from Manuel Antonio. Sierpe is a small village at the end of the road, where you will meet your Six-T rental car rep to turn in your car. That’s right, you won’t need it from now on. The Six-T reps are used to meeting you way out here so don’t worry, they’ll be there! You’ll wait for a boat to pick you up at the Perla del Sur Restaurant. You can arrange for your boat transportation through the Pirate’s Cove Hotel. The boat will probably be late getting there. Be prepared for an adventure as you head downriver to where it meets the ocean. Here, the water will be very rough indeed!
Where to stay-The Pirate Cove Lodge is built high off the surf but right on the beachfront. It’s very rustic. You can have rooms with or without air conditioning. There is no pool or WiFi, of course. It is very small. When I was there, only one other couple ever joined us for dinner. The staff are very friendly and helpful and can set up all of your excursions.
Where to eat- All of your meals will be prepared for you at the hotel.
What to see- You may see some wildlife on the way to the hotel. You will spend most of your day getting there. At the hotel, enjoy the beach. The sunsets are quite special.
- Rough water! If you are easily sea sick you might need to plan for this by taking a pill.
- Wet Landing! You will make a wet landing in water up to your knees on the surf in front of the hotel, so make sure you’ve dressed appropriately.
Day Two-Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park
General Info-Today you will take a 2-hour boat to visit the remote Corcovado National Park. The entire round trip will take most of the day.
How to get there- Your boat will pick you up in front of the hotel. Of course you will get wet boarding and disembarking the craft. You can arrange for all of your tours through the hotel staff.
What to see- By now, you are a veteran and have seen a whole lot of biodiversity. On this tour, I was lucky enough to see some sea lions on a rock just offshore as we took the boat to the national park. Dolphins followed us to the park, and flying fish flew past. At the park, we saw signs of tapirs but did not see the actual animals. Plenty of bird species were present, as well as agoutis and raccoons. Also I saw a ball python and a pit viper.
- Seasick- As before, this is a rough boat ride and it takes about two hours, so if you get seasick easily, take proper precautions.
- Bugs- Bring some spray
- Clothing- Water shoes are best. Bring sunglasses and headgear as the sun is intense, especially on the boat.
Day Three-Osa Peninsula and Cano island Biological Preserve
General Info- I did not take this trip so I will only say that this is an optional tour day, and this is an all day trip to an island they call “the Galapagos of Costa Rica”. If you decide, as I did, not to go, you could return today. I decided to simply spend a day hiking around the area and enjoying the beach.
How to get there- If you take the island tour, they will arrange for it at the hotel front desk. You will be taken by boat. Wet landings at both ends.
What to see- The island itself has little to see on land. What you will want to do is snorkel or SCUBA dive here. Manta rays, dolphins, sea turtles, and tropical fish abound.
Day Four-Osa Peninsula to San Jose’ to…Home?
General Info- OK, you’re heading home now, and I hope you enjoyed your trip! You’ll be heading back to San Jose’ by plane, so it is possible that you could catch a flight back home today. If not, take a look at the Day One itinerary for sightseeing in the capital before you head out the next day.
How to get there- Take a cab to Drake Airport. Allow 30 minutes, but make your arrangements the day before. Part of the cab ride will include fording a small stream. The water will come up to the doors! This is the smallest airport I have ever been to, consisting of a single open-air ticket counter and a souvenir shop. Take some pictures as you weigh yourself in for the flight. The only service to the airport is by Sansa Air. I’d make those arrangements directly with them. They fly out about 10AM, from what I remember, so you’ll be at the San Jose’ Airport before noon easily.
What to see- Take a look at the airport and smile at the sign that says “Newly Remodeled”. Watch the process as your ticket agent moves your luggage over to the gate, opens it up, and waves for you to come board the plane while he loads and gases up.
- Fear of Flying- This is a gut-wrenching flight. Not much you can do about it but pray. It’s a small single engine aircraft. I suppose you could drive, but it’s a long way, and you’d only have the car less than a day.
If you’re uncomfortable with setting this all up for yourself, I highly recommend Costa Rica Trails as travel experts in the country. They can do it all for you. Ask for David Brenes. He won’t let you down.