Costa Rica itineraries & map

Make the most of your time

Costa Rica may be a mere dot on the world map, but as every inch of it is crammed with adventure and wildlife, it’s harder to see it all than you may think. The ecosystems, wildlife, activities and level of development vary massively across tiny areas, so really selecting what you want to see – and how far off the beaten track you'd like to roam – is essential. Spend at least two nights in each location; three is even better – so that you can do the key highlights as well as some of the lesser known tours. Some of the more touristy spots are in fact ideal for young families. Driving times are deceptive along muddy jungle roads – so speak to your operator to put together the perfect balance of activity and relaxation in your Costa Rica itinerary.
San José Pacuare Arenal Volcano Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve North Pacific coast/Nicoya Peninsula Tortuguero National Park Osa Peninsula & Corcovado Tenorio Volcano National Park Rio Perdido Southern Caribbean Guanacaste National Park

Arenal Volcano

Of Costa Rica’s 16 volcanoes, Arenal is the most famous, and it was once its most active. Lava flows have ceased in recent years, but the national park still has much to offer. Cross suspended walkways and traverse nature trails through the forest to discover birds, howler monkeys, cascades and barren lava fields, then revive your achey legs in the thermal baths. The little town of La Fortuna is a convenient base.

Guanacaste National Park

Sandwiched between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean, the Orosi and Cacao Volcanoes, Guanacaste was preserved thanks to its very diversity of ecosystems, as it provides a protected corridor between lowland rainforest, mangrove swamps and the high cloud forest. The creation of such a large conservation area means that even species such as mountain lions and jaguars can thrive.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

A fairytale forest shrouded in perpetual mist, Monteverde’s trees are draped in orchids, mosses and bromeliads, thriving on the moist, chilly air. Around 400 bird species inhabit this landscape, including the elusive quetzal. Visitor numbers are capped but it’s still one of Costa Rica’s busiest spots; however, this results in great infrastructure, well maintained trails, and an easy ride for families. Don’t miss the zip lines.

Nicoya Peninsula

Costa Rica’s driest region conveniently has some of its most beautiful beaches. Its extensive coastline has both tranquil beaches for relaxation, as well as wind and waves to delight surfers, sailors and windsurfers. You can also take body boarding, kayaking and scuba diving trips with certified instructors – or a night tour to Ostional to see thousands of turtles nesting before each new moon.

Osa Peninsula & Corcovado

Around half of Costa Rica’s species can be found on the Osa Peninsula. Scarlet macaws, morpho butterflies, manatees and anteaters rub shoulders with curiouser creatures including tayras, agoutis and tapirs – you can also dive and snorkel off the coast. Corcovado, Costa Rica’s largest national park, covers a third of the peninsula, while receiving a fraction of the visitors of the other parks.


This primary rainforest was once something of a hidden gem, but travelers are wising up to its true value. Pacuare River offers grade II-V rafting, while rappelling and zip lining give different perspectives of the jungle. The superb lodge works closely with local communities, its eco-friendly bungalows offer a carbon neutral stay. The fun begins before you even arrive, as you need to raft in and out.

Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Geology buffs will love this highland region of dry forest, which is literally bubbling with volcanic activity. Hikes of various lengths and complexities take you past sulphurous mud pools, a mini volcano and hot springs. Go zip-lining, tubing, or discover the culture on a local ranch: after milking the cows you can ride the horses out to streams and waterfalls.

Rio Perdido

A giant adventure playground of zip lines, swings and hanging bridges will bring out even the most reluctant inner monkey. Those who prefer to stay grounded can mountain bike the technical trails or follow extensive hiking trails through this tropical dry forest, then soak in the thermal pools. Inflatable kayaks and tubing are alternative means of getting around the park.

San José

Despite the lack of obvious charm, Costa Rica’s capital hides plenty of pleasant surprises. Home to almost half the country’s population – yet virtually none of its many expats – it’s easily the best place to discover daily Tico life, with great restaurants, live music and boisterous nightlife. Excellent museums showcase pre-Colombian artefacts, while the Central Market is just as good for people watching as it is for shopping.

Southern Caribbean

Contemporary, cosmopolitan Costa Rica becomes a distant memory as you rumble down the rustic roads of the Limon and Cahuita. The verdant Talamanca Mountains are home to indigenous Bribri, Cabecar and Kekoldi communities, who harvest cacao and navigate the rivers on rustic rafts. Along the coast, the laid-back Afro-Costa Rican culture takes over, along with fantastic surf breaks and bottlenose dolphins.

Tenorio Volcano National Park

Named after its awesome volcano, this is one the lesser visited national parks, and a chance to escape the tourist hordes. It’s not lacking in natural attractions, from the vividly sky blue Rio Celeste to the waterfalls, geysers and thermal springs fuelled by the volcano. Landscapes stretch from rainforest up to cloud forest on the volcano’s slopes, with panoramic views of the scenery.

Tortuguero National Park

Begin your adventure by boat – the only way into this remote region, famed for its wildlife and particularly the green turtles that gave it its name. Peak nesting season falls from July to October, but you can hike and canoe through the verdant Caribbean forests most of the year, looking out for otters, howler monkeys, manatees and sloths around the rivers. Tortuguero is also well set up for families.

Costa Rica sample itineraries

Activity & nature
San José ► Pacuare River ► Arenal Volcano ► Rincon de la Vieja ► Monteverde ► North Pacific coast ► San José

Self drive beaches & forests
San José ► San Gerardo ► Corcovado National Park ► South Pacific ► Tenorio ► Guanacaste ► Rio Perdido ► Rincon de la Vieja National Park ► North Pacific

Rainforest adventure
San José ► Tortuguero National Park ► Arenal Volcano ► Monteverde ► Nicoya Peninsula ► San José

Travel times in Costa Rica

This is a rough idea of the journey times between the main attractions in Costa Rica:
  • San José – La Fortuna (for Arenal Volcano): 3.5 hours by car
  • San José – Tamarindo: 6.5 hours by bus
  • San José – Cahuita: 3.5 hours by bus
  • San José – Pacuare: 2.5 hours by bus, followed by 4x4, zipwire and then a short hike
  • San José – Monteverde: 4.5 hours by bus
  • San José – Tortuguero: 6 hours by two buses and a boat
  • San José – Tortuguero: 30 minutes by plane
  • Arenal (La Fortuna) – Tenorio National Park: 1 hour by car
  • San José – Corcovado National Park: 7-9 hours by car
Photo credits: [Top box - cyclist: Marissa Strniste] [San José: Steven Depolo] [Pacuare Nature Reserve: Chadica] [Arenal Volcano: sam Beebe] [Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park: Miguel Vieira] [Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve: Frank Vassen] [North Pacific coast/Nicoya Peninsula: Marissa Strniste] [Tortuguero National Park: Marina Kuperman Villatoro] [Osa Peninsula & Corcovado National Park: Miguel Vieira] [Tenorio Volcano National Park: Andrea Schieber] [Rio Perdido - zip line generic: David Berkowitz] [Southern Caribbean – Cahuita, Talamanca: Marina Kuperman Villatoro] [Guanacaste National Park: R Barraez D´Lucca]
Written by Vicki Brown
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