I am going to list here my favorite Costa Rica road trips all starting from San Jose and with various time frames so you can see what is possible with the amount of time you have and without spending all your time driving. Some of my favorite hotels are small boutique hotels in beautiful locations. usually have less than fifty rooms.
You can use my suggestions to get an idea of some of the areas in Costa Rica you would like to get to by car and the hotels you would like to stay in. You should also check out Airbnb or other hotels that might fit your travel style better and of course you can consider staying longer or shorter time at any of these places depending on what you want to see and do.
My Mountains and Volcano Getaway Tour
Day 1 – Arrive
Get your airfare to San Jose and stay your first night in San Jose. I would recommend some place towards the airport as San Jose traffic horrible and there really is no reason to go to San Jose, as a tourist. So take hotel shuttle to the Best Western Irazu or if you want to stay close to downtown look at the Hotel Grano de Oro.
Day 2 – Arenal Volcano
When you rent your 4×4 car, before arriving, then will ask you where you are going to pick it up. Tell them the hotel in San Jose and the time and it will be there, this morning delivered to the hotel. Get that and start up your GPS , (which you can rent form the car rental agency of get one at Amazon) or use Waze ,and go to Volcan Arenal, one of the most active volcanos in the world. En route you will pass through Zarcero, famous for the sculpted bushes surrounding its picturesque church. Option: Going a few miles out of your way you can also visit Sarchí, home of Costa Rica’s traditional brightly painted ox carts and a great stop for buying beautiful items made of Costa Rican hardwoods. Once here I would tell you stay at either Tabacon or if you have some bucks (but well worth every buck) at the Springs Hotel
Day 3 – Monteverde
Get up, eat some Gallo Pinto (my favorite breakfast), and then look around Arenal some more and then start up your GPS again and get pn your way to Monteverde. With the driving options, go with the the scenic drive which will take you around Lake Arenal and through lush rolling hills until you get to Monteverde . While in Monteverde explore the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (get a guide) or one of the other private reserves, or take a horseback ride to a 200 ft waterfall. There are a lot of options here but you could stay at the Monteverde Lodge which is a little outside of the center or the Hotel Belmar which has been there forever!
Day 4 – Departure
OK now you need to make your way back home. On your way back home or before you move on to your next destination – Explore the main community of the area, Santa Elena. You may just want to take advantage of banks and supermarkets or visit the local cheese factory, women’s cooperative (CASEM) or one of the many art and craft galleries to purchase some souvenirs or gifts for the folks back home. Local coffee, wood sculptures, embroidered clothing, and paintings by resident artists are just some of the offerings available.
My Costa Rica Eco Tour
Costa Rica is one of the smallest countries in the world and still has 5% of the total of the world’s biodiversity. Evidence of this is that you can find in this green and friendly country 12 diferent types of forest, most of them still pristine. With this itinerary you will experience the unspoiled beaches on the South Pacific, the most amazing Cloud forest with lots of Quetzals and finally the rainforest near one of the most actives volcanoes and still little known in Costa Rica. One important thing is that you can experience all this and still be away from crowds!
Day 1: San Jose
As I mentioned in the previous tour, get your airfare to San Jose and stay your first night in San Jose. I would recommend some place towards the airport as San Jose traffic horrible and there really is no reason to go to San Jose, in my opinion. So take hotel shuttle to the Best Western Irazu or if you want to stay close to downtown look at the Hotel Grano de Oro. If you decide to stay downtown and if you have the time, check out the jade museum and the Teatro Nacional.
Day 2 – 4: Domincal and Uvita
As I mentioned in the first and shorter itinerary above, while you are renting your 4×4 car, let them know where you decided to stay so they can deliver in the morning. Then take off to Uvita and making a stop at Dominical beach. Uvita is one of the prettiest beaches on the South Pacific Coast with lots of nature and wildlife. While you are way there you will pass over Cerro de la Muerte one of the highest and coolest mountains in Costa Rica and again try to make a stop at Domincal,
Once there you’ll get to experience some of the rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, you can also check out the the areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all made possible at La Cusinga. While there you can do hiking in the private reserve or any of the one day tours available in this location such as Corcovado National Park, Cano Island, whale and dolphins watching tour, waterfalls, snorkeling and much more .
Day 5 – 6: Savegre Cloud Forest
After breakfast with the sounds of nature start your drive to Savegre Cloud Forest. You will drive back part way back on the road that you took when coming from San Jose. Get ready for a change of temperature, you are now heading to one of the coolest areas in our tropical country ( you probably will want to pack a sweater or light jacket). The cloud forest in this area is one of the most pristine in Costa Rica and it is easy to find a lot of different bird species plus lots of beautiful tropical flowers.
I would suggest you stay at the hotel Savegre has a natural reserve made up of 400 hectares of forest (about 1,000 acres), 80% of which is virgin, while the remainder is newer growth, including reforestation programs using native species – especially laurels. The area is frequently visited by eco-tourists from around the world who come to enjoy the large diversity of plant life, including oak and laurel trees, orchids and bromelias. This animal life includes more than 170 species of birds – including the magnificent Quetzal – as well as numerous mammals, amphibians, and insects.
Day 7 – 8: Turrialba
On the morning of the 7th day ( sounds biblical), you will leave the Cloud forest and take the road in direction of Turrialba, towards the last destination of your vacation. This small country side town has a lot to offer. You should look into staying at the Wagelia Espino Blanco, one of the nicest sustainable hotels in this country. This hotel also has a private reserve that contains an important variety of animals such as; vipers, pavas, small raccoons, armadillos, tepezcuites, as well as a great variety of butterflies and birds. Its name comes from a tree characteristic of the area, the Espino Blanco (White Thorn), which is in the process of disappearance. In the reserve there are many tree species that really must be seen to be believed.
While there. look into doing a day tour to Guayabo National Monument. It is believed that the site was inhabited from 1500 BC until about 1400 AD, and though very little has been excavated, you can see parts of roadways, aqueducts, pools, tombs and the foundations of homes. You can also do white water rafting tours or see the Turrialba Volcano, so there is a lot to do here, you just need to decide whats best for you.
Day 9: San Jose
Its time to drive back to San Jose and back to the Irazu Hotel or Grano de Oro. Arrange to have the car picked up at the hotel as it sjust makes it easier and less stressful than doing it on the day you leave as most o the car rental companies are not at the airport and you will have to drop off there and then take a shuttle to the airport.. More hassle than its worth and the hotel can arrange for a shuttle to take you the airport.
Day 10: San Jose
Take that shuttle to the airport and be sure to check in 3 hours before your flight
My Budget Car Vacation
With this itinerary although its more budget and by that I mean I am recommending more moderate hotels and renting a more moderately priced car, but still a 4×4, you still visit a great variety of what Costa Rica has to offer in some of the most beautiful and peaceful places on earth.
Day 1: San Jose
Get your airfare into San Jose and get the free shuttle to the Adventure Inn located just 10 minutes away from San Jose downtown. If you arrive early enough take a taxi or ask the hotel about getting you to downtown San Jose where you should visit the Teatro Nacional and the Gold and Jade Museums.
Day 2: Tortuguero
On the second day you will visit one of the most exciting areas in Costa Rica, the Tortuguero National Park and look into staying at the Mawamba Lodge. You will need to take a domestic flight into this area as there aren’t any roads but the lodge should be able to set this up for you.
Tortuguero is the most important area in the Western Caribbean for the nesting grounds of the green sea turtle (Chelonia Midas), which can be seen from July to October. This region abounds with rich flora and fauna. Its several waterways allow all kinds of life to grow and develope in a Primary and Secondary Tropical Rain Forest. Orchids, birds, monkeys, crocodiles, sloths, toucans and many other species, can be seen all over the area. A great way to spend time in the Costa Rican forest! Return to Adventure Inn for second night.
Day 3 – 5: Arenal
Early in the morning get your 4×4 rental delivered to your hotel. The car rental companies will do this for free and its alot easier then going to one of their offices. Make sure you check over the car for any scratches or dents before signing. You may also want to check out my post on car rental insurance . Once you get the car, get out the GPS, if you don’t have one you can get one on Amazon, or use Waze and then take off for the beautiful three hour drive to Arenal Volcano. Once you get there you can relax as not more driving is required. You will just spend the day the next 2 days exploring Arenal and the waterfalls around the area. If you are really motivated you can check out the tour to cano negro. Try staying the Arenal Volcano Inn, and after checking inn take the hike to the La Fortuna Waterfall or just explore this beautiful area.
Day 5 – 7: Manuel Antonio Beach
Off to the beach and to one of the best in Costa Rica. Drive down the Pacific Coast to the old fishing village Quepos and next to the world famous Manuel Antonio National Park. There is plenty to do in this area such as rafting, horseback riding and some world class fishing. You should also take a walk through Manuel Antonio and rest for a while on its beautiful beach. Also since you the car take a drive down to Dominical. Although its mostly famous for the surfing, its a great way to spend a half a day. There are plenty of places to stay here are there are hotels up and down the hill that separates Quepos and Manuel Antonio, for budget hotels you should check out either the Mono Azul or the La Foresta Nature Resort
Day 8 – 9: San Jose
Drive back to San Jose and head back to the Adventure Inn where you will spend your last night. I would recommend that you have the car company come pick up the car at the Inn and so its one less thing to be concerned about on the day you are leaving. Since the Inn has a shuttle to the airport there really is no reason not too and you also save a day on the rental car price. Make sure on the day you leave you get to the airport about 3 hours ahead of time.