Costa Rica: 14-day road trip itinerary
By Carlie Mesquitta
Located in the heart of the Central American rainforest, Costa Rica is awash with beautiful beaches, teeming with wildlife and brimming with culture. It’s also an adrenaline junkie’s dream, with ziplining, white water rafting and surfing just some of the action-packed activities you can do.
Due to its unique combination of adventure, nature and relaxation, Costa Rica has rocketed in popularity over the last few years. With British Airways and Thomson now offering direct flights from Gatwick (10hrs and 50mins), it’s becoming even easier to visit this unassuming Latin American paradise. I was planning a trip with my husband, Paul, and we did a lot of research before putting together an itinerary for Costa Rica. Eventually, we decided the best way to get a taste of authentic Central American life was a self-drive tour. We were going on a Costa Rica road trip!
Top tip: Plan your itinerary
I’m a stickler for a spreadsheet, so planning a Costa Rica road trip itinerary was a dream come true for me. Even for the more spontaneous traveller, planning ahead is still absolutely key if you’re going to do a self-drive tour of Costa Rica. Trust me, this early preparation will give you much more flexibility during your holiday in the long run and ensure you don’t miss all the best bits.
Not only is the mountainous terrain a little tricky at times (we got up to an elevation of nearly 3,000 feet in Monteverde), but if you visit at the wrong time of year (a.k.a rainy season – May to October), you could encounter torrential rain and mudslides that make it impossible to pass some roads. There are few paved roads, so destinations that are only a couple of hundred miles away on the map, could take hours to get to in reality. It’s definitely worth buying a local map, as the roads are marked by terrain which we found hugely helpful. To maximise our time in Costa Rica, we purposefully planned our trip to ensure as little driving time as possible, whilst still taking in as many highlights as we could cram in.
We travelled in April at the end of the dry season and found this the perfect time to visit – the weather was sunny (around 25’C), with only a few rainy spells and the roads were intact after a dry, hot summer. We booked a 4×4 through Wild Rider who we would highly recommend. They delivered the car to our hotel in San José, and spent an hour going through everything we would need to know – from marking out our entire route on the map, to explaining how to stay safe on the roads and even how petrol stations operated. It was invaluable advice that helped us get around with only limited marital arguments which is a win-win in my book! The rental cost of the car for two weeks (including insurance) was US$695 (£547).
Two week itinerary for Costa Rica
Day 1-2: San José
What we did:
Our first two days were spent exploring the nation’s capital, San José. I wasn’t sure what to expect when our taxi weaved its way from the airport through standstill traffic with horns honking in every direction but it was very exciting! Once we got closer to the centre, we were enchanted by this colourful mecca, steeped in history and old-world charm. We joined a free walking tour which was an amazing way to get a feel of the city and learn a little of the country’s history. After ducking into one of the busy cafés lining the main strip for some authentic Costa Rican fare, we stopped for a coffee at the Teatro Nacional (National Theatre), visited a cute craft market stall selling souvenirs and ended the day with rooftop cocktails at our hotel and an Argentinian steak dinner at La Esquina de Buenos Aires. Many of the people we spoke to only stayed here for one night before embarking on their adventure around the country, but we found it had so much to offer and would really recommend staying for two nights if you have the time.
Where we stayed:
Set in the heart of San José, Hotel Presidente is a modern hideaway amongst the hustle and bustle of the city. Our room was contemporary and clean but the main attraction was the rooftop bar, Azotea Calle 7. Haaving a bite to eat over a spicy mezcal cocktail whilst enjoying some stunning views of the city at sunset was the perfect way to kick off our trip.
Day 2-4 Sarapiqui
Distance from San Jose: 80km (just over 2 hours)
What we did:
And we were off! The driving turned out to be relatively easy – there were some crazy drivers on the busy roads getting out of San Jose, but all in all, the roads were well signposted. We also had a sat nav that worked a dream and we had no problems getting from A to B. The roads vary from dirt roads to motorways. Occasionally we passed through a little town or busy area and then it was rainforest all the way. A lot of the roads were bumpy – we were definitely thankful for our 4 x4!
Driving ourselves around meant that we were able to be flexible about the places we stayed and have our pick of the best spots to explore. For example, none of the tour companies we came across offered a stop in Sarapiqui, but we had one of our favourite days white water rafting with a local company there, Sarapiqui Outdoor Centre. Our guide Mariano expertly guided us along class 2 and 3 rapids, pointing out monkeys, lizards and birds along the way. The team also put on an amazing barbeque afterwards where we discovered a love of yucca (a salty potato-like veg that was deliciously moreish) and taught us how to make Guaro, a local sugarcane rum, by hand. The tour was £99 (£87) per person, including lunch.
Where we stayed:
We stayed at the sustainable Sarapiqui Rainforest Lodge which was clean, comfortable and most importantly, totally immersed in nature. The hotel (rooms from $86 / £68) was located in the heart of the rainforest, surrounded by lush vegetation, with a suspension bridge linking the hotel to the nearby rainforest, which meant that we had the chance to hike by ourselves and get to grips with our surroundings, and its inhabitants!
My husband was in his element snapping pics of toucans and we ended the days comparing pictures over an early evening drink at the hotel’s outdoor bar area.
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14-DAY COSTA RICA ROAD TRIP ITINERARY
Day 4-6 La Fortuna
Distance from Sarapiqui 77 km (About 1hr 30)
Where we stayed:
We splashed out for this part of the trip and opted to stay at the all singing, all dancing Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa just a short drive from the bustling town of La Fortuna. It didn’t come cheap (US$330 / £260 per night), but this luxury resort, nestled among a sprawling oasis of exotic plants and natural hot springs offered spacious rooms, a swim up bar and three top notch restaurants. It wasn’t the most authentic experience, but they definitely know how to treat their guests and they went above and beyond to make us feel welcome. What it lacked in nature, it more than made up for in customer service and luxury surroundings. Plus the spa experience was incredible. It felt like a little slice of heaven!
What we did:
We spent the first day relaxing in the hotel’s beautiful hot springs, sipping on poolside cocktails and larking about in the pool. Our second day was a little more action-packed with an adventure on the Arenal Volcano. We did zip lining, rappelling down waterfalls and tarzan swinging through the jungle with Sky Trek. There are so many zip lining companies in Costa Rica, not all of them reputable, but Sky Trek was the gold standard in high octane excursions so we felt in very safe hands (despite dangling thousands of feet in the air for most of the day!). They offered the opportunity to hire a Go-Pro to document the experience and the chance to buy pictures at the end too which was a great way to capture the day. The cost of the tour was $81 (£64) per person, which was a bargain for all the things we did.
The Arenal Volcano is one of Costa Rica’s five active volcanoes. It was thought to be a dormant volcano until a sudden eruption in 1968. The 29,850 acre Arenal Volcano National Park has a wide choice of hiking trails following secondary forest and former lava fields. The best volcano views are at the main sector but the park’s newest trail, La Peninsula, has gorgeous views of Lake Arenal. It only opened in 2017 and with the paved trail, it is more accessible and easier if you didn’t pack your hiking boots.
Day 6-8 Liberia
Distance from La Fortuna 141km (2 hrs 45)
Where we stayed:
Hacienda Guachipelin is a working ranch, adjacent to the Rincon de la Vieja national park. This unique eco-tourism destination is set amongst a backdrop of inviting hot springs, bubbling volcanic pools and roaring waterfalls. Set within acres of dry forest, it was a total change of climate from the rainforest, and offered something a little different to the Costa Rica we had come to know. With a restaurant, bar, spacious rooms, a huge pool area and an onsite activity centre, it had everything we needed and more for our two day stay. The best part? The litter of adorable puppies that lived on site. Too cute!
AN ADVENTURE ITINERARY FOR COSTA RICA
What we did:
After our longest drive of the trip so far, we were keen to relax and unwind, so were thrilled to see a spacious pool area awaiting us as we checked in. Before we could kick up our heels however, we were ready for more adventure, so we signed up to a tubing experience at the hotel’s own activity centre. The trip began, unexpectedly, on horseback, which was slightly nerve-wracking for two people who had never ridden a horse before. Our guide (a resident cowboy who spoke limited English) was amazing, and came to our rescue when our horses got into a little scrap early on in the journey. I can’t say it was the most relaxing trip, but our sides were aching from our horse hi jinx when we reached the top. The tubing, by comparison was a breeze and we hurtled our way down the river, getting drenched at every twist and turn, but having the time of our lives.
The next day we booked a guided hike to La Gangreja Waterfall, which was well worth the four hour round-trip. I’m not going to lie, it was a pretty hot and sticky climb, but our guide was great. He gave us a lesson in some of the wildlife we encountered, taking loads of pics, and made sure we stopped off for water breaks along the way. I’d describe this hike as pretty hard, in terms of fitness. The route is quite steep in places and our guide walked so quickly – we were always trying to catch up!
Once we reached the waterfall, the water looked so inviting that we couldn’t resist getting in for a swim. Luckily, we had set off early (leaving at 8.30am), so pretty much had the place to ourselves. The welcome dip was so refreshing, and we appreciated the chance to cool off before making the descent back.
Day 8-11 Monteverde
Distance from Liberia: 130km (2 hours 45)
What we did:
We arrived at Monteverde early doors, and dropped our bags at the hotel before heading off to tour the nearby Don Juan coffee plantation. As total caffeine-addicts we found the whole coffee making process fascinating and learned so much about what makes a great cup of joe. We stocked up on lots of gourmet coffee as souvenirs for our friends and family and had the chance to taste some homemade chocolate too.
On our second day we booked a nature hike at the nearby Monteverde Reserve. Our guide, Donald was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic, which really made for a fun experience. He took us through a fascinating tour of the reserve, explaining all about the different species of birds, mammals (including the elusive two-toed sloth) and insects that call the cloud forest their home. We even caught a glimpse of the resplendent quetzal, a colourful native bird of Costa Rica – a moment which was really special, and something we will always remember.
As we weren’t restricted to a schedule, we were able to book again with Sky Trek for our final day in Monteverde. This time, we tried our hand at another zip ling experience, navigating 12 zip lines with the help of our guides, ending in a hair-raising rappel to the finish. We couldn’t get enough!
Where we stayed:
My favourite hotel of the trip was the Monteverde Lodge and Gardens, ($270 / £213 per room) situated within walking distance of the town of Santa Elena. Set amongst tranquil, verdant gardens, complete with a yoga area, hammocks, a stunning pool and a restaurant with a roaring fire, it was the perfect place to relax and unwind after a busy day of adventure and nature-spotting.
We found that lots of our hotels would happily book excursions for us at short notice. The staff at Monteverde Lodge and Gardens were amazing and even arranged transport for us to and from the hotel, so we didn’t have to worry about parking.
Day 11-14 Manuel Antonio
Distance from Monteverde: 190km (3 hours 45)
What we did:
We finished off our trip with a stay at Manuel Antonio, a stunning beachside town next to a world famous national park, which has five beautiful beaches. The view of the Pacific from our hotel was stunning and it was lovely to end the trip with a bit of relaxation…
But not for long! First on our agenda was yet more adventure in the form of a surfing excursion at Playa Espadilla! We booked a three-hour lesson with the Manuel Antonio Surf School ($90 / £71) each for 3 hours. I’ve surfed a few times before but surfing in Costa Rica was on another level. I would definitely only recommend it for really confident swimmers, as the current was so strong that a few times I struggled to catch my breath after being dragged around by the waves. It was still an awesome experience and we got to ride a few huge waves, but I certainly swallowed a lot of water that day!
Our final day was probably our favourite, as we went on the most amazing nature-packed hike in the Manual Antonio Park, accompanied by a brilliantly fun retired couple from San Diego. Our guide Felipe was such a passionate chap and his enthusiasm for his country’s wildlife really rubbed off on us. We were so excited by every flora and fauna we encountered during our hike – from crabs to snakes, sloths, monkeys, raccoons and frogs. We must have got lucky as Felipe even phoned his dad midway through as he couldn’t believe the luck we were having spotting so many species in just a few short hours!
Where we stayed:
Costa Rica prides itself on its sustainable tourism industry and it’s easy to see why. We stayed at the stunning Si Como No, wildlife eco-reserve, situated on a hillside overlooking the Central Pacific coast (Rooms were US$230 /£180). Staff are so proud of their ecosystem, and everything they do is geared towards ensuring the best quality of life for the areas inhabitants. We saw everything from scarlet macaws to spider monkeys and sloths during our stay.
It was the perfect base to explore the nearby beaches and, in true holiday style, they had some pretty great happy hour cocktails too!
A road trip in Costa Rica truly was an incredible experience and one we would recommend to anyone. I’ve never been so sad to go home from a holiday! I feel so lucky that we got to experience a taste of magical Costa Rica.
For more information visitcostarica.com
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