Costa Rica was the first country I ever visited in Latin America and the reason I fell in love with that part of the world. The people are kind, the scenery is gorgeous, and the wildlife is abundant.
Driving in Costa Rica was hands down one of the most scenic road trips I’ve been on. I enjoyed the drives between places as much as the destinations themselves.
Car rentals can be pricey in Costa Rica, so are private transfers, and can you really put a price on the freedom of a Costa Rica road trip?
If you’re arriving in Costa Rica, Central America by air you will most likely fly into the Juan Santamaria International Airport located in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. Here you can pick up your rental car which you can reserve online beforehand. I recommend renting a 4×4 vehicle, as some of the roads in Costa Rica are not well maintained.
Having a 4×4 will make your life much easier and allow you to get off the beaten path. The car rental companies offer GPS rentals at an additional cost but in my opinion purchasing this was a waste of money, as we ended up using our phones more. Download the map of Costa Rica on Google offline maps or maps.me before your trip; it is cheaper and more accurate.
Hit the road
San José to La Fortuna Costa Rica (approximately 130 kilometers/80 miles)
I haven’t found much in San Jose worth sticking around for, so I’d opt to hit the road as soon you can. From San Jose, start the drive towards La Fortuna. I loved this drive; you leave the loud city behind and ascend into the natural beauty of Costa Rica Travel. This road is curvy, but nothing unmanageable. La Fortuna is a great place to start your Costa Rica itinerary, especially for nature-lovers and adventure-seekers.
The biggest attraction of La Fortuna is the Arenal Volcano National Park, which is a forest surrounding a volcano that has a great assortment of wildlife, exotic plants, and the Fortuna Waterfall. There are also many adventure tours you can do in this area including white-water rafting, Arenal hanging bridges, Lake Arenal, rainforest walks, and waterfall repelling excursions. I’d recommend staying at least two full days here because there are too many things to do for just a day trip.
Into the clouds
La Fortuna to Monteverde (approximately 122 kilometers/75 miles)
After an adventure-filled trip to La Fortuna, head to the mystical and relaxing Monteverde cloud forest reserve of Monteverde. This was the worst part of our travel. The drive we had in terms of road conditions since parts of it aren’t paved, but nothing the 4X4 couldn’t handle. Once you arrive in Monteverde you will feel the magic of this place.
There re are moments where you are actually in the clouds as they pass through the forests. The Monteverde area is a well-known cloud forest biological site. There are a number of activities to do in this area ranging from gentle hikes through the cloud forest, to mountain horseback riding at sunset, to zip lines through the cloud forest. You can also visit the Santa Elena cloud forest, Monteverde Orchid Garden, and Selvatura Park. No matter what itinerary you have, this is an area you don’t want to miss on your Costa Rica vacation.
Let’s go to the beach
Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is an absolute paradise. Endless white sand beaches, surf towns at every turn, picture-perfect sunsets, and some of the countries most spectacular national parks.
Monteverde to Tamarindo Costa Rica (approximately 162 kilometers/101 miles)
Tamarindo is a lively surf town on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. There you can find restaurants and bars, shopping, gorgeous sunsets, and endless yoga and surf schools. This is a great place to start your journey into the Pacific coast, as it is just a couple hours drive from the cloud forest of Monteverde. You should also stop at the stunning Rio Celeste waterfalls and the Llanos de Cortés Waterfalls on your drive to Tamarindo beach.
Tamarindo is a busy town and great if you’re looking for nightlife and shopping. Playa Tamarindo is also a great place to learn to surf as the waves are beginner friendly and the water is warm. You can book lessons in town, which costs $50 for a two-hour private lesson. If you enjoy fishing, Tamarindo is a great place for booking a fishing or boating trip. For one of the best spas in Costa Rica, you need to go to LADE Spa.
You will feel like you are in heaven there. Tamarindo is a short drive to Playa Grande, where you will discover the Baulas National Park. Playa Langosta is a short walk from the beach town and has several high-end vacation rentals.
Tamarindo to Santa Teresa (approximately 257 kilometers/160 miles)
Playa Santa Teresa is more laid back then Tamarindo but has a great bohemian vibe and is perfect for surf, yoga, and watching sunsets on the beach. The main beach in Santa Teresa goes on for miles and is full of gorgeous white sand to relax on and soak up the sun. Playa Santa Teresa and neighboring Malpais have been voted as one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world. The beach goes on for some miles, so a sunset horseback riding exertion is a great activity to explore this area.
Santa Teresa to Manuel Antonio (169 kilometers/105 miles)
From Santa Teresa, head towards Manuel Antonio. There are two options for getting to Manuel Antonio; either via driving or taking a scenic ferry that leaves from Montezuma (about 1/2 hour from Santa Teresa). Manuel Antonio is home to one of Costa Rica’s most famous national parks, Manuel Antonio National Park (my personal favorite).
At this park, you can find a wide variety of flora, fauna, and wildlife. Guided wildlife tours run from the park’s entrance where you will have the opportunity to see the diverse wildlife of Costa Rica including the most famous animal, the sloth. At the end of the guided tour, the guide will leave you at a gorgeous beach with turquoise water where you can swim or relax. You can also go hiking through Manuel Antonio National Park on your own and enjoy Manuel Antonio beach. Several Manuel Antonio hotels are within walking distance to the beach and restaurants.
After Manuel Antonio, you can either return to San Jose if you need to catch a flight (171 kilometers/106 miles). Alternatively, if you have more time you can drive to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.
West to East Coast
Manuel Antonio to Puerto Viejo 232km / 144miles
Puerto Viejo is a small town in the southeast of Costa Rica with its own unique vibe from anywhere else in the country due to the influence of its Caribbean roots.
Surfing is available but the conditions are favorable for advanced surfers as the waves can be much rougher than on the west coast. The nightlife in Puerto Viejo is lively; check out reggae bar for entertainment on the weekends. Puerto Viejo is also home to The Jaguar rescue center, which is a great place to see Costa Rica wildlife up close and support an organization that helps with wildlife conservation. While in the Puerto Viejo area, you can hike through the Cahuita National Park or go on a chocolate tour. There are several beaches you can enjoy in the area including Playa Chiquita, Playa Negra, and Playa Cocles.
Puerto Viejo to San Jose 117km / 72 miles
From Puerto Viejo, you can get back to San Jose in just a couple of hours, but there is only one road between the two cities so I would recommend going back to San Jose the night before you depart or with plenty of leeway time just to ensure you make your flight.
The locals in Costa Rica are some of the friendliest and laid-back people you will meet. The main greeting in Costa Rica is “Pura Vida”. This translates to pure life in English, but its meaning is more than just a phrase. Pura Vida represents the Costa Rican culture and a way of life.
Simply, it means that people need to be grateful for what they have in life and not dwell on the negative. Locals strive to live a stress-free, laid-back life and their motto exemplifies how they live. A Costa Rica vacation is the perfect way to relax and recharge from the daily stress of life, and driving in Costa Rica is a fantastic way to explore this country at your own pace.
Recommended By Lora Pope from Explore With Lora here.
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