The Ideal Costa Rica Itinerary: Nature, Culture and Adventure

Costa Rica offers experiences as diverse as its landscapes. This suggested 12-day itinerary from (very) frequent visitor Sunny lets you sample all of Costa Rica’s best: volcano hikes, cooking and salsa classes, wildlife viewing, and cultural immersion.


A group of hikers near Arenal Volcano in Ecuador. Photo © Sunny Fitzgerald

Since my first visit to Costa Rica in 2009, I’ve found myself repeatedly returning – more than 20 times. In addition to the pura vida vibes and tropical climate, every trip is an opportunity to experience a balance of nature, culture, and adventure.

Despite its small size, Costa Rica is big on variety. It covers just a tiny sliver of the Earth’s surface (0.03% – comparable to Denmark), yet is home to more than 10 climate zones, diverse landscapes, half a million species, 4% of the world’s biodiversity, and an abundance of activities. Here are some of my favorite recommendations for your Costa Rica itinerary.

Day 1: Coffee 'cupping' at an organic farm

Fend off travel fatigue and become a Costa Rica coffee connoisseur on a guided coffee cupping at Finca Rosa Blanca. A local expert will lead you through the organic farm, trekking along forested trails and pointing out butterflies, birds (more than 130 species have been spotted here), and other inhabitants en route to the coffee processing area.

You’ll learn about each step – from seed to bean to brew – before sitting down to a coffee cupping, a guided tasting that could, perhaps, more accurately be called a coffee sniff-and-slurp. To identify the various flavors and aromas in the coffee, you’ll be encouraged to put your table manners aside and get up close and personal with each cup.

Overnighting at the property is the ideal way to ease into your trip.

Distance: 6mi (9.5km), approximately 20 minutes, from Juan Santamaría International Airport.

Getting there: Rental car, taxi, or rideshare (such as Uber), or contact Finca Rosa Blanca to arrange a transfer.

Day 2: Forest bathing in San José

Some might tell you to skip San José, but I think that’s a mistake. The city has a lot to offer, including historic sites, artisan markets, a wide range of restaurants, events, and more. Save some time for a walking tour with San José City Striders and at least one culinary experience (try Indigenous cuisine at Sikwa, go on a food tour of the Central Market, have brunch at a farmers’ market, join a craft beer crawl, or visit open-air food court, Jardín de Lolita, for example). Then ground yourself on a meditative “forest bathing” journey with Manuela Siegfried of Sentir Natural in one of the city’s green spaces.

Don’t worry; you can keep your clothes on for this. The term 'forest bathing' comes from the Japanese practice of shinrinyoku which focuses on immersing in the forest atmosphere. Siegfried, the first certified forest therapy guide in Costa Rica, will lead you through a series of prompts designed to help you connect with the natural environment and yourself. You’ll notice the scents, sounds, and sights around you with renewed clarity. This activity is ideal at the beginning of your trip; you’ll carry a deeper appreciation with you – for the present moment and the environment – as you travel through Costa Rica.

An inspirational note left by a forest bathing instructor.
Note from Manuela after forest bathing. Image credit: Sunny Fitzgerald

Distance: Forest bathing is possible in a variety of places in and around San José.

Getting there: Rental car, taxi, rideshare, or contact Manuela to arrange a transfer.

Days 3-6: Salsa dancing, chocolate tasting, and night hiking in Sarapiqui

Sarapiqui is one of my favorite places on the planet, and it’s the perfect base for community-led experiences. Join the playful guides at Costa Rica Best Chocolate, a family-run farm, to learn about the process of chocolate-making and sample the sweet treats. Visit a local home for a cooking class and salsa lesson and leave with a belly full of comida tipica (traditional or typical food), sore cheeks from so many smiles, new skills, and new friends.

A Costa Rican chef teaching a cooking class in Sarapiqui, Costa Rico.
A local chef teaching us to cook Costa Rican food in Sarapiqui. Image credit: Sunny Fitzgerald

Then, experience the thrill of trekking into the forest after dark (accompanied by a guide) in search of red-eyed tree frogs, snakes, and other nocturnal wildlife. Standing under the stars, surrounded by lush vegetation while listening to the layered symphony of sounds is one of my most treasured moments, and it’s bound to be one of yours too.

This region is also a birdwatching paradise, thanks to conservation efforts by local projects, such as family-run Chilamate Rainforest Eco-Retreat, where you can wake to the sound of howler monkeys, spot frogs and lizards on your way to breakfast, and observe toucans and Great Green Macaws while sipping your morning coffee (for a chance to see more of the 520 species of birds here, you can also walk along some of the Costa Rican Bird Route).

Distance from San José: 56mi (90km), approximately two hours

Getting there: Rental car, bus, or contact Chilamate Rainforest Eco-Retreat to arrange a transfer

Where to stay: Chilamate Rainforest Eco-Retreat is one of my personal favorites, not just in Costa Rica, but in all of my travels. It always strives to do what’s best for the community and environment. It provides eco-friendly accommodations, knowledgeable guides, and engaging activities. And its food is fresh, locally sourced, and muy delicioso – I still crave those empanadas!

Days 7-8: Turtle watching in Tortuguero National Park

After making the long journey from Sarapiqui to Tortuguero by boat and trekking through muddy trails in the dark, I squealed like a small child when I saw giant sea turtles for the first time. The sight of these gentle, endangered giants reduced me to an awe-struck puddle, so if you’re a wildlife enthusiast too, I suggest including Tortuguero on your itinerary. The best time for turtle watching is July to October for Green Sea Turtles and Loggerhead Turtles, March-October for Hawksbill, and April-November for Leatherback.

A baby green sea turtle scurries towards the ocean in Tortuguero, Costa Rica.
A baby green sea turtle scurries towards the ocean in Tortuguero. Image credit: Getty Images / KenCanning

Distance from Sarapiqui: 65mi (105km), approximately 4-5 hours by boat or 2-3 hours by car/shuttle and boat.

Getting there: Rental car, private transfer, or shuttle to the La Pavona docks where you catch a boat to Tortuguero. You can also fly to Tortuguero from San Jose (and Arenal in the high season). Or take the adventurous route – a boat from Sarapiqui to Tortuguero (arrange in advance). Moving at a slower pace gives you the chance to scan for sloths, crocodiles, toucans, monkeys, and more along the waterways.

Days 9-12: Hot springs, volcano hiking, and Indigenous culture in Arenal

The Arenal area is known for outdoor adventures, and it’s the first place in the world where I tried ziplining and rappelling down a 200-foot waterfall. But my favorite activities here are less about adrenaline and more about immersion.

Hike the 1968 Trail with a guide and gain insight into the formation of the lava fields.

Connect with members of the Maleku tribe through cultural discussions, medicinal plant tours, and tribal ceremonies at Rancho Maleku Tafa Uríjif, and get a deeper understanding of the often overlooked cultural and spiritual aspects of this region.

Make the tastiest tortillas and gallo pinto (a rice and beans dish) alongside Doña Mara, a local chef who welcomes visitors into her kitchen for cooking lessons and a lot of laughs (arrange through GreenSpot Travel – Doña Mara is the mother of GreenSpot’s founder). Then cap off your Costa Rica adventure with some stargazing and a celebratory soak in the mineral-rich hot springs.

Distance: 43mi (69km), approximately one hour from Sarapiqui. Or arrange a boat and shuttle transfer for the 111mi (179km), 5-hour trip from Tortuguero to Arenal. Direct 30-minute flights from Tortuguero to Arenal are also an option during the high season (December-April). Connecting flights through San José are available year-round.

Getting there: Rental car, private transfer, or shuttle. Alternatively, you can book a half-day rafting tour from Sarapiqui that includes white-water rafting, lunch, and a shuttle to La Fortuna.

If you’ve got more time…

Consider extending your itinerary to include additional activities. Depending on your interests, you can go birdwatching in the cloud forests of Monteverde (the brilliantly-colored Resplendent Quetzal lives here), help track marine life in Gulfo Dulce or explore the jungles of the Osa Peninsula with Osa Wild, or head for the Pacific coast for some sunbathing and surfing. And if you can’t fit it all in on your first trip, do as I do: build a running list of activities for your next trip. I have a feeling you’ll want to return.

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