Costa Rica Road Trip
Plan an Eco-Adventure From Mountains to Sea
You'll need a true adventurer's spirit, plenty of driving confidence and a sturdy 4x4 to set off on a road trip through Costa Rica. Driving through this mecca of eco-tourism leaves travelers free to cruise around the country without depending on bus schedules or pricy air transfers. Drivers are urged to use caution, however, as many of the country's roads are unpaved, decorated with potholes and prone to flooding during the rainy season from May to November. Reserve a 4-WD vehicle before your trip through any of the standard international rental-car agencies and arrange to pick up your wheels in San Jose. Spend time exploring the capital if you're looking for city action, or immediately set off on your road trip to appreciate great Costa Rica ecotourism possibilities including swinging through the trees on a rainforest canopy tour, soaking in thermal hot springs and observing sea turtles in their natural beachfront habitat.
San Jose to Sarapiqui
Stay: Decompress at the Tirimbina Rainforest Lodge, a combo research center and eco-tourism lodge alongside the Sarapiqui River. Standard guest rooms are available alongside accommodations for researchers working in the forest and a more rustic field station.
Do: If you only have a day to explore the area, sign on for one of Tirimbina's tours to explore the great outdoors with an expert. For a sweet taste of Costa Rica, set off across suspension bridges through the jungle on a Chocolate Tour to learn about the artisanal creations using local cacao plants. An evening bat tour starts with a presentation on bats before meeting some of these winged creatures up-close and seeing how the researchers safely capture and release bats in the wild. Take a self-guided walk through the forest before heading off to your next destination.
Eat: Make reservations ahead of time for a flat-fee meal in the lodge's casual, open-air restaurant.
Sarapiqui to Arenal Volcano
1 hour, 20 minutes
Stay: The Arenal Observatory Lodge is easy to get to, just 20 minutes from the town of La Fortuna and less than 2 miles from the Arenal Volcano. This former Smithsonian Institute Research Center sits inside the Arenal National Park and features 48 rooms, most with stunning views of the volcano and the lodge's gardens.
Do: Head toward La Fortuna and from there continue on to Tabacon and the Arenal National Park. Arenal Volcano is one of the top active volcanoes in the world, offering wild displays of tumbling red-hot rocks and columns of ash nearly every day. You'll need a few days to fully appreciate the areas stunning displays of nature starting with hiking the forest trails and volcano-watching at Arenal National Park on the west side of the volcano. Get your adrenaline pumping with a canyoning adventure, rappelling in waterfalls and slot canyons with Pure Trek Canyoning in Fortuna. Then make reservations for a day pass to soak in the thermal waters at the swanky eco-friendly and carbon-neutral Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort where guests can soak in the natural springs and pools created by the mineral-rich underground Tabacon River.
Eat: The Lava Lounge Bar and Grill in La Fortuna offers grass-fed local beef burgers, fruit smoothies, tasty wraps and classic pub grub in the shadow of the Arenal Volcano.
Arenal Volcano to Monteverde Cloud Forest
Approximately 3 hours, but may vary
Stay: The Cloud Forest Lodge is high in the Tilaran Mountains on 70 acres of forest teeming with more than 180 different species of birds. Rooms are in cozy bungalows with private bathrooms, and the hotel offers plenty of hiking trails and activities around the property.
Do: No matter which way you approach it, the ride to Monteverde is a tough one, much of it over unpaved stretches of mountain road. Coming from Arenal Volcano area, you can access the site through Tilaran across the north side of Lake Arenal or by going through San Ramon and Puntarenas before heading north from Sardinal up the mountain. But one you arrive, it's clear that the trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest was well worth the effort. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve gets its name from its location, nearly 5,000 feet above sea level. The forest is an ecotourism paradise shrouded in clouds and filled with unique creatures including colorful quetzal birds, Baird's tapirs and more than 300 unique kinds of orchids. Get even closer to the unusual birds by crossing over the park's swaying rope bridges and soaring through the trees on a zip-line tour with the Original Canopy Tour.
Eat: After a day of swinging through the trees, stop at Sofia (beyond the turnoff for the Butterfly Farm in Cerro Plano) for a sweet cocktail and tasty food with plenty of guava, plantains and Latin American flair.
Monteverde to Playa Grande
Stay: Named for the beach's most popular residents, the Leatherback Sea Turtles, the Hotel Las Tortugas is the only hotel directly on the beach in Playa Grande with plenty of low-key eco-charm and cool amenities like canoes for rent to explore the nearby saltwater estuary.
Do: The trip down to the coast is steep and bumpy with potholes aplenty, but the reward is the long stretch of Guanacaste's Gold Coast, perfect for sunning, surfing and spotting sea turtles. Playa Grande is a protected sanctuary for the endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles who lay their eggs and build nests between October and March in the sloping dunes framing the beach. Between April and September, these eggs are hatched and the baby turtles begin their journey back to the sea. Head to the ranger station at Las Balulas National Park to arrange for a turtle tour. Take a short drive to Tamarindo for surfing lessons with the Tamarindo Surf School and spend a day or 2 catching some waves before preparing for your 5-hour journey back to San Jose.
Eat: The area's best restaurants seem to be concentrated in Tamarindo, but if you don't feel like making the drive, head to the Great Waltini's at the Hotel Bula Bula for fresh seafood in a casual open-air dining room.