Road trips in Costa Rica: three routes exploring nature, culture and coastlines

Hit the road for beaches, turtles and off-the-beaten-track experiences in Central America’s natural playground.

From lush green rainforests teeming with wildlife to pristine white-sand beaches, explore the staggering versatility of Costa Rica on these three routes.

By Cassia Geller
Published 3 Nov 2022, 12:11 GMT

From the smouldering peaks of its volcanic ranges to the pura vida vibe of its Caribbean coast, every corner of Costa Rica promises breathtaking scenery and glorious, riotous wildlife.

Whether beach-hopping or hiking, seeking surf or serenity, visitors will get up close and personal with nature in one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth. Although small (at just 19,730 sq miles it's around a fifth the size of the UK), the eco-tourism trailblazer has 28 national parks, over 300 beaches and more than 500,000 species of wildlife. And its digestible size means travellers can take in a diverse spread of regions, climates, cultures and activities in a two-week trip. 

Kicking off in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, the following road trip routes take in the county’s most impressive sights, with a beach-based, nature-focused or far-flung focus depending on preference.

Look out for a glimpse of the brightly coloured toucans that can be found enjoying the ...

Look out for a glimpse of the brightly coloured toucans that can be found enjoying the varied landscapes of Costa Rica.

Photograph by Exoticca

1. For natural immersion

You don’t have to travel far from San José for your first hit of tropical wildlife, but the further you go on this itinerary, the more wild and wonderful things get. 

First stop: Tortuguero — literally ‘place of turtles’. Driving east from San José through the forests of Braulio Carrillo National Park, you’ll hit the top of the country’s Caribbean coast, and Tortuguero National Park. Expect boat rides and crocodile spottings along its canals, monkeys swinging through the rainforest and, in summer, turtles nesting (and later hatching) on the beach by night.

From Tortuguero, cross back to the country’s highlands and La Fortuna. Here you’ll find hikes, horse-rides and volcanic hot springs — all in the shadow of Volcán Arenal (a 5,358ft ascent). Travel around Lake Arenal and down to Monteverde, one of the last areas of preserved primary cloud forest in Central America and best experienced via hanging bridges and canopy tours that take you zip-lining through the treetops. 

Once back on the ground, it’s less than four hours along the coast to Manuel Antonio National Park — an area of pristine beaches and crystal waters alive with coral reef and dolphins, and bordered by a jungle teeming with monkeys, sloths, birds and insects.

Left: Top:

Turtles at the Tortuguero National Park.

Right: Bottom:

The primary cloud forests and rushing waterfalls of Monteverde are best experienced via hikes, hanging bridges and canopy tours.

photographs by Exoticca

2. For beach life

Turn west to Guanacaste for a blissful beach break to round off the trip. This route also takes in the gasp-inducing treescapes and tiny turtles of Tortuguero, Monteverde and Arenal above, but instead of heading south to Manuel Antonio, heads instead to the coastal province of Guanacaste. Just north of Nicoya — named one of the world’s five blue zones for its residents’ remarkable longevity and fiddle-fit health — Guanacaste is all about spectacular sunsets, world-class surf and easy-going beach towns.

One such town is Tamarindo, a jewel in Costa Rica’s ‘gold coast’. The popular spot is home to some of the country’s best beaches, from picturesque white-sand stretches to surfing hotspots, almost all well placed to catch the areas’ celebrated sunsets. It’s also a prime destination for sea-based adventure, either snorkelling, dolphin-spotting, catamaran tours and boat safaris through the Tamarindo Estuary.

Experience sunset from the palm fringed beaches of Bahia Drake (Drakes Bay) on the Osa Peninsula.

Experience sunset from the palm fringed beaches of Bahia Drake (Drakes Bay) on the Osa Peninsula.

Photograph by Exoticca

3. For a great escape

Finally, for those who want to get away from it all, there’s even more to experience when you take this itinerary beyond Manuel Antonio’s protected jungle. Travelling south past the photogenic whale-tail beach at Uvita, it’s less than a four-hour drive to the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica’s south-westernmost tip.

A far-flung hideout of secluded beaches, rainforest and mangroves, with a smattering of villages and elegant ecolodges, Osa is unquestionably off the beaten track. Here you’ll find the lowland rainforests of Corcovado National Park, where monkeys, tapirs and jaguars roam freely. Close by, you’ll find Caño Island, a biological reserve and pre-Columbian site prime for exploring, snorkelling and scuba-diving amid colourful coral reefs. Sample Costa Rican cuisine at Drake Bay village and, among magnificent nature and countless chances to kick back in a hammock, you may well find it very hard to leave.  

Plan your trip 

These routes are highlights to Costa Rica tours planned by adventure specialist, Exoticca. Its experts personally curate all-inclusive tours to incredible destinations across the globe, taking care of the flights, transfers, accommodation, guides, excursions, and activities. Trips depart to Costa Rica from London, Dublin and Birmingham. Exoticca seek to make trips simple and stress-free so you can focus on the adventuring. 

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