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Self-drive Costa Rica: Coast to coast adventure

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Much of the enjoyment of self-drive in Costa Rica is getting off the beaten track and onto the dirt tracks and rural roads where you can stop to explore at leisure. Begin your adventure among the mangrove forests of the wildlife-filled Tortuguero reserve. Discover the mysterious bird-filled cloud forest with its misty landscape of ferns and orchids, scramble over hanging bridges suspended over waterfalls and forest in the shadow of Arenal volcano and end your visit on a Pacific beach.

Costa Rica is a peaceful and stable country and its people are among the friendliest in Latin America. The comprehensive network of roads means that the national parks with their extensive trails are always accessible and self-drive is the perfect way for independent-minded, confident drivers and companions to explore.

In line with its respect for the great outdoors, Costa Rica has been at the vanguard of adventure tourism, with lots of activities on offer from zip-lining to white-water rafting. The tiny country is bursting with an extraordinary diversity of landscapes, flora and fauna.

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in San José and transfer to your hotel.

Day 2

Drive and boat to Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast.

Day 3

Wildlife spotting excursions from your lodge.

Day 4

Drive to Sarapiqui.

Day 5

Explore Tirimbina Reserve. Drive to Monteverde in the cloud forest.

Day 6

At leisure to discover forest trails and ride on a zip line.

Day 7

Drive from Monteverde to Arenal volcano area.

Day 8

Visit La Fortuna Falls and the hanging bridges.

Day 9

Discover Caño Negro wildlife.

Day 10

Drive to Rincón de la Vieja.

Day 11

At leisure to raft, hike or go horse-riding.

Day 12

Drive to Guanacaste on the Pacific coast.

Day 13

At leisure on the beach.

Day 14

Drop off car at Liberia airport and take international flight home.

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What our experts say

If you consider yourself a confident driver and you love to get out on the open road and explore off-the-beaten track spots then this holiday would be a fantastic choice for you. The feeling of adventure you get from driving from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific is exhilarating and I think it sums up the adventurous spirit of Costa Rica.

Hannah

Hannah Waterhouse

Travel Consultants

Places visited on this holiday

Self-drive Costa Rica: Coast to coast adventure

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San Jose, central highlands and central valleys
Central San José
Costa Rica’s busy capital, San José, is a city on the move, where the choking traffic and crowds are mitigated by the eager friendliness of the people. There are some good museums and excellent restaurants but no colonial core: it’s a modern place, full of offices, North American style bars and malls - many US citizens visit or are resident in the country and their cultural influence is strong. The landscapes around however are delicious, both in the rolling coffee country of the highlands and in the fertile central valley, watched over by the smouldering Poás and Irazú volcanoes.
When's the best time to go to San Jose and central highlands?

If good weather is your priority, choose the dry season Dec - Apr when there is plenty of sun. The green (i.e. rainy) season is quieter in terms of number of visitors. San José, at 1,150m, has a pleasant climate with temperatures averaging 15-25°C.

What's the official language of San Jose and central highlands?

Spanish.

How do I get local currency in San Jose and central highlands?

Colón. Notes can be withdrawn from the many ATMs using a UK credit or debit card. You may have to authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited to amounts lower than in the UK. US dollars cash can be exchanged in banks too.

What's the time difference between San Jose and central highlands?

GMT -5 hours.

What places combine well with San Jose and central highlands?

A visit to the Caribbean or Pacific coasts for a beach wind down; Arenal, in the north, the most spectacular volcano; Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, for excellent bird watching. There are light aircraft flights from San José airport to many destinations. Costa Rica is a tiny country so road journeys, even winding ones through the highlands, are relatively short. Some roads are in good condition while others are poor and  require 4WD vehicles

How do I get to San Jose and central highlands?

There is a direct flight from London Gatwick to San José (11 hrs) as well as non-direct flights via US and European hubs.

What are the cultural events in San Jose and central highlands?
International Arts Festival: San José, Mar. Music, dance, film art exhibitions.
Independence Day: San José, 15 Sep. music and dancing in the streets starting the evening before.
El Tope: San José, 26 Dec. A horse parade through the city is followed by fairs, fireworks and bull-running south of the city.

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Caribbean coast
Costa Rica Caribbean Coast
Eastwards from San José and the coffee-growing highlands sprawl the banana plantations of the sultry coastal plains fronting the Caribbean Sea. Long isolated from the rest of the Latin-influenced country, this region has a predominately English-speaking, Afro-Caribbean culture: a very informal, relaxed atmosphere pervades. Here there are exquisite volcanic beaches at Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. 

Accessible only by boat is the partly submerged Tortuguero National Park, with its network of canals, lagoons and swamps defined by a profusion of tangled tropical vegetation. It’s alive with several species of monkey, iguanas, sloths, river otters, poison dart frogs and hundreds of species of birds.

When's the best time to visit Costa Rica's Caribbean coast?

It’s hot all year round (often over 30°C). It rains here on and off all year round, with drier periods in Feb - Mar and Aug - Oct. Turtle watching season at Tortuguero is Mar - Oct. 

What's the official language of Costa Rica's Caribbean coast?

Spanish, English.

How do I get local currency in Costa Rica's Caribbean coast?
Colón. Notes can be withdrawn from ATMs using a UK credit or debit card. You may have to authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited to amounts lower than in the UK. US dollars cash can be exchanged in banks too. There are ATMs in Limón but not elsewhere along the coast.
What's the time difference between Costa Rica's Caribbean coast and UK?

GMT -5 hours.

What places combine well with Costa Rica's Caribbean coast?
Arenal, in the north, the most spectacular volcano; Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, for excellent bird-watching. Costa Rica is a tiny country so road journeys, even winding ones through the highlands, are relatively short. Some roads are in good condition while others require 4WD vehicles. 
How do I get to Costa Rica's Caribbean coast?

There are light aircraft flights to Tortuguero from San José. Otherwise travel is by road (and boat to Tortuguero); and along Highway 32 to Limón on the Caribbean coast, 115 km. 

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Monteverde and the cloud forest
Monteverde and the Cloud Forest
Native cloud forest has mostly been removed from the rolling Cordillera de Tilarán mountain range in Costa Rica’s northwest. Happily the protected Monteverde Reserve conserves a lush environment of humid vegetation so rich in wildlife that it has become a base for naturalists from all over the world.


The magical forest is frequently swathed in mist, which encourages the growth of mosses and ferns which add to the fairyland feel. The many indigenous mammals and birds can thrive undisturbed, and observation of many of these is more or less guaranteed. The park is the habitat of the Resplendent quetzal, and has the largest number of orchid varieties in the world.

When's the best time to visit Monteverde?

At 1,400m and frequently swathed in mist, Monteverde has cooler temperatures than the lowlands. It can rain at any time but most precipitation falls between May - Nov. This “green” season is quieter in terms of visitor numbers. The best months for bird-watching are Feb - Apr.

What's the official language of Monteverde?

Spanish.

How do I get local currency in Monteverde?

Colón. Notes can be withdrawn from the many ATMs in San José and other major towns a UK credit or debit card. You may have to authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited to amounts lower than in the UK. US dollars cash can be exchanged in banks and money exchanges (casas de cambio) too. Obtain your local currency before heading off to Monteverde.

What's the time difference between Monteverde and UK?

GMT -5 hours.  

What places combine well with Monteverde?

A visit to the Pacific coast for a beach wind down; Arenal, in the north, the most spectacular volcano in Costa Rica (2-3 hours by road). Costa Rica is a tiny country so road journeys, even winding ones through the highlands, are relatively short. Some roads are in good condition while others require 4WD vehicles.

How do I get to Monteverde?
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is reached by a 3hr drive from San José along the main paved Panamerican Highway, followed by a 1.5 hour uphill drive along a bumpy and winding all weather road. 
What are the cultural events in Monteverde?

Monteverde Music Festival: Monteverde Institute, Jan - Apr. Informal sessions by jazz and classical artists.

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Arenal and the north
Arenal Volcano
The pleasingly conical volcano Arenal rises from a skirt of thick forest and the waters of Lake Arenal. Once famous for its eruptions of molten lava, it erupts infrequently nowadays (nothing since 2010) The landscape here is ruggedly beautiful and comprises one of Costa Rica’s many conservation areas, protecting a territory of amazing biodiversity which contains half the known species of birds, mammals and reptiles in the country. It is also popular among adventure-activities enthusiasts, and visits are serviced in the formerly dozy town of La Fortuna. Cloud forest, waterfalls, caves and thermal pools – this is a diverse and captivating region.
When's the best time to visit Arenal?

If good weather is your priority, choose the dry season Dec - Apr when there is plenty of sun. The green (i.e. rainy) season is quieter in terms of number of visitors. La Fortuna, at 1,150m, has a pleasant climate with temperatures averaging 15-25°C.

What's the official language of Arenal?

Spanish.

How do I get local currency in Arenal?

Colón. Notes can be withdrawn from ATMs in La Fortuna using a UK credit or debit card. You may have to authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited to amounts lower than in the UK. US dollars cash can be exchanged in banks too. If you are not going to the town of La Fortuna, bring your cash with you from San José.

What's the time difference between Arenal and UK?

GMT -5 hours.  

What places combine with Arenal?

A beach wind-down at Manuel Antonio on the Pacific coast, or Nosara on the Nicoya Peninsula: each 5hrs by road; Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, for excellent bird watching, 3 hours by boat and bumpy road. Costa Rica is a tiny country so road journeys, even winding ones through the highlands, are relatively short. Some roads are in good condition while others require 4WD vehicles.

How do I get to Arenal?

Fly by light aircraft from San José or travel by road from the capital, 3.5 hours.

Speak to an expert Travel Consultant or send us your enquiry today.

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Self-drive Costa Rica: Coast to coast adventure

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