2 Costa Rica Itineraries That Limit Driving

While many destinations in Costa Rica are far off, a little careful planning can let you experience some of the country’s best attractions without spending too much time in the car. Below, we’ll give two itinerary options that limit drive time. These are seven-day itineraries but also would work for shorter trips. There is one for flying into San Jose Airport and another for those arriving at Liberia Airport.

2 Costa Rica Itineraries Limit Driving

Itinerary Option 1 – San Jose Airport

Summary

This itinerary has you flying in and out of San Jose Airport (SJO). SJO is located in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, near the country’s geographic center.

From the airport, you will first drive to the cloud forest of Monteverde (2.5 hours). After enjoying this unique ecosystem in the mountains, you will head to the central Pacific coast for some beach time (2.5 hours). At the end of your beach stay, it’s only a short 1.5-hour drive back to the airport.

 

Days 1-4: Arrive in San Jose. Drive to Monteverde to See the Cloud Forest.

Getting to Monteverde

After arriving at the busy Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), you will spend your first three nights in the tranquil cloud forests of Monteverde. Monteverde is only about a 2.5-hour drive from San Jose. Much of this is along major highways.

As long as your flight arrives by early afternoon, you will be able to pick up a rental car and make the drive the same day.

Check out our Rental Car Discount to save 10% through one of the most reputable rental agencies. Our readers get extras like a free second driver, free car seats for kids, a free cooler, and a free surf rack.

Tip: Be sure to avoid driving to Monteverde after dark (around 6:00 p.m. in Costa Rica). Although the roads getting to this remote destination have improved dramatically in recent years, the last stretch is best during daytime hours. This road is not well lit, narrow in parts, and has steep, mountainous terrain. For more information, read our post, Driving to Monteverde.

Driving to Monteverde
Route 606 to Monteverde – now paved but still narrow and mountainous

If you would prefer to stay overnight near the airport, you can get recommendations with our post, Best Hotels Near SJO Airport.

Monteverde: What to Expect

Monteverde is located at a high elevation along the Continental Divide, the point where the Atlantic and Pacific slopes converge. This gives it a uniquely cool climate compared to the rest of the country. Temperatures are still pleasant, though, in the 70s or 80s°F (21-26°C) during the day. Nights are slightly cooler, in the 60s°F (16-18°C).

While town may be sunny and warm, just a few minutes away, the thick forest may be enshrouded in a light mist. This can make for some beautiful scenery that you won’t find anywhere else.

Cloud Forest Mist Monteverde
The misty cloud forests of Monteverde

Monteverde is well developed for tourism and has accommodations for every budget. Some hotels are set right in the forest, taking advantage of the views. For recommendations, check out our post, Monteverde Hotel Guide.

Monteverde: Things to Do

Monteverde is a well-known ecotourism destination. In addition to hiking the cloud forest, you can visit wildlife exhibits to see butterflies, bats, and hummingbirds.

Zip-line facilities here are some of the most elaborate in the entire country. From high up on a zip-line cable, you can get amazing views of the vast forest and green valleys below. Hanging bridges are another way to take in the gorgeous scenery.

Coffee tours are a popular activity in Monteverde. These will give you a glimpse into Costa Rica’s rich farming culture.

Don Juan Coffee Tour
Learning about the roasting process on a coffee tour

For more information on visiting Monteverde, read our full destination guide, Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds.

Days 4-7: Head to the Beaches of the Central Pacific Coast.

Getting to Jaco

The closest beach destination to Monteverde on the central Pacific coast is Jaco. Jaco is about 2.5 hours from Monteverde. Then it’s only a 1.5 hour drive to SJO Airport after your stay.

Jaco: What to Expect & Things to Do

Jaco is one of Costa Rica’s largest beach towns. Restaurants, shops, tour operators, and surf shops line the busy main strip along the sand. Jaco has a fun, relaxed vibe that many people enjoy.

Playa Jaco
Hanging out on Jaco Beach

Although the main area of town is built up, there is plenty of nearby jungle to explore. ATV tours can take you into the peaceful countryside to hidden waterfalls. Adventure parks offer packages with zip lining, tram rides, waterfall rappelling, and horseback riding. There is also hiking in Carara National Park, a catamaran cruise to Tortuga Island, crocodile river tours, and of course, surfing.  

Aerial View Jaco Beach
View of Jaco Beach from the hills just outside town

The main beach in Jaco isn’t the most scenic but is still nice. Plus, you don’t have to stray far from town to discover some of the area’s other beautiful beaches.  

For more information on Jaco, read our destination guide, Jaco: Costa Rica’s Booming Beach Town.

Tip: If you’d prefer a quieter stay, there are several options for smaller beach communities to the south. Playa Hermosa, Esterillos, and Playa Bejuco are just a short drive away.

Itinerary Option 2 – Liberia Airport

Summary

This itinerary has you flying in and out of Liberia Airport (LIR). LIR is located in northwestern Costa Rica, in an area known as Guanacaste.

From the airport, you will drive inland to the wildlife-rich town of Bijagua (1 hour). After spotting animals like monkeys and sloths, and visiting an incredible waterfall, you’ll then head to the coast (1.5-2.5 hours). Guanacaste has some amazing beaches that we’ll highlight below. After the beach, it is just a short drive back to the airport (30 minutes to 1.5 hours).

Days 1-4: Arrive in Liberia. Drive to Bijagua to Experience Lush Rainforest and Waterfalls.

Getting to Bijagua

From Liberia Airport, you will drive about one hour inland to Bijagua. The drive is along a major highway at first, then a smooth paved road.

Bijagua: What to Expect & Things to Do

Bijagua is a small town that is best known for the nearby Rio Celeste Waterfall. This is a gorgeous bright-blue waterfall that gets its color from volcanic minerals in the soil. Travelers visiting other parts of Costa Rica often plan a quick stop here to see the Rio Celeste. However, we think there is plenty to do in Bijagua to fill at least a few nights.

Rio Celeste Waterfall
The impressive Rio Celeste Waterfall

Aside from the waterfall, the area has lush rainforest that is filled with wildlife. A few different nature reserves have hiking where you can see animals like monkeys and sloths as well as many types of tropical birds.

Three-toed mom and baby sloth
Mom and baby sloth in Bijagua

Other activities are river tubing, horseback riding, frog night tours, and farm tours.

You could also easily take a day trip to see Arenal Volcano. La Fortuna/Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. It’s about a one-hour drive from Bijagua.

Even though it’s a very small town, Bijagua still has several accommodations to choose from. Quaint B&Bs, ecolodges, vacation rentals, and even high-end hotels are all options.

For more information about visiting Bijagua, read our destination guide, Bijagua: A Gateway to the Rio Celeste.

Days 4-7: Head to the beaches of Guanacaste.

Getting to Guanacaste

After exploring the rainforest, you will get to enjoy some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful (and swimmable) beaches.

Swimming beach Guanacaste
The serene Playa Dantita in Guanacaste

The beaches of Guanacaste Province are located between 1.5-2.5 hours from Bijagua, depending on which town you stay in. Tamarindo, which we recommend below, is about 2.5 hours from Bijagua.

For your return to Liberia Airport at the end of the trip, you’ll be about one-hour away. This will allow you to make the drive the same day as your flight without needing an overnight near the airport.

Tamarindo: What to Expect & Things to Do

Tamarindo is Guanacaste’s biggest beach town. It has a laid-back surfer vibe and a very hip feel. In and around the center of town near the beach, you’ll find upscale cafes and restaurants, trendy boutiques, and many options for accommodations.

Beachside restaurant Tamarindo
Beachside dining in Tamarindo

Some hotels are located right off the sand, while others are a short stroll or drive away. A community to the south called Playa Langosta offers even more options for accommodations in a quieter setting.

Most people visiting Tamarindo spend their time surfing or exploring the area’s many gorgeous beaches. But there are other things to do. Activities include catamaran tours, diving, snorkeling, horseback riding, ATV tours, and zip lining.

For more information on activities and accommodations, check out our destination guide, Tamarindo: Where Paradise Meets Convenience.

Other Beach Towns in Guanacaste

For those looking for a smaller beach destination, you have several options. Below we link to our full posts with additional detail.

Playa Hermosa (Guanacaste): A quieter beach town in Northern Guanacaste with many condo rentals. The main beach has calmer water for swimming.

Playa Potrero: One of the more affordable beach towns in Guanacaste. It has great access to several different beaches.

Playa Flamingo: An upscale destination with a gorgeous white-sand beach.

Playa Conchal: Not a town per se, but Conchal Beach has several high-end resorts that have been built up along its beautiful turquoise water.

Playa Avellanas: An off-the-beaten-path beach town with surfing and a super laid-back vibe.

Playa Negra Guancaste
Playa Negra, a surfing beach just south of Playa Avellanas

Conclusion

If you’re looking to avoid long drives on your visit to Costa Rica, these itineraries should give you some ideas for how to structure your trip. We’ve tried to limit drive time as much as possible, all while ensuring you can still see everything that Costa Rica has to offer.

Have a question about planning a trip to Costa Rica that limits driving? Ask us below.

Looking for more information to plan your visit? Check out these posts:

Family Travel: If you’re traveling with kids, be sure to check out our Family Travel articles for more tips on making an itinerary, packing, what to do, and more.

Renting a Car in Costa Rica: Clearing Up the Confusion – Learn about Costa Rica’s required insurance and pitfalls to avoid when renting a car.

Best Time to Visit Costa Rica: Is it worth visiting during rainy season? Provides practical information about Costa Rica’s seasons and when is a good time to come.

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9 Comments

  1. You do such a great job making the trip a breeze! My daughters and I would love to come back and try the Liberia route. I was initially worried about driving in Costa Rica on the shoulder of the rainy season, but we did a lot of it and it was easy with our 4-wheel drive that we got through your referral company. They were fabulous to deal with, also. I would recommend it to anyone feeling a little anxious. I was shocked to see the last part of the road to Monteverde paved! That stretch wasn’t bad but it sure looks great now. We LOVED Costa Rica! Thanks Matt and Jenn!

  2. Hi Jenn and Matt,

    I’m looking into traveling with a total of 5 adults and a 3yr old. I wanted your thoughts on an itinerary that included the a cloud forest and the rainforest for a few days and then the beach area for a few days. We can only find direct flights from Minneapolis into Liberia starting December 4th. Any thoughts, recommendations would be wonderful. Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Amanda, You could do the Liberia Airport itinerary we have here, but add Monteverde for cloud forest. The order I would do is LIR to Monteverde to Bijagua to Guanacaste. If you’d like, you could swap Bijagua for La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano but that will add some driving since it’s a longer drive from Monteverde to La Fortuna due to road conditions. I hope that gives you some ideas!

  3. Hi Jenn & Matt, Thanks for providing incredible travel resources. How would you modify this itinerary if we start our trip LIR > Samara then inland. Do you recommend Rio Celeste/La Fortuna/Arenal over Rincon De La Vieja for a first time visit? Thanks!

    1. Hi Jennifer, We would do La Fortuna/Arenal for a first time visit along with Samara since there are so many choices for things to do. Rincón is nice but there’s not a lot there outside the couple of hotels/resorts, and it’s remote. Hope that helps!

  4. Hi Jenn and Matt,
    Never been to Costa Rica before but reading through your website certainly makes me want to experience it! My teenaged kids have a week long school break starting November 13, 2021. Your Liberia Airport itinerary would allow us to see both the mountains and the beach without spending too much time driving but I was wondering about the weather at that time of the year. From what I could read on your site, it’s towards the end of the rainy season but if the “dry weather switch” flips a little later this year, we could be in for a wet vacation. What do you think of traveling in that area November 13 to 20? The Caribbean Coast could be a safer bet but it did not seem to me to be offering as much as this itinerary. Looking forward to reading your advice on the matter. Thanks!

    1. Hi Louis, The Liberia itinerary is one of your safest bets for decent weather in mid November. Guanacaste is one of the drier regions in general so it’s always a good one during rainy season. Of course if there is a tropical rainfall event (an onda) coming through, it doesn’t really matter where you are, but putting those aside, Guanacaste is a good pick. Bijagua may be rainy but most of the mountains will be that time of year. You should still have some nice days. Hope that helps!

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