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.
Itinerary Option 1 – San Jose Airport
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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