Arenal Volcano >> rafting, rappelling, hot springs + Monteverde Cloud Forest >> zip-lines, cloud forest, hiking + Tamarindo Beach >> surfing, turtle nesting, sand
We love this trip because we get to do a lot of active adventurous things while visiting the three ecological regions that Costa Rica is famous for – rainforest, cloud forest and tropical dry forest. The Volcano, Monteverde, and the beaches of Guanacaste are at the top of most “must see” lists and this route takes in all three highlights.
The Trip Plan
Arenal Volcano – When we first rolled into Arenal we thought we’d come to see a volcano (which we did) but didn’t have any idea how much fun “the adventure capital” of Costa Rica had in store for us.
Since then we’ve hiked to the extinct crater of Cerro Chato and swum in the lake there, tried Stand Up Paddle boards for the first time, rappelled dozens of waterfalls, hiked the lava fields of Arenal National Park, rafted white-water rivers through the jungle and seen way too much wildlife to even begin to list.
Arenal doesn’t have just have something for everyone, it’s got three or four things for everyone. When you’re done with the day’s activities there are hot springs with bars and restaurants where the dress code is bathing suit casual.
Backpacker’s dominate the main town of La Fortuna and there are dozens of hotels, resorts and ecolodges dotted around the countryside all aligned with views of the volcano. Some like Arenal Springs Resort are even situated around a source of volcanically heated mineral waters so you can walk down a path from your bungalow and into the hot springs. We take friends and family there when we’re trying to show off a little.
Everyone builds up an appetite while they’re out adventuring so there are at least a hundred restaurants to choose from in town and around the perimeter of the volcano (again all aligned facing the peak for optimal views).
We suggest starting out in Arenal because it’s only a couple of hours from SJO airport and as long as you don’t arrive too late it’s much more enjoyable to spend your first night in a hot spring than an airport hotel.
Monteverde Cloud Forest – as you’ve probably already guessed from the name cloud forest – Monteverde is way up in the mountains. What goes up, must come down – that’s why they built all those zip-lines. Seriously though, there are a lot of things like canopy zip-lines to do in addition to the amazing birdwatching and nature hikes in the world famous cloud forest reserve.
Besides the longest, highest and best zip-lines in Costa Rica Monteverde is famous for its canopy bridges. Spanning canyons and sometimes suspended between trunks they allow visitors to explore a whole other environment in the tree tops. One of the best short (but steep) waterfall hikes is near here at Viento Fresco where there are four unique cascades.
As is common in Costa Rica most of the Backpacker’s hostels cluster in downtown Santa Elena (the town nearest the reserve 5 km away) and the more upscale lodges, boutique hotels and small resorts are scattered in the surrounding forest. If you can get reservations, the Hidden Canopy Treehouses are a lifetime experience. There seem to be a concentration of Italian restaurants here but there are dozens of others as well.
There’s a clever transportation option between Arenal and Monteverde for folks who aren’t driving. You can horseback ride or mountain bike part way around Lake Arenal where they’ll pick you up in a boat and deliver you to waiting vans for the last leg up the mountains. There are alternate routes that include the boat and vans but not the horses or bikes and either way you cut about 100 km off the journey.
If you have a rental car get ready for a long bumpy drive all the way around the lake and up the mountain.
Tamarindo Beach – We really kinda pulled Tamarindo out of a hat for this one. There are dozens of other nearby Guanacaste beaches, each with their own personality and you can easily swap in whichever one(s) sound best to you.
Tamarindo is one good choice though. It’s was a lazy fishing village in the ’80s but it’s grown up into a first class tourist beach town. Downtown is bustling every night and there are dozens of beachfront dining and drinking establishments to choose from. If you’ve really worked up an appetite and are looking for a casual spot to satisfy it, Witch’s Rock Surf camp is famous for their burritos as big as your ass.
The surf out front of the whole esplanade is great for learning – consistent but not huge and there are some bigger breaks for the pros as you head either north or south.
You wouldn’t know it from all the first class bed and breakfasts, rental houses, boutique hotels, restaurants and bars but Playa Tamarindo sits smack in the middle of Marino Las Baulas National Park which protects the leather back sea turtle nesting areas to the north and south of town. Howler monkeys and other wildlife are common on the edges of town.
Maps & Driving Directions
CostaRicaGuide.com also publishes free printable maps of all of Costa Rica, and the hotels, resorts, restaurants and activities around Monteverde, Arenal and Tamarindo that you can download to use when you don’t have GPS or cell signals, and print out if you like to have something in your pocket (choose your maps here).
This itinerary works best if you plan ahead and fly into SJO in the Central Valley and fly out of LIR near Liberia which is about 4-5 hours closer to the Guanacaste beaches where you end up.
This is also a good trip plan to skip the rental car. Shuttles (private or shared) pick up at the airport after your long flight, drive the somewhat difficult to follow route for you, and drop you at the door of your Arenal hotel or lodge. Second, all of the tours and activities pick up from the hotels – many tours do not have parking and will not allow you to drive to the tour. How would you get back to the top of the rafting river to pick up your car anyway? Third, the boat option to Monteverde is beautiful and way more relaxing than the long winding drive around the lake. Finally there’s a lot you can walk to in Tamarindo, limited parking there and taxis are plentiful if you want to go a bit further. A car is mostly a liability on this itinerary.
Backpacker’s Travel Note – It’s definitely worth using one of the boat transfers for this itinerary. Even though it’s $40-$80 (depending on horse, bike or van only option) and the public bus is only about $6 total but it’s a huge pain. One of the worst connected bus routes in the country with multiple changes and lots of waiting around; besides mountain biking and boats are way more fun.
7 – 10 Days
We’re always going to tell you to stretch it to ten days or even twenty (heck we stretched it to twenty years) if you can. If your flights aren’t late arriving and early departing and you use shuttles or a rental car you can enjoy this itinerary if you spend at least two nights in each place – so seven days. If you want a relaxed pace you’ll have to drop a destination or add days.
By public bus we’d recommend a minimum of 10-11 days and you may well have to spend a night somewhere waiting for a connection the next morning. Monteverde is a pain to get in and out of on public transportation.
Does “More Fun Than Humanly Possible” Sound Good to You?
Fully accredited by the Costa Rican tourism board and accredited with an A+ rating and 100% positive customer reviews with the U.S. Better Business Bureau.
Your quote will come from Pacific Trade Winds S.A. located in Arenal Costa Rica, our good friends, business partners and sometimes co-stars in photos, videos and adventures here.