Costa Rican Adventures: Daring Thrills and Scenic Extremes

Costa Rica may be known for its thrills, but on a scale of mild to mind-blowing, not all adventure tours are created equal.

This Costa Rican adventure itinerary is a wild romp through the most heart-pounding, toe-curling, exhilarating encounters the country has to offer. From plunging head-first off a nearly 500-foot bungee tower, to flying Superman-style through the cloud forest, to tackling Class IV whitewater rapids, to cliff-jumping over waterfalls, to testing your mettle on movie-worthy surf, this 10-day itinerary is packed full of electrifying experiences and authentic Costa Rican adventures.

Only true adrenaline junkies need apply.

Day 1: Overnight in San José

Even before your plane touches down, even as you descend through the clouds and catch your first glimpse of Costa Rica – of craggy mountains and smoking volcano, of sprawling valley and waving palm fronds – you know that something special awaits. Something tropical. Something exotic. And something unequivocally heart-pounding.

Welcome to Costa Rica! If your plane arrives late morning / early afternoon, you’ll have plenty of time to explore the area. Our top pick: Poás Volcano, Costa Rica’s most visited national park and home to the world’s second-largest volcanic crater, as well as fumaroles, lagoons, and otherworldly cloud forest.

If Poás isn’t in the cards, head into downtown San José and explore the historic National Theatre and your pick of museum; the Precolumbian Gold Museum is located below the theatre, and the National Museum and Jade Museum and within a few blocks.

Travel time: Airport to Poás Volcano National Park, about 1 hour
Transportation: Here’s the catch: There’s just one public bus to Poás (company: Grupo Tuasa), and it leaves Alajuela (airport location) at 9 a.m. (return trip at 2:30 p.m.; verify before planning). The alternatives: Rent a car and drive yourself; hire a private driver (about $80 round-trip); or take a taxi (about $40 per way, although you might have a tough time finding a ride back down the mountain!).

Day 2: Rip-Roaring Adventure en Route to Arenal

Suit up for adventure, because your guides are ferrying you to Costa Rica’s most thrilling challenge: a 140-foot, thundering waterfall. You may think you’re getting wet and wild as you rappel down the monster cascade, carefully picking your foot- and hand-holds, but the real challenge comes after you take the plunge from waterfall into deep pool, and swim your way to shore.

Next up, you’re faced with a terraced series of cliff jumps. Yes, cliff jumps! You’ll start off with the wimpy 10-foot technical jump, before transferring to the Big Daddy, 30-foot plunge off another waterfall. As you transition from waterfall to waterfall, you’re climbing, you’re hiking, you’re floating, you’re swimming; you’re making your way through a rustic river canyon – an incredibly lush and scenic spot that only Costa Rica’s most adventurous will ever see.

If you finish in one piece, your guides will treat you to a much-deserved lunch at a Costa Rican typical restaurant, before driving the final 45 minutes to La Fortuna.

Dial it Down: If you’re not quite up for this level of adventure right of the bat, or if you’re traveling with younger kids, then dial back the intensity level on a whitewater rafting adventure connection. Choose from the Class II-III Rio Balsa (appropriate for kids 10+) or the Class III-IV Sarapiquí River (rafters 13+).

Travel time: 9 hours, including adventure
Transportation: An adventure connection tour guide will pick you up at your San José/Alajuela hotel, and you’ll drive for about two hours before reaching the waterfall. From there, it’s tour time. Afterward, it’s just another 45 minutes to La Fortuna.

La Fortuna, the beloved adventure capital of Costa Rica, sits at the base of the towering Arenal Volcano, proud owner to one of the world’s most perfect (and picture-perfect) volcanic cones. While the volcano’s once fiery activity has calmed significantly, Arenal is still one of the hottest destinations in Costa Rica, thanks to its relaxing hot springs, adventure activities, and stunning scenery.

Day 3: Going Big in the Adventure Capital

There’s a reason why La Fortuna is dubbed “the adventure capital of Costa Rica” – it’s an adventure from morning until night! Literally.

Start your day with an early morning hike along Arenal’s famed hanging bridges, a two-mile trail (including 16 suspended bridges) through flourishing rainforest. (Tip: Visit early to see more birds.) Next up: a hike to the beautiful and roaring La Fortuna Waterfall, where you’ll descend nearly 500 steps (later to ascend, so save your energy!) to view a roaring waterfall that tumbles into a baby-blue pool. Take a swim in the river below, then make your way back up to the entrance.

After lunch, you’ll round out the day with a leisurely hike through Arenal Volcano National Park. As you traverse ancient lava fields and look to the trees to spot exotic fauna, keep your ears open; if you’re lucky, you’ll hear the distant hiss and booms of gas and ash, erupting out of the coned behemoth! Since the park’s mostly flat trails aren’t strenuous, this is a great way to wind down a day of nonstop activity.

Transportation: It’s hard to pack this much activity into one day, with your own transportation, without anyone keeping you to schedule. Make the most of your time by booking a combo tour (today’s schedule is offered by area favorite, Desafio Adventures) to save some hassle, if not money.

Day 4: Decompress. Relax. Soak.

You’ve had a few solid days of serious adventure, so now we’re recommending some sloth. Delicious, relaxing sloth. Of the human variety.

Today, head to your choice of hot springs (get the lunch or dinner package): Tabacon, the most iconic and idyllic (and expensive, at $85+ per person); Baldi, a mix of tranquil hot springs and kid-friendly water park; Eco Termales, a small and more sophisticated affair; The Springs, a very upscale and luxe complex (with a super-value, ~$60 two-day hot springs pass); or any of the other dozen hot springs in the area. Then, do nothing but soak, play (several of the parks have water slides), and drink at the hot spring swim-up bars.

Tip: Choose a hotel with hot springs, and you can roll the cost of the hot springs right into your room.

Extra Days in Arenal?: Adrenaline junkies, if you have a few extra days in the adventure capital of Costa Rica, plenty of thrills are on deck: Venado Caverns, Whitewater Rafting, Canyoneering, Ziplines, Río Celeste, and Cerro Chato (a badass day hike, if there ever was one!), among them.

Day 5: Across the Lake to Monteverde

Monteverde and Arenal may be close as the crow flies, but it’s always an adventure getting from one to the other. An iconic van-boat-van transfer is standard fare, but true adventurers can go big with a horseback trek or mountain biking extravaganza – both guided (your bags are transferred separately, no worries).

Welcome to Monteverde, a mountaintop hideaway straight out of fairy tales. It’s an enclave of misty cloud forests and roaring rivers, of old-fashioned cheese and handmade ice cream, of sloths hanging above the road and monkeys howling in the distance. It’s a paradise of emerald-covered everything – of a million shades of green, each worthy of its own creatively named crayon color. And did we mention the ziplines?

Travel Time: On horseback, you’ll make the trip in about 5 hours (including a snack break); if you’re tackling the hardcore mountain biking adventure, budget 8 hours. For a car-boat-car trip, you’re looking at about 3 hours. Budget 3.5 hours for a drive in your rental car (or private driver). A shared shuttle takes about 4-4.5 hours.
Optional: If you have the energy, book a Night Hike tonight at one of the local reserves (Monteverde, Santa Elena, Cerro Plano, or the Children’s Eternal Rainforest).

At the very end of a meandering dirt road, sits the hilltop town of Monteverde, a cloud forest enclave with an Alpine feel. Founded by Quakers in the 1950s, what was once mountaintop pastureland is today a paradise of nature reserves, coffee and cheese production, wildlife (and lots of it!), and emerald-colored everything. You don’t know green until you’ve seen the many shades and hues of Monteverde!

Day 6: High Adventures in the Cloud Forest

You may think you know adventure, but Monteverde adventure is a whole other ballgame. Monteverde Extremo Park is as adrenaline-packed as it comes, bundling thrilling zipline (cables up to 3,400 feet long and 600 feet high) and a Superman zipline (fly belly-down and head first)

You may think you know adventure, but Monteverde adventure is a whole other ballgame. Monteverde Extremo Park is as adrenaline-packed as it comes, bundling thrilling zipline (cables up to 3,400 feet long and 600 feet high) and a Superman zipline (fly belly-down and arms-splayed, just like your favorite superhero!), with bungee jumping (the highest bungee in Central America!), an extreme Tarzan swing (free-fall from 470 feet), rappelling, and even a new subterranean tunnel cable. Whew!

Day 7: Tamer Cloud Forest Sojourns

The day begins with a morning hike through Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, a 765-acre private cloud forest. The morning light filters through the forest canopy, and dew-covered orchids, epiphytes and dazzling mosses adorn every tree, every bridge, every stone, every and surface. Be on the lookout for hummingbirds (30 species of them!), toucans, monkeys, coatis and kinkajous. And if the day is fortuitous (and the season right), you may spot resplendent quetzals on your walk (best months: April and May).

In the afternoon, head to Selvatura Adventure Park for hanging bridges and an aerial tram ride (incredible views; bring your good camera!). Also on offer: a canopy tour, Superman zipline, butterfly and hummingbird gardens, and more. You can build your own afternoon, suited to your specific interests (and adventure level).

Day 8: White Waters, Gold Coast

Take advantage of your last hours in the mountains (and your time in Costa Rica), and choose a final adventure connection to get you from Monteverde to Tamarindo. This time, you’re whitewater rafting on the Class III-IV Tenorio River, one of Costa Rica’s most famous!

Not only will you and your raft-mates take on foaming river and mini-falls, but you’ll float through one of the most spectacular river canyons you’ve ever seen. We’re talking emerald mosses, hanging epiphytes, draping vines, and flowers everywhere, not to mention, many opportunities to spot wildlife swinging through the trees or stopping for a drink at the river.

The tour winds down with the greatest thrill of all: a 10-foot drop down the spectacular Cascabel waterfall! You’ll grab a hard-earned lunch before being ferried off to Tamarindo, where you’ll witness the day’s denouement: a spectacular Pacific Coast sunset.

Dial it Down: If you’re traveling with younger kids, swap out Class III-IV whitewater rafting for a Class I-II safari float down the Tenorio River. The 8-hour tour is good for kids 10+, and will deliver you to Tamarindo in time to catch the sunset.

Travel time: An adventure connection from Monteverde to Tamarindo takes about 8 hours. If you’re driving, budget at least 3 hours.

This Gold Coast mini-metropolis is all about great surf, sand, food and nightlife. That makes Tamarindo a hotspot for surfers, partiers and bohemians, but that doesn’t make bonafide adults shy away: Tamarindo and nearby Langosta are also wonderful for couples, kids, and anyone who loves nature (nesting turtles!), calm beaches, and lots of amenities. Just watch out for the crocs.

Day 9: Hanging 10 in Tamarindo

Don your suit and slap on the sunblock, because you’re in for a full morning of surfing! Tamarindo’s legendary waves are perfect for beginner and intermediate surfers, while advanced boarders head out to challenging Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s Point – brag-worthy waves immortalized in the movie Endless Summer II.

In the afternoon, board a catamaran cruise for sailing, snorkeling, and sunset-watching. (Not to mention, unlimited boozing and buffet-grazing.) The boat will anchor for a few hours – choose between snorkeling the bay (reel fish, dolphins, rays and reef sharks are common sightings), kayaking, or sun-bathing on the white-sand beach – before heading out onto the water for a front-row seat to a blazing sun dipping over the horizon. It’s unforgettable! Marlin del Rey and Blue Dolphin are both popular choices for sunset cruising.

Day 10: Fly Home

Today, you head back to Liberia (or San José) for your flight home. Adiós! We hope you had a great time.

Travel Time: Budget 1.5 hours to drive from Tamarindo to the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia. If you’re flying out of San José, you’ll spend at least 4.5 hours in the car – and that’s without hitting a traffic jam (and traffic jams are likely). If you’re really tight on time – psst! You need to arrive at LIR or SJO a full 3 hours before your flight – consider taking a local flight from Tamarindo to SJO (40 minutes, around $90-$155 per person). Shared shuttles take about 5.5 hours (and arrive around 1:30 p.m., barring traffic snafus).

Add-ons: If you have an extra day or two in Tamarindo, a night turtle-hatching tour is not to be missed. Also consider booking an ATV tour, spelunking at Barra Honda, an estuary boat tour, a nearshore or deep sea sportfishing excursion. Nearby Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park also offers some serious adventure, to the tune of canopy ziplines, canyoning, rock climbing, waterfall rappelling, mud baths, and whitewater rafting.

Too many details, too little time? Hand off your trip to a Costa Rica travel pro. Their services are free (find out why) and their knowledge is vast. Consider it your Costa Rica easy button.