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Spend a night in a ranger's station, lulled to sleep by the sounds of virgin rainforest. Watch Olive Ridley turtles lay their eggs on the beach. Walk through untouched cloudforest in solitude. For lovers of peaceful nature and exotic wildlife, this self-drive adventure introduces you to Costa Rica's beautiful Pacific coast, with curated guided experiences and independent exploration.
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On arrival in San José airport you are met and taken to your very comfortable small hotel on a hillside above the town of Alajuela, a sort of satellite of the capital. In fact, the airport is in Alajuela so it makes sense to stay here, it’s certainly easier to navigate from here than from downtown San José when you set off in the morning.
Your 4x4 is delivered to you today before you set off south, winding your way up into the beautiful cloudforests surrounding Cerro Chirripo, Costa Rica's highest mountain. Although navigating by map isn’t hard, we include GPS in your rental as it makes life much easier. You could stop en route at peaceful San Gerardo de Dota for a short hike to the rather lovely Savegre waterfall. Settle into your very friendly lodge, set in beautiful gardens looking over the valley.
Spend the day with your guide, walking some of the numerous trails to unlock the beautiful landscape around you. Walk past cascading waterfalls, and through both primary old growth forest and the extensive reforestation areas that have been part of the reserve's success.
You have another full day to set your own pace. For more hiking, Cloudbridge has plenty to offer, with several hours' trails on the northern side of the river for instance. Alternatively, head up into the Herradura Valley to hike past coffee plantations and lemon trees, towards a mirador with fantastic views across to Cerro Chirripo. The valley is also rich in birdlife, with a notable number of endemic species, so it's well worth seeing what you can spot.
Drive to Sierpe to take a boat to the small village of Drake Bay to spend the next few nights enjoying the Osa Peninsula. A charming laidback village on the beach of a protected bay, Drake also offers access to some of Costa Rica's greatest concentrations of wildlife. Tonight, discover some of the nocturnal species in the company of our local guide.
Early this morning you board a boat to head a little way off shore to Caño Island. The island itself, once an Indian burial ground, offers some of the best snorkelling to be found in Costa Rica. The biggest draw is perhaps the boat journey itself however, with pods of dolphin often accompanying you en route.
Travel to the Sirena ranger station of Corcovado National Park, said to be the best wildlife viewing in all of Central America. You have a day and a half here to explore the forest and its inhabitants in the company of your own private guide, so will be treated to a truly wonderful wildlife experience. The accommodation is more basic, but the facilities and food are decent enough, and the pay-off well worth any minor discomfort.
The morning is yours to discover more of the park and its abundant wildlife, before you head back to Drake Bay this afternoon and the comfort of your delightful lodge. As well as hundreds of species of birds - the more colourful being scarlet macaw, trogon and toucan - you are highly likely to see some, if not all four, species of monkey found in Costa Rica, as well as sloths, anteaters, armadillo, coati and tapir.
Today you might like to spend some time on the beach or wander along the coast. From Drake Bay a path leads along the coast all the way to the northern entrance to Corcovado but we suggest that you enjoy a relatively short stretch of the trail. You can step out onto the sand and have a dip in the sea as you please. After a picnic lunch on the beach, take the boat back to Drake Bay, where you can stroll up to the village for a drink as the sun goes down.
Snaking along the south Pacific coast, you will have gorgeous views all along the way over the ocean as you drive to the little-known Carara National Park. Set in 264 acres, your peaceful ecolodge is tucked away in the hills and is made entirely from materials grown or recycled from the immediate surrounds.
Today is yours to explore, anything from bird watching to visiting the lodge's organic plantation to see the different native species being grown. We include a tour of the cacao plantation, from which they produce their own (extremely tasty) chocolate. You are within easy reach of both the Tarcoles mangroves and the National Park of Carara's dense, hilly forests. As an area of transition from the northern tropical dry forest to the southern rainforests, the park is full of wildlife, especially birds.
Drive across to the beach near Ostional, one of the least developed stretches of the Pacific coast. Along the way it's a very small detour to the Palo Verde National Park, precious Guanacaste wetlands which host a wide variety of resident and migratory bird species. Here at the coast, you stay in a lovely small hotel, high on a hill above the coast. You are within striking distance of the fishing village and calm swimming beach of San Juanillo, the livelier surf beach at Nosara, and the turtle nesting beach of Ostional.
Spend today relaxing on the beach, or perhaps try out a more strenuous activity, such as surfing or paddle boarding. There's no shortage of things to keep you busy here, though the laidback nature of the area might put paid to too many plans! Aside from the obvious surfing, other water-based activities include the now somewhat ubiquitous SUP, kayaking and snorkelling. This is also a lovely spot to ride a horse along the beach as the sun sets...
Ostional is one of the most crucial nesting areas for the Olive Ridley turtle. After breakfast you could board a boat to take you offshore for the chance to snorkel with the turtles. Tonight you might like to meet up with a guide who can take you out in the dark to show you more turtles as they emerge onto the shore to lay.
Being Costa Rica, you're never far away from a zipline, and other active ways to explore include riding bikes through the village or horses along the beach - fantastic when the sun is going down. The vivid sunsets you tend to get on this side of the country also lend themselves rather well to a relaxed pre-dinner drink while swinging in a hammock...
Drive into the Central Valley, where you stay in the heart of the coffee lands. If you didn't go on the way to the coast, it's a short detour up to the Palo Verde National Park, a little-visited wetlands which is full of birdlife. As you rise up into the Central Valley, you'll pass by the rather lovely village of Sarchi, home of the famous painted oxcarts, and a beautiful botanical garden. Your hotel is themed around coffee and sits in a wildlife corridor, yet at night you can see the twinkling lights from half of Costa Rica’s population.
You are invited into a local home this morning, where your host shares cookery techniques for staples such as chayote hash, tortillas and plantain. After lunch, meet up with a microproducer to sample coffee brewed the traditional way. This is your chance to see ordinary life and better understand the ‘Tico’ way of life; as such, it's a lovely note on which to end your trip. Head to the airport this evening to hand in your car keys and head home. If this quick summary has whetted your appetite for a tailor-made trip to Costa Rica, see below for various ways to get in touch or request a full PDF itinerary for more details of this trip.
Although this trip will satisfy the appetite of even the most ardent wildlife enthusiast, we have taken care to balance everything that we love about Costa Rica in this 17-day itinerary. So whilst you will spend a great deal of time in biodiversity hotspots, you’ll also have ample opportunity to try your hand at a range of fun activities, meet some of our favourite people and experience a variety of ecosystems.
Ultimately what this itinerary does is introduce you to some of the lesser-visited corners of Costa Rica in a considered and creative way. Whilst that means skipping over the country’s better known places, such as Arenal, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio, there’s absolutely no sacrifice or compromise on your part. The reason we share the places that we do is not just because they are ‘off the beaten track’, but because their very nature means that you will have a far better experience. For such a small country, it always amazes us how much of it is almost completely untouched.
It is part of our job to get to know you, what you like or don’t like doing and any particular interests or requests that you have. We then advise you what we think is the best way to approach your trip, working with you to tailor it to you. It’s possible that what you have seen here is ideal for you, but equally we can tinker with it to get it just right if not.
Departs any day to suit you, from December through August. For more detailed guidance, visit our when to visit Costa Rica section.
The price is per person based on two people sharing and includes:
First-class accommodation with breakfast and some lunches and dinners
Large 4x4 vehicle with GPS delivered to your hotel
Guided excursions as described
Transfers from San José airport with welcome briefing
Costa Rica Holiday Guide with personal recommendations
Costa Rica driving guide
Pura’s expertise, local contacts, support and advice throughout
International flights are quoted separately for this holiday. Best routing is into and out of San José (SJO).
Over the course of this trip you stay in a series of very comfortable lodges and small hotels. For details of your accommodation, please see the summary section. In Costa Rica particularly, we choose our accommodation very carefully as we want you to be comfortable and get a sense of the country hosting you. This suggested itinerary is based around what are essentially small 3-4* hotels.
The one exception is your night in the ranger station at Sirena. This involves bunk beds in open-sided dorms, 'school canteen' type dining, and shared washing facilities. However, these facilities are well-kept, and the lack of privacy and relative comfort are more than made up for in our opinion for the privilege in sleeping in this pristine environment.
For more details, please get in touch to request a detailed PDF itinerary.
With parts of Costa Rica suffering somewhat with growing visitor numbers, we instead direct you towards some of the quieter unspoilt areas that we fell in love with. As well as bringing a share of the economic benefit to places where fewer people stay, this approach eases the burden on the famous sights and helps protect other areas through thoughtful eco-tourism. Everyone wins; the destination, the wildlife, the locals and you, the traveller.
Costa Rica is a country of farmers, a friendly place which, combined with its huge biodiversity and variety of ecosystems, makes it a very natural magnet for tourism. But it’s easy to leave without any real sense of place or the way people live here. That is why we are so passionate about helping you stay in the right places and travel with as much good information as possible to help you to stop and meet people, see something of daily life. You’ll also have an insight into the meeting of economic reality and conservation, a tricky balance which Costa Ricans seem to manage so much better than most parts of the world.
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