Essential Costa Rica

  • 2 Weeks

This is the trip you’ve been dreaming about: a romp through paradise with seething volcanoes, tropical parks, warm-water beaches and ghostly cloud forests.

From San José, beeline north to La Fortuna. After a refreshing forest hike on the flanks of Volcán Arenal, soak in the country’s best hot springs. Then do the classic jeep-boat-jeep run across Lake Arenal to Monteverde, where you might encounter the elusive quetzal on a stroll through the Bosque Nuboso Monteverde.

Next: beach time. Head west to the biggest party town in Guanacaste, Playa Tamarindo (or head to Mal País/Santa Teresa) and enjoy the ideal surf, top-notch restaurants and rowdy nightlife.

Continuing south, visit waterfalls and linger a bit in chilled-out Montezuma, where you can connect via speedboat to Jacó, another town with equal affection for surfing and partying. Spend half a day busing to Quepos, the gateway to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. A full day in the park starts with some jungle hikes and wildlife-watching and ends with a picnic and a dip in the park’s perfect waters.

Northern Costa Rica

  • 2 Weeks

Tiptoe cloud-forest bridges and feel the lava bubbling below hot springs. Wander the zen quiet of the swampy lowlands, vibrant with avians, before basking in the bath-warm Pacific.

Make for the Bosque Nuboso Monteverde to watch mist roll over dense forest and dare dizzying ziplines and aerial walkways.

Now, hop on a bus for Volcán Arenal, the country’s biggest active volcano. Though it’s not spitting lava, Arenal remains an incredible sight. Finish your hikes with a soak in the hot springs.

Leave the tourists behind at the lowland ecolodges of Caño Negro or Boca Tapada. After a couple of days connecting with easygoing Ticos, make for La Virgen to raft the white water of Río Sarapiquí.

Beach time! First stop: Playa Tamarindo, to party, sample some of the country’s best cuisine and learn to surf. During turtle season, Playa Grande hosts hordes of nesting leatherbacks.

Take a bus south to enjoy the sand and contemporary cuisine at Playa Sámara or swells at Mal País and Santa Teresa. Wind down with yoga in Nosara or Montezuma and head back by boat and bus to San José via Jacó, where you can enjoy some last rays of sunshine and a decadent meal.

Pacific Coast Explorer

  • 2 Weeks

Here jungle touches ocean and fresh fish practically leap onto your plate. Amazement lurks above the tree line and below the waterline.

Kick things off with Parque Nacional Carara, home to enchanting scarlet macaws, and spend a few hours hiking up and down the coast. Then head south to Quepos, a convenient base for the country’s most popular national park, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. Here the rainforest sweeps down to meet the sea, providing a refuge for rare animals, including the endangered squirrel monkey.

Continue south, stopping to sample the roadside ceviche stands, and visit Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge for some sloth-spotting, or keep heading south to Dominical in search of waves. For deserted beach wandering, continue on to Uvita, where you can look for whales spouting offshore at Parque Nacional Marino Ballena.

From Uvita, move further south to the far-flung Península de Osa, where you’ll set out on journeys through the country’s top national park for wildlife-viewing. Emerge at the northern end in lush and remote Bahía Drake, where you’ll swim in paradisiacal coves among the dripping rainforest. Return to civilization via ferry through Central America’s longest stretch of mangroves to Sierpe, home to ancient stone spheres.

Southern Costa Rica & Osa

  • 2 Weeks

Hands down the best itinerary for adventurers, this is the wilder side of Costa Rica.

Either head down the Pacific coast or fly into Puerto Jiménez, gateway to Península de Osa. Here you can spend a day or so kayaking the mangroves and soaking up the charm.

The undisputed highlight of the Osa is Parque Nacional Corcovado, the crown jewel of the country’s national parks. Spend a few days exploring jungle and beach trails with a local guide, whose expert eyes will spot tapirs and rare birds; trekkers willing to get down and dirty can tackle a through-hike of the park.

Return to Puerto Jiménez and travel up the Pacific Costanera Sur to Uvita, where you can surf, snorkel and look for whales at Parque Nacional Marino Ballena.

Then it’s off to the mountains. Link together buses for San Gerardo de Rivas, where you can spend a day acclimating to the altitude and hiking through the Cloudbridge Nature Reserve. End the trip with an exhilarating two-day adventure to the top of Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak.

Caribbean Coast

  • 10 Days

Latin beats change to Caribbean rhythms as you explore the ‘other Costa Rica.’

Hop on the first eastbound bus out of San José for Cahuita, capital of Afro-Caribbean culture and gateway to Parque Nacional Cahuita. Decompress in this mellow village before moving on to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, the Caribbean’s center for nightlife, cuisine and all-round positive vibes.

From Puerto Viejo, rent a bicycle and ride to Manzanillo, jumping-off point for snorkeling, kayaking and hiking in Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo.

To fall further off the map, grab a boat from Moín to travel up the canal-ribboned coast to Tortuguero, where you can watch nesting green and leatherback turtles. But the real reason you’re here is to canoe the mangrove-lined canals of Parque Nacional Tortuguero, Costa Rica’s mini-Amazon.

After spotting your fill of wildlife, head back to San José via water taxi and bus through the tiny town of Cariari and then Guápiles, an ideal base for gazing at open farmland and exploring Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo.

Central Valley

  • 10 Days

The Central Valley circuit – centering on volcanoes, waterfalls and strong cups of coffee – explores the spiritual core of the country, all sans the madding crowds.

Begin at San Isidro de Heredia for a close encounter with rescued baby sloths and toucans and a taste of the region's chocolate history. Hike around Volcán Irazú, at 3432m the largest and highest active volcano in Costa Rica, and peer right into its crater. With geological and culinary wonders covered, raft your way along the Río Pacuare, one of the country’s best white-water runs and with some of Central America's most scenic rafting.

Move on to Monumento Nacional Arqueológico Guayabo, the country’s only significant archaeological site, protecting ancient petroglyphs and aqueducts. Finally, swing south into the heart of the Valle de Orosi, Costa Rican coffee country, and take the caffeinated 32km loop passing the country’s oldest church and endless green hills. End on a spiritual note at Costa Rica’s grandest colonial-era temple, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles in Cartago.