Costa Rica’s capital city has plenty of activities to keep you occupied, but it also sits at the center of the country, making it a great base for exploring the surrounding areas. You can wander rainforest trails, tour organic coffee plantations and colonial towns, hike near active volcanoes, spot wildlife in their natural habitats, and dip in thermal hot springs—all within a couple of hours from San José city center. The coasts are a bit farther away, so day trips to the beach are possible but will make for a long day, and you’ll need to get an early start. Costa Rican roads can be precarious and San José traffic frustrating; consider hiring a driver or joining a group tour so you can relax and enjoy your day.
Poas Volcano National Park: An Active Volcano
Just a 90-minute drive from the city you can see one of the largest active stratovolcanos in the world at Poas Volcano National Park. There are also hiking trails here, but these have been closed since the 2017 and 2019 eruptions and volcanic activity. Walk up the steep slope to the viewing platform at your designated time and cross your fingers for clear weather, as clouds can obscure the view. Due to the high levels of sulfur, you’ll get a maximum of 20 minutes to scan the scene and snap some photos before you head back down.
Getting There: You can rent a car and self-drive the windy roads using these instructions from the official website. Or join a guided tour and gain historical and environmental insight on the drive up.
Travel Tip: Plan ahead. The park is currently only open from 7 a.m. to 1:20 p.m., and advance reservations are required. As this is an active volcano, the park may close on short notice. Check local news for the most up-to-date info. Since it’s a relatively quick trip, you can combine it with another activity such as Arenal, for example.
Sarapiqui: A Retreat to the Rainforest
A wealth of wildlife, white water rafting, and community-based tourism experiences, this underappreciated region of Costa Rica provides a great escape from the city crowds and typical tourist trail. Drive through the countryside and spend the morning touring Mi Cafecito’s organic coffee farm en route.
Arrive at family-run Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat in time for a white water rafting adventure on the Sarapiqui River. For those that prefer to stay on land, bird watching and wildlife hikes can be arranged. The retreat is located on a private nature reserve in the biological corridor, so sighting green macaws, toucans, monkeys, frogs, and iguanas is a possibility. See—and taste—how chocolate goes from bean to bar with an interactive tour at Costa Rica Best Chocolate. Or learn how to make "comida típica" (typical or traditional food) in a local home. When darkness falls, go on a night hike to discover nocturnal life in the forest that may include such colorful creatures as the famous red-eyed tree frogs.
Getting There: Arrange a private transfer through Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat or rent a car if you’re comfortable driving. Sarapiqui is about two hours from the center of San Jose.
Travel Tip: Get an early start. The drive to Mi Cafecito is quite scenic and La Paz waterfall is perfectly positioned right beside the road, so you’ll also want to allow time for photo stops en route.
Arenal: Outdoor Adventures
Arenal is the destination for wilderness and wellness. Get your blood pumping as you race through the treetops on a zipline or rappel and free fall in the waterfalls at Lost Canyon. Or take your time with a hike along the hanging bridges at Mistico; down to the La Fortuna Waterfall for a refreshing dip; or atop lava rocks on the 1968 Trail near Arenal Volcano. Wind down with a soak in the healing hot springs. Whatever you do, keep an eye out for the shy sloth and other jungle creatures as Arenal is home to many, including toucans, monkeys, frogs, and snakes.
Getting There: It’s three hours to the Arenal area and if you are doing this trip in one day with a lot of outdoor adventures in between, you are going to be exhausted—perhaps too much so to drive back in the dark at the end of the day. Luckily, Arenal is a popular destination so there are many day tour options leaving early from San José and returning the same evening. Wave Expeditions and Desafio Adventure Company are two tour operators based in Arenal and specializing in adventure tours, and GreenSpot can handle more upscale and exclusive bookings.
Travel Tip: Take a tortilla-making lesson with Doña Maria, a lovely local chef who opens up her home (literally—she expanded her kitchen to accommodate more guests) to travelers interested in learning about Costa Rican food in a casual setting. Tortilla-making experience can be arranged by any of the above operators.
Finca Rosa Blanca: Coffee Tours and Cooking Demos
This organic coffee plantation in Heredia is only an hour from the center of the city and just 20 minutes from San José’s international airport. Set up on a hill and surrounded by forest, here you can immerse yourself in nature. Arrive early for a guided tour around the coffee plantation, and learn the history of this property and the significance of the coffee crop to Costa Rican culture. Finca Rosa Blanca’s priority is to regenerate the land while producing high quality, organic, shade-grown coffee, so you’ll also learn about their eco-efforts and likely spot some wildlife along the way.
Then sit down to a “coffee cupping” where the expert guide will teach you professional techniques for identifying aromas and flavors. When you finish, head back to the open-air restaurant for a healthy lunch of Tico-inspired dishes made of locally sourced ingredients. Finca Rosa Blanca also offers bird watching tours, cooking demos, and wellness activities such as yoga that must be booked in advance.
Getting There: Ask Finca Rosa Blanca to arrange the transfer when booking, take a taxi, or rent a car and use Waze to circumnavigate traffic.
Travel Tip: Finca Rosa Blanca is also an artful and eco-friendly resort. Consider an overnight if you’d like a quiet stay near (but not directly in) San José.
Sarchí: An Artisan Town
You only have to travel 1.5 hours to travel back in time. Sarchí’s claim to fame is the "carreta" (oxcart). These colorful, hand-painted oxcarts were used to haul coffee through the mountains, but now they make appearances in parades and ceremonies, and replicas are often used as decoration in traditional homes and restaurants. Visit Fabrica de Carretas Joaquin Chaverri, one of the oldest oxcart factories in Costa Rica, for a demonstration, and check out the largest oxcart in the world on display in the Central Park.
Getting There: Take Route 1 to Route 715 if you drive. Or better yet, book a tour for a more in-depth visit with a local guide.
Travel Tip: If any of your travel mates are artisans or woodworkers but your group isn’t interested in making a day of it, add Sarchí as a stop en route to Arenal.
Barva: Cloud Forests and Handicraft Culture
This lesser-visited volcano is for those that prefer to get off the tourist path. Take a hike through the high altitude cloud forest, and keep an eye out for the quetzal, a bird with iridescent auburn, blue, and green feathers. Or opt for a zipline tour in the foothills of the Barva Volcano. On your way back to the city, stop by the colonial town of the same name and marvel at the hand-painted masks—a craft still carried out today.
Getting There: Barva town is in Heredia province, about an hour from San José. The canopy tour or hike with Canopy Adventure Volcan Barva is about 30 minutes to an hour from there. Transfer from your hotel to the canopy tour or the hike is included, but if you want to stop in Barva town, you’ll need to drive on your own.
Travel Tip: For safety and invaluable local knowledge, a guide is highly recommended for hiking near the Barva Volcano. If you’re solely interested in the cultural and art experiences in Barva, Finca Rosa Blanca arranges a Cultural Highlands Tour to Heredia that includes Barva.
Irazu Volcano National Park: Volcano Views
Costa Rica’s tallest volcano is just 1.5 hours from San José. Drive up Diego de la Haya crater for some of the best views in the park. On an exceptionally clear day, you can catch a glimpse of both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, but don’t expect to see the color-changing crater lake Irazu was known for—it has dried up, but some say it may return.
Getting There: To avoid driving and the limiting yourself to the public bus schedules, join an organized tour with Find My Costa Rica that includes a soak in La Hacienda Orosi hot springs.
Travel Tip: Wear sunscreen; sunburns can occur quickly at high elevation.
Tortuguero National Park: A Turtle Lover’s Dream
This is one of the best places in the country for wildlife spotting. Cruise along the tree-lined canals by boat, and scan the banks for crocodiles and treetops for monkeys, sloths, and toucans. The biggest attraction here is the sea turtles. While they do occasionally emerge during the day, the best chance to see them on the beach—nesting or hatching—is at night from July to October, so you’ll want to stay at least one night. But if you’ve only got the day, make the most of it and spend your time on the boats and beaches.
Getting There: Tortuguero is essentially a forested sandbar on the Caribbean coast, so this trip requires a car and boat (totaling up to 4 hours one way), and your schedule is somewhat dictated by the local boat schedules unless you charter a private one. Consider a guided tour that includes transportation and logistical arrangements. Sansa Airlines also flies from San José to Tortuguero a few times per day. It’s a 35-minute flight and then just a five-minute boat ride from the airport to the town.
Travel Tip: Leave valuables behind and bring a waterproof dry bag and waterproof cases for your phone and camera. Transportation in Tortuguero is chiefly by boat; you and your luggage may get wet.
Toucan Rescue Ranch: Support a Wildlife Project
Toucan Rescue Ranch, just 30 minutes from the center of San José in neighboring Heredia, rescues, rehabilitates, and releases toucans, sloths, owls, and other native wildlife. Join an Educational Walk here to learn the ins and outs of a successful wildlife rescue center and support their cause. In the spirit of protecting the animals in Toucan Rescue Ranch care, this is a hands-off experience—no touching or handling animals as such interactives can be harmful and stressful for them, not to mention unsafe for visitors.
Getting There: If you’re driving, use the Waze app to map your route and try to avoid San José traffic. You can also arrange a cab or join an organized tour that includes transportation and a stop at Sibu Chocolateria.
Travel Tip: Toucan Rescue Ranch offers a nighttime Educational Walk, so it's a great option for observing nocturnal wildlife. Also worth noting: this is a wheelchair accessible facility.
Manuel Antonio: Postcard-Perfect Beaches
Where the jungle meets the sea, Manuel Antonio is one of the most popular destinations for visitors. Sail on a catamaran, take a guided jungle trek, or laze in the sun and watch the waves. But keep an eye on your bag if you’ve brought food, and do not feed any wildlife—the monkeys here have learned that travelers often come bearing snacks, and they are not shy about snagging them.
Getting There: It’s about a three-hour trip one way, so you may want to book a tour and leave the driving (and sailing) to someone else.
Travel Tip: Although the beaches here are some of the most beautiful in Costa Rica, many are not ideal for swimming. Pay attention to signs, guides, and warnings from locals.
Adventure Park: Forest Activities for Everyone
If you’ve got an active group that can’t agree what to do, spend a day at Adventure Park, located in Heredia. You can mountain bike, run or walk the forest trails, picnic, and camp. There are about 20 miles of trails and one trail reserved specifically for visitors who want to walk, not run. Guided canopy tours through the cloud forest are also available.
Getting there: The park is located less than 2 miles north of the Catholic Church of San José de la Montaña in Heredia. You can drive or take a cab.
Travel tip: Mountain bikes are not available for rent, but you can rent them from Puro MTB. There’s no food on-site to be sure to pack snacks.