Have you ever wanted to add a bit of adventure to your vacation? If your answer is yes you should really consider planning a Costa Rica road trip.
I know those all-inclusive vacations are easy to book and relatively hassle-free, but you don’t get to truly experience a destination by staying in one.
By renting a vehicle you would also have the opportunity to see Costa Rica at your own pace and get off the beaten path.
I traveled to Costa Rica in January 2020.
Costa Rica has two seasons, the dry season (January – April), and the rainy season (April – December). I traveled to Costa Rica in January. However, with better weather comes more crowds. For reference, I started booking accommodations, flights, and vehicle rentals in April.
Having a reliable vehicle will be key for your Costa Rica road trip. After much research I went with Adobe Rent A Car. Adobe is a Costa Rican rental company that is well-reviewed, provides a high level of customer service, and offers rentals that are less than 24 months old.
If you plan on going January – April I recommend booking your vehicle early.
When I was planning this trip I found that a lot of people thought they had been scammed when renting a car in Costa Rica. While I am sure that may happen, a lot of the time it was due to the traveler having to purchase rental insurance.
In Costa Rica, it is mandatory to purchase third party liability insurance from the car rental company. There is no getting around this. However, you may be able to use your credit card for LDW insurance. LDW is insurance that covers damages to the rental vehicle.
If you do plan to use your credit card for this it is important to understand what is covered and what is not. Not all credit cards offer vehicle insurance, and they each have different rules, and amounts that are covered.
It is really important to read the fine print on your credit card before using it as a form of insurance. You will also need a document from the cc company stating that you are covered in Costa Rica.
For example know: who is allowed to drive the vehicle, how much will your credit card cover in case of an accident, does it apply to rentals in Costa Rica.
Also, some cc insurance might cover the damages to the vehicle, but not the time it takes to get fixed. In this instance you might have to pay the daily rate of the vehicle, to the car rental company for as long as it takes to get fixed). Most also require that the entire rental is paid with your cc.
Basically, if you plan to go with your cc insurance know all of the fine print. Adobe also recommends sending them the document from the cc company beforehand to ensure that they will cover the LDW.
The vehicles we rented were two 4X4 SUV. For insurance, I went with Adobe’s SPP Insurance. This is their extended protection plan. It is a lot more expensive, however, it offers a $0 detectable. Liability coverage goes from 100 000 to 4 million, and damages to the third party vehicle are $0. Now there are exclusions to this, so again it is important to read the fine print.
I know some people out there never buy insurance, however, this is not the time to risk it. Make sure you are covered.
Costa Rica is known for three main things: Sustainability, nature, and adventure. When researching activities you are going to find that you have a lot of choices.
For example, ziplining is on the top of a lot of people’s list to do in Costa Rica. But where do you do it? There are two companies in the Arenal area, and three in the Monteverde (Cloud Rainforest area). Which is the best? The same can be said for a lot of activities such as touring the hanging bridges, as well as coffee and nature tours. I’ll go over the ones we ultimately chose and why.
Whenever I travel I love staying at unique accommodations. Because we had our own vehicle we were able to stay at some pretty unique homes.
I will cover what we chose to stay with at each location. Some were unique and others were more convenient.
We arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica at 7 AM on our red-eye flight from Calgary, Alberta. Set aside your first day to drive to La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
It just so happened that on the way to La Fortuna we were stuck in traffic for two hours, so expect traffic delays.
We found an apartment on Air BNB just outside the town centre of La Fortuna. Finding accommodations when traveling in larger groups can be challenging. Fortunately, La Fortuna has a variety of options. The apartment we stayed in had multiple rentals available on Air BNB.
La Fortuna is small a tourist town in central Costa Rica that is very close to Arenal Volcano. It is also a hotspot for adventure activities. If you are adrenaline junky then this place is for you.
This is when having your own vehicle becomes invaluable. Tenorio Volcano National Park is home to the Rio Celeste waterfall and river. It stands out from others with its unique cool-aid blue waters. How blue it depends on how much it rains before you go. When we went the waters weren’t super blue as it had just rained.
Due to this unique feature, it is a tourist hot spot and can get quite crowded. By having our own vehicle we beat the tour buses and had the place mostly to ourselves for the first hour or so.
Tip #1 The trails were muddy when we went so be prepared for that.
Tip #2 Go early in the morning to beat the crowds.
Hours: Entry 8 AM – 2 PM
Cost: $12 USD per person
This was one of my bucket list items for things to do in Costa Rica. Canyoning down a waterfall. It was thrilling, and one of the classic things that you can do in Costa Rica. If you are an adrenalin addict like me then you won’t want to miss this.
Tip: Bring water shoes with you.
Cost: $105 USD per person for the group experience, or $130 USD for the private experience. I have no idea how busy they are currently but when we went it was with a large group and you did have to wait for a while. If I were to go again I would pay for the private experience. It also comes with a meal.
Bogarin Trail is located on the edge of La Fortuna. This made it super convenient for us to go to as we walked there from our rental.
We even had a chance to speak with the owner who is very passionate about the land and gave us insight into the history of the property. I was able to see sloths from a distance, they can be pretty hard to spot as they are high in the treetops.
Tip #1 Hire a guide. We didn’t hire a guide, but there was one in front of us with another group, which is the only reason we spotted any sloths.
Some of the guides have telescopes that you can use to see sloths, and it seemed like those people had a better experience. (I still had a great experience, I just felt like since we were basically using a guide maybe we should have paid them).
Tip #2 Wear shoes, pants, and have OFF with you.
Tip #3 Look down. It was here we first spotted leaf cutter ants.
Cost: 5000 Colones
This was one of my favorite mornings in the La Fortuna area. Tabacon is one of many hot springs in the area, however, this one should be at the top of your list.
Tabacon is unique in that the water is naturally flowing, and is heated by Arenal Volcano’s magma that flows below the springs. Some of the others in the area are either reheated, or the water is pumped into the springs.
When To Go
My friends and I went with the morning pass entrance with lunch. When I was reading reviews about the night pass a lot of people were saying that you could not really see the foliage.
Tip #1 Get the Pina Colada. It is the best I have ever had, although it is costly at $20 USD.
Tip #2 Bring water shoes
Cost: $77 USD per person in peak season
Note: If you want to save money there are natural hot springs in the area that are free. I personally didn’t go, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
When looking for places to stay in the La Fortuna/ Arenal area I kept on glancing back to the Arenal Observatory.
This place is the closest you can stay to the volcano and is beautiful. But I didn’t have the budget to stay here the entire time, because of this we opted in for a one night stay.
RELATED ARTICLE: To learn more about my stay at the Arenal Observatory Lodge please click the link below.
There are two parks you can go to see the volcano and hike some trails. The first is Arenal Volcano National Park, and the second is Arenal 1968.
Unfortunately, I went to neither. It is the only thing that I missed out on doing. If I did have the chance to go again I would choose Arenal 1968. From everything, I read you have better views of the volcano.
The main area to stay in to see the cloud forests in Monteverde, however, we chose to stay near Santa Elena.
Santa Elena is located 30 minutes from Monteverde and is less busy. While Monteverde has the Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Santa Elena has the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.
In general, this area of the country, much like the Arenal area, is a hub for adventure. The difference is that instead of a rain forest, you have a cloud forest, and are a lot higher in elevation.
We stayed in this amazing villa 20 minutes outside of Santa Elena. Not only was it large enough to fit our entire group, but it was also located on a coffee farm. To learn more about our stay, check out the link below.
After seeing all the different companies that provide hanging bridge and zipline tours I have to say that I felt a bit overwhelmed.
Ultimately we settled on Selvatura Adventure Park. If you have a dream of ziplining in the cloud rainforest, then this is your only choice. Selvatura is the only company that is located in the cloud forest.
Tip #1 If there are people that would rather not go zip-lining, there are other things they can do at this park, such as the hummingbird exhibit, and butterfly gardens.
Tip #2 You do have the option to add on a superman zip. I did do this but wish I hadn’t. This option is available on their longest zip, and it was sorta hard to take in the view going down this way.
Cost: $89 USD for the canopy tour, and treetop walk (not guided). Also known as the Gold Pack.
Don Juan Tours offers an immersive experience where you learn how coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane are processed. If you are a coffee lover then you should really take part in this tour.
This region of Costa Rica is where all Costa Rica’s coffee is produced, this is because the region is so high in elevation.
You also will also be able to sample everything from the coffee that is brewed, to a chocolate drink, that combines the ground cacao beans and sugar cane juice that you will produce on the tour.
At the end of the tour, you also can help yourself to a cup of their coffee.
Tip #1 La Fortuna offers a Don Juan Chocolate Tour. While you will learn about the chocolate process on this tour, the Monteverde region does not grow chocolate. If you want a more detailed experience of how chocolate is produced, Don Juan offers chocolate tours in La Fortuna.
Cost: $32.90 USD per person
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is a must-do on your Costa Rica road trip. It is less touristy than the nearby Monteverde Cloud Forest, which is one of the most visited in the world.
I can’t compare the two as I only went to Santa Elena, but I can confirm there was almost no one on the trails.
We arrived around 2:30 PM, and because we had our own vehicle we didn’t have to rush back to catch a bus at closing time.
I believe you can stay an hour after close if you have your own vehicle.
Cost: $16 USD per person.
Puerto Carrillo is a very small beach town 30 minutes south of Samara and is home to Playa Carillo one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica.
One of the reasons we stayed just outside this tiny beach town was because we found a tree house to stay in! It was super unique, although we probably didn’t need to spend three nights there.
Now I really only went to two beaches during my time in Costa Rica, but from everything I read Playa Carillo is truly one of the nicest in the country. It is considered a locals beach, but that doesn’t mean it’s not busy. In the evenings the parking lot seemed to fill up, so get there early.
This is another advantage of having your own vehicle. Samara is a 10-minute drive from Playa Carillo.
I wouldn’t recommend walking in between these two towns as there is not a sidewalk and the road is quite busy.
There are no official amenities on the beach, but you will find people selling different beverages from stands on wheels, such as coconuts.
While not located in Puerto Carillo, this Macaw Reserve is still worth a visit.
The reserve is located 40 minutes – 1 hour from Puerto Carillo, nearby Punta Islita. I would plan for more time than what your GPS says, the roads to get there were pretty bump.
I was super impressed with this place. All proceeds you pay for your admission go towards helping save this endangered species. The interpreter was very knowledgeable about their program.
You will spend the first half of your time here learning about the reserve, and why they are needed. The second half is spent observing the macaws from a distance.
At the end of your visit, you will have time to purchase souvenirs in their shop. Some are made from the locals in Punta Islita. Overall the tour wasn’t overly long, maybe 1 – 2 hours. We booked this tour on Airbnb experiences.
Tip 1: If you are a photographer bring a zoom lens. The birds are quite far away from a camera phone to get a clear crisp photo.
Tip 2: Book in advance! They only allow a limited amount of people for every time slot. The date we originally going to go was booked, fortunately, we were in the area for another 4 days, and were able to book this tour at the end of our stay.
Tip 3: If you are looking for locally made souvenirs I would wait until you go here. I wish I would have waited, but my budget was maxed out by this point. Items change all the time but they had these really cool wooden bird paintings that I would have loved.
Cost: $22 USD per person.
Samara is a small beach town in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. While not as touristy as somewhere like Tamarindo or Playa Hermosa, it still has that kind of vibe. With tons of restaurants, breweries, and activities to eat and do.
During my stay here, my friends and I spent our time eating out, shopping, and hanging out at the beach.
This is a great beachfront restaurant featuring vegan cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We went here twice during our stay and their burgers and breakfast are amazing.
We only found this place towards the end of our stay in Samara, and one of the things we regret is not going here every day. There serve a variety of coffee drinks, as well as baked goods. If you get here early enough they sometimes have previous day baked goods on sale at a good price.
The best tacos I had in Costa Rica. Go here you wont regret it.
If you are looking for a more authentic souvenir wait until you can go here. I bought artwork and postcards made by Holalola, which is a Costa Rican based company. Beyond that, they also carry beachwear, jewelry, and more.
Located inside the entrance of the Gusto Beach Restaurant, this boutique shop has an assortment of beachwear and is where I purchased mine.
Please note that this store is a little pricey, and if you are on a budget there a lot of other stores that also sell bathing suits.
While we could have left from Samara on day 15, we opted to stay in Liberia as we had an eight AM flight to catch in the morning.
After arriving in Liberia we dropped off our vehicle rentals at Adobe Rent a Car. From there Adobe provided us with a complimentary shuttle to the Hilton Garden Inn Liberia Airport.
Adobe offers complimentary shuttles to and from the airport because this hotel is very close to the airport, this wasn’t a problem.
We stayed at the Hilton for convenience. They are right next to the airport and provide a complimentary shuttle to the airport in the morning.
Numu is within walking distance from the Hilton Garden Inn and is located in an industrial neighborhood. I personally don’t drink beer, but my friends that do say it was good.
Inside it is actually a pretty cool space. There are two levels both with a seating area. If you move to the top level you can see their brewing process.
My Tan Feet is a Costa Rican Travel blog that offers a ton of information on traveling Costa Rica and is the only resource you need.
If you want more information about renting a vehicle in Costa Rica, I suggest checking out their blog. I even used their discount code for my Adobe car rental. It allowed me to have two free drivers, instead of one, and a bunch of extras. Just click the link you won’t regret it.