15 Day Backpackers
Southern Caribbean, Monteverde, Nicoya Peninsula & Jaco
Day 1: Arrival
Fly into San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO). Explore downtown San Jose and snap up a hostel bed for the evening.
Day 2: A Scenic Drive & Exploration
Take the earliest bus to Puerto Viejo (about $8), and grab a window seat on the driver’s side. On the way to the Caribbean, you’ll pass through picturesque Braulio Carrillo National Park (roadside waterfalls!), coffee fields and banana plantations before emerging onto the oceanfront highway. When you get to Puerto Viejo, find a hostel or beachfront hammock and then let your nose lead you to lunch. Try a tasty Caribbean specialty, perhaps "rice and beans" or a coconut-infused fish dish. Spend the rest of the day wandering the beach and Puerto Viejo – splash in the waves, go surfing (surfboard rental: about $15/day), and soak up some sun and culture.
Day 3-5: Leisure Time
Black and white-sand beaches line Puerto Viejo’s coast and Cahuita National Park’s beachfront hiking trails are ideal for exploring the beach and getting in some quality wildlife watching. Worth the splurge: If you’re interested in local fruits, spices and cacao, visit Finca La Isla Botanical Garden, where you’ll tour (and sample) some of Costa Rica’s tastiest offerings. This area is also home to Costa Rica’s only two living coral reefs, so you may want to seek out a snorkeling tour to Cahuita or Manzanillo. And, if you’re interested in native culture, don’t miss an indigenous chocolate and medicinal plants tour.
Day 6: Discovery & Night Hike
Grab a seat on the earliest bus back to San Jose – consider switching to the non-driver’s side for different views than on the trip down. In San Jose, get some lunch and then find the bus to Monteverde (about $4); you’ll arrive in time for a leisurely dinner. Worth the splurge: A night hike at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where you and your flashlight will investigate the cloud forest floor and canopied treetops for the telltale red eyes of mammals, birds and other hidden creatures.
Day 7-8: Cloud Forest Adventures
Venture out into the cloud forest, where trees drip with epiphytes and nature waits around every bend. Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is an excellent option for budget-conscious travelers; it’s less crowded and more biologically diverse than Monteverde Cloud Forest and it’s also less expensive. (If you’re a student, make sure to show your student ID to cut the entrance fee in half.) Spend some time sightseeing on foot – explore the tiny Santa Elena triangle before hiking up the hill to Cerro Plano and Monteverde. Check out the area’s small museums and natural attractions – we recommend the Frog Pond (Ranario), Bat Jungle and Butterfly Garden in particular. Worth the splurge: Monteverde is famous for its canopy tours, and flying high over misty valleys is an experience that should not be missed.
Day 9: Sightseeing
Be sure to get a window seat on the 6:00 a.m. bus to Puntarenas (about $3.50) – you’ll pass through rolling valleys, cloud covered mountains, and cowboy country before arriving at the sparkling, blue Pacific Ocean. At the Puntarenas port, buy a ferry ticket (about $3) to Paquera and grab some food to go. During the one-hour boat ride, enjoy the ferry’s party atmosphere, cold beer and incredible views (don’t forget to keep your camera handy). When the ride is over, disembark as quickly as possible – the bus to Montezuma (about $2.50) fills up fast! Enjoy the rest of the day strolling along quiet beaches and enjoying the sunset. Worth the splurge: Montezuma’s beachside budget hotels are relatively inexpensive and the ocean views are worth every penny.
Day 10: Sun, Fun & Parties
Splash around in the Pacific or rent some snorkeling gear and enjoy the morning in Montezuma. Ask ahead of time for the bus schedule to Mal Pais and plan to take the early afternoon bus (about $1.50). After finding a place to spend the night, explore the beach, work on your tan or search for your favorite watering hole. Come sundown, surfers retreat inland and Mal Pais gets its party on.
Day 11-12: Waves & Wildlife
Take time to relax and enjoy your beachside surroundings. Mal Pais and Santa Teresa are known for legendary surf, so rent a boogie board or surfboard ($10-$20 per day) and become one with the ocean. Surfing lessons are available. Worth the splurge: Loosen muscles and find your inner Zen during an oceanside yoga session ($10-$15 per class). Also consider a day trip to Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve ($10 entrance fee), home to monkeys, agouti and sloths.
Day 13-14: Heading for Jaco
Head back to Montezuma and take the boat transfer (saves at least a half day of travel) to Jaco. The boat makes beach landings (aka water landings), so make sure you’re wearing the right shoes. Once in Jaco, find a hostel or budget hotel and head out into town. Jaco is one of Costa Rica’s most popular beach towns and a surfing hotspot. Spend your time surfcasting, walking the beach and enjoying the town’s party vibe. Worth the splurge: Surfboard rentals are cheap (about $20/day) and plentiful, and the waves are great for beginners. Outdoor lovers should head to Carara National Park ($10 entrance fee), home to scarlet macaws, two and three-toed sloths and several species of monkeys.
Day 15: Departure
Take the bus back to San Jose (about $3) – depending on which bus you take, you can catch any flight departing after 10:00 a.m. or spend the night in the city.