Costa Rica is notorious for being one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Diving head-first into the natural world at the national parks and protected areas are the best things to do in Costa Rica. The country is dotted with rainforests, unspoiled beaches, and imposing volcanoes, and is teeming with unique wildlife and sea turtles. So, to make the most of our stay, we didn’t stick around the capital of San Jose for long. Instead, we rented a car and set out driving in Costa Rica, in search of perfect destinations and that Pura Vida lifestyle.
A Costa Rica road trip is unlike any other. We’ve driven all over the US and many other countries, but nowhere have we experienced such sights and surprises along the way. The unexpected natural ‘roadblocks’ will fuel your sense of adventure, and finally getting to the epic destination will satiate your soul. We loved every moment of soaking in the laid-back attitude, staying at our dreamy remote eco-lodges and felt grateful for the unique nature we got to see. Here are the incredible places we visited in Costa Rica that you should travel to separately or on a road trip like us.
The Recipe for a Perfect Road Trip in Costa Rica
Rent your car directly at the airport and start the drive as early as possible. Stay in San Jose for one night if that helps you get an earlier start on the first day of driving in Costa Rica. You want to give yourself ample time because you may get stuck on the “Sloth Highway,” which John aptly named for the excruciatingly slow-moving traffic! Driving at such a pace, even the sloths would pass you by. That may delay you, and you want to avoid driving in the dark. Driving at night is a dangerous affair in most places, but in Costa Rica, the highway can quickly turn into a dirt road with a river running through it, and if you don’t see it in the dark, you run the risk of getting stuck or worse. While we are on the subject of dirt roads and rivers, we recommend reserving a 4×4 to better handle the terrain and potentially cross small creeks.
Vehicle reserved, map out your points of interest, keeping note of any alternative routes in case you get derailed by a river. On our bucket list this time, we had Montezuma and Monteverde, two of the best places in Costa Rica. So, after renting a car in San Jose, we headed for Puntarenas to take a ferry through the Gulf of Nicoya to Paquera and drove to Montezuma. The second leg took us from Puntarenas to Monteverde and back to San Jose.
Road Trip to Montezuma: Hippie Surf Town
Montezuma is a small, vibrant surf town in the Nicoya Peninsula, surrounded by mountains, rivers, and waterfalls. If you are looking for laid-back vibes and breathtaking sunsets, this is the spot for you. But after learning that the Nicoya Peninsula is a blue zone, we were especially keen to check it out! For those who don’t know, a blue zone is a region where people commonly live past the age of 100 years. So, we soaked in every moment of Montezuma during our stay in hopes to add five years to our life expectancy.
There are plenty of things to do in Montezuma. From lounging on the Montezuma beach to bobbing in the lineup to ride some waves, getting your shavasana on in yoga classes, and hiking the surrounding mountains in search of waterfalls. We participated in a baby sea turtle release on the beach where residents and tourists can volunteer. We watched the eggs being dug up and transferred, the babies hatching and then racing each other for the ocean. What a touching experience when accompanied by a beautiful sunset!
In the night, our guide took us on a tour to Pochote beach on the coast of Ballena Bay (Whale Bay) to see the bioluminescence. The bay gets its name because of the humpback whales that come there to feed on all the plankton, and apart from whale sightings, this is one of the few places in the world where you can see the water light up at night when you put your hand in it.
Next on the Montezuma itinerary was a corn tortilla-making class. We learned from the local culinary master how to make this staple food of the peninsula, and here is one special trick. To make the tortilla, you have to put the dough on parchment-like paper and tap it while turning it until thin. Some people judge the quality by the sound the two layers of parchment paper make underneath when you tap, resembling a beat to a song. Others count the number of taps it takes to flatten the tortilla. It was by far our favorite experience in Costa Rica.
Road Trip to Monteverde: Mystic Cloud Forest
Monteverde is one of the best places in Costa Rica that you can visit. If you are short on time and can only make it to one destination, make it Monteverde. When we think of Costa Rica, we envision rainforests, colorful birds, and unique wildlife. All of these things and more will be waiting for you in Monteverde.
Google maps said the drive to Monteverde would take four hours, but it probably took us around six, stopping for Costa Rican sustenance and to stock up on fresh fruit at markets on the side of the road. Juicy watermelons and pineapples in tow, corn crackers with cheese filling and pineapple topping sampled (who knew what a wonderful flavor combination that is!), we finally arrived at our dreamy Airbnb nestled above the treetops of Costa Rica rainforest. Waking up to clouds rolling into the valley was magical. We enjoyed our leisurely morning before checking out the number one thing to do in Monteverde.
The main attraction is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The utterly spectacular cloud forest has more than 2,500 plant species, 425 bird species, 658 species of butterflies, and 120 species of mammals. You can easily spend seven days hiking around the forest, wowed by the twisted tree branches and all the wildlife around, cascading waterfalls, and huge hanging bridges. If you are into bird watching make sure to go early in the morning to hopefully spot the stunning Quetzal, an extremely rare bird with a long tail and strikingly colorful feathers. Fun fact: the Quetzal is the symbol of Guatemala!
[Curious about Guatemala? Check out our Guatemala adventure here]
To recharge from all the walking and exploring, you should join the coffee, chocolate, and sugarcane tour in Monteverde where you learn about the three most popular exports of Costa Rica. To fuel the adrenaline junkies, there is a zip-lining tour in Monteverde where you can soar above Costa Rican cloud forest at high speed. And for nature lovers, you can get up close and personal with some species on tours to a butterfly garden, a bat jungle, a frog pond, and a hummingbird garden.
Costa Rica is really magical! Considered to possess the highest density of biodiversity of any country worldwide, it is the best place to immerse yourself in nature and meet the unique species the National Parks are teeming with. And driving in Costa Rica is by far the best way to see the country and all of its remote beauty. We hope these tips come in useful when you plan your own adventure to Montezuma and Monteverde. Have an unforgettable trip!