Small Groups: Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!
Once you begin your Costa Rica travel, you will discover a country roughly the size of West Virginia with an incredible amount of biodiversity. More than one-quarter of the nation is protected land, and swirling white-water rivers thrill ... thermal mud baths soothe ... tropical forests enthrall ... and colonial cities charm, making Costa Rica an adventure-seeker’s paradise.
In addition to exploring its prime locales by horseback, raft, and trail, we’ll also discover Costa Rica’s other great natural resource—its people—as our small group dines with a local family, visits farmers and artisans, and meets children at a village school. From the rapids of the Río Sarapiquí to the colorful canopy of Tirimbina, from the mountains of Guanacaste to the sun-drenched Pacific Coast, Costa Rica beckons us with countless wonders, all summed up by a popular saying among Costa Ricans: pura vida—this is the life.
Upon arrival at the airport, an OAT representative meets us and assists with the transfer to our hotel, where we meet our Trip Leader and our fellow travelers, including those arriving from the pre-trip extensions to Guatemala: Antigua & Tikal and Nicaragua's Colonial Cities & Volcanic Landscapes. The evening is free to relax or explore on your own.
After breakfast and a Welcome Briefing with our Trip Leader, our Costa Rica travel begins with discoveries in San José—Costa Rica’s capital city—founded in 1737 and rich in culture and history. We begin with a walk through the National Park, which is well-shaded by tropical trees and contains the National Monument, a bronze statue symbolizing the bravery of the Costa Rican people.
From there, we continue through downtown San José to the ornately decorated National Theatre (Teatro Nacional), passing the National Library and Morazan Park along the way. One of the country’s most impressive architectural accomplishments, the National Theatre is proudly regarded as the "jewel of the nation," and we'll explore it today on a guided tour, before departing San José on the famous Pan-American Highway.
From the city, we drive through the beautiful Central Valley to Alajuela, the coffee capital of Costa Rica, where we stop at Doka Estate, a 100-year-old coffee finca (plantation). At this Costa Rican National Heritage site, we’ll learn why locals call the coffee bean the grano d’oro, or golden seed, and find out how this valuable crop is produced. We enjoy lunch at the plantation, and then continue on to Sarapiquí.
We arrive at our comfortable lodge outside the town of La Virgen later this afternoon. Our eco-friendly lodgings here are situated alongside the Tirimbina Biological Reserve. A lush tropical rain forest teeming with native fauna, this habitat is also a seasonal home to migratory birds from the northern U.S. and Canada. After getting settled, we take a leisurely walk around the lodge’s grounds. This evening, we enjoy dinner at our lodge's open-air restaurant before settling into our thatched-roof rooms, where we may be lulled to sleep by the soothing sounds of the jungle, and awaken to a symphony of birdsongs.
Arise early this morning to discover Tirimbina’s abundant birdlife on a daybreak nature walk, if you wish. After breakfast at our lodge, we'll enjoy a little leisure time.
We'll regroup and drive to the nearby Río Sarapiquí. Flowing into the San Juan River and the Lake of Nicaragua, the Sarapiquí is one of several rivers that run down from Costa Rica’s mountainous central highlands, the Cordillera Central. The surrounding land varies in altitude from 112 to 9,500 feet, which is a big reason so many migratory birds congregate in the region—more than 300 species of them at last count. Here you have a choice: rafting on Class I-II rapids of the Sarapiquí, or learning about tropical flora and fauna during a walk along its banks.
Costa Rica is a destination for rafters from around the world, and we surveyed several of its rivers before selecting the Sarapiquí for the quality of its rapids, which are sporty enough to be fun, but mild enough to be enjoyed by first-timers. Those who opt to raft will get a complete introduction to river safety from our professional boatmen, before we board the raft and enjoy the ride while witnessing the diverse wildlife—including green iguanas, monkeys, and sloths—that dwells along the riverside.
For those who prefer not to raft, a local guide will lead a nature walk through the jungle and pasturelands that surround the Sarapiquí. This walk will provide the opportunity to spot some of the region’s more elusive animal species, and to view the rich flora of this verdant environment up close. Both the river rafting and the nature walk last about two hours, after which the two groups come together for lunch at a local restaurant, where we can relax in the mid-day sun and compare notes about our morning's discoveries.
After a lunch together, you can choose to join us for an optional visit to a local, organic pineapple finca. On this excursion, we’ll enjoy an in-depth look at the finca's fields and facilities, learn about pineapple cultivation techniques throughout history, discover how the Sarapiqui region’s fertile, volcanic soil nurtures these tropical plants, and enjoy a taste of the "Fruit of Kings."
Tonight, after dinner at our hotel, we enjoy a presentation on Costa Rica’s bats. We’ll learn all about these unique flying mammals, which represent more than 50% of the country's mammal population, and have the chance to acquaint ourselves with some live specimens, captured humanely by the research center’s nets in the evening and then released back into the wild. Please note: If Day 3 falls on a Sunday, we’ll enjoy our nature walk in Tirimbina Biological Reserve in the afternoon and the optional Pineapple Farm tour will be available on Day 4.
After breakfast today, we visit the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, an innovative education and research center devoted to the preservation of this endangered tropical forest ecosystem. We’ll enjoy a nature walk along the reserve’s woodland trails, where we may spot species like the Montezuma Oropendola bird. During our walk, we’ll cross the nearly 860-foot suspension bridge over the Rió Sarapiquí. Midway across the bridge, the river flows around a natural island, which we explore in search of local wildlife before continuing along the bridge to the river's opposite bank.
We have lunch at our lodge, then depart for our hotel in Chachagua, located on a private rain forest reserve. Along the way, we’ll stop to visit a local market, where we’ll discover some of the unique crafts and fresh produce from Costa Rica’s fertile Alajuela Valley. After arriving at our hotel, we’ll take an orientation walk around its lush grounds and then sit down to dinner.
We can opt to wake up early to take in the sights and sounds of Costa Rica at sunrise, as we go in search of the area’s indigenous birds with our Trip Leader. Then, after breakfast at our lodge, we enjoy a unique opportunity to spend A Day in the Life of a Costa Rican village, including a visit to a local elementary school (when in session), supported in part by Grand Circle Foundation. The children warmly welcome us with infectious enthusiasm, and with their colorful traditional costumes and cheerful demeanor they may leave a lasting impression on all who meet them—past travelers have found this to be a highlight of the trip.
During our visit, spend some time with the students one-on-one, talk with their teachers and parents, and learn about Costa Rica’s universal educational system. Long a national priority—and a focus of government spending following the abolition of its army—Costa Rica’s policy of universal education has resulted in a literacy rate of 95%. While successful in educating their students, many school systems in Costa Rica suffer from a lack of funding, and the school we visit today has benefited from a Grand Circle Foundation grant, used to improve and expand the school building and grounds by constructing a new ceiling, classrooms, sidewalks, and even (at the San Francisco School) a self-sustaining microfarm project, which provides the students and their community with much-needed nutrition and revenue.
Your day also includes a visit to a local village for a Home-Hosted Lunch. Costa Rican cuisine is simple and wholesome, and a typical meal features chicken, beef, or fish (sometimes grilled), served with tortillas, gallo pinto (a zesty rice-and-bean side dish), and palmito (hearts of palm) salad. But whatever's on the menu, you can count on the warm hospitality of your hosts, who may share some of their experiences of rural life in Costa Rica with us.
Then, we return to our hotel, where the afternoon is at leisure. You will be able to try your hand at preparing Costa Rican bocas (appetizers) during a hands-on cooking lesson before dinner at our hotel.
This morning after breakfast, we enjoy a nature walk along our hotel's trails. Then, our Costa Rica travel continues as we meet one of Costa Rica's more forward-thinking farmers during a visit the organic farm of Don Juan Bautista, a retired school principal. There, we'll get an introduction to sustainable agriculture techniques, learn about the production of sugar cane, and enjoy an included lunch that features ingredients fresh from his fields.
After lunch, we depart for the town of La Fortuna, the "Front Yard of the Arenal Volcano," a town of thermal spas and verdant hills. Our home for the next two nights, La Fortuna offers spectacular views of the beautifully cone-shaped Arenal Volcano when weather permits. Upon our arrival early this afternoon, we’ll have time to relax or explore the grounds of our hotel. Or, you can join our optional tour to discover The Source of Chocolate. We'll hike to a plot in the rain forest where the cacao beans used to make chocolate are grown in the traditional way, then see the whole process of chocolate making and taste the delicious results. In the evening, we all gather for an included dinner.
Early this morning, we can elect to join a nature walk led by our Trip Leader on the trails that surround our hotel. We have breakfast together afterward, then travel to the Río Frío, where we board a small boat to explore this complex inland waterway. We’ll likely see wading birds—like Northern Jacanas and Wood Storks—as well as many turtles and butterflies during our cruise. Keep your binoculars and camera ready—we might be lucky enough spot larger animals, like the spider or Howler Monkeys, sloths, and caimans that live by the river.
We enjoy lunch while on the river today. After our cruise, we head to La Fortuna, where we enjoy a little time for independent exploration in this picturesque town. Then, we return to our hotel, where the balance of the afternoon is at leisure. Dinner is on your own this evening.
Early this morning, our Trip Leader will lead an elective walk around our hotel's grounds. Then our Costa Rica travel continues with a drive to Guanacaste Province in the northwestern part of the country, a large section of which has been set aside for preservation and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dominated by the Guanacaste mountain range, this region has a distinctive dry tropical climate and is famous for its thermal pools, which we’ll enjoy later in our stay.
Our lodge is situated in the primary forest of Rincón de la Vieja National Park. We’ll arrive around mid-afternoon and take an orientation walk. From the lodge, local trails lead into wild expanses of tropical dry forest where we may spot peccaries, armadillos, motmots, and Capuchin and Howler monkeys, as well as White-fronted Amazon Parrots, Spectacled Owls, and more than 270 other avian species. We’ll have time to savor our lodge’s mountain views and explore its lush grounds before we dine together at the lodge’s restaurant tonight.
Following breakfast, we begin our day with an elective horseback ride that takes us through the verdant jungle and into the remarkable thermal area near our lodge. Those of us looking to travel by horseback will get a safety talk and riding lesson from experienced wranglers before we saddle up and ride through gently sloping pastureland and along the tropical dry forest’s narrow trails, while those who prefer a motorized means of transport will enjoy a tractor ride instead. Either way, everyone is heading for the same destination: the thermal baths!
We can thank the Rincon de la Vieja volcano in northwestern Costa Rica for creating this rustic, open-air retreat. Subterranean thermal currents produce warm mineral mud pots, hot and warm pools, and even natural saunas. Getting close to nature is part of the Costa Rica experience, and we experience it firsthand this morning.
What better way to shake off the trail dust than by savoring a soothing soak? Here, we invite you to participate in the typical mud bath regimen, starting with a pore-opening sauna near a fumarola, a thermal vent in the earth’s crust. Next, slather on handfuls of warm mineral-rich mud, transported here from bubbling pools deep within the mountain. Finally, rinse off the mud and then dip into a warm, relaxing thermal pool to wash the rest of your tensions away. It's a tranquil, rejuvenating, and—when several group members are caked from head to toe in soothing gray mud—hilarious experience!
We make our way back to the hotel for lunch, after which you may choose to join us for a thrilling Forest Canopy Ride. We begin our optional excursion with a moderate, 20-minute uphill hike, followed by a safety talk. Then, strapped into our harnesses and wearing thick leather gloves, we head to the first of ten platforms high up in the treetops, where we’re sent off on the ride of our lives. Whizzing from tree to tree on a zip-line, we’ll experience the thrill of flight while enjoying panoramic views of the upper layers of the forest. We can also choose to zip through the canopy “taxi-style”—together with an instructor who handles the braking while we enjoy the ride.
Or, spend the afternoon at leisure at the lodge, where you can enjoy a nature walk on your own, relax and write in your journal, go for another round of birding on the grounds. We conclude the day with dinner at our hotel. Please note:Travelers on May-November departures can enjoy today's optional Forest Canopy Ride tour before breakfast, followed by all other activities as described.
In the morning, we head south to the Pacific Coast and the province of Puntarenas, stopping en route for lunch on your own. After we arrive at our hotel, perhaps you’ll join us on an optional excursion to a protected cove, where you'll board outrigger canoes and paddle along the coast to beautiful Limoncito Beach. We regroup this evening for an included dinner at our hotel. Please note: On select departures, the optional Ocean Outrigger Canoe tour will occur early in the morning on Day 11, with the Río Tárcoles crocodile cruise (described on Day 12) following in the afternoon. The visit to Manuel Antonio National Park (described on Day 11) will then occur on Day 12.
We spend our morning in Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. One of the smallest—and also most popular—of Costa Rica’s national parks, this lush reserve encompasses four beaches, island bird sanctuaries, coral reefs, and a luxuriant rain forest. Manuel Antonio is also one of only two habitats in the country for the endangered Squirrel Monkey. As we walk along the nature trails here this morning, we’ll keep an eye out for these friendly primates as well as Two- and Three-toed Sloths, Capuchin Monkeys, Giant Iguanas and more.
We spend a full morning at Manuel Antonio, including plenty of time for hiking or relaxing on its beaches before lunch at a local restaurant. After lunch, we'll spend some time in Quepos nearby to take a look at life in this coastal town. Later in the afternoon,we return to our hotel. Dinner tonight is on your own.
Today, we board a small boat and drift down the Río Tárcoles, a partially tidal estuary that forms a border of the park, and Costa Rica’s largest habitat for crocodiles. Our naturalist Trip Leader will give us an introduction to these “prehistoric” animals, which can be up to 20 feet long, and we’ll keep our eyes peeled for them as the river carries us along. The mangrove forest of the Río Tárcoles is also home to many other creatures, and the birdwatching here is among the best in the country. Scarlet Macaws are sometimes seen here flying overhead in pairs, and we may also spot egrets, osprey, Frigate Birds, Roseate Spoonbills, and White Ibis during our journey.
Then, we depart for our return trip to San José, enjoying lunch on our own en route, then stopping again in the afternoon to visit local artisans at a wood shop and a leather-working factory to learn more about Costa Rican handcrafts. In the evening, we’ll say adios to our Trip Leader and traveling companions over a Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant in San José. Please note: Travelers on select departures will enjoy the visit to Manuel Antonio National Park (described on Day 11) today, before departing for San José.
We rise before daybreak for an early breakfast, and transfer to the airport for our flight home. Those travelers taking our optional Tortuguero National Park: Ultimate Rainforest Experience post-trip extension will transfer overland to Tortuguero this morning.