As the capital and largest city in Costa Rica, San José is an excellent place to spend your time in the country. In part, because there is so much to do in the city, but also because it’s near the center of Costa Rica which makes day trips from San José a breeze.
Generally, day trips are going to take at least an hour’s commute because of the terrain in Costa Rica. But there’s too much to see in Costa Rica to spend the whole trip in San José.
Depending on how long you spend in the country, you could do several day trips on your vacation. Going hot springs hopping, galavanting around Arenal Volcano, walking through La Paz Waterfall Gardens, or seeing as many national park spots as you can, there are tons of ways to enjoy your Costa Rican adventure.
Many of the biggest day trip hot spots from San José are just an hour or two away while others will require a longer commute. Once you see the Costa Rican wilderness and culture (not to mention the incredible food) you’ll start planning your next journey around the country.
- Most Popular Day Trip from San José: Manuel Antonio National Park
- Best Day Trip for families: La Paz Waterfall Gardens
- Best Day Trip for beaches: Jacó Beach
- Best Day Trip for nature: Tortuga Island
- Best Day Trip for culture: La Fortuna
- Best Day Trip for activities: Irazú Volcano
1. Get in Touch with Nature at Manuel Antonio National Park
Trekking from San José to Manuel Antonio National Park is going to take a while. It’ll take about three hours each way to get to the park, and even if it’s a long time in the car, I highly recommend it. There are a lot of national parks in Costa Rica, but Manuel Antonio National Park is by far the best.
Not only do you get miles and miles of trails through the lush rain forest at Manuel Antonio, but you also get enchanting white sand beach access to cool off in between trail walks. In fact, there are two beaches in the park, so don’t forget to bring your swim gear along. You’ll be bummed if you forget it, trust me.
With the help of a guide, you’ll see all the wildlife you could imagine. From the tiniest insects to sloths napping in a tree, Manuel Antonio National Park is a biodiverse paradise. It demonstrates why the biodiversity in Costa Rica is so important to protect.
You may even spot some of my favorite little ground dwellers – the coatimundi. Also called a coati, these little fellows are adorable raccoon-like animals with long noses and tails.
They’re a lot of fun to watch because of how twitchy their noses are. You can find coati all over Costa Rica, especially on roadsides because they travel in groups and sometimes motorists feed them snacks. Here is your disclaimer to not feed wild animals because it can encourage dangerous behavior.
When visiting the park, if you choose not to have a guide, be careful at the Manuel Antonio entrance for fake tour guides. They may even look like actual park rangers but they aren’t. You don’t have to buy parking or tickets from them; they’re just trying to pressure you into the sale. Just keep going to the entrance and you’ll be ok.
See Related: Most Stunning, Unique Costa Rica Animals
2. Feel the Serenity at La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Beyond the stunning views of La Paz Waterfall, the surrounding rainforest, the wildlife, and the butterfly gardens, La Paz Waterfall Gardens can be an all-day adventure on its own. Getting to La Paz Waterfall Gardens takes about 75 minutes each way from San José, so the commute is pretty reasonable.
Once you’re there, you have access to their restaurants and the entire premises. If you’re going to spend the whole day, I recommend splitting the day in half. Either going down to La Paz Waterfall first, having lunch, and then doing the gardens and wildlife areas or vice versa.
Unless you’re in very good shape, don’t do what we did and try to get through the La Paz Waterfall areas in an hour. There are over 600 stairs leading visitors to the different viewing areas on the property and trying to rush through them might make some travelers sick.
Feel free to take your time. Stop in each area for a little rest to take in the view and then carry on. The most difficult section by far is the final stretch going back up the stairs which have very few resting points.
If you’d rather not just dedicate a day trip to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, you can stay at their on-property lodge. The Peace Lodge is a gorgeous hotel property with a spa, room service, airport shuttles, and an outdoor pool.
Be sure to get some traditional Costa Rican breakfast while you’re here, or at least order the national dish, casado, which is one of my favorites. Beyond the delicious food, if you stay there, you can spend some quality time in La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
3. Relax or Adventure Around Jacó Beach
The biggest challenge with staying in San José is that it’s totally landlocked. In order to get to the white sand beaches of Jacó Beach, you’ll hit the road for just under two hours. That may be a lot for a chill beach day, but there is a lot to do in the area to fill a day besides just hanging on the sand.
Take part of the day to go horseback riding and see some waterfalls or take an ATV and ziplining tour. You can obviously just pack a picnic and never leave your beach spot, though you’d be ignoring everything else that makes Jacó Beach an iconic Costa Rican destination.
Jacó Beach is also a great place for first-time or beginner surfers to catch some waves. There are plenty of professionals offering surf lessons from the beach.
The waters near Jacó are gentle enough for newbies while still having enough swell to be a good place to surf. So it’s an excellent spot to give it a try.
Not far from the beautiful beach, you could indulge in a chocolate tour or create your own version of a bar crawl. Jacó is a partying destination so there is no shortage of beachside cocktails.
Watch the sunset from Clarita’s Beach Bar or enjoy some Thai food at Jerah. Within walking distance of the beach, there are a lot of options on the spectrum of food and drink offers.
See Related: Most Beautiful Beaches in the World
4. Fall in Love at Tortuga Island
Getting in tune with nature isn’t just designated to the national parks in Costa Rica. One of the country’s most visited and beloved places is Isla Tortuga, or Tortuga Island, and for good reason.
Between the drive and the boat to the island, it will take you a little less than four hours to get to Tortuga from San José. But the idyllic island with its calm gulf waters will capture your heart.
Named for the turtles that reside all around Tortuga Island, visitors can see dolphins, whales, and turtles while relaxing at the beach. Go snorkeling or paddle boarding in the aqua waters, lounge beneath a palm tree, or go hiking around the island.
Wander through the Islas Negritos Biological Reserve for some biodiverse wildlife sightings. Part of the reason that the area is protected is that the land serves as an important nesting area for marine birds that take refuge on Tortuga Island. There are flora and fauna in the reserve you won’t see elsewhere in Costa Rica.
Unlike the other long-haul day trips on this list, you, unfortunately, cannot stay overnight on Tortuga Island. If you don’t want to make the journey from San José, you can stay in Puntarenas Province which is just a short ferry ride away from Isla Tortuga.
Los Sueños Marriot Ocean and Golf Resort will give you some beachfront comfort while OPacifico Hotel Boutique will provide similar amenities with a more mid-range price point. For budget travelers, the Puerto Azul Hotel & Club Nautico and Hotel Cerro Lodge are economic choices still surrounded by the lush nature of Costa Rica.
5. Get to Know Costa Rica in La Fortuna
When it comes to going to La Fortuna, most visitors know the area for two things: the Arenal Volcano and the hot springs. While Arenal Volcano National Park is a huge draw to the area, La Fortuna doesn’t get enough credit for being a destination in itself in Costa Rica. In fact, many travelers think the area is just called Arenal because of the volcano.
About three hours each way, La Fortuna can easily fill a day out of San José. For outdoorsy adventurers, you can check out the Arenal Volcano, various hot springs, and waterfalls with a combination tour or see La Fortuna Waterfall, Arenal Volcano, and the hanging bridges for another day of exploration.
For those who want to get to know Costa Rica more intimately, La Fortuna can be experienced differently. Take part in a rainforest chocolate tour to get to know how cacao impacted the country’s history. Take a cooking class to learn some Costa Rican dishes before enjoying the fruits of your labor or visit an organic farm with a farm-to-table cooking experience.
Once night falls, you can enjoy cocktails and live music at the popular Voodoo Bar or Lava Lounge which is usually playing reggae music. It can be hard to fit everything you want to experience in La Fortuna into a single-day trip, especially if you want to see Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal or relax in the many local hot springs.
If the prospect of La Fortuna, Costa Rica, sounds like something you want to enjoy for more than a day, consider staying at one of the many area hotels like my favorite the Arenal Springs Resort and Spa with its cozy mini cabins, the boutique Casa del Rio, or the funky and super budget-friendly Selina.
See Related: Costa Rica Packing List: What to Pack for Your Trip
6. Explore Irazú Volcano and Orosi Valley
Irazú Volcano National Park is almost the polar opposite of Arenal Volcano National Park. Because the Irazú Volcano was consistently active until the early 1960s, the area around it isn’t as lush as its cousin the Arenal Volcano. It’s also the largest volcano in Costa Rica, so it packs a wallop when it is active.
Even so, nature has a way of accommodating itself so visitors can look for the resident volcano junco and volcano hummingbirds.
A 90-minute drive will take you from the big city of San José to the almost otherworldly Irazú Volcano. Many tours are offered to combine the volcano with other natural wonders in the area since it doesn’t take all day to see the now-deep blue water lagoon in the crater.
The nearby Orosi Valley reintroduces visitors to the exuberant plethora of plant life they’ve come to know in Costa Rica. Immerse yourself in the rejuvenating Hacienda Orosi Hot Springs after seeing the tempting lagoon at Irazú.
Or pay a visit to Costa Rica’s oldest still active church, Iglesia Colonial de Orosi, which dates back to 1743. The ruins of the country’s oldest church are also in this area: the Ujarrás church from 1693.
Costa Rica’s second largest volcano is practically neighbors with Irazú. The Turrialba Volcano is still presently active, so access to the area can depend on how the volcano is behaving. You can visit both volcanos and the Guayabo Archeological Site in one three-part tour to enhance your appreciation for local history.
The Guayabo National Monument, found along the slope of the Turrialba, recognizes the ancient town that once housed several thousand people 3,000 years ago. Guayabo, which translates to “guava tree,” is especially important in Costa Rica because it is the largest pre-Columbian ruin ever discovered in the country.
7. Go Rafting on the Pacuare River
For brand-new and experienced rafters alike, the Pacuare River is one of those places you want to visit for a whitewater rafting trip. Considered one of the best rafting rivers in the world, the Pacuare is rated a three to four on a scale of six.
Technically, there are ratings for seven and eight but not for commercial whitewater rafting. For context, a Class III rapid is considered appropriate for beginners.
Even if you’re nervous as a first-timer, whitewater rafting can be one of the most exhilarating experiences of your life. My first time rafting was in Costa Rica and it remains one of my favorite memories of all time.
As a non-sports, risk-averse traveler, I’m still surprised at the whole experience. You’ll be astounded at how much fun you and your group will have navigating the river. Plus your rafting guides are there to help along the way, so there’s no need to fear.
It will take 90 minutes to get to Pacuare from San José, but a rafting trip to one of the best rivers anywhere is worth it. There is plenty of time during a Pacuare rafting day to enjoy the scenery. That’s one reason the Pacuare River is considered one of the best.
Surrounded by lush jungle, the river has many wildlife residents that rafters can spot while going downstream. Toucans, coatis, sloths, parrots, and other rainforest-dwelling critters will be around to greet you on your journey. Think of a rafting trip on the Pacuare as an adrenaline-filled wildlife tour.
See Related: Best Whitewater Rafting in the World
8. Get a Bird’s-Eye View with an Aerial Tram and Zipline
Back in Jacó, 90 minutes from San José, a plethora of adventures exist outside of beach time. The city is home to a tour host called Rainforest Adventures which offers a much different rainforest experience than you’ve had so far. Their Pacific Aerial Tram takes guests up and away in a relaxed ride through the rainforest.
Aboard Rainforest Adventures’ tram, there is plenty of time to take in the surrounding greenery and find the wildlife among the trees. Spotting the birds is a particular tourist favorite since Costa Rica is one of the best birding locations on Earth. Over 900 species of birds reside in the country.
For folks wanting that bird’s-eye view with a side of adrenaline, ziplines are also a popular activity in Jacó. Rainforest Adventures even has a five-in-one experience that includes zip lines, the tram, hiking, their butterfly garden, a high ropes course, and a rock climbing wall.
9. Marvel at Braulio Carrillo National Park
As Costa Rica’s largest national park, Braulio Carrillo is an absolute marvel to behold. Made up of both cloud forest (a high-altitude forest where clouds hover among the canopy) and lush rainforest, the park offers visitors the best of both ecological worlds.
Just half an hour outside of San José, Braulio Carrillo is the easiest day trip of any from this list. With over 32 miles of hiking trails, there is so much to see in a day.
The rainforest wildlife here includes over 500 bird species and 1,150 mammal species. You can spot everything from tapirs and ocelots to warblers and quetzals.
Aboard the aerial tram at the national park, you’ll get an even closer look at some of the critters and plant life that can’t be seen from the forest floor. And just like in Jacó, you can kick the experience up a notch by ziplining through the forest too.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Liberia, Costa Rica
10. Witness Turtle Nestings in Tortuguero National Park
It shouldn’t be surprising that Tortuguero National Park whose name translates to “place of turtles” is one of the foremost turtle nesting sites in the world. From July to October each year, the endangered green sea turtle, as well as giant leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles lay their eggs in the sand. That’s why this park is such a vital piece of protected land.
Tour companies will take visitors through the park on boats to see the diverse wildlife from the rivers and canals. You can also rent kayaks or canoes to go through the park on your own. The kinds of local wildlife you’ll see here include turtles, crocodiles, monkeys, and many, many birds.
You can even take tours at night during turtle nesting season which is when turtles are most active. They nest in the dark to protect their eggs and newly hatched babies from predators.
It’s a dangerous life for little turtles — only one in 1,000 will survive until adulthood. Turtles nesting is an incredible wildlife feat so don’t let the opportunity to see it pass you by.
11. Hike Around Poás Volcano National Park
Don’t embark on the nearly two-hour drive from San José to Poás Volcano National Park thinking you’ll spend the whole day seeing the volcano. Because the volcano is still active, you’re only permitted to be up by its crater for about 20 minutes because of gas emissions. The walk up to the crater is a pretty easy walk, though if you are sensitive to air quality, take it easy the closer you get to the crater viewing area.
Even from afar, the crater is a stunner. Not only does it look like an amazing hot spring, but it’s also one of the largest craters on Earth. It is significant enough that the park is one of the few in Costa Rica that is wheelchair friendly.
Since the volcano won’t take up an entire day at the park, tour companies offer a combination tour with visits to a coffee plantation and La Paz Waterfall Gardens. It’s a fascinating way to see an area that, because of frequent acid rain from the volcano, represents a lack of life, then to see how some of the best coffee in the world is produced followed by a forest that’s constantly growing.
See Related: Best Hiking Trails in the World You Must Visit
12. Get Outside at Arenal Volcano
Other than the cultural spots found throughout La Fortuna, Arenal Volcano National Park’s appeal connects to the area’s natural wonders as a whole. It is the area where adventure tours are born. Not only do the day tours include the majestic volcano, they often combine hot springs tours and waterfalls as well.
Arenal Volcano is formerly the most active volcano in Costa Rica, though it’s been in a resting state since 2010. You can’t see lava flows or magma here, though its massive presence is impossible to ignore. The closest you’ll probably get to volcanic activity in the volcano’s area is enjoying some hot springs.
Some of the best tours include a stop at the area’s hanging bridges which elevates visitors’ experience in the tree canopies. Day tours include visiting the Arenal Volcano area, the bridges, and La Fortuna Waterfall. Beginning near the volcano to see the natural elements of the area is a fantastic way to kick off any day trip from San José.
13. Doka Coffee Estate
If coffee plantations aren’t on your list of tours, you should reconsider the list. The frozen frappe sample you get at Doka is enough for this day trip to make the list.
It was so delicious, I asked our guide José from Passport Adventure to get the recipe for me — he did. And you absolutely have to try it. It’s smooth, just sweet enough, and the perfect end to a coffee plantation tour.
Doka is a coffee plantation owned by the Vargas family which has been producing coffee since 1940. This is one of the largest coffee plantations in Costa Rica and the coffee tour takes you through all of the processes of making coffee, from plucking the coffee cherries from their plants to drying the seeds in the sun and everything in between. You’ll never take a cup of coffee for granted again after this coffee plantation tour.
For visitors interested in more culture of Costa Rica, there is a combination tour with Doka and oxcart factories to learn more about agriculture in Costa Rica. Of all the day tours you can take in the country, a coffee tour at Doka might be the most surprising.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to do in Tamarindo, Costa Rica
14. Baldi Hot Springs
Even non-hot spring connoisseurs will appreciate a Baldi Hot Springs tour. Believed to have healing properties, the springs are actually the largest in the world. Costa Rica’s hot spring experiences are also some of the best.
What could be better than a day tour that takes you to the heights of the Arenal Hanging Bridges before indulging in the Baldi Hot Springs? Or one that takes you to Arenal Volcano before heading to the springs? As far as day tours are concerned, visiting Baldi is probably the most relaxing. You’ll easily snooze on the ride back after a full-day tour that includes Baldi.
When the serene waters at the hot springs beckon you to stay, consider extending that day tour by staying at the Baldi Hot Springs Hotel & Spa. Guests have access to the 25 thermal pools, a free delicious breakfast, and the lovely gardens all around the property.
Anyone doing a day tour has to pay entrance fees to come back again. Otherwise, you can stay at the nearby Paradise Hot Springs instead which is more mid-range than Baldi.
15. Pay a Visit to the Toucan Rescue Ranch
Although the Toucan Rescue Ranch (TRR) was developed to rehabilitate toucans, they help all local wildlife. Nature tours at TRR take on a whole new meaning for visitors. Just a half hour outside of San José, travelers can take a private day tour of the facility and learn all about the animal sanctuary.
Clearly, there isn’t a nature park shortage in Costa Rica, though TRR is different from many others. Nature lovers will adore their time at this animal sanctuary where they can learn not just about the animals there but their natural habitat as well. Then you’ll have more appreciation for them at home in the lush rainforest.
A day tour includes learning about the wide range of wildlife at the TRR animal sanctuary which includes spider monkeys, toucans, sloths, and parrots among many others. Take some time to learn about how they rescue, rehabilitate, and release their residents. Further, discover how organizations like TRR help protect Costa Rica’s important biodiversity.
What is San José, Costa Rica, known for?
On top of being the capital city of Costa Rica, the country’s largest city is also home to many interesting museums, the National Theater, and plenty of shopping. Costa Rica’s capital has so much to offer travelers besides proximity to the international airport.
How many days do you need in San José, Costa Rica?
Day tour plans aside, you will want at least a few days to experience everything you want to in San José. The country’s largest city is the perfect central place if you plan on traveling around Costa Rica, especially the Central Valley area.
Can you travel Costa Rica in a day?
While you can certainly drive through the country in one day, you’ll need a lot more time to explore and see all of the sights. Costa Rica is a small country and it only takes about eight hours to drive from coast to coast.
The best way to fully experience Costa Rica is by breaking up the journey into multiple parts. That way, you can spend time in each area and not devote your whole trip to traveling.
Is there a lot to do in San José, Costa Rica?
Yes! From museums to galleries, lots of shopping, and restaurants, San José has everything a major metropolitan area would. Plus, since it is the capital of Costa Rica, there are important government buildings there too.
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