This ain’t your minivan family road trip. Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is beautiful — with lush wildlife-stuffed rain forests, picturesque beaches, secluded hotels and adrenaline-fueled activities like zip lining and surfing (oh, and a volcano along the way).
But driving here is a bit more complicated than your standard cruise control highway trip. Many of the beach towns are connected by unpaved roads that flood or become impassable in the rainy season (May to November). That doesn’t mean this isn’t a place for road tripping; you just have to be a little adventurous. 4WD is a good idea here, as is sticking to the main paved highways when possible.
Here’s a route that takes you past some of the region’s finest sights — and its most fun things to do.
Begin your trek in the country’s capital, where you’ll find the conveniences of a big city: plazas, markets, rental car facilities and the likes. If you’re thirsty for those green jungles and blue waves Costa Rica’s so famous for, you don’t need to spend a lot of time in San Jose. It is worthwhile to pop into some of the city’s fine museums, like the Museum of Precolombian Gold or the Jade Museum.
From San Jose, make your way west to the Nicoya Peninsula. There are two ways reach Punta Islita, your first stop on the route: driving up and around the Gulf of Nicoya, or taking the ferry from Puntarenas, then getting on the peninsula’s main highway and pick up the route to the resort.
Base yourself in Punta Islita, a secluded beach village and eco adventures hub. This is a great jumping off point for ziplining tours through the rainforest (keep an eye out for macaws, butterflies and sloths), horseback riding and yoga. Check with your hotel about what activities are included with your room — some excursions may be included with your stay.
From Punta Islita, double back up to the main road to make your way up the peninsula to the legendary beaches of Guanacaste.
Guanacaste Province on the westernmost coast of the Nicoya Peninsula is one of the most popular places to go in Costa Rica. Base yourself in Tamarindo, a surf town-turned vacation spot. The waves here are a big draw for experienced surfers — but it’s also a popular place for beginners, so even if you’ve never popped up on a board you can try a lesson from one of the local surf shops and schools.
Worried about a wipeout? Don’t. Work out any bumps and bruises at the JW Marriott Guanacaste SPA, where you can get a massage right on the beach or unwind with a private yoga session and volcanic mud wrap.
It’s easy to get comfortable in Tamarindo, but you’ll want to pull yourself off the beach — to visit another epic beach! Drive north up the coast to Playa Hermosa and the Gulf of Papagayo.
Water sports are the name of the game here — you can swim, snorkel and dive, or rent a kayak and paddle out to try spot dolphins, sea turtles and birds. If you’d rather eat your fish than swim with them, you can do that too; many of the local restaurants will cook what you catch. Stick around for sunset — the colorful western view will convince you of the aptly named beach’s beauty.
Liberia, Arenal and Back to San Jose
Finish your journey by rounding back toward San Jose via Liberia, the capital of Guanacaste. While here, consider a detour to one of the country’s incredible volcanos, like Arenal or Rincon de la Vieja. You can hike, see eruption sites or soak in steamy hot springs while you gaze at the cone-like peaks. Once you’ve gotten your volcano fix, close the loop by driving back to San Jose.