Overlanding Itinerary: Costa Rica
Why Overland Costa Rica?
When you think Costa Rica, you might think of lavish, all inclusive resorts and freshly combed beaches; but we challenge you to dive a little deeper into the heart of Costa Rica. If you're looking for an unforgettable, immersive, and adventurous experience then overlanding is the way to go. You can certainly book yourself a tour that will take you to some of the same beautiful locations of the country, but no tour will give you the experience of falling asleep to the pitter patter of rain on your tent or driving your off-road vehicle through flowing rivers. The experience you get when choosing to overland and camp your way through Costa Rica will be unlike anything you've done before.
There is no 'right' itinerary for your journey through Costa Rica. The best part about choosing to overland is that you can go ANYWHERE you want at anytime! It's a good idea to arrive with a plan of places to camp and things you'd like to explore, but plan to have some flexibility in your schedule so that you can adjust should the weather not be ideal or if you decide to stay in one area longer than expected.
Before you go:
Buy yourself a map of the country and get familiar with the roads, cities, beaches, and National Parks. Spend some time understanding the layout of the country so that you can more easily make last minute changes to your plan.
Download iOverlander on your phone and identify possible campsites.
We highly recommend a gps app such Gaia GPS for your phone. This isn't necessary but sure was handy to know exactly where we were at all times, especially when we didn't have cell service.
Be sure to have either Waze or Google Maps on your phone to give you the best traffic directions. If you don't have data on your phone for international travel, don't worry, Nomad America provides you with a phone for your own use with both these apps installed.
(We ended up using a physical map, our Gaia app, iOverlander, and Google Maps. Each one had it's strengths in information and we were glad to have each one at different times.)
Arrival and Adventure Rig Pickup
You'll more than likely fly into San Jose which is very close to Nomad America (check out Nomad America's website here). Nomad America provides transportation from the airport or hotels in the area. Simply email them when and where you'd like to meet. We spent our first day at a hotel so we could comfortably rest from our late night flight which allowed us to be fully refreshed and ready for the adventure ahead on the day of pick up.
When you arrive at Nomad you'll find your rig ready and waiting for you. Don't panic if this is your first time overlanding or camping, Nomad will slowly review all the equipment to make sure you feel comfortable using it.
Here's what you can expect to come with your Overland Vehicle:
- Rooftop tent + mattress
- Pillows and blanket
- Halogen lights
- All terrain or Mud-Terrain tires
- Gas stove + gas
- Pots/pans + Cooking utensils
- Eating utensils (plates, forks, cups etc.)
- Flashlights and camp lights
- Folding table + folding chairs
- 12v converter to charge electronics
- Camping Hammocks - (Hammocks with mosquito nets)
- Yeti or Grizzly deep cooler/ice-chest
- Costa Rica Guidebook + Local map
- First Aid Kit
- Machete + Folding Shovel
- Local Cell phone with data
After you're comfortable with all your gear and the vehicle then it's time to hit to road and let the adventure begin!
Our Nomad America Adventure Rig
We looked at all of the available vehicle options and decided that we wanted something with a bit of personality, so we chose the Toyota Land Cruiser 'Troop Carrier'. This rig definitely had it's quirks but it so much fun to drive! We loved that it was reliable, powerful, and and different from any vehicle you can find in the United States. The kids especially liked that their seats were sideways benches. We wouldn't recommend this car if you've got really little ones though since it's not very compatible for car seats. We used MyFold car seats for our kids and they worked out okay. We also rented an extra rooftop tent to give us a bit more sleeping room. We are totally in love with the Troopy despite little annoyances like no auto-locking doors, cup holders, or rear air conditioning.
Depending on what you have planned for your meals, you may want to stop by the grocery store before leaving San Jose. There is a Walmart close to Nomad base camp and its a good place to find familiar brands and stock up on ingredients and other supplies. The cost of living in Costa Rica isn't cheap, so making your own meals is a great way to cut down on the costs. We're pretty minimalistic when it comes to food on the road. We bought cereal and oatmeal for breakfasts, sandwich dressings for lunch, and all the ingredients for only four dinners knowing that we wanted to eat out a few times too. Nomad does supply a pillow for each person but we typically like to sleep with more than one pillow so we purchased a few cheap pillows there, along with a few beach towels.
Up next is what our itinerary turned into. We had a different plan when we arrived and our plans changed again due to weather. Be sure to plan and expect changes in your own itinerary, the unknown and unexpected is part of the fun anyway!
Day 1 - La Fortuna
After grocery shopping and lunch, we filled up on gas and started our trek north, to La Fortuna, in search of waterfalls, wildlife, and rainforest. We left Nomad around 1:00 and arrived at La Fortuna falls around 3:30. There was a slightly quicker route but we were in search of adventure and beauty which you'll find more on the roads less traveled.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Entry: $36 for our family
If you've never experienced lush rainforest and deep jungle, then you are in for a treat. The flora and fauna are all breathtaking and around each corner is a beautiful surprise! After a steep walk down of about 530 steps you'll come to large waterfall that pours into a pool of turquoise water.
You can swim in both the pool directly below the falls and in a series of pools down stream that are better option for kids. Be sure to wear your swim suit and bring towels, water shoes, and some water for the hike out.
Camp # 1
GPS: 10.50146, -84.59470
Our first camp site was a 'wild' spot next to Rio Arenal with large trees to park under. Be sure to camp in some of the higher spots if rain is forecasted since the river can and will rise. This camp is named Rio Arenal on iOverlander and on a low-traffic dirt road. We pulled up to camp right at dusk (5:30pm) and set up the tents before it got too dark. Maybe it's just because it was our first night in the rainforest but everything seemed so amazing. The sound of the rainforest and the surprise glow bugs that came out after dark made the perfect end to our first day overlanding through CR.
You will need to cross a simple cement 'bridge' to get to this camp site which isn't a problem when the river is at normal levels. It can be more difficult when it rains hard as the river will rise and cover the bridge which is narrow and not straight. We don't recommend crossing if the bridge has been submerged in the river.
Day 2 - Sloths and Free Hot Springs
Costa Rica is full of diverse wildlife and one of the best parts about traveling there. You'll want to do your research on what animals you can see in what areas and possibly hire a guide to help you find some of the more reclusive ones. Bogarin Trail, in La Fortuna is an easy place to spot some gorgeous birds and maybe even some sloths!
Free Hot Springs
GPS: 10.488452, 84.722977
La Fortuna is located at the base of Arenal Volcano making it a hot spot for thermal activity. There are many options for soaking in different hot springs around the area including this free location in a river of hot water. It's located just down the street from Tabacon Resort and easy to find. Just look for the cars parked on the side of the road and park where the parking attendant indicates (it's a good idea to leave him a little bit of incentive to keep a close eye on your car).
Camp # 2
GPS: 10.532273, -84.904952
This spot is another wild campsite. Our original plan was to take a dirt road full of river crossings around the south side of Lake Arenal, but we'd been cautioned to avoid it if there had been lots of rain. See what we mean when we say you should be flexible in your route? Camp number two was located on the north side of Lake Arenal on a beautiful and uninhabited peninsula outside the town of Nuevo Arenal. This camp was a pleasant surprise and we plan to come back to this exact spot next time.
Day 3 - Tenorio National Park and Playa Rajada
You might want to skip your cold cereal breakfast and make a stop at the German Bakery in town on your way out of camp, you won't regret it. Our final destination of Day 3 is Playa Rajada. There are many ways you can get there but if you wanted an incredibly scenic way then we suggest taking this route over mountain peaks and through rolling green hills.
We didn't 'do' a lot this day if you don't count driving as an activity. Although we didn't make a lot of stops or do many excursions it still sticks out as an incredible day.
Tenorio National Park and Rio Celeste
This route will take you through Tenorio National Park and up to Rio Celeste. We didn't end up stopping at Rio Celeste because the rain made the iconic blue pools more of a chocolate brown color. We decided to keep driving, but this looks to normally be an attractive stop on your drive.
Camp # 3 - Playa Rajada
GPS: 11.030421, -85.744686
When you drive up to this locals favorite, jaw dropping beach, there will be no doubt in your mind that you made the right choice to overland. Camp # 4 is located on the sands of a gorgeous, remote beach near La Cruz in the very north of Costa Rica. If you show up on a weekday, you'll likely have the entire place to yourself like we did. You can expect to find crystal clear water, tide pools, a few trees for shade, and plenty of hermit crabs. This would be a perfect cove to explore on a SUP as there are virtually no waves.
Day 4 - Playa Zapatillal
You could easily spend longer exploring Playa Rajada than just one night but we were anxious to see more of what Costa Rica had to offer. After spending the morning exploring the tide pools and collecting seashells we packed up camp and found lunch just up the road in La Cruz at Mirador Punta Descartes. The food was delicious and the view was incredible. Be sure to try the local casado dish if you end up stopping by this spot.
Camp # 4
GPS: 10.396751, -85.830289
Zapatillal is another local's favorite beach that is a bit off the beaten path. Having a high clearance vehicle is highly recommended to access this camp spot. That won't be a problem if you're renting your car from Nomad America since all of their cars are totally equipped for an adventure like this.
Zapatillal is a 'wild' beach with soft white sand and plenty of trees to set up a hammock in. You might want to bring along a black light for some scorpion hunting and be sure to double check your shoes before putting them on!
Day 5 - San Juanillo Beach and Ostional
If you're hungry for a river crossing and haven't been able to experience one yet then we recommend taking the back roads to San Juanillo. It's just a little something to 'get your feet wet'.
San Juanillo Beach
San Juanillo is a unique beach with lots of tide pools and an interesting peninsula to explore. We spent our afternoon collecting sea shells and basking like seals on the beach with the locals doing the same thing.
Camp # 5 Ostenal - Gilbert's
GPS: 9.996823, -85.703611
Ostional is a fabulous place to stay if you're looking for some good surf or an up close experience with sea turtles. We recommend settling in for the night in Gilbert's back yard. You can find showers (cold) and a covered kitchen area that are included in your stay. Gilbert also offers nightly sea turtle tours at $10 a person.
With young kids on tow, we decided not to do any surfing, but it was very apparent this is a top spot for surfing. We saw many surfers and signs for private surf lessons. We'll totally being doing this when we come back again with older kids.
Ostional is a wildlife reserve that protects the life of millions of sea turtles. You won't want to miss out on experiencing these creatures up close and we recommend hiring a guide to help keep these animals safe and to help you have the best experience possible. We were able to watch a mama sea turtle lay and burry her eggs and then return back into the ocean. It was one of the coolest interactions we've ever had with wildlife. If you're there at the right time, you might even be able to watch some baby turtles hatch and make their way to the water!
Day 6 -Turin
At this point in your adventure you could keep heading south down the coast for more beach time or head inland like we did to walk through the cloud forest. Since it seemed like the weather had cleared up near Monteverde we couldn't resist having another go at our original planned route that would take us through several river crossings.
We spent the day driving towards Monteverde, stopping in Nicoya for a bit of souvenir and grocery shopping. We decided to try a few smaller dirt road 'shortcuts' for the sake of adventure and adventure is what we found. We ended up having to turn around due to slippery muddy roads. A bit further and we and finally set up camp at Restaurante Turín in Turin.
Camp # 6
GPS: 10.347639, -84.864608
This family owned and and operated restaurant is a gorgeous place to grab some dinner and set up camp. They have many areas available for camping that you can choose from. They have a variety of spots to choose from - for large groups or private secluded areas. Hot showers are also available here!
Day 7 - La Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena
The Monteverde cloud forest and La Reserva Santa Elena are both great options for walking among the clouds. La Reserva Santa Elena offers a slightly smaller but less busy (and less expensive) experience. You'll want to plan on wearing your rain gear or bringing an umbrella for your walk through the clouds. Clouds tend to be wet.
Drive from Monteverde to Arenal Volcano NP
Never underestimate how much fun your drive from point A - B is going to be during your adventure in Costa Rica. You certainly wont be disappointed with this route from Monteverde to Arenal Volcano National Park. You'll cross at least 4 rivers rivers and drive along the south shores of Lake Arenal through the rainforest on a narrow dirt track.
When it comes to river crossings it's always a good idea to have someone walk it first. After walking through the crossing you can get a good idea of how deep it is and what the bottom of the river bed is like. It was recommended to us to never cross a river if it looked "chocolate brown" or went above your high thigh.
Just wing it!
At some point in your journey you'll probably just be 'winging it'. You may not know exactly where you'll camp next and what you'll see along the way and that's what makes overlanding through Costa Rica so adventurous. This last leg of our journey was not planned at all but we have absolutely no complaints about it. Although we were hopeful for clear skies and a good view of Arenal Volcano we ended up with lots and lots of rain. I guess that's something to be expected when you're in the RAINforest. We decided that the best thing to do in a situation like this was spend the evening soaking in the same free hot springs we did earlier in our trip.
Day 8 - Search for monkeys, waterfalls, and return back to San Jose
If you're like us, you might have come to Costa Rica with a list of things you want to see or do. One of our big bucketlist items was to see monkeys. Everyone told us they were everywhere, but we made it all week without having seen any. Call it luck or call it fate, but we drove past the Monkey Park on our way east out of Fortuna and decided we had to stop! This brand new eco park had monkeys to greet us right when we drove up. You'll want to do their self guided tour to see more monkeys, frogs, lizards, birds, and lots of amazing plant life.
Galería de Colibries y Restaurant
As usual we decided to take the scenic route back to San Jose and as usual it paid off. On a whim, we stopped off at a restaurant on the side of a twisty canyon road. We had no idea how yummy the food would be or that it came with a spectacular view of waterfall. If you happen to be hungry on this part of your drive, or even if you're not, we recommend stopping here for a bite to eat and to enjoy the spectacular view.
GPS: 10.222186, -84.167402
Return to San Jose
Although you have the option to leave your car at another point in the country for an additional fee, we returned ours to Nomad America's headquarters in San Jose. It was a bitter sweet moment to say good bye to our adventure rig, but it was nice to get our things organized and relax at a hotel the evening before our flight back home.
A few last tips
There were some things we learned along the way, and i'm sure you'll be learning plenty too, but just in case you'd rather not learn these things the hard way, here are a few last tips for you.
- Pack extra bags or collapsable totes to keep gear and food organized in your car.
- Wear mosquito and bug repellent after it gets dark.
- We had considered not renting an extra tent and letting the kids sleep inside the car - so glad we opted for the extra tent. The car is way is too warm to sleep in with windows closed, and once you open the windows the mosquitos will find their way in.
- We visited Costa Rica at the tail end of the rainy season and we learned very quickly that even if it's not forecasted to rain to plan on it raining mosts nights. If you're going in or near the wet season, go to bed with camp prepared as if it was going to rain.
- When in doubt as a local. Whether looking for food options, water to fill up your shower with, or something fun to do in the area, the locals were more than happy to help us out.
- If your rental has a roof-mounted shower, fill it up before heading to the beach. No one wants to go to bed with salty water in your hair.
- Baby powder is a great way to get sand off of your feet. We recommend bringing some (or a lot) along with you.
- With the ability to explore some remote locations, be sure to have a backup meal and snacks. We ended up eating more of our own food than expected because we often found ourselves isolated.
- Be smart. If you've got a bad feeling about something then turn around and do something else. We never got ourselves into trouble but certainly saw opportunities to do so (ie, thick muddy roads and submerged bridges).
- There was never a time when we felt unsafe during our visit to Costa Rica but we always exercised reasonable caution and kept valuables stored out of sight and doors locked.
Have you been overlanding through Costa Rica before? We'd love to hear your experience and suggestions too!