Discovering San José, the Central Valley, and Tortuguero: 7-Day Itinerary

It’s entirely possible to take in a mix of urban, suburban, and remote Costa Rica without having to rent a car with this let-someone-else-do-the-driving itinerary. Tortuguero, on the Caribbean coast, is accessible only by boat.

Day 1: Arrival

Following your evening arrival in San José, head to one of the many in-town lodgings. Hotel Grano de Oro, west of downtown, or the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, downtown, are good options. Your hotel can arrange for transport with advance notice. The big players have their own hotel shuttle vans, but smaller lodgings can arrange for a taxi. Otherwise, grab one of the official orange airport cabs at the customs exit. Plan on spending $30 for a taxi ride into the city.

Day 2: San José

A full day in the city gives you time to spend the morning visiting the Teatro Nacional and the Museo de Oro Precolombino—they’re on the same block. Duck into the Museo del Jade in the afternoon, especially if it’s raining, or partake of some late-afternoon crafts shopping. An evening meal at one of San José’s fine restaurants caps off the day. Asian restaurant Tin Jo is one of the country’s top dining experiences.

Day 3: Day Tours to the Central Valley

San José’s location makes it the perfect place from which to fan out to the Central Valley’s many sights. The list of things to see and do in the valley is impressive: learn all about coffee at the installations of Café Britt, near Heredia, or the Doka Estate, near Alajuela; peer over the rim into bubbling cauldrons of the Poás or Irazú volcanoes; wander among fluttering butterflies at the Butterfly Farm in Alajuela; step back into history in the Orosi Valley; or shop for crafts in Sarchí, the country’s signature artisan town. Hitting all the attractions in one day is next to impossible, of course—Café Britt lies 30 minutes from the capital, but plan on up to an hour to reach the others. San José’s several tour operators offer half- or full-day excursions that incorporate various Central Valley attractions, or can tailor one that fits your interests. Plan to be picked up from your hotel between 7 and 8 in the morning and return after midday for a half-day tour, or around 5 for a daylong excursion.

Days 4 and 5: Tortuguero

(2 hours by paved road plus 2–2½ hours by boat from San José)

An early-morning pickup at your San José hotel and you are off to one of Costa Rica’s most remote destinations. Once you traverse Braulio Carrillo National Park north of the capital, you switch from van to boat at a put-in point in the Caribbean lowlands. The final stretch to Tortuguero takes place by boat; this is a roadless part of Costa Rica. Arrive at your lodge by midafternoon. Rest and get cleaned up for a sumptuous dinner.

Although you can do Tortuguero on your own, most visitors opt for an all-inclusive tour. Pachira Lodge, along the main canal, or the more secluded Evergreen Lodge are good options.

The knock at the door comes early in the morning of Day 5 as you are roused out of bed to go on a prebreakfast bird-watching excursion in Tortuguero National Park. (Remember: there are no roads, so transport is by boat.) The day entails a guided hike in the national park and a stroll through the tiny village of the same name. Evenings give way to turtle-watching during the nesting season (July through October).

Tortuguero is the rainiest spot in Costa Rica, and the rains spread evenly throughout the year. Plan to get wet (it’s half the fun). Most of the lodges here provide ponchos and rain boots.

Day 6: Back to San José

(60–90 minutes by boat plus 2 hours by paved road from Tortuguero)

Day 6 is your fourth day in reverse. After a hearty breakfast at your lodge, you board the launches back to civilization. The boat travels faster than it did on the way up here. You transfer to a waiting van at the put-in point and head back to your city hotel, arriving in the afternoon. Tortuguero lodges do offer two-day/one-night excursions, but go for the extra day if your schedule permits.

Day 7: Departure

(30–45 minutes from San José)

Most international flights depart Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría in the morning. Recommended check-in time is always three hours in advance of departure.

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