When you look at a map of Costa Rica – you might think it’s a small country. It covers about 20,000 square miles – roughly the size of West Virginia or Denmark.
However, keep in mind the adjective most often associated with the beauty of this country: RUGGED. Distances between point A and point B here are relative. Altitude, curves, traffic, road condition and road availability can translate short distances into long travel times.
Having a realistic plan of how much you can see and do from sunup to sundown is the key to successful day trips. Unless you are familiar with the road and confident about driving in Central America – it’s really not advisable to drive after dark.
Trips that require passing through San Jose should NOT be done during rush hour unless you want to add a minimum of 30 minutes (and in some cases 2 hours) onto your trip.
Before heading out anywhere in Costa Rica – I strongly suggest you check Waze for delays. If you are not going to have internet on your phone here – download maps from google. Don’t forget to bring sunscreen and plenty of water. Bring a refillable bottle please (you can get one here) and don’t buy throw away plastic. There are few places to recycle in Costa Rica – so don’t add to the garbage problem.
Atenas, Costa Rica is a beautiful little town less than an hour away from the capital city of San Jose. In this coffee farming community you can still find a quiet and simple way of life. More than just “the best climate in the world,” Atenas is centrally located to so many great places to explore the beauty and biodiversity of Costa Rica.
Here is a list of the 10 best day trips you can take from Atenas. All of these are family friendly (unless noted) and under a 2 hour drive each way.
TOP TEN DAY TRIPS FROM ATENAS
- Bajos del Toro Waterfall – @ 1 1/2 hours each way 300 ft. waterfall into an extinct volcano crater. It’s bit of a hike – there are 375 steps down to the bottom – but it’s gorgeous. The drive there is a beauty too. There is a national park nearby for more hiking action and a few catch-your-own-trout for lunch places. Cost: $10 per person Closed on Sundays
- El Toledo Organic Coffee Farm Tour – @20 minutes each way. Fun and interesting local farm tour with coffee tasting. Can make reservations for lunch as well. The tour generally takes 2-3 hours. Cost: $20 per person (kids free) with lunch $28. Must make reservations.
- Parque Nacional Tapanti – @ 2 hours. This trip requires crossing through San Jose and is best done on a weekend to avoid getting stuck in rush hour traffic. Tapanti is a lovely park outside of the historic town of Orosi. It features mossy lush hiking trails and a gorgeous clean river for splashing in. The entire Orosi valley claims to be “the most beautiful valley in Costa Rica,” and they just might be right. You should definitely bring a picnic and spend the day.
- Balneario Las Musas – @ 1 hour. Las Musas is either a waterfall park with swimming pools or swimming pools with a waterfall. It’s got a great restaurant with typical food and is a very popular place for ticos to go on the weekends or when the kids are out of school It has hiking trails too – but I haven’t been on them. There is a huge water slide and everything seemed to be pretty well maintained and clean. Entrance is about $6 for adults, $4 for kids
- Parque Nacional Volcan Poas – 1 hour 20 minutes This is one of the most popular tourist spots in Costa Rica – and for good reason. If you get there early enough and the clouds haven’t yet rolled in – you can see the spectacularly beautiful crater of the Poas Volcano. The crater is very accessible for any fitness levels. There are also opotional trails through the cloud forest leading to a crater lake near the primary crater. Bring a jacket. $10 per person.
- Los Chorros – 40 minutes Two pretty waterfalls with an easy 30 minute hike. $6 per person $2 parking. This hike is more challenging in the rainy season.
- Parque Eolico Santa Ana – 45 minutes (depends on time of day and traffic) Beautiful views and a close-up look at HUGE electricity generating windmills located on a mountain ridge almost 6,000 feet (1771m) high. Make sure you have a decent vehicle with a strong engine and brakes for the paved – but very steep – drive. Fun for all and FREE
- Tarcoles River and Parque Nacional Carara – about an hour going the pretty way along Route 3 You can see tons of wild crocodiles from a bridge. Best to cross over the bridge and park on other side if you don’t want to be hassled to pay parking. See this post for more information. You could also opt for a crocodile man tour while you’re there. The crocodile bridge is free. Park is $10 per person (non-resident) Carara is known for being one of the most accessible parks and does not require much physical effort to enjoy. However – because it is located at sea level – it is going to be quite warm. Try to enjoy it early in the day.
- Jaco and nearby beaches – 1 to 1/2 hours depending on where you go. Check the map for a few suggestions. All beaches in Costa Rica are hot – especially mid-day and can be REALLY hot if the sand is black.
- Parque Nacional Volcan Barva – 1 1/2 hours Unless you want to walk a few kilometers – it’s best to have a 4WD to visit this park. The last bit is steep, unpaved and has an elevation of 9,534 ft. If you want to stay overnight – camping is allowed inside of this park. We haven’t done that yet – but plan to camp there in the next few months. This is cloud forest and is exquisitely beautiful in the details – but is at really high elevation. Hiking in this park requires a good fitness level. Take it slow and enjoy the unique plants and animals. Entrance $12 per person (non-resident)