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11 Best Day Trips from San Jose, Costa Rica

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As the capital city and home to the country’s main international airport, San Jose is often the starting and ending point for a visit to Costa Rica. That said, once travelers have discovered the charm of the historic city centre, many of the best sites are still to be found in the wider region, so it’s well worth exploring further afield. If you are planning to stay a few days in San Jose, here’s our pick of the 11 best day trips from San Jose in Costa Rica.

1. CARTAGO

Day trips from San Jose Costa Rica Cartago
Basílica de Nuestra Senora de Los Ángeles in Cartago.
Day trips from San Jose Costa Rica Santiago Apostol Paris Church
Santiago Apóstol Parish Church, a must-visit site on a day trip from San Jose
  • Distance from San Jose: 28 km
  • Driving time: 30 minutes

As the former capital of Costa Rica, the charming city of Cartago is home to a rich history and stunning collection of colonial buildings. With excellent road connections, visiting Cartago is one of the easiest and best day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica.

Things to do:

  • Visit the stunning Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, one of Cartago’s most beautiful churches and a famous pilgrimage destination for Costa Ricans.
  • Browse the vast Central Market every Thursday and Saturday to get a taste of local life and pick up some beautiful local handicrafts at great prices.
  • Explore the ruins of the abandoned Santiago Apóstol Parish Church which stand half-completed in the town square as a reminder of the 1910 earthquake which ended construction.

2. IRAZU VOLCANO

  • Distance from San Jose: 55 km
  • Driving time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

As one of Costa Rica’s most famous sights, the Irazu Volcano (picture shown above) is an excellent destination for those looking to engage with the country's staggering natural beauty and stunning array of wildlife. On a clear day, it is possible to see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans from the summit! The trail to the two accessible craters in the national park is quite easy as the trails are well paved.

Things to do:

  • Hike to the summit of the Diego de la Haya crater for spectacular views of the sea
  • Visit the main crater and see the emerald-green lake hidden within it.
  • Explore the extensive network of pathways that link the craters that make up the volcano.
  • Spot beautiful and unique wildlife, such as the white-nosed coati, that inhabits the national park around the volcano.

3. BARVA DE HEREDIA COFFEE PLANTATION

Day trips from San Jose Costa Rica Heredia
See how coffee is harvested and roasted on a coffee plantation tour, a great choice for a day trip from San Jose.
  • Distance from San Jose: 12 km
  • Driving time: 20 minutes

Costa Rica is famous around the world for producing some of the finest coffee available. From farming to harvesting and roasting, the journey from bean to cup is truly fascinating – and delicious! Joining an experience such as a coffee or chocolate tour can be one of the best day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica.

Things to do:

  • Visit the sustainable coffee farm and factory at the Barva de Heredia Coffee Plantation to see first-hand how coffee harvested and roasted.
  • Enjoy a tutored tasting of some of Costa Rica's finest coffee in what is known as a ‘cupping' session.
  • Learn about the history of coffee in Costa Rica and the strong culture that surrounds its production and consumption.

4. JACO BEACH

Day trips from San Jose Costa Rica, Jaco beach
Jaco beach is the closest beach to San Jose, a perfect day escape!
  • Distance from San Jose: 100 km
  • Driving time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

If the hustle and bustle of San Jose gets too much for you, do as the locals do and escape the city for the day! Jaco Beach is not only one of the finest beaches in Costa Rica, but its excellent links to the town make it the perfect destination for a day trip from the capital.

Things to do:

  • Get your adrenaline fix at one of the many adventure sports hotspots in the area. Dreamed of trying your hand at rafting, zip lining or even waterfall rappelling? This is your chance!
  • Catch a wave on some of Costa Rica’s finest surf breaks in and around Jaco, such as Cabinas Alice to the south of town.
  • Enjoy Costa Rican nightlife at its best and dance the night away in one of the many bars and clubs to be found in the area!

5. BALSA RIVER

Day trips from San Jose Costa Rica Balsa river
Balsa River is one of the ultimate rafting destinations in Costa Rica.
  • Distance from San Jose: 130 km
  • Driving time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

In a country already known worldwide for adventure sports, the Balsa River stands out as one of the ultimate rafting locations in Costa Rica. The Grade II and III rapids provide an easy-going ride for all levels of adventure seekers and, nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts!

Things to do:

  • Join one of the many rafting groups offering unforgettable trips on this magnificent river!
  • Take a break from the rapids to enjoy the luscious green jungle and amazing host of wildlife to be found on the banks of the Balsa River.

Check out our travel guide on Rafting in Costa Rica for more destinations to go whitewater rafting.

6. LA PAZ WATERFALL GARDENS

Day trips from San Jose Costa Rica La Paz
La Paz waterfall and gardens are a great place to reconnect with nature on a day trip from San Jose.
  • Distance from San Jose: 46 km
  • Driving time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

One of the best day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens is an ecotourist’s delight. Boasting an incredible selection of waterfalls, cloud forest, and rainforest along with a dedicated animal rescue facility, this is an excellent introduction to Costa Rica's unique ecosystem.

Things to do:

  • Come face to face with rescued pumas, jaguars, monkeys and more while experiencing the center’s conservation work first-hand.
  • Hike the 3.5km of excellent walking trails through dense rainforest and dramatic cloud forest while learning about the ongoing conservation efforts championed by the center.
  • Explore the extensive aviary and butterfly house for an up-close encounter with Costa Rica’s incredible birdlife.

7. ALAJUELITA

  • Distance from San Jose: 4 km
  • Driving time: 10 minutes

Located on the very outskirts of the city, the small village of Alajuelita is one of the easiest day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica. While the village itself is somewhat unremarkable, it serves as a starting point for some excellent hikes offering spectacular views over the region.

Things to do:

  • Take part in an early morning hike to the summit of the Cerro San Miguel. At 2,036 metres above sea level, the mountain offers fantastic views across the central valley, as well as San Jose city set against the backdrop of dramatic volcanoes.
  • Take a photograph with the giant metal cross which stands at the summit of the mountain. The spot is also an important pilgrimage site for many Costa Ricans.

8. TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK

Day trips from San Jose Costa Rica Tortuguero
Sea turtles lay their eggs on the beaches of Tortuguero National Park
  • Distance from San Jose: 125 km
  • Driving time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

A vast National Park lining the Caribbean Coast just a few hours' drive from the capital, Tortuguero is undoubtedly one of the best day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica, for those looking to get in touch with nature at its most wild. If time is a consideration, Nature Air offers daily flights from San Jose, slashing the journey time to just 30 minutes.

Things to do:

  • Watch majestic sea turtles laying their eggs on the beach. The nesting season for Leatherback Turtles runs from April to May, while Greenback Turtles can be spotted between July and October. Visit in September or October to experience hatching season at its peak, where the baby turtles emerge from their eggs and make their way down the beach to the ocean.
  • Join one of the many boat tours to get up close and personal with the dense rainforest and fantastic wildlife for which Tortuguero National Park is famous.

9. ARENAL VOLCANO & HOT SPRINGS

Day trips from San Jose Costa Rica Arenal Volcano
Visit Arenal Volcano, the most popular volcano in Costa Rica.
Day trips from San Jose Costa Rica Hotsprings
Hot spring resorts are abundant in Arenal.
  • Distance from San Jose: 140 km
  • Driving time: 2 hours 50 minutes

While the impressive Arenal Volcano is often a destination for travelers in its own right, it also makes an excellent day trip from the capital, particularly when combined with a visit to the beautiful hot springs. The easiest way to experience these two activities in a day is to join one of the excellent tours from San Jose, Costa Rica.

Things to do:

  • Enjoy a guided nature hike around the base of the active Arenal volcano to discover its lava streams, an abundance of wildlife and some of the best views of this stunning mountain.
  • Enjoy a relaxing soak in the natural hot springs of Tabacon, surrounded by lush rainforest, magnificent waterfalls and countless lagoons.
  • Visit the small town of Sarchí, famous for its traditional handmade wood and leather products.

10. TOUCAN RESCUE RANCH

Day trips from San Jose Costa Rica Toucan
Witness toucans, owls, sloths and other Costa Rican wildlife being rehabilitated in the Toucan Rescue Ranch, just outside of San Jose.
  • Distance from San Jose: 17 km
  • Driving time: 25 minutes

While it started as a rescue and rehabilitation center for Toucans, the ranch now cares for a wide range of Costa Rican wildlife including parrots, macaws, owls, sloths, spider monkeys and more! The center takes in sick and injured animals with the goal of treating and rehabilitating them before ultimately returning them to the wild. Tours are available Monday to Saturday, with all proceeds directly supporting the charity’s work.

Things to do:

  • Join the Classic Ranch Tour for a fascinating insight into the center’s work while learning about the importance of conservation in Costa Rica.
  • Get up close and personal with the center’s resident Sloths while enjoying a local Costa Rican brew on the extended ‘Slothies & Coffees’ program.
  • Symbolically "adopt" an animal on the ranch and contribute to their food and care. 
  • Those with extra time on their hands can get a taste of ranch life on the overnight ranch experience program, where you will be invited to help the volunteers as they go about caring for the center’s animals.

11. Tortuga Island

For a perfect day trip from San Jose Costa Rica, visit Tortuga
Tortuga Island is a popular destination for snorkeling. 
Day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica to Tortuga island
Plan for a relaxing day at the beach on Tortuga Island.
  • Distance from San Jose: 145 km
  • Driving time: 3 hours, 30 minutes (1 hour, 30 minutes on road and 2 hours by boat)

This tiny island just off the coast of Nicoya Peninsula is where you get to spend time among the white sandy beaches, bright blue waters and tall coconut trees. It is a popular destination for snorkeling and scuba diving, as well as for hiking or just relaxing at the beach. A day tour to Tortuga island will include a 90-minute boat ride from Puntarenas.

Things to do:

  • Go snorkeling and discover a huge variety of marine life, including spinner dolphins, octopus, stingrays and angelfish.
  • Rent a sea kayak and take a peaceful ride on the clear waters.
  • Scuba dive among the three shipwrecks near the island.
  • If you are up for a challenge, hike to the top of the island and spot local wildlife along the way including peccary.

So, while many visitors choose not to spend much time in San Jose, there are in fact a number of wonderful possibilities to discover above and beyond the city itself. If you have already experienced the best things to do in San Jose and find yourself with spare time in the capital, why not get out and try one of our favourite day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica?

Editor’s note: This travel article was originally published on 30 November, 2018 but has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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