The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is definitely one of our favorite spots in the country.
This Costa Rica Caribbean Dreaming Itinerary combines amazing adventures with pure relaxation.
By following our route and suggestions you will get the perfect overview of the Caribbean coast as well as a little taste of Panama.
Airport Area (day 1) → Tortuguero (day 2, 3) → Cahuita (day 4, 5, 6) → Puerto Viejo (day 7, 8) → Bocas del Toro (day 9, 10, 11, 12) → Airport Area (day 13) → Leave paradise (day 14)
DAY ONE – Land in San Jose / Tour Britt coffee plantation or visit Poas Volcano
DAY TWO – Drive to Tortuguero / Explore downtown / Take a turtle tour
DAY THREE – Take an early morning canoe tour / Explore the national park / Visit the turtle museum
DAY FOUR – Drive to Cahuita / Relax on the beach
DAY FIVE – Explore Cahuita National Park
DAY SIX – Visit the Tree of Life Sanctuary or the Sloth Sanctuary
DAY SEVEN – Drive to Puerto Viejo / Visit Wildlife Refuge
DAY EIGHT – Rent a bike / Explore Playa Cocles and Punta Uva
DAY NINE – Cross the border into Panama / Check out downtown Isla Colon
DAY TEN – Rent kayaks / Take a booze cruise
DAY ELEVEN – Take a full day tour with snorkeling and beach hopping
DAY TWELVE – Do some snorkeling / Relax
DAY THIRTEEN – Take the bus back to San Jose / Sleep near the airport
DAY FOURTEEN – Leave Paradise….for now
I struggled when deciding how to write this transportation section. I would rent a car for half of this itinerary, but you could get away with also depending entirely on public transportation and private shuttles for this. However, it will definitely limit your mobility.
Let me just explain your two options so you can get a better idea of what I mean.
If you do rent a car you will be renting it in San Jose and returning it in Puerto Viejo before you cross over the border into Bocas del Toro. You do not need a car in Panama. When you leave Panama back into Costa Rica you will then take a bus all the way back to San Jose.
The main reason I would rent a car is that it is not easy to get from San Jose to Tortuguero by bus and it is not easy (or cheap) to get from Tortuguero to Cahuita. While in Tortuguero your car will be sitting in a secure parking lot. In other words, you won’t be using it. While in Cahuita you will use the car a bit, but if you are staying in the downtown area you can walk to most things. Same goes for Puerto Viejo.
If you opt not to rent a car you will have to take a private shuttle from San Jose to La Pavona (where the boat to Tortuguero leaves from). This can be expensive (usually about $50 per person).
You can find out more about parking in La Pavona and how to get to Tortuguero by boat in our Tortuguero guide here.
When you leave Tortuguero your best bet is to take a boat from Tortuguero to Limon. From there you can take a public bus down to Cahuita (they leave very frequently). Your other option is to take a private shuttle down. You can arrange all of this while in Tortuguero. There are plenty of small shops that offer transportation and will be happy to arrange your route to Cahuita for you. Again, this will likely cost about $50 per person.
Once in Cahuita, you can get around by taxi if you want to get to things like the wildlife sanctuaries. If you pick a hotel in the downtown area you can easily walk to the national park.
From Cahuita, you can take the bus about once an hour down to Puerto Viejo. If you stay in downtown Puerto Viejo there is plenty nearby and you won’t really need a car. You can use taxis or rent bikes.
From Puerto Viejo to Sixola (the town on the border of Panama) is a 45-minute bus ride which runs about once an hour. If you rent a car you will return it in Puerto Viejo and also take the bus down to Sixola. You could also take a taxi to the border if you prefer.
We have a guide to crossing the border and getting to Bocas del Toro here.
If you are interested in renting a car, we have a 10% discount with our favorite rental car company Adobe. You can find more about grabbing this discount here.
Also, for this itinerary, you do not need a 4×4 vehicle. We suggest an SUV just because having some clearance is helpful for the drive from San Jose to La Pavona. You can do this drive with just a small car (we’ve done it) but it’s not very comfortable because there is about 45 minutes of unpaved road. It is at least flat though.
Land in San Jose / Tour Britt coffee plantation or visit Poas Volcano
Yeay! You’ve arrived in Costa Rica.
Now you’re probably wondering, “what’s next?”
First off, we suggest reading our guide to landing in San Jose. This will tell you all you need to know about going through Customs and picking up your rental car.
Once you have exited the airport, taken the shuttle to Adobe, and picked up your rental car, it is time to do something fun.
We have three choices for you.
If your flight gets in early in the morning you can even do more than one of these activities (or all of them). They are all in the same general area.
In the evening, we suggest staying near downtown Alajuela. This will make it easy for you to hop on the highway in the morning to the coast.
For some hotel and dinner suggestions, check out our Alajuela (airport area) guide.
Drive to Tortuguero / Explore downtown / Take a turtle tour
Today you are heading to one of our favorite places, Tortuguero! It is a good idea to head out somewhat early towards Tortuguero. Public boats stop running from La Pavona to Tortuguero at 4:30pm. If you want more info about how to get to Tortuguero we talk all about it in our Tortuguero budget travel guide here.
Once you arrive in Tortuguero you should check in to your hotel and drop your stuff off. Before you head out to do anything fun you should ask at your hotel about setting up a turtle tour for this evening or tomorrow evening and setting up a canoe tour for tomorrow morning. Everyone knows everyone in Tortuguero and your hotel will be happy to arrange these things for you.
Just keep in mind that prime turtle season is from July through October. If you are traveling at another time of the year you may still be able to see turtles, but there is no guarantee.
After setting that stuff up with your hotel, go explore the cute downtown area. It won’t take you too long. You can walk from one side of the main road to the other end in about 20 minutes, but it is nice to check out. There are also some cute gift shops.
Also, if you did not rent a car and need transportation to Cahuita, this is a good time to check out some of the transportation shops and set something up. Then it’s out of the way and you don’t need to worry about it.
After exploring, we like to change into our swimsuits and relax on the beach until dinner.
We suggest getting dinner at the Buddha Cafe. It is one of our favorite places in all of Costa Rica. Get there around 5pm and try to grab a table on the water so you can catch the sunset. Once we even saw dolphins jumping here!
After a nice evening at Buddha Cafe, hopefully, you are going on a turtle tour. Yeay! You’ll absolutely love it. Just wear some kind of stable shoes and remember you can’t take any pictures.
After your turtle tour, head to bed, if you can. I was on such an adrenaline high after the turtle tour that I could not fall asleep. You have an early morning tomorrow though.
Take an early morning canoe tour / Explore the national park / Visit the turtle museum
This morning on your two week Costa Rica itinerary you are going on a bright and early canoe ride. We have a full guide to the canoe ride and the Tortuguero National Park here.
After your canoe tour, you will probably be hungry. There are a few different breakfast options in Tortuguero, really you can’t go wrong with any of them. Every place serves typical Costa Rican breakfast and is really affordable.
After breakfast, we usually relax for a bit before heading back to the national park for a walk in the jungle. You paid for admission with your canoe tour, so you should get the most out of it.
In the afternoon we suggest taking a nice walk along the beach to the far end of the island. Here you will find the turtle museum. It costs a few dollars to enter. You probably won’t spend more than an hour here, but it is really interesting to learn about what they are doing to preserve the turtle habitats in Tortuguero and how they have been able to successfully get the community involved.
In the evening, try out some food at one of our suggested places in our Tortuguero guide.
Drive to Cahuita / Relax on the beach
Once you arrive in Cahuita and check in to your hotel it is time to relax on the beach. The best beach in Cahuita is called Playa Negra. It is a short walk from the downtown area. It’s not the most beautiful beach in the world, but we like it because it has character.
In the evening, grab dinner at one of the places we suggest in our Cahuita guide. We love the restaurant Sobre las Olas and think you will as well. I believe they open at 5 pm. It is best to get there when they open so you can get a spot right at the water. One thing though, make sure you bring bug spray. The second the sun goes down here you will start getting eaten alive.
Explore Cahuita National Park
I’m not really sure why but we hardly ever watch the sunrise at other spots on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, but we always watch the sunrise in Cahuita at Playa Negra. It is the perfect spot to have the whole beach to yourself and enjoy the start to a new day.
After watching the sunrise and getting ready for the day it is time to grab some breakfast and then head to Cahuita National Park. It is our favorite national park in Costa Rica and we’re sure you’ll love it! We have a full guide to visiting the park here.
Every time we hike Cahuita National Park we are exhausted after. We suggest relaxing or going for a swim to cool down after your fun hiking adventure.
In the evening, check out one of our other suggested restaurants in our Cahuita guide.
Visit the Tree of Life Sanctuary or the Sloth Sanctuary
Today we have two good options for you. The Cahuita / Puerto Viejo area is home to a lot of wildlife reserves. Two amazing ones in Cahuita are the Tree of Life Sanctuary and the Sloth Sanctuary.
Let me explain both of them to you so you can decide which one sounds more your speed.
Tree of Life Sanctuary: This is a 10-acre botanical garden which doubles as a rescue center for animals that need a place to go due to loss of habitat, accidents etc.
They have a variety of animals here including porcupine, spider monkeys, coati, a jaguarandi (aka the cutest animal ever), plus a lot of other amazing animals. They also have a breeding program for turtles and iguanas.
They have very limited hours and only provide tours from Tuesday – Sunday at 11am. You need to do a tour here and can’t just walk the grounds on your own. Admission costs $16. You can find out more about this sanctuary here.
The Sloth Sanctuary: This is a rescue center for abandoned, injured, and orphaned sloths.
There are two tours you can do at the Sloth Sanctuary in Cahuita.
The Buttercup Tour will give you so background info on sloths before you get to meet Buttercup the sloth. You will also have the chance to see the sloth enclosures. You will then take a 45 minutes canoe ride down a river into a typical sloth habitat. This tour last for about two hours and costs $30 per person.
The Insiders Tour includes all the aspects of the Buttercup Tour plus a chance to go into the Slothpital clinic and NICU. This tour lasts three hours and costs $150 per person.
Just note, on both of these tours you are not allowed to have direct contact with a sloth. They are very nervous animals and contact with humans sends them into a panic.
You can find out more about this sanctuary here.
In the afternoon we suggest relaxing on the beach and getting dinner at one of our suggested places in Cahuita.
Drive to Puerto Viejo / Visit Wildlife Refuge
We suggest making it a somewhat lazy morning since you probably won’t be able to check in to your hotel in Puerto Viejo until a bit later and it will only take you about 20 minutes to drive down there.
If you are taking the bus, it leaves once every hour.
Once you arrive in Puerto Viejo and check in to your hotel it is time to check out Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. It will only take you about twenty minutes to drive to the refuge. There is free parking once you arrive.
You can also get a taxi to drive you here if you do not have a car. In Puerto Viejo they have cute tuk tuk style taxis.
The refuge is a nice and free walk in the jungle along the water. There are also tons of hidden beaches along the way as well. Just a warning, if you are there during the rainy season it could be really wet. We crazies decided to go really deep into the jungle with just flip flops on and ended up having to walk barefoot through tons of mud because our flip-flops kept getting stuck. It was stupid. Anyway, even if it is the rainy season you can still access a few nice looks out points and beaches without getting full on covered in mud.
After checking out the refuge we suggest hanging out at the beach next to where you parked your car. This is called Playa Manzanillo. It is a nice long beach if you want to do a bit more walking.
In the early evening, we suggest checking out a few places in Puerto Viejo for some cocktails. Almost every place has 2 for 1 specials on drinks. For dinner, we recommend Monli Bar Restaurant and Grill for some tasty seafood. If you would like something different, check out our Puerto Viejo guide for more food ideas.
Also, if you rented a car, this is the perfect time to return it. There is an Adobe office in Puerto Viejo. You won’t need it for the rest of your trip.
Rent a bike / Explore Playa Cocles and Punta Uva
Good morning! If you need a nice breakfast spot head on over to De Gustibus Bakery. It’s delicious!
After breakfast, it is time to pack up your beach gear and bike to some great nearby beaches.
There are tons of places where you can rent a bike for about $15 for a day from Puerto Viejo. Just walk along the road and you’ll see several spots or ask at your hotel and they can help you out.
The bike ride to your first beach stop (Punta Uva) is about 5.5 miles. We like to go here first because it is the furthest away and we prefer to have a shorter ride on our way back. The ride is pretty flat, but there are a few hills towards the end of your ride.
Punta Uva is a nice spot for beach chilling and walking. After spending some time here, it is time to head back. Along the way you can stop at Playa Chiquita and then Playa Cocles. All are really nice. There are also several cute restaurants along the way as well if you want to grab some lunch.
In the evening, grab dinner at one of our suggested places and get ready for your border crossing tomorrow.
Cross the border into Panama / Check out downtown Isla Colon
We suggest starting early today because crossing the border into Panama can be a total pain. You can easily grab a bus to Sixaola (the town on the border). They run once an hour starting at 6:30 am. Just ask at your hotel and they can direct you exactly where to go to catch the bus.
We have a guide to the Costa Rica / Panama border crossing here. It will really help you out with getting to Bocas del Toro from Puerto Viejo. Also, please remember to buy a bus ticket in Sixaola for your bus ride back to San Jose. You will need to show this as proof that you will be leaving Panama again once you cross into Panama.
Once you arrive in Bocas del Toro and check in to your hotel it’s time to do a bit of exploring.
The main island is called Isla Colon. The downtown area of Isla Colon has tons of cute shops and good restaurants. We suggest spending the afternoon checking out the downtown area, grabbing some cocktails, and finding a good spot for dinner.
Tip: On day 11 we suggest going to go on a full day boat tour with snorkeling and checking out beaches. When you check in to your hotel we suggest asking them if they partner with any local companies and can get you a discount on a day tour. If not, when you are downtown you will see plenty of shops offering tours. We suggest comparing prices and then reserving a tour for day 11. Just make sure the tour you book goes to Isla Zapatillas. It’s so beautiful!
DAY TEN - Rent kayaks
Today is pretty much my dream day in Bocas del Toro, so get excited! It’s time for some serious fun!
In the morning we suggest renting some kayaks and doing a little paddling around. Some hotels have kayaks you can use, but if you are not staying in one of those hotels, there are a few places you can rent some. I suggest asking at your hotel if they have a suggestion. Sometimes they partner with local companies and can get you a discount.
Kayaking in Bocas is amazing because the water is generally really calm and clear. You can see huge starfish just chilling at the bottom of the water. It’s absolutely amazing.
After kayaking, we suggest grabbing some lunch on Isla Colon and relaxing at a beach bar for the afternoon.
Take a full day tour with snorkeling and beach hopping
Hopefully, you were able to arrange a day tour on day 9. Typically these tours start around 9 am and return around 4 pm. Along the way you will hopefully see dolphins, visit virgin beaches, go snorkeling, see sloths, and more! It’s a must do while in Bocas.
When we did a day tour we had about an hour at an outdoor restaurant. We decided not to eat there because the food was expensive and really did not look the best. So, if you think you might not want to eat at the restaurant you should bring some food with you to eat while the rest of your tour group is at the restaurant.
In the evening grab dinner at one of our suggested places.
Do some snorkeling / Relax
Unfortunately, it’s your last full day in Bocas del Toro. Let’s make it a fun one!
We suggest starting the day by doing some snorkeling (after eating breakfast and giving yourself some time digest of course). Your hotel may have snorkeling equipment that you can use or can tell you where to get some. We always just opt to bring our own snorkel masks to save ourselves the trouble of having to rent one.
Bocas del Toro is the perfect place to snorkel and you can probably even just hop in the water and swim around near your hotel. Just make sure you are not in area that boats frequently travel in.
After a nice morning snorkeling, we suggest grabbing some lunch before relaxing for the afternoon. We love to just sit on a dock reading a book or go to a beach.
In the evening, get some dinner at one of our suggested places and prepare for your long journey back to San Jose tomorrow.
Take the bus back to San Jose / Sleep near the airport
Today is going to be a long trip back to San Jose, so start early! You will basically be doing the trip you took to come down here, but in reverse and by taking only one bus from Sixaola to San Jose once you cross the border. The bus will stop once in Limon so you can use the bathroom and grab some food. Don’t drink too much! It is a long ride!
To get a boat back to the mainland from Bocas del Toro just head to Isla Colon. You will see several companies along the main road who offer boats back.
Once you eventually arrive in San Jose we suggst grabbing an Uber to your hotel. You best bet is to stay near the airport, especially if you have an early flight. This will make your life a lot less stressful tomorrow.
Leave Paradise….For Now
We hope you had an amazing trip and hope you will be back soon!
There is a whole other coast for you to explore next time and we are sure you will love that as well.
– We created this itinerary as a two weeks trip, but if you only have one week in Costa Rica you can easily skip Bocas del Toro and make it a shorter trip. We think it is only worth going to Bocas del Toro if you have a few days because it is kind of a pain to do the whole border crossing thing. You could also skip Tortuguero and just do the southern part of Costa Rica and Bocas.
– If possible, it’s a good idea to pack a large backpack instead of a suitcase. It will just make your life easier when getting to and from Tortuguero as well as getting to and from Bocas del Toro.
– Check out our Must Know page for more tips for preparing for your travel including packing lists, gear suggestions, using your cell phone here etc.
– There is a one hour time difference between Costa Rica and Panama. Panama is one hour ahead of Costa Rica.
– Just a warning, Bocas del Toro is the furthest south you will be on this trip and the UV index here is ridiculously high. I got a bad sunburn even on a really cloudy day. Load up on that sunscreen people!
– Please please read our guide to crossing into Panama. The Panama government has recently gotten really strict about requirements for entering the country. I just don’t want you to be turned away because you aren’t prepared.
– We spent A LOT of time creating this two weeks Costs Rica itinerary. However, we can’t always keep up with the latest in Costa Rica travel because things change so fast. If you follow this Caribbean itinerary and discover any of the information is outdated or wrong, could you please let us know by leaving a comment below? It will help us make this itinerary better for future travelers like yourself.