Looking for day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica?
San Jose is the capital city of Costa Rica and home to the biggest airport in the country, so chances are you’ll pass through the city at some point during your time in Costa Rica.
And while San Jose is a great place to explore, the surrounding area is worth seeing as well. If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, there are plenty of day trips from San Jose to get out and explore the natural beauty of Costa Rica.
Whether you’re looking for lush rainforests or charming towns, stunning waterfalls, impressive volcanoes or unique wildlife, the area nearby San Jose has plenty to offer.
Here are some of the best day trips from San Jose Costa Rica to discover the country’s natural wonders.
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Where is San Jose, Costa Rica?
Surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, San Jose is located in the Central Valley, in the heart of Costa Rica.
This central location makes it an ideal base for day trips to explore the best that Costa Rica has to offer.
Within a few hours’ drive from San Jose, you’ll be able to explore cloud forests, volcanoes, waterfalls, coffee plantations and picturesque towns.
Best Day Trips from San Jose
1. Poaz Volcano
Travel Time: 1 hour
This impressive active volcano is one of the most well-known volcanoes in the country. It’s also one of the most accessible craters in the world and visitors can peer down into the turquoise-coloured crater from the viewing area above.
Volcán Poás was quiet for over 60 years when it began small eruptions in 2014 and again in 2017. The activity has quieted and the park is now open again for visitors.
Since reopening, it’s not permitted to use the hiking trails, other than the short trail that leads to the viewing area. Tickets must be bought in advance, although we were lucky enough to purchase them an hour before arriving, and time viewing the crater is limited.
Hard hats are required, and helmets are available for kids as well, although it’s one size fits all, so they may not fit toddlers very well.
Being so close to the capital, Volcán Poás is one of the most visited volcanoes in the country and is one of the most popular day trips from San Jose.
Pro Tip: The best time to visit Volcán Poás is in the morning, as clouds often cover the volcano by the afternoon, and there is no refund for bad weather.
The drive to Poás is scenic and if you have a car, you can take your time to visit other villages on the way, or even buy strawberries from the side of the road.
Tours from San Jose are also available, and many, like this one, include a stop at La Paz Waterfalls and Doka Coffee as well.
2. La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Travel Time: 1 hour
La Paz Waterfall Gardens is one of the best day trips from San Jose, and as it’s close to Volcán Poás, it’s often combined with a trip to the volcano to make a full day trip.
Located in the Central Valley about 45 minutes from the airport, La Paz Waterfall Gardens combines both nature and wildlife, making for a unique experience.
There are five gorgeous waterfalls, connected by a 3.5km trail that leads from one waterfall to the next. It’s an easy walk, but thankfully at the end of the trail, there’s a shuttle that brings you back to the main center and saves you having to walk back.
In addition to the waterfalls, there’s also plenty of wildlife to see.
Wander through the aviary, where you’ll see toucans and scarlet macaws, then venture to the sloth habitat or head to see the monkeys, where you’ll find capuchin monkeys and black-handed spider monkeys.
There are also pumas and jaguars, as well as a hummingbird garden and exhibits of snakes and frogs.
It’s important to note that all of the animals on the property were not taken from their natural habitat, but have been rescued for various reasons and cannot be released back into the wild.
While a visit to the waterfall gardens isn’t cheap ($50 USD for adults, $34 USD for children 3-12 years old), it was well worth it in my opinion and an experience that my kids still talk about today.
You can drive to the park yourself and buy a day pass (and if you’re heading onwards to La Fortuna, this is a great stop), or there are guided tours available from San Jose.
3. Tour a Coffee Plantation
Travel Time: Doka – 1 hour, Britt – 30 mins, Alsacia – 1 hour
Distance: Doka – 35km, Britt 17km, Alsacia 36km
Costa Rica is famous for its coffee and while it may not be the biggest coffee producer in the world, a visit to a coffee plantation is a must when in Costa Rica.
And San Jose’s location in the Central Valley means it’s close to the many coffee plantations that Costa Rica is known for.
While there are many coffee plantations dotted along the hillsides of the Central Valley, there are three popular plantations to tour: Britt, the biggest coffee producer in Latin America, Doka and Alsacia, which is Starbucks’ coffee plantation. Yes, Starbucks has a coffee plantation in Costa Rica!
Whether or not you’re a Starbucks fan, it’s worth stopping at Alsacia for a visit. And if you don’t want to do the tour, you can just sit and have a coffee while enjoying the view of the waterfall on site.
It’s the only Starbucks farm that is open to the public in Latin America, and tours fill up fast so be sure to book in advance.
Another option is Café Britt, which isn’t a working plantation, but they do offer an interesting tour with plenty of free coffee!
Britt is one of the largest coffee exporters in Latin America and is known for high-end coffee. On the tour, you’ll learn about the history and see the production of coffee.
While it’s very commercialized, it’s also one of the best-known coffee tours in the country. They also make excellent chocolate – we first sampled some Britt chocolate at the airport in Bogota and it was delicious!
The third coffee plantation near San Jose is Doka Estate, which is a working plantation. You’ll see an overview of the entire coffee production process, from cultivation to harvesting and roasting, and then of course, sample some coffee at the end.
If you’re doing a guided tour from San Jose, you’ll probably end up at Doka, as their facility is great for tours. And be sure to pick up a bag of fresh coffee – it’s one of the best Costa Rican souvenirs!
Guided tours from San Jose often combine a tour of the coffee plantation with the Poás Volcano, La Paz Waterfalls or other attractions to make a full day tour.
This tour to Doka Coffee Plantation also visits the small towns of Sarchí and Grecia, while this tour combines a Doka coffee tour with a visit to Volcan Poás . There’s also a full-day tour that visits Poás Volcano, La Paz Waterfalls and a coffee tour.
4. Irazu Volcano
Travel Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Another popular day trip from San Jose is to Irazu Volcano, Costa Rica’s tallest volcano and one of its iconic sights.
As well as being known for its height, Irazu also boasts spectacular views, and on clear days, it’s possible to see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
One of the best things about visiting Irazu is that you can actually see down into the crater! There’s a paved path from the parking lot that leads to the main crater, and here you’ll be able to view down into the impressive crater.
It’s a huge crater at just over 1000 meters in diameter, but unlike the turquoise-coloured water at Poás Volcano, Irazu’s main crater is grey and black in colour. Just beside the main crater is another smaller crater that you can also see from the path.
It’s possible to visit Irazu yourself or you can book a day tour from San Jose. This half-day tour includes transportation and snacks, time at Irazu volcano, then stops at the Basilica de Los Angeles in Cartago (mentioned below).
Travel Time: 40 mins
Cartago is a charming city located about 25 kilometres east of San Jose. It was the first capital of Costa Rica and its historical importance is evident in the many colonial buildings and landmarks throughout the city.
Visit the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles, a beautiful church and famous pilgrimage destination for many Costa Ricans.
Another church to see in Cartago is the Santiago Apóstol Parish Church, which was half completed when the 1910 earthquake ended construction.
There’s also a local market every Thursday and Saturday, which is a great chance to do some shopping and get a sense of local life.
While Cartago is an easy day trip from San Jose, it’s also a great option to combine with a visit to Irazu volcano, as the national park is only another 30 minutes past Cartago.
Travel Time: 1 hour
Grecia is a small, traditional town in the Poás volcano region. It’s known for its stunning architecture, including its famous metal church.
This large red metal church in the center of town is the only metal church in Central America and is truly unique. The church’s interior is just as impressive, with stained glass windows and intricate wooden carvings.
While in Grecia, you can also stroll around the town’s central park and enjoy the local cafes, restaurants and shops.
Grecia is a typical Costa Rican town that’s worth a visit, either as a half-day trip from San Jose, or combined with a visit to Poas volcano.
Travel Time: 1 hour
Sarchí is another small town in the Central Valley, about an hour’s drive from San Jose. The town is famous for its handmade wooden crafts, including colourfully painted oxcarts, which have become Costa Rica’s national symbol.
Sarchí is also home to the largest oxcart in the world, which weighs 4400 lbs (2 tons) and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The town is also home to several artisan shops and is an excellent place to buy Costa Rican souvenirs. You’ll find a variety of handmade items such as ceramics, textiles and wood carvings, as well as furniture that you could ship home.
In addition to its excellent artisans, Sarchí also boasts a beautiful landscape of rolling hills and lush green forests, and offers excellent hiking and birdwatching opportunities.
This full-day guided tour combines a visit to both Grecia and Sarchi, as well as a stop at Doka Coffee Plantation, mentioned above.
8. Jaco Beach
Travel Time: 1.5 hours
Distance: 100 km
San Jose may be in the center of the country, but a visit to the beach is still possible!
The nearest beach to San Jose Costa Rica is in Jaco on the Pacific Coast. Jaco is just over an hour’s drive and some say it’s home to the nicest beaches in the country.
While I think it’s hard to make that claim when there are so many amazing beaches in Costa Rica, Jaco does have a great beach and is well worth the drive from San Jose.
The beaches near Jaco are popular with both locals and tourists and are perfect for surfing, swimming or relaxing and soaking up the sun. There are also plenty of restaurants and shops in the area.
The route from San Jose to Jaco Beach does have some tolls, so if you are driving, be prepared with some Costa Rican change.
If you’re not renting a car, private transfers are available from San Jose and will usually include a stop at the Crocodile Bridge, mentioned below.
9. Crocodile Bridge
On the way to Jaco, there’s a bridge that spans the Tarcoles River which is known as the Crocodile Bridge.
From the bridge, you can watch as crocodiles bask in the sun on the riverbanks or swim through the water.
It’s truly an impressive sight to see these massive creatures up close, yet still from a safe distance.
While it’s said that the best time to stop is at sunset and sunrise, you can see the crocs any time of the day.
We stopped twice, both at different times of the day and managed to see quite a few crocodiles each time.
It is hot on the bridge though, so be prepared with proper sun protection.
Parking is located at the north end of the bridge, and in typical Costa Rican fashion, there are locals offering to watch your car for a few colones or dollars.
Longer Day Trips from San Jose
10. Arenal Volcano
Travel Time: 2.5 – 3 hours
Arenal Volcano is one of Costa Rica’s most iconic landmarks and a popular place to visit. The town of La Fortuna is home to the Arenal Volcano and is about a 2.5 hour drive from San Jose.
The Arenal Volcano is one of Costa Rica’s most recently active volcanos. It last erupted in 1968 and for almost 40 years, a red glow and small eruptions at night could be seen.
The volcano is now quiet, and while you can’t climb up to the top and peer into the volcano as you can at Volcan Poas, you can hike around the base of Arenal volcano and walk on lava streams from the 1986 eruption.
While it’s a long day trip, La Fortuna is such a unique area of Costa Rica and so different than San Jose that even a day trip is better than not experiencing it.
We recommend spending a few days though to really take advantage of all the amazing things to do in La Fortuna. There are plenty of adventure activities, including zip lining and hanging bridges or soaking in the hot springs that the area is known for.
If you have a few days to spend there, we highly recommend it, and there are some great hotels in La Fortuna with hot springs. But if you’re short on time, we still suggest visiting La Fortuna, as it’s such a great experience and one of the most recommended days trips from San Jose.
If you have a rental car, it’s possible to do the drive yourself or there are guided tours from San Jose that you can join.
This full-day tour includes transportation to Arenal, with a stop in the town of Sarchi on the way. After arriving in La Fortuna, there’s time to hike around the base of Arenal volcano, then a few hours to soak in the hot springs at Baldi Hot Springs, before returning to San Jose.
There are other tours, like this guided tour, which also include transportation to Arenal, as well as a stop at a coffee plantation and a waterfall, before visiting La Fortuna. The tour then includes two hours at Paradise Hot Springs, one of the top hot springs resorts in the area.
Travel Time: 2.5 – 3 hours
Monteverde is a beautiful cloud forest region located in the central highlands of Costa Rica, about 3 hours from San Jose.
Like La Fortuna, Monteverde is also known for its adventure activities and there are several companies offering canopy tours, zip line adventures and hanging bridges through the cloud forest.
Monteverde is also known for its coffee plantations, which offer tours and tastings for visitors. As its a popular tourist destination, there are also many more things to do in Monteverde, and most are kid-friendly.
Tours from San Jose are available, and include transportation, as well as stops along the way and entrance to the hanging bridges or other activities in Monteverde.
If you’re in staying longer in Monteverde, this tour includes transportation to Monteverde, a hike through Selvatura Adventure park and its hanging bridges, and return transportation to San Jose or you can opt to stay longer in Monteverde itself.
12. Tortuguero National Park
Travel Time: 3 hours
Distance: 125 km
Tortuguero National Park is one of the farthest day trips from San Jose, but it’s an amazing experience that offers a glimpse into the incredible biodiversity of Costa Rica.
This stunning National Park is a protected area on the Caribbean coast. It’s home to a variety of wildlife, including jaguars, crocodiles, monkeys, sloths and hundreds of species of birds, but it is most well-known for its role in the protection of sea turtles.
Tortuguero means “place or area of the turtles”, and as its name suggests, it’s an important nesting site for sea turtles. Each year, thousands of turtles come ashore between July and October to lay their eggs on the park’s beaches.
Nesting season is usually from July to October, but September and October is when the hatching season is at its peak. If you’re visiting at this time, you can watch the baby turtles emerge from their eggs and make their way back down to the ocean. It’s an amazing event to see!
Tortuguero National Park is only accessible by boat or plane, but the road from San Jose reaches within 30km from the park, where you then take a boat ride to through the canals and lagoons in the park.
Guided tours are available from San Jose, which include breakfast and lunch, transportation from San Jose and a boat tour through Tortuguero National Park.
13. Manuel Antonio
Travel Time: 3 hours
Another of the most recommended day trips from San Jose Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio National Park is about a 3-hour drive from the capital.
Located on the Pacific Coast, Manuel Antonio is known for its gorgeous beaches and stunning national park. Manuel Antonio National Park is the country’s smallest park, but one of the most popular.
Boasting several white-sand beaches, crystal-clear waters and lush tropical forests, this is a chance to experience the rainforest and beaches in one spot.
Well-marked hiking trails lead through the park and offer a chance to see monkeys, sloths, coati and different types of birds up close. In fact, monkeys will probably join you on the paths at some point. We also saw a few sloths along the aptly named Sloth Trail.
The town of Manuel Antonio also has a public beach and some of the best sunsets in Costa Rica.
The drive to Manuel Antonio is fairly easy, and you’ll pass the Crocodile bRidge mentioned above, or you can take a tour from San Jose. This tour includes transportation and entrance fees to Manuel Antonio National Park, as well as breakfast and lunch, and a few scenic stops along the way.
Where to Stay in San Jose, Costa Rica
If you would like to stay near San Jose but don’t want to be in the city centre, the town of Alajuela is a good choice. It’s near the airport, so if you’re spending a day or two in San Jose at the beginning or end of your time in Costa Rica, staying near the airport might be a good idea.
We stayed at the Hampton Inn, which was only minutes from the airport and included a free shuttle to and from the airport. Rooms were comfy and quiet, and there was a pool and restaurant on-site. It was a great choice for an early morning flight home.
FAQ’s: Best Day Trips from San Jose Costa Rica
Jaco Beach is the closest beach to San Jose. It’s 100km from San Jose and takes about 1.5 hours to drive there.
The best months to visit San Jose Costa Rica are January, February and March, as these are the driest and warmest months. However, July is also a good month, as it’s not as busy, there is a bit of a break from the rainy season and accommodation prices are a bit cheaper.
San Jose, like any large city in the world, has its share of crime and safety concerns. While it is generally considered safe during the day, exercise caution when walking around at night and in certain areas of the city. As with many large cities, be aware of pickpocketing and theft, especially in crowded areas. If you are renting a car, be sure not to leave any valuables in the car.
San Jose is a large city but one, or even two days would be enough to see everything in the city centre. If you have more time, any of these day trips from San Jose are an excellent way to see more of the country and experience the best that Costa Rica has to offer.
Final Thoughts: Day Trips from San Jose Costa Rica
Costa Rica is such an amazing and diverse country, and San Jose’s central location makes it possible to explore the best that the country has to offer on a variety of different day trips.
From volcanoes, beaches and the rainforest, to coffee plantations and small towns, there are many opportunities to explore Costa Rica from San Jose.