San Jose Costa Rica is the perfect home base for those looking to day trip through Costa Rica without changing hotels. Our top 25 day trips from the Costa Rican capital city- all within a 90-minute drive of the city center.
Moving to San Jose Costa Rica? Making San Jose your home base during your Costa Rica trip? As Costa Rica’s bustling capital, San Jose is a great city full of museums, the national theater, the Jade museum, great restaurants, breweries, and parks.
But it can also be nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and see some of the best places in the Costa Rican countryside. That’s why we’ve rounded up 25 of the best day trips from San Jose. There’s something for everyone- beach, hiking, typical food, shopping, volcanoes, coffee tours and more.
Each of these trips is within 90 minutes of the city center- making them a true day trip. You really don’t want to go more than a couple of hours (if that) from San Jose, especially with kids. It can get to be a long time in the car pretty fast.
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Day Trips North of San Jose, Costa Rica
Heading north of San Jose, Costa Rica there are several towns with great tourist activities. You’ll find Heredia, Alajuela, Grecia, Sarchi, Naranjo and San Ramon all within about 45 minutes of the San Jose, Costa Rica airport. For full transparency, this is also the area in which I live so it’s also my favorite.
#1- Mirador de Alajuela
Looking for a romantic night out with the best food and views of the entire Central Valley? The Mirador de Alajuela is one of my top favorite restaurants in all of Costa Rica.
Delivering up both typical food and higher-end dishes such as pasta and grilled ribs, Mirador de Alajuela also has an extensive wine and cocktail list.
Sunset is the best time to spend here. Plan to sip cocktails, order a few plates and spend time relaxing.
Pro tip: Bring a jacket as it does get chilly after sunset because up high it’s a bit windy.
#2- Rescate Animal Zoo Ave– Alajuela
Rescate Animal Zoo Ave is home to Costa Rica’s most robust and ethical animal rescue center. Located in Alajuela, it’s also just 15 minutes from the San Jose International Airport, putting it in the prime location to rescue animals rescued after being smuggled out of Costa Rica.
The onsite biologists work diligently to keep animals such as scarlet macaws, crocodiles, sloths, snakes, monkeys, and hummingbirds (among others) safe in their natural habitat.
Those animals that can be released into the wild after rescue also have the opportunity to do so under their care.
A great day trip includes a video overview, an optional guided tour, tons of walking paths and a cute restaurant with typical food.
Pro tip: The bugs are fierce at Zoo Ave so make sure to take bug spray!
#3- Café Britt Coffee Tour- Heredia
Café Britt is one of the largest coffee exporters in Latin America, and best known for its high-end coffee and souvenirs. One stop at the Costa Rican International Airport tells you all you need to know- Café Brit runs the coffee game in Costa Rica.
They also offer an extensive and interactive, if somewhat commercialized coffee tour in the city of Heredia, centrally located near San Jose, Costa Rica. This is definitely one of the best-known coffee tours in the country, and the bilingual guides are excellent.
Pro tip: Most large grocery stores sell Cafe Britt at a cheaper price than the tour location.
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#4- Sarchi Artesianal Town
If art is your thing, you will find the highest quality at the birthplace of Costa Rican handicrafts in Sarchi. Home to some of the best woodworkers and artisans in the world, Sarchi is a tiny town full of shopping opportunities.
Don’t forget to check out the world’s largest oxcart located just in front of the church. Then, head to the Eloy Alfaro Ox Cart Factory to see how oxcarts have been made with a waterwheel. Finally, head to the Chaverri Ox Cart Factory to see the painters in action- creating beautifully painted souvenirs right in front of your eyes. Everything is free unless you want to purchase souvenirs.
Love to dance? Weekends are for Viejillos bar and restaurant, where the best dancers in the Central Valley turn out to dance salsa, cumbia, merengue, bachata and more to live music- especially on Sunday afternoons from 1-4.
Pro tip: Most souvenir shops offer a cash discount of between 15-20%, but you have to ask. (Nicely).
#5- Catarata del toro- Bull’s Waterfall
The Bajos del Toro region of the Central Valley of Costa Rica was recently discovered as one of the prime places in all of Costa Rica to see waterfalls and crystal blue water flowing from the Poas Volcano.
The largest waterfall is the Catarata del toro, a 270-foot waterfall plunging into cold waters below. You can observe the waterfall from high above on a scenic platform.
If you are more adventurous, you can hike the 400 odd steps down to the pool at the bottom to experience the waterfall from the ground up. You will not be able to swim in this waterfall.
Pro tip: Bring a rain jacket- you’ll get wet! Sturdy walking shoes are a must as well.
#6- Rio Agrio Waterfall
If you are looking for a great hike chasing waterfalls, the Rio Agrio Waterfall is your best bet. After a gorgeous and easy 20 minute hike, you arrive at the Rio Agrio waterfall, where you can hike around to the back or enjoy dipping your toes in the water.
The water is bitter- you can try it, but I bet you won’t drink much! After hitting the waterfalls you can grab a quick lunch at the typical restaurant on-site- expect enormous portions of freshly prepared typical food for about $5 a plate. They sell beer too.
Then it’s off to the blue pools- an easy 5-minute hike down to the set of ethereal blue pools. Perfect for a quick dip in the water- don’t forget your suit!- or some fun cliff diving. Plan to spend hours enjoying this natural volcanic wonder.
Pro tip: Rinse your suit in clean water before heading back to San Jose, it as the volcanic water can make your suit stink- and it’s a tough smell to get out!
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#7-Tesoro Escondido- Hidden Treasure Waterfall
If you want to see a breathtaking waterfall plunge into emerald blue waters AND swim, Hidden Treasure waterfall is your best bet.
After a 40 minute hike, you will see the gorgeous blue water and the waterfall. Bring your suit if you want to swim! On weekends, this property opens a small restaurant with typical food. Prices are reasonable and this property is owned by a local family. English is spoken here.
Note- if you are up for it, you could start early and do all four waterfalls in the same day.
Pro tip: You are going to get muddy! So bring old tennis shoes, or the family will rent you rubber boots- just bring socks.
Want us to plan your customized San Jose day trip itinerary? No problem- contact Christa here.
#8- Corso Lecheria – Costa Rican Dairy Farm
Located just the road to the Poas Volcano National Park, the Corso Lecheria is a fully working family farm. They produce milk products- cheese, sour cream, ice cream, milk and more.
The Corso Lecheria tour is super family friendly- you’ll ride on a large tractor to milk cows, hike through the forest, and pick fresh strawberries right from their farm.
At the end of the tour, there are cheese samples, fresh strawberries, and the opportunity to buy freshly made ice cream. There’s also a great little restaurant right on site.
Pro tip: There’s a great playground at Corso so kids will love it. Sit back and sip a beverage while your kids play for hours.
#9- Grecia’s Red Church
Grecia is the main city in the Poas Volcano region and a bustling hub of commerce. The church at the center of town is super cool- it’s entirely made of metal and held together by large rivets.
The inside is gorgeous as well, and just outside the church is a fun-colored photo stop- the name of the town, Grecia.
If you want to wander a typical local town pretty free of American tourists, Grecia is a great stop. There’s a kid’s playground, lots of shops and restaurants, and it’s a great stop on the way to or from either the Poas Volcano region or the town of Sarchi.
Pro tip: If you make the drive between Grecia and Sarchi you will see all of the bridges painted with the typical Costa Rican painted curls.
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#10- La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Just about 10 minutes down the road from Corso is La Paz Waterfall Gardens– one of the coolest places I’ve been in Costa Rica. Situated in the cloud forest, it’s an incredible experience. With 5 waterfalls and over 7 wildlife viewing stations, if you want to see Costa Rican wildlife this is the place to be.
Plan to spend all day here- especially since the lunch buffet is to die for. You’ll spend half the day touring the gardens and wildlife, and another half hiking the waterfalls.
The waterfall hike has lots of slippery stairs- so come ready to climb and hike. The waterfalls are optional.
Also to note- there are neat hikes around the back of the property. The cafe at the lake is open to the public and gorgeous. A perfect day tour!
Pro tip: The felines are fed each day at 3:30 pm- and an awesome thing to watch!
For more to do in this area read our post on 10 Things To Do In Vara Blanca Costa Rica
#11- Poas Volcano
Volcan Poas is one of the most visited volcanoes near San Jose, Costa Rica. Famous for the large green lake at the center of its crater, the Poas Volcano has been one of the most family-friendly volcano visits.
Recently, however, it is become very active and is often closed. Definitely check before you go- or you can visit some of the family farms and restaurants on the way up the mountain. If you want to spend time at a volcano in Costa Rica, this is the closest one to San Jose.
I recommend getting there early for the best chance of seeing the crater. You don’t really need a guide for this trip, as there is an extensive visitor’s center at the National Park entrance with lots of information.
Take a rain jacket or other rain protection- it always at some point throughout the day. You will be at a high altitude so there are very few mosquitoes.
Pro tip: Buy park tickets ahead of time on the SINAC website to make sure you can get into the park.
Related post: Costa Rica’s National Parks Guide
#12-Fredo Fresas Restaurant
Owned by the same owners of the Corso Lecheria, Fredo Fresas is a fun typical restaurant located on the road to the Poas Volcano.
Plan to eat traditional Costa Rican food and wander the small waterfall garden in front of the property. Don’t forget to order a strawberry beer either!
Pro tip: Head to the Poas Volcano early and stop here on the way down for lunch.
#13- Espiritu Santo Coffee Tour
The Espiritu Santo Coffee Tour is so so so cool. It’s owned by a local family in Naranjo, Costa Rica and is so typically Costa Rican I just want every to go there.
Plan to go through the entire coffee-making process with a local bilingual guide. From picking the coffee to sorting it and roasting it- you’ll get hands-on experience with all the aspects of the coffee process.
You’ll also have the chance to see exactly how real Costa Ricans prepare their coffee and sample some too.
The gift shop is perfectly reasonable and they sell some of the best coffee you’ll find in Costa Rica.
Pro tip: Allow some extra time to hike the grounds- the Costa Rican countryside here is gorgeous.
#14- Las Musas Park
Located in San Ramon, this hidden gem is not to be missed. It’s also a great stop between San Jose and La Fortuna or Arenal Volcano area if you want to break up your trip.
This park costs less than $10 to get in. There is a swimming pool with a water slide an on-site bar/restaurant, hiking trails, a beautiful waterfall and even a small zip line. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the area!
#15 – Finca Libertad Pura
This tiny farm in the highlands of San Ramon offers breathtaking views of the Pacific coast (on clear days). It’s also an amazing place for horseback riding at a very reasonable rate. Typical food is served on site.
Arguably one of the most popular coffee tours in the country, if you want to visit the only Starbucks coffee farm open to the public in Latina America, don’t miss the opportunity to tour here. The tours fill up fast and early, so make sure to make advance reservations.
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Day Trips South of San Jose
#17- Cartago- Cathedral of the Virgen of the Angeles
Cartago was the original capital of Costa Rica many years ago, most likely as much for its religious significance as its geographical one. Like many countries introduced to Catholicism by the Spanish, Costa Rica celebrates an appearance by the Virgen Mary each year on August 3rd.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels is located on the spot where the Virgen de loss Angeles appeared in 1635. Thousands of Costa Ricans pilgrimage here at the beginning of every August, and the church and the surrounding plazas are kept in pristine condition.
You can visit any time of year, however, to see the church, attend Mass, or just walk the sacred grounds where “La Negrita” appeared.
Pro tip: Make sure to remove hats, enter the church quietly, and respect the holiness of the sanctuary- even if you aren’t Catholic.
#18- Lankester Botanic Gardens – Jardines Lankester
Also near Cartago are the Lankester Gardens, a study center for the University of Costa Rica that is open to the public for a nominal fee.
Lancaster Gardens is a huge orchid research center in Costa Rica and all of Central America, and there is also a huge reserve of naturally growing bamboo. You can bring a picnic, there are optional guided tours and a small souvenir shop on the premises. It’s one of the best ways to see a lot of endemic fauna in Costa Rica all in once place.
Pro tip: Cartago can be cool- you’ll be glad to have a long sleeve shirt here.
#19- Irazu Volcano
Volcano Irazu is about 35 kilometers southwest of San Jose Costa Rica and is a spectacular sight to behold. You will wind through lush green cattle and strawberry country before arriving at the top of the volcano.
There is a crater that is active, as well as barren plains that resemble outer space. You’ll pay a national park entrance fee, and there are lots of hiking opportunities.
Pro tip: Talk to the park rangers before you pay the entrance fee to the National Park. If the volcano is covered in clouds, it’s not worth the trip to the top.
#20- Rafting at the Pacuare or Sarapiqui River
You can head south for a rafting adventure on the Rio Pacuare. Most tours will include transportation, breakfast and lunch and the rafting adventure in half-day or whole-day excursions.
If you plan to raft, plan to get wet! Bring closed-toed shoes (or sandals with a backstrap), lots of sun protection and a change of clothes.
Rafting is not for young children or those who don’t feel comfortable in deep or rough water or can’t swim. I highly recommend Rios Tropicales as a great tour company for rafting in Costa Rica. Nature lovers and adventure lovers alike will love this trip.
Pro tip: If you don’t feel safe, don’t white eater raft. Listen to your gut. Rafting is fun, but it’s also dangerous and not worth the risk if you feel uncomfortable or afraid.
Day Trips East of San Jose
#21- La Selva Biological Station
The La Selva Biological Station is located just 45 minutes east of San Jose Costa Rica, on the road to the Caribbean Coast and Tortuguero National Park. It’s a great stop for those wishing to experience the primary tropical rainforest in a small setting and a guided hike with expert tour guides.
You can stay the night there with advance reservation too, and there’s a small buffet-style restaurant that serves a quick and inexpensive lunch.
This station is where living, breathing biologists live and work, making it a rustic yet fun place to explore. Make sure to walk very softly and you will be able to see tons of Costa Rican wildlife.
Pro tip: Hire one of the local guides to take you around the forest.
#22- Braulio Carrillo National Park
Braulio Carillo National Park is one of the largest National Parks in Costa Rica, and home to some of the most concentrated biodiversity in the world.
It’s not the kind of place that you go alone- hiking inside the park requires a guide as people get lost every year. However, there’s an incredible aerial tram that takes you through primary forest with ample opportunity to see birds, butterflies, sloths, monkeys, raccoons and more.
There are also zip lines and hanging bridges within the national park if adventure in Costa Rica is more your style. I went on the areal tram through the forest which was absolutely incredible- a slow bird’s eye view of the forest.
Pro tip: DO NOT forget the bug spray. Holy Moses, this place has bugs but it’s so beautiful you won’t care!
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Day Trips West of San Jose
#23- Crocodile Bridge on the Tarcoles River
The Crocodile bridge is located on highway 34 about 25 kilometers north of Jaco Beach. The bridge is about 200 meters long and spans the width of the Tarcoles River. From the bridge, you can see the many crocodiles who make their home at this particular spot.
Best viewing times are sunset and sunrise, although you can really see crocodiles any time of day as there are so many. It’s hot at this spot, so we don’t usually spend much time hanging around.
There is parking at the north end of the bridge- expect to spend a few hundred colones (less than $1 US) to park your car. There are restaurants and overpriced souvenir shops here as well.
For the adventurous, check out our favorite crocodile tour to see the crocs up close.
Pro tip: Cross highway traffic does not stop, so please watch your belongings, children, and friends.
#24- Crocodile Tour
If you don’t want to see the crocs from above on the bridge, then you’ll want to do this crocodile tour. Get on a boat and cruise down the Tarcoles river while watching the crocs from up close.
After the tour head into Jaco for a bite to eat before returning to San Jose.
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#25- Playa Mantas
If you are looking for a relaxing beach day, Playa Mantas is your best bet. It’s a small beach just north of Jaco, and the water is calm and clear.
Expect to pack in all your food, and to see very few other people throughout your day. At low tide, you can walk over to Playa Blanca for some snorkeling. Read more details about Playa Mantas here.
If you are feeling especially adventurous, you can hike over to the beach next door. Playa Blanca is one of the only white sand beaches in all of Costa Rica, and the turquoise waters will take your breath away.
Pro tip: Head to Playa Mantas early and during the week- or you’ll run out of parking.
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#26- Guacalillo Cliffs
The Peñon de Guacalillo is a unique spot in Costa Rica that has recently gained popularity, especially on Instagram. That’s because it is a highly photographic place to view the sunset.
The road to the cliffs is rough- so make sure to bring a 4×4 vehicle. Once you arrive you can grill at the top of the cliff, or hike down to the beach.
It’s not recommended to bathe in the water as there have been crocodiles spotted, but the beach is a beautiful place to dip your feet in and enjoy a deserted beach.
Pro tip: Spend the day at a nearby beach and plan to spend the late afternoon at the cliffs.
#27 Jaco Beach
Jaco beach is probably one of the most well-known beaches in Costa Rica. It’s a capital for surfing, shopping, nightlife, eating and more.
It’s also an easy 1.5 hour drive from San Jose, Costa Rica, making it a great day trip from the capital. There is ample parking, restaurants and tours right from the beach. This makes Jaco beach a great destination for large groups of people who want to do different things.
Pro tip: When driving from San Jose to Jaco, you’ll pass by some toll roads. Make sure to have lots of change at the ready so you don’t get fined.
Related post: Where To Stay In Jaco
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#28 Isla Tortuga
You’ll love cruising over to Turtle Island on a boat. You can snorkel or even scuba dive on the way there, and you can relax with a pina colada when you get there. Not to be missed!