Those on the group flights usually arrive in the afternoon and will be met at the airport and transferred to the hotel. Those not on the group flights will join the group at the start hotel in San Jose in the afternoon/evening.
San José (1150m), the capital city, stands at the heart of the country in the fertile Central Valley, where the majority of the Costa Rican population is concentrated. Today you begin with a guided tour by bus around the sights of the city including visits to the National Museum and 'INBio Park', an educational and recreational centre. You visit the famous Doka Estate for a guided tour of the coffee and plantation sugar-cane mill, as well as the fascinating butterfly farm. This provides a fascinating introduction to the natural history of Costa Rica by way of interactive exhibits and interpretative trails through assorted habitats.
Day 3 - 4
Today you depart early and stop for breakfast en route (approx. 1¼ hour's drive) before boarding a launch to navigate the waterways into the Tortuguero National Park (approx. 2 hours). Los Canales were dug during the 1960s to connect the coastal lagoons to a maze of natural channels in order to transport lumber by boat. They now form a long highway (100km) through dense rainforest. Every now and then you see a clearing in the thick forested banks where settlers eke out an existence from slash-and-burn agriculture and fishing. Everyone fishes here: an iridescent flash marks the flight of a kingfisher; anhinga and several species of heron can be seen perching in the shadows along the water's edge, waiting to strike. Your riverbank lodge stands amidst rainforest where tonight you'll fall asleep to the unearthly cry of the howler monkey, and wake in the morning to the screech of toucan and oropendula.
This area has long been associated with the catching of turtles (tortuguero means turtle-catcher). The original indigenous inhabitants used turtles as a sustainable resource, but the arrival of Europeans led to major exploitation. Tortuguero National Park, established in 1970, is now home to 13 of Costa Rica's 16 endangered mammals. Among them are manatee, ocelot and jaguar, as well as over 300 bird species. First and foremost, however, it is the nesting ground of the Green turtle, which comes ashore between August and October to lay its eggs on the sandy beaches. Lesser numbers of the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle, plus Loggerhead, and giant Leatherback turtle also nest within the park at different times of year. You will go on excursions by boat and on foot, using the experienced eyes of your boatman or guide to maximise opportunities of spotting wildlife.
Please note - If you visit between August and October and are interested in the nesting ground of the Green turtle, it is necessary to wear dark colours.
Day 5 - 6
After breakfast you take the boat transfer back to Freeman (2 hours), keeping your eyes open for more animals and birdlife. You then transfer to the Sarapiqui area, passing palms (used to produce palm heart), banana and papaya growing along the roadside (approx. 2 hours drive). You stop for lunch and have time to stretch your legs before continuing (approx. 1½ hours) to your destination - Sarapiqui, known as one of the richest areas in Costa Rica for bird watching. On the banks of the Puerto Viejo River and next to the Braulio Carrillo National Park, this place is a nature lovers paradise. The diversity of lowland bird life is impressive. A biological research station and several nearby forest lodges have made this undisturbed habitat accessible to scientists and travelers.
The rest of the day and all of tomorrow are free to relax and enjoy this area. The first choice of most families is to take an optional full day rafting trip along the Pacuare River for some exhilarating fun. The level of rafting here is suitable for families, but please note that the minimum age is 12 years. Alternatively, you could take a boat trip to observe the flora and fauna of the area or if you prefer a land-based activity, you could horse ride or hike in the forest. There is also the chance to take an optional half day visit to the Rainforest Alliance Banana Project.
Today you travel to Arenal (approx. 2-3 hours) and have the chance to visit the still active volcano. Arenal Volcano soars out of the surrounding countryside to 1633m in a perfect cone and to many people, illustrates perfectly what they expect a volcano to look like. The lower slopes, covered in nutrient-rich volcanic soil, are covered in lush vegetation whilst the top often spews smoke, ash and even lava up into the sky, a spectacular sight at night that you might see. The volcano's inner workings also mean that the area has a number of thermal springs where hot, lava-heated water gushes to the surface. These springs have been turned into a number of thermal pools and waterfalls, often surrounded by foliage, an ideal chance to relax. The pools are probably best visited in the evening when, if you are lucky and the cloud is not low, you may get to see a great pyrotechnic display from the volcano. (Thermal pools visit is an optional extra).
This morning you head out for a guided tour of Arenal National Park. The trails of this national park pass through interesting dwarf cloudforest where the rich bird life includes several species of hummingbird and Costa Rica's national bird, the clay-coloured robin; renowned for its melodious song. The afternoon is free for optional activities in the local area, and as the park covers 29,692 acres, there should be plenty here to keep you occupied in your free time. You may want to head further afield and take a day trip to Cano Negro; a wildlife refuge, great for migratory and resident birds as well as river wildlife - both mammals and reptiles. Horse riding is also available in the Arenal area.
Today you transfer along the Arenal Lake - a famous hangout for avid windsurfers - via Tilaran to Monteverde de Santa Elena (approx 4-5 hours). There are some great views across the lake looking back towards Arenal Volcano as well as some arty wayside stopping points offering great homemade cakes and refreshments. As you climb up to Monteverde you'll feel the climate becoming cooler and see the difference as the vegetation changes from tropical to cloudforest. On the surrounding hills are a number of coffee plantations as the area is famous for producing some of the best coffee beans in the country, with many of the growers belonging to fair-trade co-operatives. In the afternoon there may be time to visit a butterfly farm (optional).
Monteverde was founded as an agricultural community in 1951 by a group of North American Quakers; they cleared virgin forest to create verdant pastures ideal for dairy farming. These environmentally aware settlers were conscious of the danger that unrestricted farming could cause to this precious habitat. Consequently they established a small privately-owned wildlife sanctuary, which has since grown to become the internationally-renowned Monteverde Cloudforest Biological Reserve. Variation in temperature and rainfall in this area creates eight distinct habitats covering both the Atlantic and Pacific slopes of the mountains.
Today you explore the forest which is home to the reclusive resplendent quetzal, the blue-crowned motmot, the emerald toucanet and some 30 species of iridescent hummingbird - to cite but a few of the 400-odd bird species recorded here! As if this were not enough, more than 100 mammal species, 1200 amphibian and reptile species and many thousands of insect species live here, all in addition to an astonishing variety of plant life.
One of the highlights for many is the chance to see the forest from the height of the canopy instead of always looking up into the trees. As an included activity you will walk across hanging bridges (Sky Walk) suspended through the trees. It's not designed for vertigo suffers but provides a fantastic chance to get in amongst the foliage and experience the forest from a great vantage point!
Monteverde also has a number of other optional activities you may be interested in doing including horse riding, visiting orchid farms and the thrilling 'Sky Trek' where you zipline with harnesses on ropes between platforms in the trees.
On departing Monteverde you descend to the Pan-American Highway which you follow southward across the flat coastal plain. Your journey takes you along a coastline of fine sand beaches, separated by the occasional area of mangrove and endless plantations of African palm. Your journey ends at the central Pacific coast where your hotel is located.
Day 12 - 13
Manuel Antonio National Park stands a few kilometres south of Quepos on the beach lined shores of the Pacific. Its magical beaches and abundant forests make a stunning finale to your trip in this great setting. During your two days in the region you'll enjoy a three-hour guided walk along the trails within the park and have plenty of time to relax on one of the idyllic palm-lined bays, with the ocean crashing in on the beach and white-faced capuchin monkeys peering out from the trees.
You retrace your steps northward along the coastal road, stopping at Carara Biological Reserve where you walk for two or three hours through the rainforest in the hope of seeing the rare scarlet macaw and the black and green poison dart frog which are endemic to this region. Carara's position between the dry tropical forest of the north and the wet rainforest of the south endows it with a uniquely high diversity of flora and fauna in spectacular colours throughout the year. Continuing onwards from Carara, the route turns inland to follow the main Pacific Highway through the agricultural towns of Orotina and Atenas back to San José for your final night (approx. 5 hours drive plus stops).
For those not on the group flights, the trip ends here after breakfast. Those on the group flights will be transferred to the airport for your overnight flight home.
The group flight usually arrives back into London in the mid-afternoon.