Ten days is plenty of time to see a very nice cross-section of Costa Rica’s diverse range of ecoregions–from the Caribbean to the Pacific lowlands–but in a country with far too much to see, you need a 10 day Costa Rica itinerary that’s not going to waste any time.
I first visited Costa Rica back in 2015, and I’ve studied and written about the country. Here’s my 10 day Costa Rica itinerary for serious nature and wildlife lovers.
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10 day Costa Rica itinerary for serious nature and wildlife lovers.
If Central America is the best-studied and most scientifically productive region on the planet, it is no surprise that Costa Rica is one of the, if not the, best studied and most scientifically productive countries.
The size of the U.S. state of West Virginia, Costa Rica makes up just 0.03 per cent of the earth’s land mass while being home to 6% of its total biodiversity.
With no active conflicts, a large variety of ecosystems (including two coastlines), and unmatched biological richness in such a small area, and easily reached from both Europe and North America, it makes sense that Costa Rica would be a global epicentre for ecological research and nature tourism.
It is for these reasons that CR has one of the largest number of protected areas (30 per cent of its total landmass) in the world, and why it is home to a disproportionate number of field stations and reserve options in my book The Nature Traveller’s Handbook: 150 Research Stations and Private Reserves to Visit Before You Die.
Costa Rica has a massive network of private reserves and national parks and visiting them all would not be possible with just 10 days in the country so, for the sake of that relatively short amount of time and in order to pack the most, best and most accessible wildlife viewing opportunities into your trip, below is my 10 day Costa Rica itinerary for serious nature and wildlife lovers.
I’ve structured it in such a way that there is almost no backtracking. You would arrive in San Jose (ideally early morning) so that you could immediately make for stop number 1: La Selva Bio Station–one of the most famous tropical research sites in the world and a short drive from San Jose.
Following two nights there, you would make your way west to stop number 2: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and Biostation–another of the most famous tropical forest research sites in the world (Costa Rica has a few of those).
Another two nights at Monteverde (that’s four days of your Costa Rica 10-day itinerary), and it would be northwest to stop number 3: Palo Verde Research Station. Palo Verde and La Selva are both run by the Organization for Tropical Studies.
Another two nights there and then finally onto stop 4: The Campanario Biological Station on the outskirts of the world-famous Corcovado National Park (the largest and most important stretch of in-tact Pacific forest left in Mesoamerica).
I’m going to go into a lot more detail on each of these four locations below, but that is a pretty solid 10-day Costa Rican travel itinerary for serious nature and wildlife lovers.
For each of the four locations, I have included a screenshot from my book of the hand-drawn wildlife group icons indicating what kind of wildlife you are likely to encounter at the station or what animal groups visiting researchers and wildlife enthusiasts come to observe.
To be fair, all of these sites include the full range of icons minus the marine life (except for Campanario, which is on the ocean) because, well. it’s Costa Rica and every single place you go is going to be teeming with life across animal groups.
I also wanted to mention that I left out the Caribbean side of the country for no other reason than that ten days is not that big of an itinerary in Costa Rica (especially if you’re driving or bussing everywhere).
The Caribbean is home to some fantastic private reserves and protected areas that are well worth visiting. Places like Tortuguero, for example, are world-renowned for their reptile and amphibian diversity.
You can pick up my aforementioned book for a list and breakdown of the 23 places I have covered in Costa Rica (Atlantic forest spots included).
If you’ve got the budget for it, you can fly between places like San Jose and Liberia in Guanacaste or San Jose and the Osa Peninsula to potentially save yourself a ton of time (assuming your flights are on schedule), but you will, of course, be paying significantly more for that convenience.
Without further ado, here is my 10-day Costa Rica travel itinerary for those looking to see a diverse array of Costa Rican habitats and wildlife in under two weeks.
Stop 1: La Selva Biological Station
Source: The Nature Traveller’s Handbook: 150 Research Stations and Private Reserves to Visit Before You Die
La Selva, along with the Las Cruces and Palo Verde Research Stations, is funded and managed by the Organization for Tropical Studies, a non-profit consortium of 50 research institutions, colleges and universities around the world that maintain research stations in Costa Rica and South Africa.
La Selva was established by the OTS in 1968, before which it was a private farm dedicated to sustainable forest research and owned by American botanist and climatologist Dr. Leslie Holdridge. Since then, the station has been pioneering private forest conservation in Costa Rica, in addition to training and serving as a field research facility for scientists from around the world.
With over 2,077 species of plants, 470 species of birds, 48 amphibian species, 87 reptiles, 45 freshwater fish, and 125 species of mammals recorded within the conservation area, in addition to thousands of insect and arachnid species, it is little wonder that La Selva has been a popular destination for wildlife documentarians over the years.
Covering 1,600 hectares of very well-preserved primary growth and recovering wet lowland tropical forest (traversable via 61 km of paved and dirt trails), it is one of the most important wildlife corridors and natural oases in the tropics despite sitting in the middle of constantly encroaching human habitation and agricultural Land.
Just 1.5 hours from San Jose, La Selva is easy to get to by bus or car and is spectacularly beautiful. What’s more, because of how close it is to the capital, it is also surprisingly comfortable. They offer their guests a laundry service, a store and wireless internet.
Stop 2: Monteverde Biological Station
Monteverde is definitely one of the most well-known bio-research stations/reserves in Costa Rica.
Established in 1972 and covering around 10,500 hectares, Monteverde is spread out across eight ecozones and is home to 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and 120 species of reptiles and amphibians. It is an exceptionally well-preserved tract of land thanks to the constant efforts of locals, grassroots organizations and consistent funding from the international
This reserve is a regionally and internationally important location for the study of amphibian population ecology, as well as bromeliads and canopy biology, and is a spectacular place to bird-watch and observe reptiles and amphibians (particularly frogs).
Getting to Monteverde is easy, accessible from the San Jose, Arenal, Liberia and Tambor airports—all within 100 km.
Accommodations are simple, but the station has internet and hot water, which are definitely luxuries as far as a lot of field stations go.
Stop 3: Palo Verde Biological Station
Palo Verde, like La Selva, is managed by the Organization for Tropical Studies. Also like La Selva, it was established in 1968, making it one of the oldest and best kept research stations in the region.
Situated inside the 20,000-hectare Palo Verde National Park in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province, in the country’s much drier northwest, it protects one of the largest and most important Ramsar wetlands in all of Central America.
It also contains some of Central America’s most important and well-preserved tropical dry forests, making it one of, if not the healthiest tropical dry forest ecosystem in the world.
The wetlands are an important destination for migratory aquatic birds and a spectacular place for bird watching. It is also one of the best places in Costa Rica to observe the threatened American Crocodile.
Over the years, the Organization for Tropical Studies, in partnership with the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy, worked to restore this once-threatened ecosystem, resulting in the return of over 60 species of birds.
There are 11 distinct habitats within Palo Verde and 50 km of hiking trails in the surrounding national park.
Accommodations are either “rustic cabins” that come with a private bathroom, bunk beds and a fan or cheaper dormitory-style housing with bunk beds and shared bathrooms.
Stop 4: Campanario Biological Station
Source: The Nature Traveller’s Handbook: 150 Research Stations and Private Reserves to Visit Before You Die
The Campanario Biological Station is a Pacific moist forest site on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula—a place National Geographic described as “one of the most biologically intense places on earth.” With over 50 percent of the country’s recorded species found on this small strip of land, that description is apt.
Within the buffer zone of Corcovado National Park, the area is home to iconic mammals like Jaguars and Baird’s Tapirs, which are seen quite frequently, as well as an incredible reptile, amphibian, bird, insect and mammal diversity.
All of this is set against the backdrop of the ruggedly beautiful Pacific coast of Central America, where black sand meets lush green jungle.
“Campanario,” the biological station’s website contends, “is not for everyone.” The area is remote and accessible only by boat. Movement around the reserve is purely on foot and often constrained by the tide. There are no TVs, phones, aircon or internet connection.
Check out my detailed breakdown of Campanario bio station here.
What you will get, Campanario boasts, are “warm weather, warm rain, and warm surf on a secluded tropical beach, cool waterfalls, cool showers, and cool nights,” as well as access to the surrounding and very well-preserved Pacific lowland rainforest and its world-renowned wildlife watching opportunities.
The coastal waters just off the station, in addition to forming part of one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world, are uncharacteristically calm for Latin America’s Pacific coast, meaning there is excellent snorkelling to be done as well.
The station can also organize dive trips just offshore to the beautiful Isla del Caño Marine Protected Area—a place that rivals Pacific coast dive sites like Cocos Island National Park and Colombia’s Malpelo—for certified divers.
Activities include kayaking through well-preserved mangrove ecosystems, birdwatching, guided day and night hikes, bat cave exploration, and dolphin and whale watching.
A note about Campanario
Out of the many Osa Peninsula destinations I could have chosen from (I have several in my book), I chose Campanario because it’s affordable and secluded and because it offers the best opportunity to combine terrestrial and marine-oriented nature and wildlife observation in Costa Rica.
End of 10 day Costa Rica itinerary
After Campanario, it’s off to wherever your next destination is. Maybe you’re hopping the border to Panama and continuing on to explore that wonderful country.
If you’re looking for nature and wildlife-oriented activities in Panama City, check out 6 things to do in Panama City for Nature Lovers.
Maybe you’re off back home to some dreary, rainy, chilly northern latitude. If that’s the case, I feel for you. If you visit some (or all) of the places on my 10 day Costa Rica itinerary, you will definitely have some amazing memories and wildlife encounters to keep you smiling as you board that 8 a.m. train to work.