San José makes an excellent base for exploring the lovely Central Valley. For first-time visitors, the best way to make the most of these excursions is usually to take a guided tour, but if you rent a car, you’ll have greater independence. Some day trips also can be done by public bus.
In addition, to the tours and attractions offered around the Central Valley, a few other tours and activities just a little bit farther afield are popular and convenient for day trips out of San José. These include the following.
Bungee Jumping -- There’s nothing unique about bungee jumping in Costa Rica, but the site here is quite beautiful. If you’ve always had the bug, Tropical Bungee ★ (tel. 2248-2212; www.bungee.co.cr) will let you jump off an 80m (262-ft.) bridge for $75; two jumps cost $120. Transportation is provided free from San José twice daily. Someone should be there from 9am to 3pm every day. They prefer for you to have a reservation, but if you show up on your own, they’ll probably let you jump, unless huge groups are booked ahead of you. These folks also offer paragliding tours.
Canopy Tours & Aerial Trams -- Getting up into the treetops is a defining theme in Costa Rican tourism, and there are dozens of companies doing it.
The most popular day trip destination from San José is Rainforest Adventures ★ ((tel) 866/759-8726 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2257-5961 in Costa Rica; www.rainforestadventure.com), built on a private reserve bordering Braulio Carrillo National Park. It boasts a pioneering aerial tram built by rainforest researcher Donald Perry, whose cable-car system through the forest canopy at Rara Avis helped establish him as an early expert on rainforest canopies. On the 90-minute tram ride through the treetops, visitors have the chance to glimpse the complex web of life that makes these forests unique. Additional attractions include a butterfly garden, serpentarium, and frog collection. There’s also a zipline tour, and the grounds feature well-groomed trails through the rainforest and a restaurant. With all this on offer, a trip here can easily take up a full day. If you want to spend the night, 10 simple but clean and comfortable bungalows cost $110 per person per day (double occupancy), including three meals, a guided hike, taxes, the tram ride, and use of the rest of the facilities.
The cost for a full-day tour, including both the aerial tram and canopy tour, as well as all the park’s other attractions, is $99 for adults; students and anyone under 18 pay $65. Packages, including round-trip transportation and lunch, are also available. Alternatively, you can drive or take one of the frequent Guápiles buses—they leave every half-hour throughout the day and cost C1,450—from the Caribbean bus terminal (Gran Terminal del Caribe) on Calle Central and Avenida 15. Ask the driver to let you off in front of the teleférico. If you’re driving, head out on the Guápiles Highway as if driving to the Caribbean coast. Watch for the tram’s roadside welcome center—it’s hard to miss. This is a popular tour for groups, so get an advance reservation in the high season and, if possible, a ticket; otherwise you could wait a long time for your tram ride or even be shut out. The tram handles about 80 passengers per hour, so scheduling is tight.
The original and most dependable company running these trips is Calypso Tours ★ ((tel) 800/887-1969 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2256-2727 in Costa Rica; www.calypsocruises.com). The tour costs $145 per person and includes round-trip transportation from San José, Jacó, or Manuel Antonio, a buffet breakfast before embarking on the boat, all drinks on the cruise, and an excellent buffet lunch on the beach at the island. The Calypso Tours main vessel is a massive motor-powered catamaran. They also run a separate tour to a private nature reserve at Punta Coral ★. The beach is much nicer at Tortuga Island, but the tour to Punta Coral is more intimate, and the restaurant, hiking, and kayaking are all superior here. Daily pickups are from San José, Manuel Antonio, Jacó, and Monteverde, and you can use the day trip on the boat as your transfer or transportation option between any of these towns and destinations.
Hiking -- Most of the tour agencies listed above offer 1-day guided hikes to a variety of destinations. In general, I recommend taking guided hikes to really see and learn about the local flora and fauna.
Rafting, Kayaking & River Trips -- Cascading down Costa Rica’s mountain ranges are dozens of tumultuous rivers, several of which are very popular for white-water rafting and kayaking. If I had to choose just one day trip out of San José, it would be a white-water rafting trip. For $100 or less, you can spend a day rafting through lush tropical forests; multiday trips are also available. Some of the most reliable rafting companies are Tour Costa Rica ★★ ((tel) 888/680-9031 in the U.S; www.tourcostarica.com), Exploradores Outdoors ★ ((tel) 646/205-0828 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2222-6262 in Costa Rica; www.exploradoresoutdoors.com), and Ríos Tropicales ★★ ((tel) 866/722-8273 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2233-6455 in Costa Rica; www.riostropicales.com). These companies all ply a number of rivers of varying difficulties, including the popular Pacuare River.
Volcano Visits -- The Poás, Irazú, and Arenal volcanoes are three of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations, and the first two are easy day trips from San José. Although numerous companies offer day trips to Arenal, I don’t recommend them because travel time is at least 3 1/2 hours in each direction. You usually arrive when the volcano is hidden by clouds and leave before the night’s darkness shows off its glowing eruptions.
Food Tours -- Chef José González, of the restaurant Al Mercat, runs frequent tours to his family’s finca 10km outside of town, which includes tastings of native fruits and produce for $35. He’ll also set up urban foraging trips to learn about the edible produce on the streets of San José, to explore the city’s markets, and to taste authentic Costa Rican food at some of the city’s hidden Sodas.
Guided Tours & Adventures
A number of companies offer a wide variety of primarily nature-related day tours out of San José. The most reputable include Costa Rica Sun Tours ★ ((tel) 866/271-6263 in the U.S. and Canada, or 2296-7757 in Costa Rica; www.crsuntours.com), Horizontes Nature Tours ★★ ((tel) 2222-2022; www.horizontes.com), and Swiss Travel Service ((tel) 2282-4898; www.swisstravelcr.com). Prices range from around $35 to $70 for a half-day trip, and from $75 to $180 for a full-day trip.
Before signing on for a tour of any sort, find out how many fellow travelers will be accompanying you, how much time will be spent in transit and eating lunch, and how much time will actually be spent doing the primary activity. I’ve had complaints about tours that were rushed, that spent too much time in a bus or on secondary activities, or that had a cattle-car, assembly-line feel to them. You’ll find many tours that combine two or three different activities or destinations.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.