The Best Day Trips from San Jose, Costa Rica: 13 Things to Do Near San Jose and Alajuela

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If you’re planning on spending just one week in Costa Rica, you likely won’t be spending much time in San Jose or Alajuela (where the San Jose Airport is located). At best, you’ll have maybe a day on the front or back end of your trip, depending on when your flights arrive and depart. However, if you do have some extra time in the area, there are plenty of awesome day trips from San Jose, Costa Rica.

Although there are lots of cool things to do in San Jose itself. I recommend spending your extra time exploring outside of the capital. Costa Rica’s wonders are in its nature, not its cities. If you’re limited on time, I recommend visiting one of the spectacular volcanos and / or waterfalls near San Jose, Costa Rica. But for all intents and purposes, all of your options for the best day trips from San Jose are listed below!

Note: Most of these day trips are less than a couple of hours away by car, but some are much further. I’ve indicated how long it *typically* takes to get to each place, but Costa Rica roads and traffic are somewhat unpredictable.

So if you find yourself in Alajuela or San Jose for longer than you’d like to be, don’t worry! These are the best things to do near San Jose, Costa Rica.

Best Day Trips from San Jose, Costa Rica: 13 Things to Do Near San Jose Airport


Poas National Park

There’s a reason that one of Costa Rica’s largest and most active volcanoes is the most visited tourist site in the country. The view of this sunken caldera at the Poas National Park is spectacular. With the crater being almost a mile in diameter, you can see the sulfur bubbles and smoke emissions from where you’re standing. SO cool. With your admission fee, you also get access to the nearby hiking trails. With any luck, you’ll spot some small animals and if not, then you get a good workout and some fun photos with trees and plants. Get your ticket ahead of time here.

Distance from San Jose: 30 miles / 1 hour 30 min drive

Tip: Be sure to stop by one of the fresas del volcan (volcano strawberries) booths along the road near Poas for some delicious, fresh strawberries! 


Doka Coffee Plantation 

If you’ve ever met me, you know I can’t live without caffeine, and I have a deep-seated love and appreciation for good coffee. When I learned that we would have time to visit a coffee plantation and drink ourselves into a caffeine frenzy learn exactly how good (and bad!) coffee is harvested, I immediately added it to the itinerary, and now think it’s one of the best things to do on a day trip from San Jose.

Doka Coffee Plantation is located in the coffee capital of Costa Rica and offers tours pretty much all day. I learned that harvesting coffee takes longer than your average college degree, and I’m that much more appreciative of a good cup of java. Oh, and in case you’re wondering – yes there are tastings and yes they are plentiful. Don’t forget to pick up some bags to take home from their gift shop. They’re more expensive at souvenir shops.

Distance from San Jose: 19 miles / 50 min drive


If you only have ONE day in San Jose, I recommend visiting Poas National Park, Doka Coffee Plantation, Grecia, Sarchí and Los Chorros Waterfall. La Paz Waterfall is a great addition if you aren’t deterred by the cost.


Grecia and Sarchí

The Best Day Trips from San Jose, Costa Rica: 13 Things to Do Near San Jose Airport
Gorgeous and colorful architecture in Sarchi

Located just 14 miles from Doka Coffee Estate is the cute town of Grecia. Stop here for some picturesque architectural sites, including the spectacular Lady of Mercy Cathedral. Continue to Sarchí, an artsy town just five miles from Grecia. This town is known for its colorful traditional oxcarts, originally built to transport coffee beans. Today, these artisanal carts are considered to be a local craft – you can buy small ones as a cute souvenir!

Distance from San Jose: 27.5 miles / 47 min drive


Los Chorros Waterfall


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This is one of the best waterfalls near San Jose that you can actually swim in (you can’t swim at La Paz). The two Los Chorros Waterfalls are located in Grecia (at a park by the same name) and you need to do a mile-long downhill hike to get to the waterfalls themselves (wear your hiking sandals). Come early to avoid crowds – it’s not the most popular place but most locals know about it. Either way, bring some snacks / food, your swimwear, and a towel. There are no bathrooms or changing rooms so plan accordingly.

Distance from San Jose: 24 miles / 1 hr drive

La Paz Waterfall Gardens

La Paz Waterfall Garden is a giant, privately owned nature park and wildlife refuge attached to an ultra-fancy eco-hotel. This explains why the admission price is $42 per person (steep, I know), but the proceeds go toward caring for the animals, and who doesn’t love animals? Inside, you’re treated to several hiking trails that lead to five spectacular waterfalls. There are also tons of exotic animals including toucans, jungle cats, monkeys, snakes, and much more. We were in awe of the place and spent the entire afternoon there. It’s definitely impressive.

Distance from San Jose: 29.5 miles / 1 hour 20 min drive


Braulio Carrio National Park


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For a hiking day trip from San Jose, look no further than Braulio Carrio National Park. Just outside, you’ll find Cerro Dantas, where you can do some spectacular (albeit somewhat difficult) hikes and see plenty of waterfalls, flora and fauna. Alternatively, enter the park, where you can take an aerial tram through the canopy, hike the easier trail, and see plenty of flora and fauna. It’s an awesome place to experience the great outdoors and is just a short distance from San Jose / Alajuela.

Distance from San Jose: 16 miles / 1 hour 6 min drive


Recreo Verde Hot Springs

To preface this suggestion, I have to warn you that it took us 2 hours each way to get to these springs (and unfortunately, they weren’t as cool as the ones in La Fortuna). Had we realized it would take that long, we probably would have left way earlier or opted for a different activity entirely. But let’s just say you’ve just made the trek to Recreo Verde. What will you find? Well, for starters, if you go during the week, it will be basically empty, which means you get three pools all to yourself like a boss. Two of them are thermal pools with minerals that come from the nearby volcano (excellent for healing mosquito bites FYI) and one is a freezing swimming pool filled with natural water. You get a pool day, but instead of gross chlorine or salt water, you get to chill in water that’s actually good for your body. Win! At $12 per person, it’s a steal compared to the cost of the thermal pools near the popular Arenal Volcano.

Distance from San Jose: 49 miles / 2 hours 5 min drive


Zoo Ave


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One of the great things about Costa Rica is the country’s dedication to wildlife protection and conservation. There are tons of laws in place, which is the only reason I felt comfortable going to the wildlife parks there. We didn’t make it to Zoo Ave, but given its non-profit status and the fact that it’s Latin America’s largest wildlife rehabilitation and breeding center, I think it’s a safe recommendation. With tons of species of birds, cats, reptiles, and monkeys, you’re guaranteed to leave with just a bit more knowledge about Costa Rican wildlife and some great photos to boot!

Distance from San Jose: 18 miles / 34 min drive




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If you’re already heading to Irazú, be sure to stop at the charming town of Cartago, the former capital of Costa Rica. It has a spectacular collection of colonial buildings, including the stunning Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles. Other points of interest include the Santiago Apostol Parish Ruins (a church-turned-park) and Iglesia de San Jose de Orosi, the oldest church in Costa Rica with an attached museum.

Distance from San Jose: 15.6 miles / 45 min drive


Irazú Volcano


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Irazú National Park is home to the largest volcano in the country and you can catch an amazing view of it at the park. I definitely recommend going in the morning to avoid the potential fog that may block the view of the crater (and to avoid crowds). Overall, it’s a short and easy walk from the entrance to see the volcano. You can also hike within the park itself and spot some wildlife, if you’re lucky.

Distance from San Jose: 33 miles / 1 hr 25 min drive


Toucan Rescue Ranch


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Seriously, Toucan Rescue Ranch is one of the best things to do near San Jose. It’s just 30 minutes from the city center but it’s a world away. This animal refuge is the coolest place to interact with the cutest rescue animals. Despite the name, they don’t only house rescued toucans. The sloths are the highlight of the visit, if I’m being honest (baby sloths are the cutest). I love the mission of this place: their goal is to release as many of the animals into the wild as possible, so no human contact is allowed. All the proceeds from tours go back to the animals as well.

Distance from San Jose: 11 miles / 30 min drive

Tortuga Island 


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Given that it takes at least 4 hours to drive to Tortuga Island (including a ferry ride with your car), I recommend starting very early or booking a tour so you don’t have to worry about the headache of driving and getting yourself back in time. You can’t stay overnight on Isla Tortuga but you can stay nearby if you’d like. Anyway, you’re probably wondering what there is to do on Tortuga Island. First of all, it’s spectacularly gorgeous with pristine beaches. While here, you can snorkel, see tons of wildlife and sea animals, hike, stand-up paddleboard, and more. It’s not a must-do in Costa Rica, but if you have some extra time, it’s a super fun way to spend a day.

Distance from San Jose: 90 miles / 4 hr drive


Tortuguero National Park 


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Given that it takes at least 5 hours to drive to Tortuguero National Park, this excursion is only considered to be a day trip from San Jose if you fly. If you choose to drive or take the boat, you have to stay overnight in Tortuguero. Tortuguero is known as the prime spot to see nesting sea turtles and it’s totally worth visiting if you’d like to see them. It has 11 ecological habitats and what makes it particularly unique is that there are no roads around it, so it’s only accessible by boat or air.

Distance from San Jose: 83 miles / 30 minute flight


Organized Tour Options: Full-Day and Half-Day Tours from San Jose

We rented a car in Costa Rica and were able to explore the nearby area on our own during our trip (we were there for two weeks in total visiting San Jose, Manuel Antonio, La Fortuna and Monteverde). However, if you aren’t planning on renting a car in Costa Rica, there are plenty of organized day tours from San Jose so you can experience some of the awesome places mentioned above. I’ve included them below:

What to Pack for Costa Rica

I was surprised to find that traveling to an outdoorsy tropical destination requires some specialty items, which I’ve included below. Also, click here to see which items are always in my suitcase, no matter the destination!

Check out the complete Costa Rica packing list here!

  • Hiking sandals: they may be ugly, but they’re certainly versatile! Not only did I wear them for every hike I took in Costa Rica, but I also wore them at the beach as well.
  • Waterproof jacket: It rains a lot in Costa Rica – especially if you’re there during rainy season. This jacket is lightweight and breathable but keeps you dry. It also fits into its own pouch to make packing lightly that much easier.
  • Temperature regulating t-shirts: No matter what the season, you’ll want at least one basic temperature regulating shirt, like this one. This T is specially made to be moisture-wicking, anti-odor, and offer SPF protection. Plus, it doesn’t look like an exercise top but still offers a lot of the benefits of high-performance clothing. It’s cute enough to be dressed up with a cardigan or nice scarf. If you decide you love these shirts and want more, try this one.
  • Moisture-wicking pants: Costa Rica is tropical which means it’s humid AF and there are tons of mosquitos. The best pants to get for this kind of weather are both quick-dry and lightweight. I recommend these that are great for both hiking and just regular traveling but you can also browse all your options at REI.
  • Sunscreen: The kind that is both lightweight AND doesn’t sweat off your face! For everyday use, I use Neutrogena Clear Face Sunscreen because my skin is prone to acne. The original Neutrogena sunscreen is just as good if acne is a non-issue. Neither will leave your skin feeling gross and greasy. For the rest of me, I use the solid body stick, which works well. My friends who dive told me that the chemicals in sunscreen are really bad for the ocean though, so if you’re going swimming, they recommend All Good Sunscreen, which is safe for reefs and the planet. The more you know!
  • Insect repelling clothing: YEAH, that’s a thing! I wish I’d known before I went to Costa Rica. Honestly, you might think you won’t need it but this is a purchase I wish I’d made. Check out this men’s shirt and this women’s shirt.
  • Insect repellent: Don’t think you can get away with wimpy insect repellent…the mosquitos in Costa Rica are vicious! THIS is the best ones to ward off those bites.
  • Permethrin insect spray: Before you go to Costa Rica, treat all your clothing with Permethrin, a magical spray that makes your clothing repel insects (and doesn’t stick to your skin!).
  • Trip Insurance: A lot can go wrong when you travel which is why I always recommend getting trip insurance. World Nomads is my go-to company.
  • Power bank: I don’t know if I’m a phone addict or what (jk, the answer to that is an unfortunate but resounding yes) but I legit don’t understand how people can travel without a power bank. You’re out and about all day and using your phone to navigate, take photos, and who knows what else. I always carry my Anker PowerCore while I’m out. It’s light, holds multiple charges, and charges phones quickly. Win!
  • Portable WiFi: Once upon a time, I used to collect SIM cards like 90’s kids collected Beanie Babies. I had one for each country I visited and multiple phone numbers I could never remember. Why? So I could always have internet (I’m an addict and I know it). Nowadays, I use a eSIM. I get internet pretty much everywhere and can use it for multiple devices. P.S. read my TEP Wireless review here.
  • Waterproof dry bag or day pack (water resistant): Not only does it rain a lot, but Costa Rica is notoriously humid. Keep your valuables in a waterproof bag to avoid any kind of water damage. These are especially useful for hiking or water activities.
  • Waterproof phone pouch: If you want to take photos of your excursions underwater or just generally keep your phone dry and handy, this a must-have item!
  • Waterproof camera: Costa Rica is all about outdoor activities in the elements, and having a device that can capture your moments no matter the weather is a must! GoPro is the go-to camera for adventure enthusiasts and the best in the market. Plus, it’s waterproof without a case!
  • Insulated water bottle: Keep your liquids colder for longer. Nothing beats a cold drink of water after trekking through the national park!
  • Microfiber towel: Microfiber towels are a must-have for any outdoorsy trip. They dry significantly faster than regular towels are much more lightweight, too. Plus, this one comes with a bonus hand towel, which is perfect for hikes!
  • Portable clothesline: This is super handy for hanging swimwear, towels, and other gear to dry. Not only does it come with built-in clothespins, but it’s also easy to hook both indoors and outdoors.
  • Hand Sanitizer and face wipes: Costa Rica is hot and humid, which means you’ll be sweaty and gross pretty much the whole time. Fun! Face wipes or baby wipes will help you stay refreshed and cleanish, while hand sanitizer is useful for general…er, sanitizing. Especially if a bathroom isn’t handy.
  • Travel First Aid Kit: I love that this travel first aid kit is small enough to stick in your bag but still has tons of items in it. I’d remove the scissors if you aren’t planning to check your luggage, but otherwise, this is incredibly handy, especially if you’re going to be doing outdoorsy things.
  • Carry on backpack: Of course, no packing list is complete without a carry on to keep all your essentials. The Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack is hands down the best backpack I’ve ever used for travel. Not only is it carry-on sized, but it’s also incredibly comfortable and easy to carry, even for a small-framed person like me. It has tons of pockets and compartments for organization, lockable zippers, and it’s weather resistant. If you don’t think you can handle packing in a carry-on, the Osprey Fairview 70 Backpack is just as comfortable but a lot larger. Costa Rica is not really conducive to wheeled suitcases.

Don’t forget to rent a eSIM for the road. It’s much easier than buying a local SIM, and it means you don’t have to worry about bad WiFi. Get 15% off your rental with code PASSPORT&PLATES! | Read my review here.


Where to Stay in Alajuela / San Jose

We stayed at the Studio Hotel and loved it but see below for additional hotel options in Alajuela / San Jose!

Or browse more options below!

So if you find yourself stuck with an extra couple of days in Alajuela or San Jose and looking for some fun activities from San Jose, you now have enough activity options for three days. And if you’re in San Jose for more than three days, then there’s something wrong with your Costa Rica itinerary because there are SO many great things to do in Costa Rica! Get out and explore!

More Costa Rica Resources

Planning a trip to Costa Rica soon? Check out ALL my posts on Costa Rica below:  


Have you ever been to Costa Rica? Did you spend any time in Alajuela? Share your Costa Rica experience in the comments below!


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22 thoughts on “The Best Day Trips from San Jose, Costa Rica: 13 Things to Do Near San Jose and Alajuela

  1. Chantell Collins says:

    Looks like you had an amazing time! This is so handy for anyone who finds them in San Jose for a few days. We are still deciding on what to do when we visit Costa Rica (taking forever I know!) but this information is super helpful! Thanks for sharing :).

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      Thanks! Yes I did :). It’s hard to decide cause there are so many places to see in Costa Rica. Let me know if you have more questions about CR! Can’t wait to see where you end up!

  2. Jojo says:

    People say to skip these!? I think these are great recommendations! Especially if someone has a layover and need to stay near the airport. I would like to check out the Volcan for sure.

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      People say to skip San Jose entirely which effectively rules out these places! Can you believe that? They’re less than an hour’s drive, too so it works out if you have a long layover or if you need to stay a day in San Jose.

  3. Hung Thai says:

    Holy cow these destinations are near San Jose? I had no idea. When we were there 2 years ago, we stayed in San Jose for 2 nights and left to far away places never knowing these amazing places were so close!

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      Yeah! They’re around a 45 minute drive which isn’t bad at all! Luckily we had a great airbnb host who sent us recommendations, plus I did a little research as well :). Now you know for next time!

  4. Marteen Lane says:

    Who knew all these attractions were a short distance from the airport! I’m definitely putting La Paz Waterfall Gardens on my list 🙂

    • Sally E says:

      Yeah! It’s around a 45 minute drive which isn’t bad at all! Sometimes people end up with a day near San Jose and these are some great activities. And I LOVED La Paz! I hope you get a chance to visit soon!

  5. Wander With Jo says:

    This looks absolutely beautiful. Who would’ve thought you would find everything so close to the airport in Alajuela? Sometimes I feel that the less popular places need to be explored more and finding hidden gems in such places is the real win 🙂 Great job

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      I know, right? So much to do and all less than an hour away! And I agree! I think some of the people who told me to skip this area really missed out!

  6. The Wanderlanders says:

    I’m so jealous of your Poas pics. When I was there it was wayyy too foggy to see anything. You got the perfect view!

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      Oh nooo that’s so sad! We were really lucky since it was hot and had just rained. Guess this means you’ll have to go back 🙂

  7. Miriam @londonkitchendiaries says:

    Would love to visit Costa Rica – it looks like such a beautiful country. Glad you found so many fabulous things to do around Alajuela. It must be a coffee lovers heaven and so nice that they care about wildlife protection and conservation!

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      Ah yes, it’s definitely a must-visit! The nature here is outstanding and I didn’t have a single bad cup of coffee either which is a total win in my book :). And yes – it’s nice to know that the money you’re spending helps protect the nature and the wildlife! Seriously awesome.

  8. Sell All Your Stuff says:

    Love anything to do with hot springs. Very cool that you had it all your yourselves.
    Glad you were able to make the best out of your unexpected change of plans.

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      ME TOO. They’re my new obsession :). And thanks! Yes we got lucky that it all worked out.

  9. Maria Berneiser Haase says:

    The hot springs look really relaxing, especially when you can enjoy it all by yourself. Very cool 🙂

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      Yeah! It was SO nice. There were maybe 2 other people there so we were able to take full advantage. It helps that most tourists don’t go there as well 🙂

  10. Tracy Chong says:

    There are always ‘hidden gems’ not many people know. And the place you visited definitely in the list. 🙂

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      So true! I love exploring all the options. I hope you get a chance to visit sometime soon 🙂

  11. Michael Tsou says:

    Hello fellow travelers. How safe is it to drive in Costa Rica Since we will be near by Alajula (near Costa Rica airport for 3 days) Just like the article. I’m thinking either to drive but my wife doesn’t want me to. Any recommendation would be greatly appreciated.

    • Sally E says:

      Hi there! I’d say it’s pretty safe but road conditions aren’t the best. Around Alajuela is totally fine. I’d say driving to and from Monteverde is the most difficult. It’s a bit difficult to get around without renting a car and if you drive carefully, you’re totally fine.

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