Introduction to Guanacaste
Pura vida ("pure life") is the credo of Costa Rica and its citizens. Synthesize that ideal further and the result might be your typical guanacasteco: a native of Guanacaste Province. This northern Pacific region of Costa Rica encapsulates the same life-affirming notions of peace, spiritual fulfillment, and harmony that draws millions of visitors to Costa Rica every year.
It's a diverse place, too. Guanacaste includes the famous "Gold Coast," 400 miles of coastline featuring prime beach destinations that draw surfers from across the globe for their world-class breaks. Conversely, more remote beaches at the top of the Nicoya Peninsula are ideal for travelers seeking relaxation and tranquility.
But there's more to Guanacaste than beaches. Travel inland and you'll find Brahman cattle grazing across endless acres of pasture. At the northeastern edge of the province, the drylands give way to protected rainforests whose delicate eco-systems support some of the most exotic flora and fauna in the world.
Here vermillion bromeliads and purple orchids sprout from towering trees, and howler monkeys commingle with rainbow-colored resplendent quetzals. And everywhere in between, you'll find the waterfalls that have become icons of Costa Rican natural beauty.
Crafting Your Itinerary
With five days you can experience the main highlights of Guanacaste on a quick itinerary. With a week you can take your time and visit many beaches and villages along the Nicoya Peninsula. Of course, if you have two weeks you can see almost all of Guanacaste and even tack on other regions to your itinerary. If you do have an interest in visiting Guanacaste as well as other areas, consult this guide for information on other must-visit regions of Costa Rica.
San José may be the capital of the country, but Liberia is the main hub of Guanacaste Province. While there is an international airport here (Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport), many inbound flights from other countries typically involve connections from San José's Juan Santamaría International. It's often cheaper to book travel through Costa Rica's domestic air carrier, Sansa. Sansa serves other places on the Nicoya Peninsula, such as the coastal towns of Tamarindo and Nosara.
Liberia is close enough to San José to be easily accessible by bus. The trip takes about 4.5 hours and local companies make the trip not only to Liberia but other destinations like Tilarán, Tamarindo, and north to Peñas Blancas, at the border with Nicaragua. From Liberia, it's possible to take public buses to destinations across the Nicoya Peninsula.
Popular Villages and Parks in Guanacaste
Many who have embarked on health and wellness journeys have connected their mind, body, and soul in the coastal haven of Nosara, located about 2.5 hours south of Liberia. The natural beauty of the area lends itself to spiritual fulfillment, as evidenced by the many retreats and yoga centers. It's also a surfer's paradise, as you'll discover at the town's principal beach, Playa Guiones. Here the shore is long and the waves diverse, offering many opportunities for both beginners and experts. And if a combined surfing/yoga excursion on the Nicoya Peninsula is indeed your thing, we've got you covered with this adventure idea.
Located 45 minutes west of Liberia, Playa Hermosa is often referred to as the northern gem of Guanacaste Province. It's a popular beach town that's well developed yet isolated enough not to be totally overrun. There are a number of aquatic activities you can take part in, from snorkeling and scuba diving to sport-fishing and kayaking. Horseback riding and catamaran tours are also popular excursions.
Rincón de la Vieja National Park
If passing through Liberia, you'll want to visit nearby Rincón de la Vieja. This massive national park is located 15 miles northeast of Liberia and features a wealth of sights and activities on its 34,000 acres. Here you'll find the namesake volcano (yes, it's active), dozens of rivers, hot springs, and a wealth of flora and fauna, like monkeys, sloths, and tapirs. Activities here include everything from canopy tours and horseback riding to hiking and canyoning.
Also, in Rincón de la Vieja, you can count on good weather mostly year-round. This is due to the fact the park is located where the northern flatlands meet the higher altitude hills and mountains that lead to Monteverde. So expect the scenery to be green and fertile even in the offseason, and cooler than other areas on the coast.
Located about 1.5 hours southwest of Liberia, in between Nosara and Playa Hermosa, lies the surf haven of Tamarindo. Abounding with expats and retirees, it's one of the most popular villages in Costa Rica. This is interesting considering Tamarindo's small size. With a population of just 7,000 people, most of the roads in town are unpaved and you can easily get around the center on foot. Beginning surfriders flock here for the long beaches and abundance of surf schools.
Aside from the village/beach towns mentioned above, there are some other stunning stretches of sand in this region.
Playa Avellenas is located about 40 minutes south of Tamarindo and has been nicknamed "Little Hawaii" for its world-class waves. Indeed, this is a spot best left to advanced surfers, as waves can top out at 18 feet. That said, there is a beach bar here if you want some liquid courage to help steady those nerves.
This white-sand beach, located about five miles north of Tamarindo, fronts a small town featuring many luxury resorts and condos. Playa Flamingo makes for the perfect all-inclusive getaway because it's a little more tranquil than some of the other destinations on this list. Just south of here is Playa Conchal, a beach great for snorkeling and swimming.
Playa Grande is another firm fixture on Costa Rica's surfing trail. Located just north of Tamarindo, a famous surf camp can be found here (the Playa Grande Surf Camp). Also, it's a nesting area for leatherback turtles from October through March.
Guanacaste Province is home to some of the most famous waterfalls in the country. All of those listed here can be easily accessed from the main cities and towns in the region.
Llanos de Cortez
Just a half hour south of Liberia you'll find one of the most famous waterfalls in Costa Rica, the Llanos de Cortez. These 50-foot wide, 40-foot-high roaring falls are surrounded by thick forest abounding with birds and wildlife. The falls crash into a large pool perfect for swimming and nearby vendors sell food and drinks. It's located just off Ruta 1 near the town of Bagaces. There's no fee to enter the falls, but upon entry, you'll be asked for a donation which benefits a local school.
Sensoria, the "Land of Senses," is one of the most ethereal destinations in the country. It's located in Ricón de la Vieja, on the slope of the volcano. Here a series of geothermal springs and freshwater falls accumulate in a group of pools. The only way to arrive is on a nature hike that lasts three or four hours, but all that slogging through the rainforest pays off—once you arrive you're treated to cascading falls and electric blue lagoons. It's part of the Guanacaste Conservation Area, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If waterfalls plunging hundreds of meters is your thing, Viento Fresco won't leave you disappointed. Located about seven miles south of Tilarán, this should be an obligatory stop for anyone journeying between Arenal and Guanacaste. Viento Fresco is actually a collection of five cascades dominated by Arco Iris, the star of the show. This monster drops 250 feet into a lagoon that begs you to take a dip. It's possible to arrange horseback riding excursions here as well.
When to Go
Regarded as having a "tropical dry climate," Guanacaste sees little rainfall, even during Costa Rica's wet season (May through mid-November). The exception is when you make your way to the eastern edge of the region, around Arenal—this is where you'll find more rainforest conditions.
The region's dry climate means it experiences consistent heat. Regarded as the hottest region in the country, Guanacaste's yearly average temperatures hover between 80°F and 90°F, with highs and lows in the mid-90s and low 70s/high 60s. Humidity falls somewhere between 60% and 90% year round.
Most visitors opt to journey to Guanacaste during the "rainy" season. This is because the highest temperatures tend to hit in the dry months (December through April), with the biggest spikes occurring in January and February. During September and October, however, rainfall can exceed 120 inches.
For the reasons outlined above, it's important to pack warm-weather clothing. That means shorts, bathing suits, T-shirts, and sandals. Hats and sunglasses are recommended, and bug spray and sunscreen are a must. Obviously, if you're planning any long-distance hikes you'll want sturdier clothing, such as khakis and hiking boots. Wetsuits are not needed for surfing. If you are traveling in September/October, pack water-resistant clothing and gear, especially if you plan on visiting the rainforest areas.
Where to Stay & Eat
If you're interested in staying at a yoga retreat, check out Bodhi Tree Resort. For a boutique four-star option on a nature reserve, consider the Lagarta Lodge. For food, try the casual Mexican at local institution El Chivo Cantina. For a romantic meal on the beach, you can't beat the seafood at La Luna.
Rincón de la Vieja
There are many all-inclusive lodges near to the park where you can overnight. One of the best mid-range options is Hacienda Guachipelín. This ranch sits on 3,400 acres right next to the park and offers daily excursions. They have 64 rooms featuring volcano views and will book any excursion or adventure-sports activity you like. An alternative is to camp in the park if you want to spend longer than a day exploring it.
There are no restaurants in the park (indeed you'll want to bring your own snacks into the park grounds), but for solid dining options in nearby Liberia, try the elevated yet hearty seafood fare at Marisqueria Tierra Mar. You may not find better ceviche in the entire country.
Playa Hermosa's lodging-and-dining scene is on the pricier side. If you are interested in a solid four-star hotel option featuring sea views and a lagoon pool with swim-up bar, head to Villa Sol. For fusion cuisine, try popular spot Ginger, which utilizes fresh fish for their unique spin on tapas. Their menu also features vegetarian options.
If you want to splurge should consider Tamarindo Diria, a four-star luxury beachfront resort featuring suites with ocean views. If you're on more of a budget go for the central Tamarindo Village Hotel. For food, try a casual lunch of Mexican fare at Green Papaya Taco Bar. For dinner, dress up for steaks at Patagonia Argentinian Grill & Restaurant.
To avoid the crowds, consider visiting Guanacaste between May and June. Prices will be lower at these times as well.
Costa Rica is a haven for expatriates and more visitors flock to Guanacaste than any of the other four provinces in Costa Rica. That means English is widely spoken in the hotels and restaurants—you shouldn't have much trouble navigating the area with minimal or even non-existent Spanish.
There are few people and little commercialism at the Viento Fresco waterfall—this makes it an ideal spot for a romantic getaway.
If you're planning a family vacation, consider spending the most time in Playa Hermosa. Its calm waters are the opposite of the many surf beaches in the area, and thus perfect for people of all ages.