They call Guanacaste the Texas of Costa Rica.
It’s not necessarily because the people of Costa Rica’s most vast province make a mean brisket, or drive around with “No Moleste Guanacaste” bumper stickers. But more so as a result of the long stretches of white, windswept hills dotted with cattle and ranch homes that can call to mind the Lone Star State.
But that kind of like-home comparison Americans are notorious for is selling Guanacaste short (no offense, Texas). Because beyond those golden hills, you’ll find jungles, mangroves, volcanoes, and world-class beaches, making Guanacaste almost a country unto itself inside the land of Pura Vida. With easy hiking trails, excellent infrastructure, and hotels with the comforts of home, it’s the best place to visit if you’re mulling a first trip to Central America.
An independent territory creates a region unlike any other
Guanacaste’s history is also vaguely Texan. It was a separate Spanish territory until 1824, when it gained independence from the crown and was given a choice to join Costa Rica or Nicaragua. Though Costa Rica welcomed Guanacaste with open arms and even has a national holiday on July 25 to celebrate its annexation, the culture is still markedly different.
That’s because when Spanish colonizers came to Costa Rica, most didn’t venture into Guanacaste’s sometimes-brutal environs, where fierce winds and triple-digit heat weren’t nearly as hospitable as the temperate coasts. You’ll find far more indigenous people in this region, working ranches and driving cattle.
The cattle culture has kept much of the region undeveloped, meaning getting around can involve some long drives. This also sounds familiar. Along those drives, you’ll see young men moving herds of Brahma across the landscape. To get a full education in their lifestyle and Costa Rican cowboy culture, spend a day at the Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin, a sort of dude ranch outside Rincon de la Vieja National Park. Here, you’ll interact with a working horse and cattle ranch, and learn why ranching is such a crucial part of Guanacaste’s culture.
The Hacienda also boasts a literal farm-to-table restaurant, where you’ll experience the fruits of a Guanacaste farm. Nearly all the produce is grown on-site, as is much of the beef. So when your tomahawk steak comes out with fragrant steam from zucchini, onions, and hearts of palm, the smells meld perfectly with the air in which they’re served.
Hiking through treetops and careening down a jungle waterslide
Lest you write off Guanacaste as a bunch of desert and ranches, remember it still sits in Central America, which means a volcano is never far away. But Guanacaste’s are especially well designed for visitors.
Rather than trekking all day to the top of a steaming caldera, guests in Guanacaste can take a scenic ride into Rincon de la Vieja National Park, home to nine volcanic craters and Costa Rica’s most active volcano. At Buena Vista Del Rincon, you can take a mile-ish long hanging bridge walk through the majestic treetops that fill the dry tropical forest, with views of the volcanic peaks peeking out between them. You’ll gaze down on ficus tree roots that stand over ten feet tall and frequently find yourself eye-to-eye with toucans, frigates, and other equatorial birds.
The park is also home to thermal hot springs, where you can cover yourself in therapeutic volcanic mud, wash yourself off, then enjoy a beer in one of its natural hot tubs. From there, it’s a short tractor ride back to the main visitor’s center, where you’ll get your adrenaline going again by sliding down a 1,400-foot water slide that careens through the jungle.
If you’re looking for something a little more active in the park, head to Las Pailas. It offers a pleasant 2.5-mile loop trail past bubbling mud pits with spectacular views of the volcanoes. For the quintessential tropical waterfalls, hit the Catarata Escondida and La Cangreja trails. Either can be done by a hiker with minimal experience, and the latter ends in a stunning blue lagoon.
Jungles and mangroves are equally accessible
Further inland, Guanacaste moves from the dry forest into the legitimate jungle. Tenorio National Park sits right on the border of Guanacaste and Alajuela Province near Lake Arenal. Named for a still-active volcano, the small park winds blow through the rain forest along the magical blue Rio Celeste. The river is a Gatorade blue color from its natural Sulphur deposits, and as it meanders through the bright green jungle, the entire landscape seems artificially saturated.
The park boasts rich wildlife, including howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, pumas, and tapirs. It feels a world away from the dry desert you were traversing an hour earlier and stands as a true testament to Guanacaste’s diversity.
For something closer to the beach, spend some time in Palo Verde National Park near Tamarindo. This endangered wetland is the region’s best place for birds, as its low-lying mangroves and dry tropical forest make a welcome habitat for both native and migratory animals. The best way to spot them is along a guided boat tour, where your seasoned guide will point out the herons, egrets, spoonbills, and ibis who make the place so special. Along the hour-and-a-half ride on the Tempisque River, you’ll likely also spot a crocodile or two, though they don’t really bother tourists.
Calming beaches and sunset sails
Guanacaste sits on Costa Rica’s Pacific side, but the water is still almost Caribbean warm. Its beaches aren’t the soft, powdery stuff you might find in the Caribbean—volcanic terrain will do that. But they still offer a stunning, golden contrast to the deep blue Pacific, and with larger waves and cool breezes, offer a welcomed respite from the hot, windy mountains.
Tamarindo is the best known of Guanacaste’s beaches, a surf town packed with expats. The shore is lined with lively bars full of young, adventurous people, and if you’re looking to meet some new friends from other countries, spend an afternoon hopping around. That said, if you’re here for pure, tropical relaxation, you may find the place a bit hectic.
For a similar landscape minus the crowds, head just north to Playa Grande. Here, surfers who aren’t into the “scene” find waves just as grand as Tamarindo’s, with far less in-water competition. Those who don’t surf will also enjoy the sparser crowds and remote feel of Playa Grande. Just bring along your own drinks if you’re looking for beers on the beach.
Further south you’ll find the gray sand shores of Playa Hermosa. While it’s not ideal for an afternoon of sunbathing, it’s a perfect jumping-off point for SCUBA and fishing excursions. And it offers the chance to ride horses along the ocean. For on-the-water fun, go a little past Tamarindo to Playa Portero. There you’ll find a number of catamarans that take guests out for a day on the Pacific. Panache Sailing offers an adventure beginning a little after noon, sailing to secluded snorkeling spots where you can gaze down at tropical fish, then relax on a beach that seems completely removed from civilization. The entire experience ends with a glorious purple sunset, complete with a cocktail toast.
How to do it all in Guanacaste
Much like Texas, the drives in Guanacaste are long. That’s not to say they’re boring, flat, and filled with staticky mariachi music on the radio. But the vastness of the province and the single-lane roads mean many destinations are a couple of hours apart or more.
Your best bet is to fly into Liberia (the city, not the African nation) and rent a car. From there, Guanacaste is really your oyster, as the roads are well-maintained and drivers are relatively safe. Just make sure you pay close attention to your GPS, as not every road in Guanacaste is obviously marked.
From there, you can post up at a number of hotels and resorts, depending on your travel style and budget. The Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo is glorious, if pricey. The aforementioned Hacienda Guachipelin is slightly more rustic but gives you a good glimpse into the culture. But because activities are so spread out, and drives can be long, you may want to base where you stay more around what you want to do than the hotel itself.
Interestingly, a company called Beachbound is launching a sort of all-inclusive package for Guanacaste at the end of March, where you base at the Dreams resort in Las Mareas in the north of Guanacaste, and they shuttle you around to several adventures. You’ll be able to pick the experiences you want to have, and it eliminates the need for renting a car or booking tours and activities yourself. While you’re free to eat wherever it also includes your meals and drinks at Dreams. And while it’s not a completely authentic exposure to Guanacaste cuisine, it gets rid of the guesswork.
However you choose to experience Guanacaste, you’ll leave understanding it’s so much more than a Central American take on Texas. With lush jungles, bright, blustery hills, and glimmering blue beaches, the region offers a little of what everyone seeks in Costa Rica. And as a clean, easy, and altogether enriching experience, it’s perfect for a first-time visitor. Just, please, try to avoid making the obvious comparison out loud.