Guanacaste is Costa Rica’s “Gold Coast”—and not because this is where the Spanish Conquistadors found vast quantities of the brilliant metal ore. Instead, it’s because more and more visitors to Costa Rica are choosing Guanacaste as their first—and often only—stop. Beautiful beaches abound along this coastline. Several are packed with a mix of hotels and resorts, some are still pristine and deserted, and others are backed by small fishing villages. Choices range from long, broad sections of sand stretching on for miles, to tiny pocket coves bordered by rocky headlands. There are several famous surf breaks and beaches, and protected spots perfect for a mellow swim or snorkel.
This is Costa Rica’s most coveted vacation destination and the site of its greatest tourism development. The international airport in Liberia receives daily direct flights from several major U.S. and Canadian hub cities, allowing tourists to visit some of Costa Rica’s prime destinations without having to go through San José.
This is also Costa Rica’s driest region. The rainy season starts later and ends earlier, and overall it’s more dependably sunny here than in other parts of the country. Combine this climate with a coastline that stretches south for hundreds of miles, from the Nicaraguan border, all the way to the Nicoya Peninsula, and you have an equation that yields beach bliss.
One caveat: During the dry season (mid-Nov–Apr), when sunshine is most reliable, the hillsides in Guanacaste turn browner than the chaparral of Southern California. Dust from dirt roads blankets the trees in many areas, and the vistas are far from tropical. Driving these dirt roads without air-conditioning and the windows rolled up tight can be extremely unpleasant.
On the other hand, if you happen to visit this area in the rainy season (particularly from May–Aug), the hillsides are a beautiful, rich green, and the sun usually shines all morning, giving way to an afternoon shower—just in time for a nice siesta.
Inland from the beaches, Guanacaste remains Costa Rica’s “Wild West,” a land of dry plains populated with cattle ranches and cowboys, who are known here as sabaneros, a name that derives from the Spanish word for “savanna” or “grassland.” If it weren’t for those rainforest-clad volcanoes in the distance, you might swear you were in Texas.
Guanacaste is home to several active volcanoes and some beautiful national parks, including Santa Rosa National Park ★, the site of massive sea turtle nestings and of a major battle to maintain independence; Rincón de la Vieja National Park ★★, which features hot springs and bubbling mud pots, pristine waterfalls, and an active volcanic crater; and Palo Verde National Park ★, a beautiful expanse of mangroves, wetlands, and savanna.
The beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula don’t get nearly as much attention or traffic as those to the north in Guanacaste. However, they are just as stunning, varied, and rewarding. Montezuma, with its jungle waterfalls and gentle surf, is the original beach destination out this way. However, it’s eclipsed by the up-and-coming hot spots of Malpaís and Santa Teresa.
Farther up the peninsula lie the beaches of Playa Sámara and Playa Nosara. With easy access via paved roads and the time-saving La Amistad Bridge, Playa Sámara is one of the coastline’s more popular destinations, especially with Ticos looking for a quick and easy weekend getaway. Just north of Sámara, Nosara and its neighboring beaches remain remote and sparsely visited, thanks in large part to the horrendous dirt road that separates these distinctly different destinations. However, Nosara is widely known and coveted as one of the country’s top surf spots, with a host of different beach and point breaks from which to choose.
Nearby Puntarenas was once Costa Rica’s principal Pacific port. The town bustled and hummed with commerce, fishermen, coffee brokers, and a weekend rush of urban dwellers enjoying some sun and fun at one of the closest beaches to San José. Today, Puntarenas is a run-down shell of its former self. Still, it remains a major fishing port, and the main gateway to the isolated and coveted beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula.
The Best Guanacaste & Nicoya Peninsula Experiences
* Barefoot Dining with Your Feet in the Sand: Beachfront dining options range from the grilled octopus with cavatelli at Makoko ★★★ to the just-grilled daily catch at a simple Costa Rican soda.
* Catching Your First Wave: All up and down the Guanacaste coast are excellent breaks, and many are perfect for beginners.
* Taking a Sailboat Cruise: Most of the beach towns and destinations in Guanacaste boast a small fleet of charter boats and sunset cruises, often with an open bar. Cruises usually include lunch and snorkeling. Some boats stop at deserted beaches, or linger at sea for the sunset.
* Taking a Sunset Stroll on the Beach: What could be more peaceful or romantic than a leisurely stroll on a Guanacaste beach in the late afternoon, as the sun sets into the Pacific? I prefer more isolated stretches of sand, like Playa Avellanas or Playa Grande, but it’s hard to go wrong almost anywhere along this coastline.
* Checking Out Rincón de la Vieja’s Hot Springs, Hiking & Adventures: Even if you’re staying at one of the region’s beach resorts, Rincón de la Vieja National Park’s namesake volcano and fabulous trails are definitely worth a visit. This volcano-powered national park, dubbed Costa Rica’s Yellowstone for its geysers and mud pots, is well worth a visit for its hot springs, waterfalls, and adventure tours. Also worth seeing are the hot springs just outside the park and the amazing Hacienda Guachipelín’s adventure tours.
* Taking a Dip in the Pool at the Foot of Montezuma Waterfall: Nestled in thick forest, the Montezuma waterfall features a large, deep, and cool pool at its base—perfect for swimming. The hike in is pretty awesome as well.
* Having Some Me Time: Wellness programs have infiltrated the hotel scene in places like Nosara, where juice bars and Vinyasa yoga are as common as howler monkeys. The Nicoya Peninsula is home to several of the country’s top yoga retreat centers: Pranamar Villas & Yoga Retreat in Santa Teresa, Anamaya Resort in Montezuma, and the Nosara Yoga Institute are all top-notch choices.
* Having Playa Barrigona (Almost) to Yourself: Access is a bit rough, especially in the rainy season, but if you’re feeling adventurous, head to Playa Barrigona, a largely undiscovered gem of white sand and clear waters. You’ll probably need local help in finding the unmarked entrance, but it’s worth it.
* Going Deep (Underground) at Barra Honda: Strap on a headlamp and some climbing gear and descend into the underworld at Barra Honda National Park. After exploring the nooks and crannies of Terciopelo Cave, take a refreshing dip in La Cascada.
* Mingling with the Hip & Famous in Malpaís & Santa Teresa: Arguably the most happening of Costa Rica’s beach hot spots, Malpaís and Santa Teresa are the country’s best destinations for celebrity sightings. Even if you don’t bump into Leo DiCaprio, Flea, or Tom & Giselle, you can wander the miles of nearly deserted beaches and enjoy the beautiful sunsets.