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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, was the first beach destination out this way to capture any attention. It’s since been eclipsed by increasingly trendy 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 an easy weekend getaway. Just north of Sámara, Nosara and its neighboring beaches, despite the horrendous dirt road that separates these distinctly different destinations, is rapidly turning into the next Tulum. Aside of being one of the country’s top surf spots, with a host of different beach and point breaks from which to choose, it’s quickly becoming the New Age center of the region.

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.