Lined by a string of active volcanoes, Costa Rica's cowboy country is painted with a wide variety of landscapes, from the dusty, old cattle towns in the north to the humid, mist-swathed cloud forest high in the hills. Met by the ocean in two places, Guanacaste touches Golfo de Nicoya near it's southern end, and northward, reaches out to the open Pacific Ocean. Inland, the Laguna de Arenal at the foot of the Arenal Volcano is Costa Rica's largest lake and is surrounded by various foliage and wildlife well worth a visit.
The province of Guanacaste is named for the massive guanacaste tree - Costa Rica's national tree. This remarkable species is easily recognizable, expanding greater in width than it does in height, and hanging its lowest branches just a few feet above the ground. And creatures of this region couldn't be more pleased; the guanacaste tree provides them with an oasis of shade in what is Costa Rica's dryest region. From November to April, the region sees very little precipitation and the land swelters under the high, hot sun. Tourists to Guanacaste expecting emerald green foliage and moderate temperatures should certainly plan to visit during the rainy season.
The first permanent residents of the area were the Chorotega Indians, but most of their culture has been erradicated since Spanish colonization. The last semblance of their existence can be appreciated through local crafts and events. In addition, people of this region resemble their Indian ancestors with their bronzed skin and broad faces.
Major Cities of the Guanacaste Region
Puntarenas is located 75 miles west of San José and faces west out to the Golfo de Nicoya. The town sits at the end of a long, narrow strip of land that points out to sea, offering seven miles of brown-sand beach. Once a bustling and delightful port city used by the coffee barons, Puntarenas has seen a steady demise since its hey-day over 100 years ago. It does, however, still see a great deal of traffic, being the predominant springboard for trips to Nicoya and Isla Tortuga. While some see Puntarenas as one of the nation's eyesores, many visitors appreciate the funky charm of this ramshackled and weathered old town.
Though the nearby port city of Cardenas is not a major tourist stop, it does have a few points of interest, such as the Museo Histórico Marino de la Ciudad de Puntarenas and the Casa de la Cultura.
This city - named appropriately for its place along the "bird coast" - offers some of the best bird watching beachfront available. Mangroves and forest foliage nurture frigate birds, pelicans and herons. Check out La Enseñada, 940 acres of forest, rivers, and ponds, an ideal destination for any birding enthusiast.
Situated between the Río Jesús María and Río Cuarros, Orotina maintains a distinct identity, characterized by its superlative ceramic arts and the countless fruit stands that can be found along the highway. The nearby Iguana Park is a preserve for tree-dwelling iguanas.
The beautiful city of Liberia is both the provincial capital of Guanacaste, and the aesthetic capital of Spanish colonialism in Costa Rica. Its weathered, whitewashed buildings donning Spanish red-tiled roofs are characteristic of the unadorned and minimalist adobe architecture. Made of ultra-white ignimbrite stone, these buildings are the reason Liberia takes on another nomenclature - Cuidad Blanca, or White City. Located in the heart of Guanacaste's cattle country, Liberia is also identified by its enduring cowboy culture, visible through its residents dress and their spirited fiestas and rodeos.
This dusty, old town offers a variety of restaurants, hotels and watering holes. In addition, for those just passing through on their way to the Nicoya Peninsula, Liberia is a great place to fuel up and refresh supplies. At the Casa de la Cultura, the charming Museo de Sabaneros has on display various artifacts of the area's cowboy culture. Make sure to check out the Monumento Sabanero, a lifesize bronze statue of a cowboy.
This quaint, little town is situated about 14 miles from the Nicaraguan border on the upward slope of a volcano. It boasts some of the best views of Bahía Salinas, and there are numerous beaches in close proximity.
On Lake Arenal's north side is the small town of Nuevo Arenal, a town created in 1973 after its precursor was flooded when the Lake Arenal was made. Lakeside lodges attract tourists here, but the rough roads over the hills pose a challenge, even for those with 4-wheel drive.
The nearby Toad Hall features a general store and cafe, where you can find everything from arts and crafts to delicious desserts.
The largest city between San José and Lake Arenal, Quesada is the place to run errands and get supplies. It's also a great starting point for adventuring out to remote areas. At Termales del Bosque, just east of Quesada, hot springs, canopy tours and horseback riding are available.
Las Cañas is a simple cowboy town situated at the crossing of two major roads. It is a last stop before hitting the remote areas of northern Guanacaste. Fiestas are held on occasion, and bullfighting is common.
Centered among several national parks, La Casona is the location of an important forest research center and campground. In addition, a musuem and memorial have been established in honor of those who fought against William Walker.
Major Lakes, Rivers & Beaches
The Río Tempisque winds its way through the region, creating a flood plain that is home to countless birds, reptiles, and other animals. It is flanked on its northeastern side by the beautiful Parque Nacional Palo Verde.
Lake Arenal, with an area of 48 square miles, is Costa Rica's largest inland body of water. Nestled between two mountain ranges, the Cordillera de Tilarán and the Cordillera de Guanacaste, this man-made lake was created in 1973 within a natural depression in the land with the water of the dammed Río Arenal. To the north, steep slopes are blanketed by tropical wet forest, providing sanctuary for myriad species of birds and monkeys. To the west and south, great expanses of green meadow create the avenue by which strong winds buffet this windsurfers paradise. And to the east stands the gem of this picturesque locale - the breathtaking smoldering peak of Volcán Arenal. Lake Arenal provides visitors with superlative inland fishing, and the water is warm enough year-round for swimming.
In the small town of Tilarán, the Tico Wind Surf Center and the Tilawa Viento Surf Center are hotspots where intrepid windsurfers take a breather before hitting their high speed playground.
The warm waters of this river serve as natural hot-tubs. Numerous resorts and lodges take advantage of the area's inviting and therapeutic springs.
This bay contains several great beaches. The popular white sands of Playa Pochotes are situated next to gleaming salt deposits and tangled mangroves. The bay is enclosed by Punta Descartes. This magestic point, exposed to winds from the open ocean, gleans high-powered fuel for sails of experienced windsurfers.
Golfo de Papagayo
The route to this remote bay is challenging, but dedicated surfers are not deterred. A fork in the road will lead you either to Playa Naranjo for great surfing, or to the off-limits Playa Nancite to the north. The latter is protected from tourists because of its role as the Ridley turtle's nesting grounds; more than 10,000 show up each summer.
Parks and Reserves
Las Pumas Cat Zoo
There are six native cats of Costa Rica: jaguarundis, jaguars, ocelots, cougars, marguays, and "tiger" cats. Each of these species can take refuge at Las Pumas in the town of Cañas. The primary source of occupants comes from stray and injured cats, as well as those captured from hunters and private owners.
Next door is an ecological center with nature trails that run through the surrounding dry forest. Many species of wildlife flourish here. The Río Corobicí runs through this area, providing the opportunity for raft rides through its relatively gentle waters. In addition, there is a museum and visitors can explore several pre-Columbian sites.
Las Imágenes Biological Station
Nine miles north of Liberia, this large, former cattle ranching hacienda is a great place for tourists to explore by horseback and learn about the local envionment.
Parque Nacional Guanacaste
Made up of several smaller reserves, this massive park covers over 200,000 acres of tropical dry forest and cloud forest. Dominating the skies are two ominous volcanoes: Cerro Cacao and Volcán Orosí. Hiking in the area is good, and historical sites are a popular point of interest among visitors.
While this national park can offer a great deal in the way of natural beauty and historical significance, it is more accommodating to scientists than to the enthusiastic tourist. There are only a few biological stations and the roads into the park are poorly maintained. Still, many visitors will find this to be its greatest quality, opting to explore a more remote, rugged and unspoiled wilderness.
Parque Nacional Santa Rosa
This park is encompassed by the Parque Nacional Guanacaste system, and is located on the Peninsula de Santa Elena. The abundance of wildlife here is astounding, making this destination a must-see for most tourists. Prowling big cats, mischevious and playful monkeys, reptiles that lurk among the foliage, a plethora of vibrantly-colored butterflies, and countless species of birds are just some of the remarkable occupants of this area. The best time to visit Santa Rosa is during the dry season.
This park is made up of two sections. To the south is the Santa Rosa sector. An old farmstead, La Casona, serves as a museum now, displaying artifacts from the stand-off with William Walker. From here, visitors can take the trail that enters the dry forest and leads to Playa Naranjo, known for its great surfing.
To the north is the Murciélago sector, a relatively quiet range of land with beautiful white-sand beaches inhabited by birds and other animals.
Literally meaning "green mountain", Monteverde is famous for its lush, verdant cloud forests. The mists that hover over its upper elevations lend a mysterious quality to the mountain, and its abundant, green foliage is the perfect setting to observe the area's rich and plentiful wildlife.
The Quaker-founded community of Santa Elena consists mostly of small farms spreading up the hillside. In the early 1950s, Quakers from the United States came to this area in an effort to avoid the draft, bringing with them 50 Jersey cattle and a keen ability to make incredible cheese. La Lechería, the community's local cheese factory, is the foundation of the local economy. Visitors can purchase any of thirteen varieties including the Monte Rico, their most popular cheese. Near La Lechería is the Sarah Dodwell Watercolor Gallery and the Hummingbird Gallery where fine artwork can be viewed and purchased.
Based on traditional Quaker ideals, the Monteverde community has remained steadfast in upholding an outstanding conservation ethic. Agricultural and land use practices are designed with sustainability and minimizing environmental degradation in mind. And these principles are institutionalized early; a significant portion of their school's curriculum is dedicated to familiarizing students with the concepts of preservation and sustainable use. For visitors, these concepts are presented at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Ecological Center, the Monteverde Conservation League, and the Monteverde Institute.
Bird watching is very popular throughout the Monteverde area, especially during April and May when the quetzals engage in their mating rituals. This activity occurs at the lower levels of the forest, making them readily observable. At El Jardín de las Mariposas, visitors can see over 40 species of butterfly, fluttering about in three specialized habitats.
Music and art have their place here. The Monteverde Studios of the Arts holds theme-driven workshops that focus on various native arts and crafts. The Monteverde Music Festival presents music by top performers.
The following seven biological reserves are located within the Monteverde area.
Reserva Biológica del Bosque Nuboso de Monteverde
World-renown for the abundance of wildlife occupying its eight distinct life zones, this is Monteverde's premier biological reserve, covering 25,730 acres. From its lowland swamps to its upper-elevation cloud forests, this park offer visitors a wealth of flora and fauna, unrivaled by most parks in the tropical world. Over 400 species of birds live here, including the beautiful and elusive quetzal. The Tropical Science Center of Costa Rica regulates the reserve, and maintains the boardwalks that lead from the visitor center into the core of the reserve.
Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena
Uniquely, this reserve has spider monkeys, which aren't found anywhere else in Monteverde. There is a network of trails that covers its 1,440 acres, but for those who prefer an alternative to walking, Sky-Walk offers a half mile of canopy-high suspension bridges, and the Original Canopy Tour can let you fly through the treetops attached by a harness to a suspended line.
Finca Ecológica Wildlife Refuge
This is a small, private reserve made up of wet montane forest filled with monkeys, birds and the racoon's cousin, the coati.
Bosque Eterno de los Niños
Bosque Eterno's now 50,000 acres is supported by children from all over the world, staking a claim in the preservation of the rainforest. This park encompasses a similar natural environment as Santa Elena, though the facilities are comparatively limited.
Bajo del Tigre Trails
Otherwise known as "Jaguar Canyon", this 44-acre reserve features trails, a nature center for children, and an arboretum. In the spring, it's a great place for quetzal-spotting.
Paradise for Bellbirds
This private reserve located between Santa Elena and Monteverde is home to a large number of three-wattled bellbirds. This species is known for its unique song - a distinctive "bonk" sound.
Reserva Sendero Tranquilo
This private reserve encompasses over 500 acres of Monteverde's cloud forest environment.
Parque Nacional Palo Verde
This 32,000-acre national park combines the freshwater ecosystems along the Río Tempisque with that of the dry forests that reside just north of there. Between the two exist 15 distinct habitats. Grasslands, scrublands, dry forests, mangrove swamps, and more make up the environment, giving sanctuary to a wide range of flora and fauna.
The Río Tempisque and smaller tributaries run through this area, attracting hundreds of birds, such as storks, ibises, ducks, geese, macaws, and the rare curassow, to name only a few. Birding is a very popular activity along the river. Even the rare scarlet macaw may be seen in this park.
Guided tours are available, and some areas are best explored by boat. Camping is not allowed without consent from the national park authorities. There are hotels nearby.
Combined with the surrounding Refugio de Vida Silvestre Dr Rafael Lucas Rodriguez Caballero, Reserva Biológica Lomas Barbudal, and the Parque Nacional Barra Honda, this area is referred to as the Area Conservacion Tempisque.
Refugio de Vida Silvestre Dr Rafael Lucas Rodriguez Caballero
This remote park, only ocassionally visited by tourists, features wet and dry habitats.
Reserva Biológica Lomas Barbudal
This reserve protects over 5,500 acres of dry deciduous forest, only vestiges of the ecosystem that once predominated the Tempisque flood plain. Near the Río Cabuyo, trees are shrouded with mosses, draping from their branches, and giving a bushy, bearded look. A small museum and information center are located near the opening of the reserve. Most nature trails begin here.
Along with providing refuge for a plethora of birds and mammals, the reserve also protects a number of endangered hardwood trees, like rosewood, Panama redwood, and mahogany.
Jardin Botánico Arenal
This English-style garden near Lake Arenal contains over 2,000 species of native plants. Birds and butterflies are attracted to the garden, adding to the visual feast.
Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal
The center of this park, probably Costa Rica's greatest single attraction, is the Volcán Arenal (5,389 feet). This active volcano erupts almost daily, and, weather and smoke conditions permitted, visitors may be able to catch the specatular sight. At night, red-hot lava can be seen bursting from the Arenal's summit and flowing down its slopes, a virtual fireworks show. The flow is usually observable on the northern slopes, so watch the weather for clear skies. Exercise caution when venturing in close proximity to Arenal as it is still very active and unpredictable. Hiking is a popular activity around the base of the volcano, though it is advised that visitors stick strictly to marked trails.
On the south side of Volcano Arenal, the Arenal Observatory Lodge is a great place to visit. A museum focusing on volcanoes and a restaurant with a spectacular views are some of the attractions at the lodge. At the northwest edge of Volcano Arenal is the Tabacón Hot Springs & Spa where visitors can relax in hot pools of water, sip drinks and view the volcano in all its glory.
Volcán Tenorio and Miravalles
The twin volcano formation is a beautiful backdrop for the abundance of wildlife that resides here. Volcán Tenorio offers the Lagos Las Dantas Trail which leads to the top of the volcano, and Bijagua Heliconia, an eco-lodge and biological research station.
Volcán Miravalles radiates heat in a number of ways. Visit Las Hornillas to see mudpots that bubble from the escaping steam, as well as sulphur springs and fumaroles. Here, the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity is using the ultra-hot vapor from the volcano for geothermal energy. The Centro Turístico Yókó is a great place to immerse oneself in the soothing thermal waters of the hot spring Volcán Miravalles
Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja
Two peaks crown the park's active volcano; Rincón de la Vieja and Santa María. On the Caribbean side, the high levels of precipitation keep the eastern slopes soaked and green, while the dryer Pacific climate produces savannas and an absence of mountain creeks on the western slopes. Cattle ranches sit on the lower slopes of the western side. Some of them offer lodging and horseback riding.
It is a one-day, 9-mile hike to the top of Rincón de la Vieja, but well worth it. Weather permitting, hikers can see the Nicoya Penninsula and Lago de Nicaragua. Close to, yet higher than the summit, Von Seeback, a blue-green lake within the boundaries of volcanic crater, is a magnificent sight. Remember to bring drinking water and a light jacket in case the weather changes closer to the top.
Monteverde Music Festival - January and February
Appearances by top performers
Día de Guanacaste - July 25
The celebration of Guanacaste's freedom from Nicaragua in 1812. Bullfights, dancing, music, food, parades, and more.
Posada den Niño - Christmas Eve
Located in Monteverde, this cheese factory was started by a group of immigrating Quakers from the United States. Visitors can take tours and sample what is considered some of the best cheese in the country.
A momument in honor of the Costa Ricans who resisted enemies William Walker and Somoza.
Specific Plants and Animals of the Region
Guanacaste gets its name from the huge spreading umbrella-like tree called the guanacaste tree. It is the national tree of Costa Rica.
The guan is a noisy black bird that resembles a turkey. They can be found in the Rincón de la Vieja.
Gumbo-limbo trees have red inner trunks that show through when their bark peels.
The saltwater crocodile is a rare find along the Pacific coast, but lives in abundance along the banks of the Río Tempisque in the Parque Nacional Palo Verde.
Armadillos are also commonly seen in the Guanacaste region.
How to Get There
Highway 1, the Inter-American Highway or Carretera Inter-Americana, is the main route through Guanacaste. It is a two lane highway that passes through many towns. The scenery is enjoyable, though the condition of the pavement can be a bit rough, with occasional potholes.