For the majority of the Tico population, the Guanacaste Province, hemmed in by mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west, and bordered on the north by Nicaragua, is distinctly apart. Guanacastecos still sometimes refer to Valle Central inhabitants as “Cartagos”, an archaic term dating back to the eighteenth century when Cartago was Costa Rica’s capital. Though little tangible remains of the dance, music and folklore for which the region is distinct, there is undeniably something special about the place. Granted, much of the landscape has come about through the slaughter of tropical dry forest, but it’s still some of the prettiest you’ll see in the country, especially in the wet season, when wide-open spaces, stretching from the ocean across savannah grasses to the brooding humps of volcanoes, are awash in earth tones, blues, yellows and mauves.
The dry heat, relatively accessible terrain and panoramic views make Guanacaste the best place in the country for walking and horseriding, especially around the mud pots and stewing sulphur waters of the spectacular Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja and through the tropical dry forest cover of Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. Beyond Cañas, protected areas administered by the Area de Conservación Tempisque (ACT) encompass Parque Nacional Palo Verde, an important site for migratory birds, Reserva Biológica Lomas Barbudal, and the deep underground caves of Parque Nacional Barra Honda on the Nicoya Peninsula, just across the Río Tempisque.
For many travellers, however, Guanacaste means only one thing: beaches. Most are found where the Nicoya Peninsula joins the mainland. Roughly two-thirds of the mountainous peninsula is in Guanacaste, while the lower third belongs to the Puntarenas Province. Beaches range from simple hideaways such as quiet Nosara to large resorts aimed at the North American winter market. Several beaches are also nesting grounds for marine turtles – giant leatherbacks haul themselves up onto Playa Grande, near Tamarindo, while Parque Nacional Santa Rosa is the destination for olive ridley turtles. The only towns of any significance for travellers are the provincial capital of Liberia, and Nicoya, the main town on the peninsula. If you are overnighting on the way to Nicaragua, La Cruz makes a useful base.
Highlands Ticos tend to describe Guanacaste as a virtual desert, liberally applying the words caliente (hot) and seco (dry). Certainly it is dry, in comparison to the rest of the country: parts of it receive only 500mm of rain a year, ten times less than the Caribbean coast. To some extent irrigation has helped, but in summer (Dec–April), Guanacaste still experiences some drought. This is when you’ll see an eerie landscape of bare, silver-limbed trees glinting in the sun, as many shed their leaves in order to conserve water. The province is significantly greener, and prettier, in the wet season (May–Nov), which is generally agreed to be the best time to come, with the added benefit of fewer travellers and lighter rainfall than the rest of the country receives during these months.
These days, Guanacaste is changing fast. An enormous number of hotels, some all-inclusive resorts, are being built on the Pacific coast, and with the opening of the Liberia airport to international traffic, winter charter tourism has truly arrived. Inland, mass tourism is less evident, and, despite the presence of McDonald’s in its dignified streets, Liberia itself remains one of the most charming towns in the country. There seems to be no getting away from “progress”, however, and the province may become many tourists’ first, and perhaps only, glimpse of the country.
Due to significant excavations in the area and some contemporaneous Spanish accounts, Guanacaste’s pre-Columbian history is better documented than in the rest of Costa Rica. Archeologists have long been interested in the Chorotegas, considered to have been the most highly developed of all Costa Rica’s scattered and isolated pre-Columbian peoples, but whose culture predictably went into swift decline after the Conquest. In archeological terms it belongs to the Greater Nicoya Sub-area, a pre-Columbian designation that includes some of western Nicaragua, and which continues to yield buried clues to the extent of communication between the Maya and Aztec cultures to the north and smaller groups inhabiting Mesoamerica from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries.
Following the Conquest, the region became part of the administrative entity known as the Capitanía General de Guatemala. Guanacaste was annexed by Nicaragua in 1787, but in 1812 the Spanish rulers about-turned and donated the province to Costa Rica, so that its territory became large enough for it to be officially represented in the Captaincy. When the modern-day Central American nations declared independence from Spain, and the Captaincy was dissolved in 1821, Guanacaste found itself in the sensitive position of being claimed by both Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In an 1824 vote the province’s inhabitants made their allegiances clear: the Guanacastecos in the north, traditionally cattle ranchers with familial ties to Nicaragua, voted to join that country, while the inhabitants of the Nicoya Peninsula wished to maintain links with Costa Rica. The peninsular vote won out, by a slim margin.
As the nineteenth century progressed, cattle ranching began to dominate the landscape, providing the mainstay of the economy until well into the twentieth century. Despite the continuing presence of the cattle culture and the sabanero in Guanacaste, however, beef prices have been dropping in Costa Rica for some years now, after the boom years of the 1960s and 1970s when deforestation was rife. In contrast, as in the rest of the country, the tourist industry is becoming increasingly important to the local economy.