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.Read More
Cowboy culture in Guanacaste
Cowboy culture in Guanacaste
Much of Guanacaste has long been turned into pasture for cattle ranching, and a huge part of the region’s appeal is its sabanero (cowboy) culture. As in the US, the sabanero has acquired a mythical aura – industrious, free-spirited, monosyllabic, and a skilful handler of animals and the environment – and his rough, tough body, clad in jeans with leather accoutrements symbolizes “authenticity” (women get assigned a somewhat less exciting role in this rural mythology: the cocinera, or cook). In reality, however, the life of the sabaneros is hard; they often work in their own smallholdings or as peones (farmworkers) on large haciendas owned by relatively well-off ranchers.
To witness the often extraordinary skills of the sabaneros, head for the smaller towns – particularly on the Nicoya Peninsula – where during the months of January and February weekend fiestas are held in the local redondel de toros (bullring). More a rodeo than a bullfight, unlike in Spain, no gory kills are made: the spectacle comes from amazing feats of bull riding and roping. You’ll see cowboys riding their horses alongside the Interamericana highway, too, often towing two or three horses behind them as big transport trucks steamroll past on their way to Nicaragua. This dependence on cattle culture has its downside. Much of Guanacaste is degraded pastureland, abandoned either because of its exhaustion by grazing or as a result of continually poor domestic and foreign markets for Costa Rican meat. Although impressive efforts to regenerate former tropical dry forest are under way – at Parque Nacional Santa Rosa and Parque Nacional Guanacaste, for example – it is unlikely that this rare life-zone will recover its original profile.
The flowering trees of Guanacaste
The flowering trees of Guanacaste
Guanacaste’s many flowering trees dot the landscape with pastel puffs of colour. Trees blossom in a strange way in the dry lands of Guanacaste, flowering literally overnight and then, just as suddenly, shedding their petals to the ground, covering it in a carpet of confetti colours. The corteza amarilla bursts into a wild Van Gogh-like blaze in March, April and May, and is all the more dramatic being set against a landscape of burnt siennas, muted mauves and sallow yellows. The guanacaste tree itself, also called the “elephant ear”, is a majestic wide-canopied specimen and an emblem of the nation. Its cream-coloured flowers appear in May, and its curious seed pods feed the cattle and horses.
In November the deciduous guachipelín tree blooms, with its delicate fern-like leaves; in January it’s time for the pastel-pink floss of the poui, followed in March by the equally pretty tabebuia rosea. By the end of the dry season the red flowers of the malinche explode into colour.
Greater Nicoya (modern-day Guanacaste) was an archeological and cultural buffer zone between the complex cultures of the Aztecs and the Maya to the north, and the simpler agrarian cultures to the south, who had more in common with the prehistoric peoples of the Amazon basin. Greater Nicoya was occupied from an indeterminate date by the Nicoyans, about whom little is known, but most of the historical and archeological facts discovered about the region relate to the peoples known as the Chorotegas, who arrived in Nicoya in 800 AD, though some sources date their arrival as later, fleeing social and political upheavals far to the north.
The central Mexican empire of Teotihuacán, near the Mexico City of today, had fallen into disorganization by about 650 AD, and was abandoned about one hundred years later, at the same time that the Classic Maya civilizations of modern-day Yucatán and northern Guatemala also collapsed. New fragmented groups were created, some of whom forged migratory, militaristic bands. In the eighth century, harassed by their territorial enemies the Olmecs, groups of Maya and Aztecs migrated south. Among them were the people who would become known as Chorotegas. The word Chorotega derives from either their place of origin, Cholula, or from two words in the Chorotegan language: cholol (to run or escape) and teca (people) – “the people who escaped”.
Evidence of immediate and long-term cultural upheaval in the area after 800 AD includes a significant increase in the number of Nicoyan burial sites found dating from around this time. The use of objects associated with elites – like ceremonial skulls, jades and elaborate metates – suddenly declined almost to the point of disappearing completely, and populations seem to have migrated from the interior toward the coasts. While this evidence could suggest a natural disaster (a volcanic eruption, perhaps) it also bears the hallmarks of what could be termed an invasion.
The Chorotegas’ first contact with the Spanish was calamitous. The 1522 Spanish expedition from Panamá up the Pacific coast to Nicaragua brought smallpox, the plague and influenza to the indigenous people of Greater Nicoya. Imprisonment and slavery followed, with coastal peoples raided, branded and sold into slavery in Panamá and Peru. The demise of the Chorotegas from the sixteenth century was rapid and unreversed.
Excavations in Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula reveal something of the Chorotegas’ belief systems and social arrangements. Near Bahía Culebra, anthropologists unearthed pottery shards, utensils and the remains of hearths, along with a burial ground holding twenty females, children and infants. Chorotega villages were made up of longhouse-type structures – common to many indigenous cultures of the Americas – inhabited by entire extended families, and centred on a large square, site of religious ceremonies and meetings.
Like the Maya and Aztecs, the Chorotegas had a belief system built around blood-letting and the sacrifice of animals and humans. Although it is not known if beating hearts were ripped from chests, virgins were definitely thrown into volcano craters to appease their gods, about whom little is known. Chorotegas also believed in yulios, the spirit alter ego that escaped from their mouths at the moment of death to roam the world forever. Although pagan, Chorotega priests shared a number of duties and functions with the Catholic priests who worked to destroy their culture. Celibate, they may also have heard confessions and meted out punishments for sins.
Few Chorotega rituals are documented. One known practice was the formation of a kind of human maypole, consisting of voladores, or men suspended “flying” (actually roped) from a post, twirling themselves round and round while descending to the ground. Originating with the Aztecs, the ritual was dedicated to the Morning Star, considered to be a deity; the four voladores represented the cardinal points. While no longer displayed in Costa Rica, it is still performed in the Mexican state of Veracruz and in certain villages in Guatemala.
The Chorotega economy was based on maize (corn). They also cultivated tobacco, fruit, beans and cotton, using cacao beans as currency, and the marketplace was run by women. All land was held communally, as was everything that was cultivated and harvested, which was then distributed throughout the settlement. This plurality did not extend to social prestige, however. Three strata characterized Chorotega society: at the upper echelon were chieftains (caciques), warriors and priests; in the middle were the commoners, and at the bottom were the slaves and prisoners of war. The Chorotegas were the only indigenous peoples in Costa Rica to have a written language, comprising hieroglyphs similar to those used by the Maya. They were also skilled artisans, producing ornamental jewellery and jade, and colouring cotton fabrics with animal and vegetable dye. It was the Chorotegas who made the bulk of the distinctive ceramics so celebrated in the country today, many of which can be seen in San José’s Museo Nacional (for more on Chorotega pottery).
La cocina Guanacasteca: corn cooking
La cocina Guanacasteca: corn cooking
Corn is still integral to the regional cuisine of Guanacaste, thanks to the Chorotegas, who cultivated maize (corn) to use in many inventive ways. One pre-Columbian corn concoction involved roasting and grinding the maize, and then combining the meal-like paste with water and chocolate to make the drink chicha. Although you can’t find this version of chicha any more you can still get grain-based drinks in Guanacaste, such as horchata (made with rice or corn and spiced with cinnamon), or pinolillo (made with roasted corn), both milky and sweet, with an unmistakeably grainy texture.
Corn also shows up in traditional Guanacastecan snacks such as tanelas (like a cheese scone, but made with cornflour) and rosquillas, small rings of cornflour that taste like a combination between tortillas and doughnuts. You can buy these at roadside stalls and small shops in Liberia. Served throughout the country, chorreados crop up most often on menus in Guanacaste: they’re a kind of pancake made (again) with cornflour and served with natilla, the local version of sour cream.