Bordered on the north by Nicaragua, edged by the Cordillera de Guanacaste mountains to the east, with the Pacific to the west, Guanacaste delivers some of Costa Rica’s most stunning landscapes. Arguably best known for its beaches, Guanacaste is also a paradise for hikers and wildlife-watchers, with exceptional national parks and natural attractions lying within the province. Ready? These are the best tours in Guanacaste.
12 best Guanacaste tours
It’s true to say that Guanacaste province has undergone big changes in recent years. The airport has been expanded, and a huge number of hotels continue to pop up along the Pacific coast.
That said, Liberia, the region’s main hub, remains one of the most charming cities in Costa Rica. In addition, there are plenty of places to get off the beaten track to enjoy once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
From catching epic waves on world-class surf beaches, to hiking and wildlife-watching in awe-inspiring national parks, it’s fair to say that tours in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, are nothing but diverse. If that wasn’t enough, you can also explore Arenal volcano from Guanacaste, and visit Nicaragua.
To help plan your trip, read on to find out about the best (day) tours in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
#1 Surf, party and see turtles in Tamarindo
Once a sleepy fishing village, these days Playa Tamarindo delivers a lively beach culture, and even livelier nightlife.
But fear not if you also fancy some R&R. This stretch of coast is known for its stunning scenery. The sight of the sun slipping into the Pacific beyond the headland at the southern end of the beach is undeniably soul stirring.
Tamarindo is also a beauty spot beloved by beginner surfers, with reliable, relatively gentle waves breaking on Playa Tamarindo itself, along with neighbouring Playa Grande and Playa Langosta.
If that wasn’t enough reason to visit, between November and mid-February leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in Marino Las Baulas National Park.
Located on the Río Mata estuary between Conchal and Tamarindo, this is one of the few remaining nesting sites of its kind in the world.
Intrigued? Get the lowdown on Tamarindo in our guide.
Travel tip: if you love beaches and plan to spend longer in Costa Rica, read up on the best beaches in Costa Rica.
#2 Relax and watch wildlife rafting Rîo Corobici
Five kilometres west of Cañas, the long-established Safaris Corobicí (t2669 6191) specialises in gentle floating trips on the Río Corobicí.
While these usually last from two hours, half-day trips are also available, with snacks included.
Knowledgeable guides row while you observe the local mammals and reptiles, including howler and spider monkeys, surprisingly large crocodiles, iguanas and caimans.
The trip also provides a prime opportunity for birdwatching, as several species — including motmots, cuckoos, falcons, ospreys, herons and the endangered jabiru stork — can be spotted along the river.
#3 Explore Arenal volcano
Located in Arenal Volcano National Park, 14km west of La Fortuna, Arenal volcano is one of Costa Rica’s top natural attractions, with its majestic conical peak looming large over the region.
As such, taking a trip to Arenal volcano is one of the most rewarding tours to enjoy from Guanacaste, with a huge range of activities available.
On land, there's a host of hiking trails for all abilities, with expansive Arenal Lake offering fishing, kayaking and windsurfing trips. Or how about ziplining through the jungle, or going canyoning?
In addition, the area around Arenal volcano is a hotbed of stunning hot springs — take your pick from glitzy spa experiences in sublime tropical surroundings, and secret hot spots beloved by locals.
Taking of sublime surroundings, Arenal’s La Fortuna waterfall is a must-visit — it’s clear to see why it features in our run-down of the best waterfalls in Costa Rica.
#4 See secret waterfalls in Rincón de la Vieja
Nature lovers visiting Guanacaste will want to push Rincón de la Vieja National Park to the top of their trip plans.
Sitting pretty 25km northeast of Liberia, the park’s varied landscapes and elevations delivers big on several fronts.
First up, there’s the volcano the park is named after. With a perfectly proportioned conical peak, this is one of Costa Rica's most active volcanoes, as testified by the sulphur pools, bubbling mud pots and hot springs you’ll find in the park.
Several trails run from the ranger station, with the westwards route to the cataratas escondidas (hidden waterfalls) coming especially recommended.
With over 200 resident species — among them the three-wattled bellbird, the Montezuma oropendola, the trogon, and the spectacled owl — Rincón de la Vieja National Park is seventh heaven for bird-watchers.
In addition to birds, keep an eye out for tapir, red deer, collared peccary, the two-toed sloth, and howler, white-faced and spider monkeys. Be sure to set off early and allow a full day to see as much as possible.
You’ll also want to set off early if you’re planning to hike to the summit of Rincón de la Vieja volcano. The trailhead is accessed via the Las Pailas entrance, with a marked route traversing lower montane rainforest that's lushly covered with epiphytes and mosses.
At the summit (7.7 km away), Rincón de la Vieja presents a barren lunar landscape. There’s a smoking hole surrounded by black ash, with a pretty freshwater lake, Lago los Jilgueros, to the south.
#5 Surf and see turtles in Santa Rosa National Park
With top trails and turtle-spotting opportunities, and excellent surfing, it’s little wonder that Santa Rosa National Park is one of Costa Rica’s most visited national parks. It’s also the country’s oldest.
Home to home to 115 species of mammal, 250 species of bird, 100 amphibian and reptile species, and 3800 species of moth, Santa Rosa showcases Costa Rica’s biodiversity in staggering style.
Visit between July and November to witness hundreds of olive ridley turtles nesting on Playa Nancite. Though too rough for swimming, the picturesque beaches of Naranjo and Nancite are popular with serious surfers.
Note that many of Santa Rosa’s trails are intended for scientific researchers rather than tourists, so they’re not well signed. As a result, it’s a good idea to hire a guide.
If you walk only one trail in park, make it the very short (1km) and undemanding sendero natural, which provides an introduction to the unique features of the tropical dry forest.
This curves around from the road just before La Casona — a formidable wooden and red-tiled homestead that’s one of Costa Rica’s most famous historic sites. Top tip: at one side of La Casona, a stair path leads to a viewpoint offering a magnificent perspective of the twin volcanoes of Rincón de la Vieja National Park.
Along the trail, look out for monster iguanas hiding on branches, and for the ubiquitous bats.
#6 Ramble along Rio Celeste near Tenorio volcano
Designated a national park in 1995, Tenorio (1916m) is an active volcano, and the area is incredibly geothermically active.
For example, within Tenorio Volcano National Park you may well encounter mud pots and fumaroles — little columns of hot vapour escaping from the ground.
Beginning at the park’s ranger station at the park entrance, a 6km trail takes you into the forest, where it eventually splits into a few well-marked loops. Just be aware that one false move could see you stepping into superheated volcanic soil — don’t step off the path.
The main trail is a steady climb that opens up to a spectacular view of Volcán Miravalles before leading to the striking waterfall of Río Celeste, where you can take a refreshing dip.
The highlights of the park, though, are a stunningly bright blue lagoon, the Laguna Azul, and similarly coloured sections of the river that flow alongside the trail.
Though most people come to the park to glimpse the surreal turquoise waters of the Río Celeste, wildlife also thrives within the park’s borders. You may well see tapirs, agoutis, armadillos, long-tailed manakins and howler monkeys.
Travel tip: read up on the best hikes in Costa Rica — Rio Celeste is among them.
#7 Tour Heliconias Rain Forest and Hanging Bridges
If you love the tropical rainforest in all its lush, biodiverse beauty, you’ll want to devote a whole day to Heliconia’s Rain Forest and Hanging Bridges.
Merging with Tenorio Volcano National Park, this privately-owned forest with a boutique lodge boasts over 70 hectares of pristine forest.
Non-guests are very welcome to walk the 2.5 km wooded trail for a modest fee — expect to see a flurry of dancing butterflies, monkeys, tapirs and sloths along the way.
The walk also presents an impressive array of flora, with bromeliads and orchids dazzling at every turn.
The highlight here is a series of suspension bridges that extend through the forest canopy. There are four bridges in total, three of them 30-metres high and 95-metres long.
The forest’s centrepiece is the fourth bridge — over 100 metres long and a heady 40 metres above ground.
There’s no better way to immerse yourself in the rainforest, with epic views awaiting those with a head for heights.
#8 Be wowed by birds in Palo Verde National Park
Created to preserve the habitat of migratory birds, Palo Verde National Park is a must-visit for avian aficionados.
Located on the northern bank of the Río Tempisque, it’s home to one of the largest concentrations of waterfowl in the whole of Central America, which is really saying something.
Among the 300+ species of bird regularly seen here, you’ll find the endangered jabiru stork and the black-crowned night heron. Away from the riverbank, it’s likely you’ll see toucans and increasingly rare scarlet macaws.
To maximise your experience, visit during the height of the dry season — between January and March — when most of the 250 or so migratory species are in residence. Come evening, birds, monkeys, coatis and deer gather around the precious waterholes.
Alongside there being fewer birds during the wet season, it’s worth noting that parts of Palo Verde National Park are inaccessible during the wet season. This is because flooding creates saltwater and freshwater lakes and swamps.
Time it right, though, and birders will be rewarded with an unforgettable excursion of a lifetime.
Travel tip: read our guide to the best national parks in Costa Rica.
#9 Discover underground caves
Unveiling an eerie underground world of stalagmites and stalactites in a network of around forty interconnected caves, Barra Honda National Park is a Guanacaste tours you won’t forget in a hurry.
While this trip isn’t for claustrophobes or acrophobes (some of the caves are over 200m deep), those with a sense of adventure will find the experience utterly exhilarating.
After being kitted out with a rope harness and a helmet, a guide will lead you into the otherworldly subterranean world. At times the formations resemble a crumbling cathedral complex.
While most people visit the enormous stalagmites and stalactites in Terciopelo cave, those interested in culture should ask about exploring Nicoa. The remains of pre-Columbian people were recently found here, along with burial ornaments that are thought to be over two thousand years old.
Love wildlife? Ask about taking a guided bat tour. These usually leave the ranger station at 4pm, returning by 8pm after you’ve witnessed thousands of bats leaving the Pozo Hediondo cave. It’s another experience you won’t forget anytime soon.
#10 Visit Diamante Eco Adventure Park
With an attractive oceanfront location, and one of Costa Rica's top wildlife education centres, Diamante Eco Adventure Park comes highly recommended for all ages.
Most folk are drawn here by the reputation of the park’s ziplines. These include the 30-foot free fall Quick Jump, and the ocean-view Superman experience. Running for almost a mile, this is Costa Rica’s longest dual-zipline.
Then there’s the hanging bridge to walk — watch out for crocodiles below while keeping your eyes peeled for parrots and toucans in the forest canopy.
Meanwhile, Diamante’s Animal Sanctuary offers up-close viewing opportunities, with biologists on hand to answer any questions. The sanctuary’s residents include sloths, monkeys, jaguars and pumas, plus plenty of birds, frogs, and reptiles.
There’s also a butterfly observatory, a glorious botanical garden, and a hands-on coffee, chocolate and sugar cane cultural experience in the park’s replica of a traditional house.
When you’re done on land (ATV tours and horse-riding are also available), head to Hammock Beach to kayak or paddle-board.
#11 Take a trip to Nicaragua
If you're looking to maximise your experience of Central America, visiting Nicaragua is a top tour to take from Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
You can cover a surprising array of experiences in a single day. Better still, consider booking a weekend break to explore Lake Nicaragua and its largest island — Isla de Ometepe.
Blessed with lush scenery, the island’s name comes courtesy of Nicaragua’s original inhabitants, the Chorotegans, who named it after its twin volcanoes — Ome Tepetl, meaning “the place of two hills”.
Alongside viewing the volcano, with trails leading to craters and waterfalls, Isla de Ometepe has much to offer travellers who are interested in indigenous culture.
For example, guides at Finca Magdalena (an agricultural cooperative and lodge) lead tours to view some of the island's petroglyphs. They also offer volcano hikes, and trips to the cloud forest and volcano lagoon.
For a very different experience, you could take a trip to San Juan Del Sur in Nicaragua. Only thirty minutes from the border crossing at Penas Blancas, it's known for its crescent-shaped beach and excellent surf breaks.
No longer the sleepy fishing village it was some ten years ago, San Juan del Sur has a reputation for being something of a party town. That said, its vibe remains laidback, with candy-coloured buildings hosting small hostels and hotels, microbreweries and bars.
#12 Be thrilled by a Buena Vista Mega Combo Tour
If you fancy experiencing a stack of Guanacaste’s glorious adventure experiences on one gratifying tour, it doesn’t get better than booking a Buena Vista Mega Combo Tour.
As its name suggests, this trip combines a range of activities to form one big experience in the grounds of Buena Vista Lodge.
Located near Rincon de la Vieja volcano, this beautiful site offers everything from ziplining and hanging bridge walks, to horse-riding and hiking. Then there’s the epic jungle slide that zooms you down through the rainforest.
It goes without saying that you can expect to see a lot of wildlife here, too (this is Costa Rica, after all). And, as a result of its location near Rincon de la Vieja volcano, Buena Vista is blessed with a bounty of mineral-rich mud baths and hot springs — perfect for chilling out in after all that hiking, riding, zipping and zooming.
Travel tip: want to make the most of your time in Costa Rica? Our epic Coast to Coast trip takes in a host of top attractions and activities, including Tortuguero National Park, Arenal volcano, and Tamarindo, Guanacaste.
Header image: Nicoya, Guanacaste, Costa Rica © Shutterstock