Guanacaste Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
expand_more
expand_more

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 a land 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.

Brief history of Guanacaste

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. Archaeologists 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 archaeological 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.

Pre-Columbian Guanacaste

Greater Nicoya (modern-day Guanacaste) was an archaeological 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 archaeological 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.

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.

Activities in Guanacaste

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.

Dance and music in Guanacaste

In their book A Year of Costa Rican Natural History, Amelia Smith Calvert and Philip Powell Calvert describe their month on Guanacaste’s fiesta circuit in 1910, starting in January in Filadelfía, a small town between Liberia and Santa Cruz, and ending in Santa Cruz. They were fascinated by the formal nature of the functions they attended, observing: “The dances were all round dances, mostly of familiar figures, waltzes and polkas, but one, called ‘el punto’ was peculiar in that the partners do not hold one another but walk side by side, turn around each other and so on.”

At Santa Cruz, “All the ladies sat in a row on one side of the room when not dancing, the men elsewhere. When a lady arrived somewhat late then the rest of the guests of the company, if seated, arose in recognition of her presence. The music was furnished by three fiddles and an accordion. The uninvited part of the community stood outside the house looking into the room through the open doors, which as usual were not separated from the street by any vestibule or passage.” The Calverts were also delighted to come across La giganta, the figure of a woman about 4m high; actually a man on stilts “with a face rather crudely moulded and painted”. What exactly La giganta represented isn’t known, but she promenaded around the streets of Santa Cruz in her finery, long white lace trailing, while her scurrying minders frantically worked to keep her from keeling over. La giganta, along with other oversized personalities, still features in nearly every large village fiesta, usually held on the local saint’s day.

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

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.

The Guanacaste beaches

The beaches of Guanacaste are scattered along the rocky coastline that runs from Bahía Culebra in the north near Liberia to Sámara on the west of the Nicoya Peninsula. Few of those in the north could truthfully be called beautiful, and most are quite small, located in coves or sheltered bays that makes them good for swimming, and relatively safe – though they lack the impressive expanse of Playas Flamingo and Tamarindo a bit further down the coast. The waters in the Bahía Culebra (marked on some maps as Playa Panamá) are some of the clearest and most sheltered in the country, with good snorkelling.

The landscape of the Nicoya Peninsula is changing rapidly and many of the northern beaches, such as Tamarindo and Playa Panamá, are being aggressively developed for mass tourism. The nearby airport in Liberia exists mainly to service the package and charter market along this coast. Sprawling across nearly the entire Bahía Culebra is the Papagayo Project, the country’s largest tourist development consisting of hotels, condos, a mall and a golf course.

The signs of mass tourism lessen as you head further south towards Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, where droves of leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs between October and February. The beaches here have drawn foreign expatriates in pursuit of paradise, and these cosmopolitan enclaves are in sharp contrast to the rest of the region, with resorty Tamarindo being the top spot for surfing. The beaches of the southern part of the Nicoya Peninsula are covered in the Central Pacific and Southern Nicoya chapter.

The beaches of Guanacaste are scattered along the rocky coastline that runs from Bahía Culebra in the north near Liberia to Sámara on the west of the Nicoya Peninsula. Few of those in the north could truthfully be called beautiful, and most are quite small, located in coves or sheltered bays that makes them good for swimming, and relatively safe – though they lack the impressive expanse of Playas Flamingo and Tamarindo a bit further down the coast. The waters in the Bahía Culebra (marked on some maps as Playa Panamá) are some of the clearest and most sheltered in the country, with good snorkelling.

The landscape of the Nicoya Peninsula is changing rapidly and many of the northern beaches, such as Tamarindo and Playa Panamá, are being aggressively developed for mass tourism. The nearby airport in Liberia exists mainly to service the package and charter market along this coast. Sprawling across nearly the entire Bahía Culebra is the Papagayo Project, the country’s largest tourist development consisting of hotels, condos, a mall and a golf course.

The signs of mass tourism lessen as you head further south towards Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, where droves of leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs between October and February. The beaches here have drawn foreign expatriates in pursuit of paradise, and these cosmopolitan enclaves are in sharp contrast to the rest of the region, with resorty Tamarindo being the top spot for surfing.

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.

Weather in Guanacaste

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.

Cañas

Sleepy, arid Cañas, 168km northwest of San José, is the heart of agricultural commerce for the surrounding area. In town, activity is decidedly at a minimum; what there is of it mostly takes place within a few blocks of the unremarkable grassy and concrete central square. It’s a pleasant town of single- and two-storey traditional buildings with only one real sight to speak of, the incongruous modernist church, on the east side of the square. The barn-like structure is replete with colourful, Gaudí-esque mosaics which reach a bright blue crescendo in the steeple, capped by an understated cross. Its interior is significantly more subdued, marked by a ceiling covered with stained wood blocks and a minimalist altar backed by a wall patterned with limestone rectangles.

Parque Nacional Palo Verde

About 30km west of Cañas on the northern bank of the Río Tempisque lies the Parque Nacional Palo Verde, created in 1982 to preserve the habitat of the migratory birds that nest in the estuary of the Tempisque and a large patch of relatively undisturbed lowland dry forest. With a distinctive topography featuring ridged limestone hills – unique to this part of the country, and attesting to the fact that certain parts of Guanacaste were once under water – the park shelters about fifteen separate ecological habitats. From December to May, Palo Verde can dry out into baked mud flats, while in the wet season, extensive flooding gives rise to saltwater and freshwater lakes and swamps. Following the wet season, the great floodplain drains slowly, creating marshes, mangroves and other habitats favoured by migratory birds. Little visited by tourists, the park is mainly of interest to serious birders, but what you see depends on the time of year – by far the best months are at the height of the dry season (Jan–March), when most of the 250 or so migratory species are in residence. In the wet season, flooding makes parts of the park inaccessible.

The park is home to one of the largest concentrations of waterfowl in Central America, both indigenous and migratory, with more than three hundred species of birds, among them the endangered Jabirú stork and black-crowned night heron. Further from the riverbank, in the tree cover along the bottom and ridges of the limestone hills, you may spot toucans, and perhaps even one of the increasingly rare scarlet macaws. At evening during the dry season, many birds and other species – monkeys, coatis and even deer – congregate around the few remaining waterholes; bring binoculars and a torch. Note, though, that you shouldn’t swim in the Río Tempisque (or anywhere else), as it’s home to particularly huge crocodiles – some, according to the park rangers, are as much as 5m long.

Beware the killer bees

In recent years swarms of Africanized bees – sometimes sensationally termed “killer bees” – have taken to colonizing Palo Verde. Africanized bees are aggressive, and may pursue – in packs – anyone who unwittingly disturbs one of their large, quite obvious, nests. They are known to attack dark colours, so if attacked remove all dark clothing and cover dark hair. The conventional technique is to cover your head and run in a zigzag pattern so that you can dodge the cloud of pursuing bees. Although, luckily, this occurs very rarely, you should take special care if you are sensitive to stings, and ask the rangers about the presence of nests on or around trails. Bees are also found in the Reserva Biológica Lomas Barbudal.

Reserva Biológica Lomas Barbudal

The Reserva Biológica Lomas Barbudal is an impressive, though small-scale, initiative about 20km west of Bagaces, just north of Parque Nacional Palo Verde. Home to some of the last vestiges of true tropical dry forest in the region, Lomas Barbudal means “bearded hills” and that’s just what they look like, with relatively bare pates surrounded by sideburns of bushy deciduous trees. Stretches of savannah-like open grassland are punctuated by the thorny-looking shoemaker’s tree and crisscrossed by rivers and the strips of deciduous woods that hug their banks. The reserve also features isolated examples of the majestic mahogany and rosewood trees, whose deep-blood-red timber is coveted as material for furniture.

Lomas Barbudal is also rich in wildlife. If you don’t spot a howler monkey, you’ll at least likely hear one. And, this is practically the only place in Guanacaste where you have a reasonable chance of seeing the scarlet macaw. Like Parque Nacional Santa Rosa to the north, Lomas Barbudal hosts an abundance of insects – some 200 to 300 bee species alone, around 25 percent of the species of bees in the entire world. Those allergic to stings or otherwise intolerant of insects might want to give Lomas Barbudal a miss; they’re everywhere, including the aggressive Africanized bees.

Liberia

True to its name, the spirited provincial capital of Liberia (from libertad, meaning liberty) is distinctively friendly and progressive, its wide, clean streets the legacy of the pioneering farmers and cattle ranchers who founded it. Known colloquially as the “Ciudad Blanca” (white city) due to its whitewashed houses, Liberia is the only town in Costa Rica that seems truly colonial in style and character. Many of the white houses still have their puerta del sol – corner doors that were used, ingeniously, to let the sun in during the morning and out in the late afternoon, thus heating and then cooling the interior throughout the day – an architectural feature left over from the colonial era and particular to this region.

At present, most travellers use Liberia simply as a jumping-off point for the national parks of Rincón de la Vieja and Santa Rosa, an overnight stop to or from the beaches of Guanacaste, or a break on the way to Nicaragua. However, Liberia is an appealing town, with everything you might need for a relaxing day or two – well-priced accommodation (although limited in choice) and a couple of nice places to eat and drink. The nearby international airport delivers busloads of visitors to the western beaches, but Liberia happily remains unchanged: it’s still the epitome of dignified (if somewhat static) provincialism, with a strong identity and atmosphere all its own.

Liberia also boasts several lively local festivals, including the Fiestas Cívicas de Liberia in early March. The festival has its origins as an annual livestock fair and is now celebrated over ten days with parades, bands, fireworks and bulls wreaking havoc on daring but alcohol-addled young locals. Most of the action takes place in the fairgrounds in the northwest corner of town. On July 25, El Día de la Independencia celebrates Guanacaste’s independence from Nicaragua with parades, horse shows, cattle auctions, rodeos, fiestas and roving marimba bands. If you want to attend, make bus and hotel reservations as far in advance as possible.

Cordillera de Guanacaste

Parque Nacional Guanacaste

Located 36km north of Liberia on the Interamericana, much of Parque Nacional Guanacaste was not long ago nothing more than cattle pasture. Influential biologist D.H. Janzen, editor of the seminal Costa Rican Natural History, who had been involved in field study for many years in nearby Santa Rosa, was instrumental in creating the park virtually from scratch in 1991. Raising over $11 million, mainly from foreign sources, he envisioned creating a kind of biological corridor in which animals, mainly mammals, would have a large enough tract of undisturbed habitat in which to hunt and reproduce.

The Santa Rosa–Guanacaste (and, to an extent, Rincón de la Vieja) corridor is the result of his work, representing one of the most important efforts to conserve and regenerate tropical dry forest in the Americas. Containing tropical wet and dry forests and a smattering of cloudforest, Parque Nacional Guanacaste also protects the springwell of the Río Tempisque, as well as the ríos Ahogados and Colorado. More than three hundred species of birds, including the orange-fronted parakeet and the white-throated magpie jay, have been recorded, while mammals lurking behind the undergrowth include jaguar, puma, tapir, coati, armadillo, two-toed sloth and deer. It’s also thought that there are about five thousand species of moths and butterflies, including the giant owl butterfly.

The park is devoted to research rather than tourism, and the administration staff at Santa Rosa discourage casual visitors. There are three main research stations, and it is sometimes possible to stay at them if you show enough interest and contact the Santa Rosa administration centre well in advance. Apart from the primary rainforest that exists at the upper elevations, the park’s highlight is an astonishing collection of pre-Columbian petroglyphs at El Pedregal. A trail leads to the site from the Maritza field station.

Tropical dry forest

With its mainly deciduous cover, Guanacaste’s tropical dry forest, created by the combination of a Pacific lowland topography and arid conditions, looks startlingly different depending upon the time of year. In the height of the dry season, almost no rain falls on lowland Guanacaste, the trees are bare, having shed their leaves in an effort to conserve water, and the landscape takes on a melancholy, burnt-sienna hue. In April or May, when the rains come, the whole of Guanacaste perks up and begins to look comparatively green, although the dry forest never takes on the lush look of the rainforest.

The story of the demise of the tropical dry forests in Mesoamerica is one of nearly wholesale destruction. In all, only about two percent of the region’s pre-Columbian dry forest survives, and what was once a carpet stretching the length of the Pacific side of the isthmus from southern Mexico to Panamá now exists only in besieged pockets. Today, dry forests cover just 518 square kilometres of Costa Rica, almost all in Guanacaste, concentrated around the Río Tempisque and, more significantly, north in the Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. Due to deforestation and climatic change, tropical dry forests are considered a rare life-zone. Their relative dryness means they are easily overrun by field fires, which ranchers light in order to burn off old pasture. Hardy grasses spring up in their wake, such as the imported African jaragua, which gives much of Guanacaste its African savannah-like appearance.

Tree species

Along with the leafy trees, tropical dry forest features palms and even a few evergreens. At the very top of a good thick patch of dry forest you see the umbrella form of canopy trees, although these are much shorter than in the tropical rainforest. Dry forest is a far less complex ecosystem than the humid rainforest, which has about three or four layers of vegetation. Like temperate-zone deciduous forests, the tropical dry forest has only two strata. The ground shrub layer is fleshed out by thorn bushes and tree ferns, primitive plants that have been with us since the time of the dinosaurs. Unlike rainforest, dry forest has very few epiphytes (plants growing on the trees), except for bromeliads (the ones that look something like upside-down pineapple leaves). The most biologically diverse examples of tropical dry forest are in the lower elevations of Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, where the canopy trees are a good height, with many different species of deciduous trees. There are also some pockets of mangroves and even a few evergreens in the wetter parts of the park.

Wildlife

Tropical dry forests can support a large variety of mammal life, as in the Parque Nacional Santa Rosa–Parque Nacional Guanacaste corridor. Deer and smaller mammals, such as the coati and paca, are most common, along with large cats, from the jaguar to the ocelot, provided they have enough room to hunt. You may see the endangered scarlet macaw, which likes to feed on the seeds of the sandbox tree, in a few remaining pockets of Pacific dry forest, including Lomas Barbudal and, further south, around Río Tarcoles and Parque Nacional Carara, itself a transition zone between the dry forests of the north and the wetter tropical cover of the southern Pacific coast. In addition, the staggering number and diversity of insects are of great interest to biologists and entomologists: there are more than two hundred types of bee in Lomas Barbudal, for example, and a large number of butterflies and moths in Parque Nacional Santa Rosa.

La Cruz and the border

Set on a plateau north of Parque Nacional Guanacaste, overlooking Bahía Salinas and the Pacific Ocean to the west, the tiny, sleepy town of La Cruz is the last settlement of any size before the border, just 20km away, and makes a reasonable stopover if you’re heading up to Nicaragua. The views at sunset are incredible, and there are a couple of good places to stay in town, although if you’re spending any length of time in the area you’d do better at one of the nearby tourist lodges such as Finca Cañas Castilla, a Swiss-run ranch on 150 acres of land alongside the River Sapoa.

Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja

The beautifully dry landscape of Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, about 30km northeast of Liberia, encompasses terrains varying from rock-strewn savannah to patches of tropical dry forest, culminating in the blasted-out vistas of the volcano crater itself. The land here is actually alive and breathing: Rincón de la Vieja’s last major eruptions took place in 1995 and 1998, and were serious enough to evacuate local residents. The danger has always been to the northern side of the volcano, facing Nicaragua (the opposite side from the two entrance points), and the most pressing safety issue for tourists is to be aware that rivers of lava and hot mud still boil beneath the thin epidermis of ground. While danger areas are clearly marked with signs and fences, you still have to watch your step: walkers have been seriously burned from crashing through this crust and stepping into mud and water at above-boiling temperatures.

With the right amount of caution, however, this is an enchanting place: brewing mud pots (pilas de barro) bubble, and puffs of steam rise out of lush foliage, signalling sulphurous subterranean springs. This is great terrain for camping, riding and hiking, with a comfortable, fairly dry heat, though it can get damp and cloudy at the higher elevations around the crater. Birders, too, enjoy Rincón de la Vieja, as there are more than two hundred species in residence.

The trails

From the Las Pailas ranger station, you have several walking options, with trails leading west to the cataratas escondidas (hidden waterfalls) and east to the Santa María station, along an eight-kilometre path. The most popular and least demanding trail heads east on a very satisfying six-kilometre circuit past many of the highly unusual natural features with which the park abounds, including a mini-volcano and “Pilas de Barro” mud pots; listen out for strange bubbling sounds, like a large pot of water boiling over. Mud pots, which should be treated with respect, are formed when mud, thermally heated by subterranean rivers of magma, seeks vents in the ground, sometimes actually forcing itself out through the surface in great thick gloops. It’s a surreal sight: grey-brown muck blurping out of the ground like slowly thickening gravy. Another feature is the geothermal hornillas (literally, “stoves”), mystical-looking holes in the ground exhaling elegant puffs of steam. You almost expect to stumble upon the witches of Macbeth, brewing spite over them. Make sure not to go nearer than a metre or so, or you’ll be steamed in no time. The combined effect of all these boiling holes is to make the landscape a bit like brittle Swiss cheese – tread gingerly and look carefully where you’re going to avoid the ground crumbling underneath you. Many hikers have been scalded by blithely strolling too close to the holes. The trail also takes you through forest with abundant fauna and flora and be prepared to ford a couple of streams.

Volcánes Miravalles and Tenorio

North of the Interamericana beyond Cañas – and clearly visible from the hot Guanacaste lowlands – loom Volcán Miravalles and Volcán Tenorio. Miravalles, at 2028m the highest volcano in Guanacaste, is home to an important forest reserve with abundant wildlife and birds, though it’s not open to the public, while Tenorio forms the centrepiece of an increasingly popular national park.

From the Reserva Biológica Privada La Pacífica, 7km north of Cañas, turn north off the Interamericana onto the road to Upala, a paved and reasonably maintained fifty-eight-kilometre stretch that runs between the two volcanoes, and from which you can contemplate the spectacular colour changes and cloud shadows on their flanks. Located roughly equidistant between the two volcanoes is the small hamlet of Bijagua, an impressively enterprising community that is home to a number of ecotourism projects, including an ecology centre, organic farms and a collective of female artisans.

Northwestern Guanacaste

Parque Nacional Santa Rosa

Established in 1971 to protect a stretch of increasingly rare dry tropical forest, Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, 35km north of Liberia, is Costa Rica’s oldest national park. Today it’s one of the most popular in the country, thanks to its good trails, great surfing (though poor swimming) and prolific turtle-spotting opportunities. It’s also, given a few official restrictions, a great destination for campers, with a couple of sites on the beach.

Santa Rosa has an amazingly diverse topography for its size of 387 square kilometres, ranging from mangrove swamp to deciduous forest and savannah. Home to 115 species of mammals (half of them bats), 250 species of birds and 100 of amphibians and reptiles (not to mention 3800 species of moths), Santa Rosa is a rich biological repository, attracting researchers from all over the world. Jaguars and pumas prowl the park, though you’re unlikely to see them; what you may spot – at least in the dry season – are coati, coyotes and peccaries, often snuffling around watering holes.

The appearance of the park changes drastically between the dry season, when the many streams and small lakes dry up, trees lose their leaves, and thirsty animals can be seen at known waterholes, and the wet months, which are greener, but afford fewer animal-viewing opportunities. From July to November however, you may be able to witness hundreds of olive ridley turtles (lloras) dragging themselves out of the surf and nesting on Playa Nancite by moonlight; September and October are the months on which you are most likely to see them. Turtles arrive singly or occasionally in arribadas, a phenomenon unique to this species where thousands of females arrive en masse to lay their eggs. In an attempt to avoid the disturbances caused by big tour groups which have been a problem at places like Tortuguero, a maximum of twenty visitors are allowed access to the nesting area each day; reserve your place or ask at the administration centre when you arrive. Though too rough for swimming, the picturesque beaches of Naranjo and Nancite, about 12km down a bad road from the administration centre, are popular with serious surfers. They’re also great places to hang out for a while, or do a little camping and walking on the nearby trails.

La Casona

About 400m from the administration building is the formidable wooden and red-tiled homestead La Casona (Big House), one of Costa Rica’s most famous historical sites. For many years it was the centre of a working hacienda until the land was expropriated for the national park in 1972. In 2001, it was burned down by poachers who were retaliating against arrests by park rangers. However, phoenix-like, it stands again after being lovingly (and painstakingly) reconstructed in less than a year – this time, with the addition of smoke alarms.

Information panels recount the various instances of derring-do which have occurred at La Casona, with resumés of the battles of March 20, 1856 (the confrontation between William Walker’s filibusters and the Costa Rican forces), of 1919 (against the Nicaraguans), and of 1955, against another Nicaraguan, the dictator Anastasio Somoza García, who ruled the country from 1936 until his assassination in 1956. His hulk of a tank can still be seen, rusting and abandoned, along a signed road just beyond the entrance hut.

La Casona, set around a flowering courtyard, is full of rustic character. It’s now entirely given over to exhibitions, and you are free to clamber up and down the steps and wander around the dark rooms, which have a significant population of resident bats. Many of the exhibits were destroyed in the fire, but there’s some information on the life of the notorious William Walker and the great battle of 1856, remnants of dead animals and archaeological remains. At one side of La Casona, a stair path leads up to a viewpoint with a magnificent perspective of the twin volcanoes of Rincón de la Vieja National Park.

The great pretender: William Walker

Born in Tennessee in 1824, William Walker was something of a child prodigy. By the age of 14 he had a degree from the University of Nashville, notching up further degrees in law and medicine just five years later before setting off to study at various illustrious European universities. However, upon his return to the US, Walker failed in his chosen professions of doctor and lawyer and, somewhat at a loose end, landed up in California in 1849 at the height of the Gold Rush. Here he became involved with the pro-slavery organization Knights of the Golden Circle, who financed an expedition, in which Walker took part, to invade Baja California and Mexico to secure more land for the United States. Undeterred by the expedition’s failure, Walker soon put his mind to another plan. Intending to make himself overlord of a Central American nation of five slave-owning states, and then to sell the territory to the US, Walker invaded Nicaragua in June 1855 with mercenary troops. The next logical step was to secure territory for the planned eleven-kilometre canal between Lago de Nicaragua and the Pacific. Gaining much of his financial backing from Nicaraguan get-rich-quick militarists and North American capitalists who promptly saw the benefits of a waterway along the Río San Juan from the Pacific to the Atlantic, in 1856 William Walker, and several hundred mercenary troops, invaded Costa Rica from the north.

Meanwhile, Costa Rican president Juan Rafael Mora had been watching Walker’s progress with increasing alarm and, in February 1856, declared war on the usurper. Lacking military hardware, Costa Rica was ill-prepared for battle, and Mora’s rapidly gathered army of nine thousand men was a largely peasant-and-bourgeois band, armed with machetes, farm tools and the occasional rusty rifle. Marching them out of San José through the Valle Central, over the Cordillera de Tilarán and on to the hot plains of Guanacaste, Mora got wind that Walker and his band of three hundred buccaneers were entrenched at the Santa Rosa Casona, the largest and best-fortified edifice in the area. Although by now Mora’s force was reduced to only 2500 (we can only guess that, in the two weeks that it took them to march from San José, heat exhaustion had left many scattered by the wayside), on March 20, 1856 they routed the filibusters, fighting with their campesino tools. Mora then followed Walker and his men on their retreat, engaging them in battle again in Nicaraguan territory, at Rivas, some 15km north of the border, where Walker’s troops eventually barricaded themselves in another wooden casona. It was here – and not, as is commonly thought, at Santa Rosa – that Juan Santamaría, a nineteen-year-old drummer boy, volunteered to set fire to the building in which Walker and his men were barricaded, flushing them out, and dying in the process. Walker, however, survived the fire, and carried on filibustering, until in 1857 a US warship was dispatched to put an end to his antics which were increasingly embarrassing for the US government, who had covertly backed him. Undeterred after a three-year spell in a Nicaraguan jail, he continued his adventuring until he was shot dead by the Honduran authorities in September 1860.

Later, Mora, no devotee of democracy himself, rigged the 1859 Costa Rican presidential election so that he could serve a second term – despite his military victories against Walker, there was strong popular opposition to his domestic policies – but he was deposed later that year. He attempted a coup d’état, but was subsequently shot in 1860, the same year that his former adversary met his Waterloo in Honduras.

The leatherback turtle

Leatherback turtles (in Spanish, baulas) are giant creatures. Often described as a relic from the age of the dinosaurs, they’re also one of the oldest animals on earth, having existed largely unchanged for 120 million years. The leatherback’s most arresting characteristic is its sheer size, reaching a length of about 2.4m and a weight of 500kg. Its front flippers are similarly huge – as much as 2.7m long – and it’s these which propel the leatherback on its long-distance migrations (they’re known to breed off the West Indies, Florida, the northeastern coast of South America, Senegal, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Malaysia). Leatherbacks are also unique among turtles in having a skeleton that is not firmly attached to a shell, but which consists of a carapace made up of hundreds of irregular bony plates, covered with a leathery skin. It’s also the only turtle that can regulate its own body temperature, maintaining a constant 18°C even in the freezing ocean depths, and withstanding immense pressures of over 1500 pounds per square inch as it dives to depths of up to 1200m.

Protection of the leatherback turtles

Since the 1973 Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species, it is illegal to harvest green, hawksbill, leatherback and loggerhead turtles. Unlike olive ridleys or hawksbills, leatherbacks are not hunted by humans for food – their flesh has an unpleasantly oily taste – though poachers still steal eggs for their alleged aphrodisiac powers. Even so, leatherbacks still face many human-created hazards. They can choke on discarded plastic bags left floating in the ocean (which they mistake for jellyfish, on which they feed), and often get caught in longline fishing nets or wounded by boat propellers – all added to a loss of nesting habitats caused by beachfront development and the fact that, even in normal conditions, only one in every 2500 leatherback hatchlings makes it to maturity.

The number of nesting females at Las Baulas alone dropped from 1646 in 1988 to 215 in 1997, although numbers have since increased to over 800. At Las Baulas, authorities have established a hatchling “farm” to allow hatchlings to be born and make their trip to the ocean under less perilous conditions than would normally prevail, though this will not affect adult mortality, which is believed to be the root cause of the drop in leatherback numbers. While the population is healthier than it was fifteen years ago, it continues to be plagued by longline fishing, large-scale rubbish dumping, ocean contamination and other factors contributing to fertility problems.

Conservation volunteering

If you’re interested in volunteering, Earthwatch have run conservation holidays on Playas Grande and Langosta for a number of years, documenting numbers of nesting turtles and their activity patterns.

The Rough Guide to Costa Rica and related travel guides

An in-depth easy-to-use treavel guides filled with expert advice.

Find even more inspiration for Costa Rica here

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

author photo
Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
Ready to travel and discover Costa Rica?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels