Hemmed in by the mountains of the Cordillera de Guanacaste to the east and the Pacific to the west, and bordered on the north by Nicaragua, the province of Guanacaste 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. Plan your trip to Guanacaste, with our guide to Guanacaste — based on the The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.

The best travel tips for visiting Guanacaste

There’s something undeniably special about Guanacaste — the landscape is some of the prettiest you’ll see in the country. And that’s especially so in the wet season when wide-open spaces, stretching from the ocean 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 horse-riding, especially around the mud pots and sulphur waters of the Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja. The same is true of the tropical dry forest cover of Parque Nacional Santa Rosa.  

Beyond Cañas, protected areas encompass Parque Nacional Palo Verde, Reserva Biológica Lomas Barbudal, and the deep underground caves of Parque Nacional Barra Honda on the Nicoya Peninsula. 

For many travellers, however, Guanacaste means only one thing — beaches. Most are found where the Nicoya Peninsula joins the mainland. 

These days, Guanacaste is changing fast. An enormous number of hotels have been built on the Pacific coast. Inland mass tourism is less evident, and, despite the presence of McDonald’s, Liberia remains one of the most charming cities in Costa Rica. 

The recent airport expansion means Guanacaste is more accessible than ever. For many tourists, the province is their first – and perhaps only – glimpse of Costa Rica.

What better way to plan a trip than to rely on personalized experiences? Our content manager has traveled to Costa Rica and shares with you what to consider when planning your trip.

Rincon de La Vieja National Park, Costa Rica

Rincon de La Vieja National Park, Guanacaste, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

What do to in Guanacaste

Guanacaste is one of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica, so there is no shortage of things to do in Guanacaste. Make sure to put these sights and activities on your to-do list.

#1 Visit volcanic Rincón de la Vieja National Park

A highlight of any Guanacaste trip is visiting Rincón de la Vieja National Park. Located 25km northeast of Liberia, its variety of elevations and habitats reveals hot springs, sulphur pools and bubbling mud pots.

And all this is dominated by the park’s majestic namesake volcano — a perfectly proportioned conical peak, and one of Costa Rica's most active volcanoes. 

Undeniably enchanting, Rincón de la Vieja offers the best hiking and horse-riding in Costa Rica, which is really saying something. Several superb trails run from Las Pailas ranger station. Some lead west to the cataratas escondidas (hidden waterfalls), while another runs east to the Santa María station.

Animals in the vicinity include all the big cats (just don’t expect to see them), tapir, red deer, collared peccary, two-toed sloth, and howler, white-faced and spider monkeys. Meanwhile, birders could see 200+ species here, including the three-wattled bellbird, the Montezuma oropendola, the trogon, and the spectacled owl. 

Love natural attractions and trekking? Discover the best waterfalls in Costa Rica, and the best hikes in Costa Rica.

#2 Surf and see turtles in Santa Rosa National Park

Santa Rosa National Park is Costa Rica’s oldest national park, and also one of its most popular, with good trails and great surfing, as well as plenty of turtle-spotting opportunities.  

35km north of Liberia, Santa Rosa has amazingly diverse topography, and biological diversity to match. It’s home to 115 species of mammal, 250 species of bird, 100 amphibian and reptile species, and 3800 species of moth. 

While you’re unlikely to see the park’s resident jaguars and pumas, you could well spot coati, coyotes and peccaries.  

From July to November, you can witness hundreds of olive ridley turtles nesting on Playa Nancite. Though too rough for swimming, the picturesque beaches of Naranjo and Nancite are also popular with serious surfers. 

For more turtle action, head to Playa Grande in Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, Guanacaste. This reserve was created to protect the nesting grounds of the critically endangered leatherback turtles. They come ashore here to nest from November to February. 

Olive Ridley Turtle hatchling, (Lepidochelys Olivacea) Playa Coco, Nicaragua

Olive ridley hatchings can be seen in Santa Rosa National Park, Guanacaste © Shutterstock

#3 Explore underground caves in Parque Nacional Barra Honda

Parque Nacional Barra Honda, about 13km west of the Río Tempisque, boasts forty-odd subterranean caves.

Be warned, though – this isn’t for claustrophobes, people afraid of heights (some of the caves are more than 200m deep) or anyone with an aversion to creepy-crawlies.

The caves form a catacomb-like interconnecting network beneath a limestone ridge. Kitted out with a rope harness and a helmet, you descend with a guide, who’ll normally take you down into just one. Most people come wanting to view the huge stalagmites and stalactites at Terciopelo cave, or to see subterranean wildlife like bats, blind salamanders, insects and even birds.

If you’re interested in culture, ask about seeing Nicoa, where the remains of pre-Columbian peoples were recently found, along with burial ornaments thought to be over two thousand years old. 

While some caves are big enough to allow breathing room for those who don’t like enclosed spaces, it’s still an eerie experience, like descending into a ruined subterranean Notre Dame.

 #4 Chill and surf at Playa Sámara

Located at the north end of the Nicoya Peninsula, Sámara is home to one of the Pacific coast’s finest beaches. 

Sámara also boasts some of the area's calmest waters. The long stretch of sand is protected by a reef about a kilometre out. This takes the brunt of the Pacific’s power out of the waves. 

As a result, Playa Sámara effect is one of the best spots on the Pacific coast to swim and learn to surf. The waves are strong enough without being too unforgiving on beginners. 

Alongside being a place to chill, you can also enjoy the likes of bay-to-bay paddle-boarding, snorkelling, sea and river kayaking, and fishing.

Back on land, take your pick from horse-riding, trail walking and zip-lining experiences.  Top tip — stroll 6km east to Playa Carrillo, where showstopping sunsets await. 

If beaches are your bag, read up on the best beaches in Costa Rica.

Playa Carrillo, Costa Rico © Shutterstock

Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica, Guanacaste © Shutterstock

#5 Walk and watch wildlife in Palo Verde National Park

Located on the northern bank of the Río Tempisque, Palo Verde National Park (Parque Nacional Palo Verde) was created to preserve the habitat of migratory birds. 

By far the best months to visit are at the height of the dry season, between January and March, when most of the 250 or so migratory species are in residence.  

In the wet season, flooding creates saltwater and freshwater lakes and swamps, making parts of the park inaccessible. 

The park is home to one of the largest concentrations of waterfowl in Central America, with more than three hundred species of bird, among them the endangered jabiru stork and black-crowned night heron.  

Further from the riverbank, 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 waterholes. Note, though, that you shouldn’t swim in the Río Tempisque (or anywhere else), as it’s home to particularly huge crocodiles. 

Love nature and wildlife? Discover the most beautiful national parks in Costa Rica. Chances are, you’ll also love our customisable Costa Rica Eco Adventure trip.

Toucan, Costa Rica

Watch out for toucans in Palo Verde National Park, Guanacaste, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

#6 Relax on the beaches

Guanacaste is renowned for its stunning beaches that boast pristine white sands, crystal-clear turquoise waters, and lush tropical surroundings. One of the best beaches in Guanacaste is Playa Conchal, known for its unique shoreline composed of tiny crushed seashells, making it a favorite among beachcombers and snorkelers.

Another must-visit beach is Tamarindo, which offers world-class surfing conditions and a vibrant nightlife scene. For those seeking a more secluded and tranquil escape, Playa Flamingo is a pristine beach with calm waters and breathtaking sunsets.

Playa Hermosa is another popular beach known for its black volcanic sands and excellent surfing waves.

Keen on exploring more beaches? Read our article best beaches in Guanacaste

Best places to stay in Guanacaste

Guanacaste is home to a host of charming towns, coastal hotspots, and blissful beach retreats that offer a unique blend of Costa Rican culture and natural beauty. Here are some of the best cities, towns and villages to stay in Guanacaste.


Like its name, the spirited provincial capital of Liberia is friendly, progressive and charming, Mostly used by travellers as a jumping-off point for the Rincón de la Vieja and Santa Rosa national parks, or an overnight stop en route to of Guanacaste’s beaches, Liberia has a vast range of hotels, hostels and guesthouses.  

Browse places to stay in Liberia, Guanacaste.

Playa Tamarindo 

A sprawling tourist hotspot, Tamarindo enjoys a lively beach culture and raucous nightlife. Most people come here to learn to surf, or simply to laze on the beach, which is undeniably stunning. Many of Tamarindo’s hotels are very good, with plenty of options for all budgets. While staying in the village places you steps from the heart of the action, Playa Langosta’s swish B&Bs and hotels offer a retreat from the hectic Tamarindo beachside scene.  

Explore places to stay in Tamarindo.

Playa Sámara

One of the Nicoya Peninsula’s more peaceful villages, Sámara has a surprising diversity of accommodation options. Take your pick from laidback hotels with family-friendly facilities, stunning beachfront bungalows, back-to-basics hostels, and surf-oriented camp sites. 

Browse places to stay in Sámara, Guanacaste.


Nosara tends to attract nature-loving peace-seekers, and has plenty of fine beachside accommodation if you have a bigger budget to spend, after allowing for surfing lessons and yoga classes. Less expensive options are located in or near the village.

Discover places to stay in Nosara, Guanacaste.


Beautiful, secluded beaches await in Nosara, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

How to get around

Travelling around Guanacaste is pretty easy if you rent a car (there are several companies in Liberia), but there are options if you don’t. For example, public buses run regular services to Cañas and Liberia. 

Note that Rincón de la Vieja and Santa Rosa national parks are trickier to reach, and bus travellers may have to walk, hitch or take a taxi for part of the journey.  

All the beaches are accessible by bus and car, though the roads are not in fantastic shape, and journeys from San José can take several hours. 

If you’re heading to the coast, most hotels and resorts either offer — or can help with — bike rental.

How many days do you need?

The number of days you need to visit Guanacaste, Costa Rica, all depends on your interests and the kind of tours or activities you fancy doing. 

If truth be told, you’d be hard pushed to see even a fraction of the province’s diversity of attractions — from outstanding national parks, to beautiful beaches — in less than a week. And even then it would be something of a whistle-stop tour. 

An ideal scenario might be to allow 3-4 days to visit a few national parks before heading to the beach for as long as you like. It’s worth bearing in mind that some of the province’s national parks deserve an entire day to themselves. For example, it’s easy to spend several hours walking the trails of Rincón de la Vieja National Park.

Need help planning your trip? Check our Costa Rica itineraries, or talk to our Costa Rica experts.

What is the best time to visit?

Highland Ticos tend to describe Guanacaste as a virtual desert, liberally applying the words caliente (hot) and seco (dry).

Indded, during the dry summer season (Dec–April), Guanacaste often experiences some drought. This is when you’ll see an eerie landscape of bare, silver-limbed trees, as many shed their leaves to conserve water.

The province is significantly greener, and prettier, in the wet season (May–Nov). As a result, this is generally agreed to be the best time to visit Guanacaste. What's more, Guanacaste experiences lighter rainfall than the rest of the country during these months, and there's the added benefit of fewer travellers than at other times of the year.

That said, bird-watchers keen to see Palo Verde National Park's migratory birds will want to visit at the height of the dry season, between January and March.

For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to Costa Rica.

Playa Samara, Nicoya, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

Playa Samara, Guanacaste, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

How to get here

There are dozens of way to get to Guanacaste. Renting, or having a car, is the easiest option, but even if you do not have your own wheels, it's pretty straightforward to get here.

By plane

Liberia’s modern airport is the second busiest in the country (after the capital, San José), with an extensive range of domestic and international flights.

By car

Access to most of Guanacaste from San José is easy. Take the Autopista General Cañas (Hwy-27) to the Puntarenas turn-off, then the Interamericana (Hwy-1), which runs right through to the Nicaraguan border at Peñas Blancas. Follow the road rules, particularly on the Interamericana, which is heavily patrolled by traffic cops.

By bus

Modern, comfortable buses ply the highway, with good services to Cañas, Liberia and the border.

For more transportation tips, read our guide to getting around Costa Rica.

Looking for more inspiration? Read up on the best things to do in Costa Rica, and get yourself a copy of The Rough Guide to Costa Rica. Our Costa Rica travel tips will also help you plan your trip.

Not keen on planning? You'll love our customisable Costa Rica itineraries.

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Header image: Nicoya, Guanacaste, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

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