Situated on Costa Rica’s north Pacific coast in the province of Guanacaste, Papagayo (AKA the Gulf of Papagayo) boasts a bounty of beautiful beaches. While most visitors base themselves in Papagayo Peninsula, a purpose-built development of high-end resorts, the area also gives access to top natural attractions and outdoor activities.
The best travel tips for visiting Papagayo
Less than an hour from Liberia airport, Papagayo feels a million miles away from real-life, not least if you’re heading to the all-inclusive enclave of Papagayo Peninsula.
Papagayo Peninsula juts out around Bahía Culebra, which is sheltered from the full force of the Pacific. With clear blue waters, the bay boasts some of the best beaches in the country for swimming and snorkelling.
While the Papagayo peninsula is under rapid tourist development — think all-inclusive hotels and villas, and a golf course — the project is rooted in an ethos of “sustainable luxury”, with development restricted and controlled.
Due to its location, and as a result of the restrictions, Papagayo offers visitors a variety of experiences. For example, you can mix things up to combine chilling out on picture-perfect beaches, with soaking up water-based activities and experiencing an abundance of natural attractions.
Travel tip: if you want to experience Costa Rica's diversity, but aren't sure where to start, talk to our local experts.
Best things to do in Papagayo
Whether you're seeking adventure, relaxation, or a chance to immerse yourself in nature's beauty, Papagayo offers a wealth of experiences to fulfil every traveller's desires. From pristine beaches and vibrant marine life to thrilling outdoor activities and indulgent spa retreats, Papagayo invites you to embark on a memorable journey.
#1 Soak up beautiful beaches and water activities
While you might opt to spend swathes of time stretched out on a beach, the waters around Papagayo provide the perfect setting for plethora of activities.
Most resorts offer on-site access to kayaks and paddle-boards, with snorkelling and diving trips also available.
Other water-based experiences on offer include fishing trips, and sunset cruises, best experienced with a fruity sundowner in hand.
If beaches are your bag, read up on the best beaches in Guanacaste — the province sure isn't short of stunners.
#2 Take a ziplining tour and hanging bridges trip
Beyond the beach and ocean, a host of exhilarating adventures await around Papagayo.
We’re talking the likes of whizzing through the forest canopy on a zipline, and spotting wildlife on giddying hanging bridges.
To enjoy exactly that, take a day trip from Papagayo to Diamante Eco Adventure Park. Boasting an ocean front location, this is one of Costa Rica's top wildlife education centres, as well as being a great place to keep all ages exhilarated.
The park’s ziplines have something of a legendary status around these parts. These include the 30-foot free fall Quick Jump, and the ocean-view Superman experience. At almost a mile, this is Costa Rica’s longest dual-zipline.
Love wildlife? Walk the hanging bridge to watch crocodiles, with parrots and toucans visible in the forest canopy.
In addition, Diamante’s Animal Sanctuary offers up-close viewing of local animals. Sloths, monkeys, jaguars, pumas, plus plenty of birds, frogs and reptiles are counted among its residents.
Into adventure? You'll love our customisable Costa Rica Eco Adventure itinerary.
#3 Go off-road on an ATV tour
Guanacaste’s mountains and beaches serve as the perfect terrain — and stunning backdrop — for a popular Papagayo activity. Namely, taking an ATV off-road tour.
In good news for those travelling with kids, many operators also have buggies designed for children.
With several tour options available, you can take your pick from a beach-based experience, or trips that are more mountain focussed.
The latter offers opportunities to see (and definitely hear) the likes of howler monkeys as you whizz by.
Want to take a multi-generational trip? Our Animals and Beaches itinerary has plenty to keep all ages happy.
#4 Surf, hike and see turtles in Santa Rosa National Park
Located north of the peninsula, visiting Santa Rosa National Park is one of the best trips to take from Papagayo.
As well as being Costa Rica’s oldest national park, Santa Rosa is also one of the country’s most visited.
The reason for this has a lot to do with the fact that it’s home to 115 species of mammal, 250 species of bird, 100 amphibian and reptile species, and 3800 species of moth.
In addition, if you visit between July and November you could arrange to witness hundreds of olive ridley turtles nesting on Playa Nancite.
Though too rough for swimming, the beautiful beaches of Naranjo and Nancite within the park are popular with serious surfers.
When visiting, be sure to walk the short (1km), undemanding sendero natural, which offers an introduction to the unique features of the tropical dry forest.
Along the way you’ll see La Casona. This impressive wooden and red-tiled homestead is one of Costa Rica’s most famous historic sites.
Wild about walking? Discover the best hikes in Costa Rica.
#5 Be wowed by birds in Palo Verde National Park
Located on the north bank of the Río Tempisque, Palo Verde National Park is home to one of the largest concentrations of waterfowl in the whole of Central America.
As such, it's another top trip to take from Papagayo.
300+ species of bird are regularly seen here, among them the endangered jabiru stork and the black-crowned night heron.
Away from the river, keep your eyes peeled for toucans and scarlet macaws.
To maximise your experience, visit during the height of the dry season i.e. between January and March.
This is when most of the 250 or so migratory species are in residence. In addition, as well as there being fewer birds, parts of the park become inaccessible in the wet season.
Love nature? Read up on the best national parks in Costa Rica.
Best areas to stay in Papagayo
Papagayo Peninsula is a place of all-inclusive resorts, and luxury lodges and villas.
Much of the accommodation is owned by big-name global brands offering 5-star facilities.
These include Secrets Papagayo. Formerly part of the Hilton network, this high-end, all-inclusive complex promises “unlimited luxury”. This translates to elegantly furnished rooms and bungalows, several restaurants and bars, and a spa.
If you’re looking for lower-key accommodation and a wider range of options, you could consider staying in Playa Hermosa.
Browse places to stay on the Papagayo Peninsula and Playa Hermosa.
Best restaurants and bars
Given the dominance of all-inclusive resorts on Papagayo Peninsula, it’ll come as no surprise that most of the best restaurants and bars are within these hotels.
Many have multiple restaurants covering global cuisine — everything from traditional Costa Rican dishes, to contemporary Japanese flavours, and Italian classics.
Outside hotel options, the casual beach club restaurant near Playa Prieta is great for the likes of fish tacos, pizzas and burgers.
Further afield, you could try Pescado Loco in Playa Hermosa for freshly caught fish — cooked simply to perfection.
Love your grub? Read up on eating and drinking in Costa Rica.
How to get around
Costa Rica’s public bus system goes as far as Playa Panama, which is five minutes south of Papagayo.
Most visitors tend to get around the area on guided trips. So, if you’re looking for greater freedom, you’ll need to hire a car from the airport.
If you don’t hire a car, and want more independence from tour groups, taxis are readily available.
How many days do you need in Papagayo?
Most visitors to Papagayo come for one- or two-week vacations.
There’s certainly enough variety of things to see and do on the peninsula — and in the surrounding area — to fill at least a week.
For example, you could spend a full-day beach-hopping, and another two days visiting Santa Rosa National Park and Palo Verde National Park. Then there's all those water-based activities you'll almost certainly want to do more than once.
Add to that intermittent days for blissing on the beach, taking relaxing strolls, or visiting a spa, and you’ll wonder where your fortnight went.
What's the best time to visit Papagayo?
Given that most visitors come to enjoy Papagayo’s calm waters and beaches, the dry season is arguably the best time to visit. This runs from December to April.
That said, Guanacaste province experiences lighter rainfall than the rest of the country during the wet season, with the added benefit of these months attracting fewer crowds.
In addition, the region is much greener (and prettier) in the wetter months.
For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to Costa Rica.
How to get here
Most visitors fly to Liberia’s international airport. You can also take a local flight from San Jose.
Most hotels have a shuttle service that’ll take you right to your resort.
Costa Rica’s public bus system goes as far as Playa Panama — five minutes from Papagayo.
Buses depart San Jose once daily and take three hours.
Buses from Liberia depart every two hours and take an hour.
From San Jose, take the Interamerican Highway to Liberia. From the main road in Liberia, turn right and follow the signs to Papagayo. This journey will take 4-5 hours.
From Liberia’s airport, turn right and following the clear signs to Papagayo. It will take around thirty minutes.