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.