Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province is heralded as the “next Hawaii,” with a tremendous building boom that includes a number of five-star hotels and resorts and large condominium projects. The reopening of the Daniel Oduber International Airport in the capital city of Liberia has helped fuel this phenomenon, with more than 20 airlines using the airport, some with nonstop flights from the U.S.
Some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful and expansive beaches are located in Guanacaste, and many of them have black volcanic sand. The contrast of these ebony-sand beaches with sparkling blue waves crashing on them, bordered by verdant forest, is striking. Some of them, such as Tamarindo, are favorites of the surfing crowd.
The forests that abound in Guanacaste are dry tropical forests as opposed to tropical rain forests found in the rest of the country. The weather is drier than the rest of the country and subject to drought. Along with cattle ranches, the province has a large cowboy population.
The city of Nicoya, located in the middle of the Nicoya Peninsula, is considered a center of arts and crafts for the Province of Guanacaste.
Guanacaste technically includes the entire Nicoya Peninsula but, because of the difficulties in traveling between the northern and southern areas of the peninsula, administration of the three southern cantons (counties) has been assigned to Puntarenas Province. This adds to tourists’ confusion regarding what is Puntarenas Province, what is Puntarenas City, and why the Nicoya Peninsula is sometimes considered Guanacaste and sometimes Puntarenas.
Guanacaste has the distinction as the only province to voluntarily join Costa Rica after Central America’s liberation from Spain on 15 September 1821, a date celebrated as Independence Day in all Central American countries. In 1825, the citizens of Guanacaste voted to leave Nicaragua and join Costa Rica.
To commemorate that act, the government declared the national tree of Costa Rica to be the guanacaste tree, a large spreading tree that grows primarily in Guanacaste. The seed pod resembles a human ear, and the name given to the tree is taken from the indigenous Indian name guana (tree) and caste (ear).
Known world-wide for its eco-tourism efforts, stunning natural beauty from the rain forest to the beaches, and an extensive amount of wildlife species that live in the varying habitats, Costa Rica is a top-notch destination. Many visitors favor Costa Rica for its seemingly laid-back culture and to enjoy the lifestyle known as “pura vida” that most locals adopt, which means pure life. This motto not only represents a way of life, but is also a popular greeting, farewell phrase, and is used in many situations in daily life in Costa Rica. The Pura Vida philosophy not only refers to the locals, visitors, and growing ex-pat community but also extends to the abundance of pure nature to be seen and enjoyed throughout Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is located in Central America, wedged between Nicaragua on the northern border and Panama on the southern border. Costa Rica is touched by both the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east. The dominant language spoken here is Spanish, although tourist areas and attractions generally have access to English-speaking guides and English is the second most spoken language in the country. Costa Rica is also set apart from its fellow Central American countries in that it survived the harsh days of colonialism and overcame the odds of other developing nations who still suffer from poverty and dictatorships. Instead, Costa Rica has an unarmed democracy and leads the way in terms of environmental standards and green practices. Of course, this was not always the case. Costa Rica’s rich history is steeped in the challenges caused by Spanish colonization, but was officially declared independent from Spain in 1821. The country’s first major export and boom in terms of economical growth came in the form of coffee and later bananas. Today, Costa Rica’s dominant industry is tourism with the wealth of national parks and reserves stretching across the country and showcasing the many ecosystems that exist here.
Although the country may be somewhat small in size, it offers a great variety of places to explore, animals to discover, and clean beaches to enjoy the sun and surf. Located in the Central Plateau region of Costa Rica is its capital city San José. Many visitors either start or end their journey throughout Costa Rica in this city, which boasts local cultural attractions such as historic landmarks, museums, and hotels. Many day trips also originate from San José. Located in the central northern region of the country is the famed Arenal Volcano. One of the many volcanoes throughout Costa Rica, this is perhaps one of the most visited. The Volcano is located near the small town of La Fortuna de San Carlos and is surrounded by many boutique hotels offering therapeutic thermal hot springs and spas. The relaxation, views, and spa treatments offered here all contribute to this area being a huge draw for tourists. Beyond the thermal pools, visitors can embark on nature tours, hiking trails to waterfalls, and horseback adventures with outstanding views of the volcano all along the way. On the Pacific Ocean side of the country is a long peninsula known as Guanacaste. This region boasts some of the country’s best beaches and is brimming with all-inclusive resorts and surfing spots. Environmental enthusiasts and adventurous travelers alike can tour the country by car discovering the biodiversity found at the numerous established national parks and reserves found in each pocket of the country beyond the well-trotted tourist trail.
San Jose, Costa Rica, is the country’s social, political and commercial center, and it’s more cosmopolitan and prosperous than many other cities in Central America. San Jose is a pleasant place to visit, although it has comparatively few colonial structures, and most travelers use it as a stepping stone to somewhere else in the country. Volcanoes and mountains ring the city’s barrios and suburbs; cloud forests, beaches, raging rivers and rain forests lie within a few hours’ drive.
San Jose has its own attractions worth exploring, however, and these are on the increase. The capital has entered a revitalization period—condos are going up to attract urban dwellers, cultural events are thriving, and older areas have revived thanks to the boom in tourism. Because of a traditional lack of urban planning, San Jose’s architecture is a mishmash of historic structures, glass high-rises and run-down buildings. In many ways, this is part of its charm. However, the city’s streets are plagued by congestion and pollution in a country renowned for its environmental prowess, though this is thankfully beginning to change.
Amidst it all, the city is blessed with high-quality restaurants, excellent art galleries, museums and boutique-hotels. San Jose’s delightful springlike climate is never too hot and never too cold because of the city’s location in the Central Valley. The Ticos, as locals are known, provide excellent hospitality.
Sights—The European-style Teatro Nacional; the elevated square in Parque Central; the variety of goods and lively activity at the Mercado Calle Nacional; the Estadio Nacional in Parque la Sabana.
Museums—Exhibits of pre-Hispanic cultures and colonial artifacts, and exhibits on 19th- and 20th-century history and culture at the Museo Nacional; pre-Columbian gold sculpture, jewelry and other artifacts at the Museo de Oro Precolumbino; pre-Columbian jade figurines and jewelry at the Museo de Jade; contemporary art at the Museo de Arte Costarricense.
Memorable Meals—A romantic dinner at Restaurante Grano de Oro; the sample platter at Lubnan; hip, bohemian La Hoja De Aire; parilla at La Esquina de Buenos Aires; people-watching at News Cafe Restaurant and Bar in Hotel Presidente; delicious seviche and Peruvian seafood at Machu Picchu.
Late Night—Disco at El Tobogan; live bands and a hip crowd at El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte; live jazz at the Jazz Cafe in San Pedro or Escazu; DJs and live house music at Club Vertigo.
Walks—Exploring the galleries, cafes and stately mansions of barrios Amon and Otoya; strolling the pedestrian precincts along Avenida Central and Avenida 4; walking leafy Parque Nacional; a walking tour of downtown San Jose.
Especially for Kids—The hands-on science exhibits at Museo de los Ninos; INBioparque in Santa Domingo; a day trip to La Paz Waterfall Gardens with its aviary, butterfly farm, hummingbird garden and jungle cats exhibits; The Butterfly Farm in Alajuela.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica, a small Pacific-coast city about 50 mi/80 km west of San Jose, is making a comeback as a port and resort town. The toll highway between San Jose and Puntarenas cuts the journey to less than one hour, but for foreign tourists it remains mainly a place to pass through en route to or from the Nicoya Peninsula.
Built at the tip of a long, narrow peninsula, Puntarenas (Spanish for “sandy point”) is a good base from which to visit nearby national parks or the towns of Quepos or Jaco because of its central location on the west coast. Puntarenas is also the best place to catch ferries to the Nicoya Peninsula or to take day cruises to nearby islands. The beach can get crowded on holiday weekends, when Ticos from San Jose flock to it. (“Ticos” is a term Costa Ricans apply to themselves and anything Costa Rican.)
Other than some spectacular sunsets, the city itself previously didn’t have much to offer. That is changing: The once-polluted Puntarenas beach has been cleaned up and refurbished with sand. Some beaches in the area have been awarded “Blue Flag” status, ranking them among the most ecological beaches in the country. An aquarium has opened, and the pier area, where large cruise ships dock, has been transformed into a pleasant place to stroll.
Restaurants and shops now line the Malecon, a pedestrian walkway that runs along the waterfront north of town. Ticos on weekend vacation mingle with tourists there. Take an hour or so to explore the city—it’s a good place to shop for supplies and souvenirs, have coffee and take photos. Note, however, that the climate is usually hot and muggy.
Sights—A catamaran cruise to Isla Tortuga; a guided tour of Manuel Antonio National Park.
Museums—A broad look at the history of Puntarenas in the Puntarenas City Historical Museum.
Memorable Meals—The buffet with a view at Club del Mar Las Sandalias Restaurant on Jaco Beach; all-you-can eat seafood buffet at El Hicaco Restaurant in Jaco; fresh seafood at Cevichito Bar and Restaurant; all-organic dishes at Organico in Montezuma.
Walks—The seafront boardwalk known as Paseo de los Turistas; the Malecon, a pedestrian walkway that runs along the waterfront north of town; wandering the hiking trails at Cabo Blanco Absolute Wildlife Reserve.
Especially for Kids—Parque Marino del Pacifico aquarium; zipline adventure and horseback riding at Hotel Vista Golfo Adventure Park; a crocodile safari on the Tarcoles River.