Visit Guanacaste Costa Rica – Your Ultimate 2019 Travel Guide


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My family and I love Costa Rica. We haven’t been everywhere in the country (yet), but we especially love to visit Guanacaste Costa Rica.

Here’s why:

Guanacaste Province in Costa Rica in a state on the Pacific side of the country in the northern half. The capital is Liberia, which is also the best airport to fly into. Guanacaste has pristine beaches, jungles, mountains, volcanos, and 7 of the country’s national parks. It is bordered by Nicaragua to the north.

I think we can all agree there is nothing better than a vacation where everyone, from kids to parents, has an amazing time, every time. To connect with one another in such a beautiful setting is an amazing and transformative thing.

So in this ultimate travel guide, we’re diving deep into the northwestern province of Guanacaste in Costa Rica.

We’ll look at the best beaches, national parks, wildlife, activities and the best ways to travel through this amazing place.

Ultimately, you’ll fully understand why I think you should visit Guanacaste Costa Rica for the vacation of a lifetime.

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And it’s not just Spanish! They currently offer 10 different language programs.

Is Costa Rica a good place to visit?

Good is probably an understatement.

Personally, I have been there 4 times. My oldest daughter Astrid’s first beach and ocean experience were along the Pacific coast of Guanacaste Costa Rica.

We love the ease of traveling there. It’s amazingly easy (but not quick) to get around the country (driving in the Capital of San José being the main exception).  We love the people, the food, the wildlife, the beaches, and so much more.

To say it’s beautiful, peaceful, tranquil or amazing doesn’t really justify it.  After all, you could probably think of a lot of places you could describe that way.

No; to visit Guanacaste Costa Rica, or anywhere in Costa Rica, is just something altogether different.

What is Guanacaste known for?

Guanacaste is one of the most popular states (what they call provinces) in Costa Rica.

Guanacaste is known as a tropical paradise with breathtaking beaches, amazing mountains, and multiple volcanoes. Tourists seek out beautiful weather and abundant wildlife.

Guanacaste is in the northwest area of Costa Rica just under Nicaragua (which it was once a part of).

Costa Rica’s slogan is Pura Vida which translates into English as “pure life”. Nothing sums up what it means to visit Guanacaste Costa Rica (or any part of Costa Rica) more than that phrase.

Guanacaste’s unique culture stems, in part, from once being part of Nicaragua during the pre-Columbian era.

Certain Guanacaste has been part of Costa Rica for some time now,  but you can still see Nicaragua’s influence there in the people, food, and culture. But history aside, there are hundreds of reasons to visit Guanacaste Costa Rica.

Make sure to check out my Costa Rica Travel Resource List with links to everything you need!

What coast is Guanacaste Costa Rica?

Guanacaste runs up and down a large part the Pacific side of Costa Rica. Thus, as you would expect, this amazing area features some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Tamarindo is one of the most popular beaches in Costa Rica.

It stays sunny all year, and the weather with temperatures varying between 73°-81° and low humidity. Lots of activities are available from this awesome touristy town from zip lining, hiking, snorkeling, surfing, and more. That being said, EVERYONE loves Tamarindo and thus it is a bustling tourist town.

Personally, my favorite beach in Costa Rica is Playa Conchal, north of Tamarindo near the town of Brasilito.

visit Guanacaste Costa Rica Middle Class Dad Astrid and Jolie Campbell at Playa Conchal

Those are our daughters (before the arrival of daughter #3) playing on the mostly deserted beach of Playa Conchal!

While there is a nearby Westin Resort with its own private beach access, there’s still plenty of amazing beach to explore (see my picture above). We have been to at least 10 beaches in Costa Rica, far from all, but this has been our favorite hands down.

We’ve never seen more than 20 or 30 people when we’ve been, and while that could be an anomaly, it definitely is one of the less crowded beaches.  Just drive down a dirt road past the howler monkey-lined trees and pull right up onto the sand, 30 feet from the water’s edge.

Playa Hermosa is another great beach for visitors looking to avoid popular tourist areas. It’s also very close to a number of amazing areas like Santa Rosa National Park and Rincon de la Vieja National Park, among others, and you will see amazing wildlife and scenery there.

Some beaches are rockier than others and some are more black sand than white sand.

So explore all of them while you visit Guanacaste Costa Rica! Some other ones to visit would include Playas del Coco (our original beach experience), Playa Ocotal, Playa Panama, Playa Flamingo, Playa Brasilito and many others.

What is the average temperature in Costa Rica?

The average highs fluctuate between 75 and 80 degrees.  The average lows fluctuate between 58 and 62 degrees.  Basically, it’s a paradise all year; not too hot, not too cold.

The summer and early fall are considered the rainy season in most parts of the country, but in my experience has been twice at different points during this time, you get a little (sometimes no) rain in the early afternoon; the perfect time to return home for a nap.  Travel during this time can be considerably cheaper and for us, there’s almost no difference.

Want heat? spend time on the coast.

Want cooler days and almost chilly nights? Head inland.

What is the rainy season in Guanacaste Costa Rica?

The rainy season is from May to mid-November except for the Caribbean coast.

I have been to Costa Rica in August, July, December, and January and always had a great time and great weather. In fact, I kind of prefer to go during the so-called rainy season, because it’s less touristy.

As I said, Costa Rica varies between 75 and 80 degrees for the highs (on average) and lows around 60.

The Caribbean coast is generally humid and rainy all year. It’s also a bit of a trek to get there, so I’ve never been. But for the rest of the country, we’re talking about 5 months out of the year.

BUT, when I have been there in the rainy season if it rained at all (which it didn’t every day), it rained for about an hour around 1 pm. So it was really perfect to go out and do stuff, grab some lunch, and then come back to the house for a nap, or just sit and listen to the rain.

 

Is Guanacaste safe?

Yes is the short answer, but always use the same precautions you would normally follow when visiting a new place.

I have ALWAYS felt safe in Guanacaste.

In fact, in terms of safety, that is the main reason I haven’t been back to Mexico in 14 years and never taken my kids there (aside from the crossing in Big Bend). By comparison, Costa Rica is amazingly safe, peaceful and tranquil.

For starters, unlike Mexico where Federales armed with assault rifles abound, Costa Rica abandoned its military in 1948. I’m sure crime exists there as it does anywhere; especially in San José which is the only real large city.

But when we visit Guanacaste Costa Rica, we don’t go there for the big city experience so we prefer the quiet countryside and beach settings.  Take the same precautions you would traveling anywhere, but we find visiting Costa Rica to be perfectly safe.

We’ve traveled all over the Pacific side as far south as Jaco (a popular surf town) to almost as far north as the border to Nicaragua.  We have also traveled inland to mountains, volcanos, and hot springs. In doing so, we’ve met some great people and befriended more than a few.

Crime is probably the highest in the capital of San José, which is to be expected as it’s a big, bustling city with a similar vibe to New York. 

The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory gives Costa Rica a Level 1 for crime and safety. 1 is the lowest rating on a scale of 1 to 4 and comes with the recommendation “exercise normal precautions”.

What vaccinations do I need for Costa Rica?

In short, unless you are traveling from a country known for being at high risk of yellow fever outbreaks, no vaccines are required to visit Costa Rica.

That being said, the CDC and WHO do recommend the following vaccinations if you are planning to visit:

  • Hepatitis A & B
  • Typhoid
  • Yellow fever
  • Rabies
  • Meningitis
  • Polio
  • Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR)
  • Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis)
  • Chickenpox
  • Shingles
  • Pneumonia
  • Influenza

That’s a long and scary sounding list, and no place on Earth is completely safe in terms of infectious diseases. But I can tell you as a frequent traveler to Costa Rica and one who took his one-year-old daughter there, we have NEVER done anything out of the ordinary in terms of vaccines when preparing for a trip.

Costa Rica Culture

Locals refer to themselves as “Ticos” and we have found nothing but peaceful, friendly & warm folks who love the land, love their country and are happy to share it.

Unlike some other predominantly Spanish speaking countries, Costa Rica has a literacy rate of 96%; they value the education of their over 4 million citizens!

Also over 70% of the population falls into the middle class, making it distinctly different from some other countries too. Statistics courtesy of The Real Costa Rica and Tropical Daily.

Costa Rica values life.  The country also values its natural resources. I noted this a little bit in the passage above.

About 25% of the total land in Costa Rica is dedicated to national parks or other protected lands; 26 national parks in total; amazing for a country of Costa Rica’s size! Even in small remote villages, you see recycling stations; that speaks volumes about the country’s dedication to the land and preserving their natural beauty.

Costa Rica is also a melting pot with people both visiting and living there from all over the world. Upwards of 9% of the population moved to Costa Rica from other countries.

Nicaragua accounts for the largest number of immigrants, but Colombia, Spain and the USA are 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively.

So while the country’s native tongue is certainly Spanish, it’s not uncommon to find plenty of other languages there too and lots of folks speak English (but knowing a little bit of Spanish is definitely helpful!)

visit Guanacaste Costa Rica Middle Class Dad lemur crossing road sign

Costa Rica habitats

Costa Rica has the rainforests, it has the beaches (both Pacific and Caribbean) as well as volcanos and general tropical areas. It also has islands, such as Isla Tortuga which we have visited.

We’ve driven to the mountains, hiked through a forest to find natural hot springs.  We’ve driven up volcanos, we’ve lounged on beaches near troops of howler monkeys. 

Natural beauty of all kinds abounds in Costa Rica.  Breathtaking views, amazing landscapes and a wide variety of scenery make up Costa Rica.

Aside from snow, there’s not much you can’t find here.

Are there sloths in Guanacaste?

For the most part, no. You are not likely to see sloths (in the wild) in Guanacaste. They tend to be a little more inland in forested areas with medium elevation.

There are two types of sloths in Costa Rica:

  • Brown-throated sloth – the smaller of the 2 sloths, more active, and more of them
  • Hoffman’s two-toed sloth – larger, fewer of them, and nocturnal

Hoffman’s two-toed sloth is primarily nocturnal. So most likely if you do see a sloth it will be the brown-throated sloth. But you may sometimes see a sleeping 2 toed sloth. 

Brown-throated sloths are not found in high-elevation colder areas, but in general, you’re most likely to see either species in one of these areas:

  • Vara Blanca
  • Dominical
  • Manuel Antonio
  • Nuevo Arenal
  • Tortuguero
  • Limon
  • Bijagua
  • Osa Peninsula

Having said that, you will see an abundance of wildlife in Guanacaste.

On our trips, we have seen the following in the wild:

  • Macaws (a little south of Guanacaste)
  • Howler Monkeys
  • Iguanas
  • Magpie Jays (a really cool bird that apparently is viewed as a pigeon there, but looks like a blue jay with a parrot tail and a huge black plume sticking up on its head)

Of course, we’ve seen tons of other animals and lizards too; those are just the well-known ones. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, you may see all of those or none of those.

To me, that’s the beauty of nature; we’re at its mercy.  It’s not on display for our amusement, so we have to learn to live with it and appreciate it on its terms.

Costa Rica National Parks

Costa Rica features an amazing 27 National parks. 7 of those are in Guanacaste.

In fact, over 25% of Costa Rica is reserved for national parks (and other wildlife conservation areas). Thus, perhaps more than any other country in the world, Costa Rica is dedicated to protecting its amazing wildlife and preserving their environment.

Here are some of the best National Parks to see when you visit Guanacaste Costa Rica:

  • Santa Rosa National Park – One of the country’s 1st National Parks, Santa Rosa features heavily forested areas but also pristine white sand beaches. The famous Hacienda Santa Rosa monument (known as La Casona) stands to commemorate fallen heroes from old battles. Camp here to experience everything Costa Rica wildlife and nature have to offer.
  • Guanacaste National Park – Guanacaste National Park was founded in 1989.  It connects Santa Rosa National Park with the Caribbean rainforest of Northern Costa Rica, stretching across cloud forests and volcanos as it goes. Cross the continental divide and see rainforests that make up much of the Caribbean sideAs you hike, you’ll no doubt see javelina (similar to wild boar), howler monkeys, bats, and capuchin monkeys. Being in the northern part of Guanacaste, you’ll also see white-throated magpie jays which are some of our favorite birds (although many locals think of them as we do pigeons. Picture a blue jay with a parrot-like tail and a black feathery mohawk.
  • Rincon de la Vieja National Park – A true one-of-a-kind destination containing volcanos, breathtaking waterfalls, cloud forests and amazing wildlife such as sloths, jaguars, pumas, tapirs and more. There are 9 volcanic craters in the park and you can hike up on trails that up for a bird’s eye view. This park alone encompasses almost 35,000 acres!

Make sure to check out my Costa Rica Travel Resource List with links to everything you need!

Travel Tips When You Visit Guanacaste Costa Rica

Visiting Guanacaste, or any part of Costa Rica is going to be an amazing time.

But there are some good tips I’ve learned in my 5 visits, so I just want to review them now, so you can make the most of your next (or first) visit.

Renting a car in Guanacaste

I strongly recommend a rental car as it’s simply the best way to get around.

Driving in San José was not unlike driving in NYC, but aside from that, as long as you’re not in a hurry, driving is a piece of cake in all the areas I’ve been to.  I have rented from a number of companies and all the major car rental companies you are used to have offices there.

That being said, I like a local company called Vamos.

If you check out online reviews, you’ll see many with terrible reviews (many for good reason).  Vamos is just about the only one with consistently good reviews and in my experience, they earn it!

Don’t be surprised that most car rental companies want a deposit (on credit card) of between $700-$1,000.  That is standard here.  Most don’t actually charge that; they just put a hold for it.

Vamos doesn’t do it, but some companies actually want you to sign a blank credit card carbon-copy imprint form with no amount specified!  I also like that Vamos allows me to use a debit card (we don’t have any credit cards and some places insist on it).

I don’t get the extra insurance coverage when I rent in the US, as my insurance typically already covers that, but here most insurance companies don’t cover it. Thus between the potholes and occasional dirt and gravel roads, it’s not a bad idea to go ahead and get it.

Thus when you’re done; you just drop it off no questions asked and no inspection needed.

Will my cell phone GPS work in Costa Rica?

I have always had my smartphone work in Costa Rica and never had an issue getting around using my phone’s map apps. Thus an old-fashioned paper map probably isn’t necessary. Do check with your provider and verify if you will get service in Costa Rica but on the Tmobile network, I’ve never had a problem.

That being said, while a paper map isn’t a necessity, a travel guide can be a great asset!

The highest rated travel book on Costa Rica on Amazon is from the Happier Than A Billionaire series and is called The Escape Manual.

159 5-star reviews can’t be wrong!

Written by New Jersey native Nadine Hays Pisani, Nadine and her husband fell in love with Costa Rica many years ago and moved there to open a Bed & Breakfast.

Nadine has a number of excellent books on Costa Rica, but I’d start with this one the next time you visit Guanacaste Costa Rica.

What airport do you fly into for Guanacaste Costa Rica?

The Liberia airport in Guanacaste is the airport you want to fly into.

In fact, I have only ever flown into Liberia, the Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport, which is far north of the Capital of San José. Liberia is a far easier city to drive in and it’s close to many of our favorite destinations.

They rebuilt the airport a few years back and now it’s just as modern as any mid-sized airport in the US.

Do be aware the food at the airport is more expensive than airport food in the US. So unless you want to pay $15 for a Quiznos sandwich, plan to bring snacks with you while waiting or eat before you get there.  The restaurants close to the airport are a little pricey too.

There are a million ways to book airfare, but I almost always use Travelocity and have for over a decade.

All the major airlines fly to Costa Rica including Southwest Airlines.

Can you fly direct to Costa Rica?

Yes, is the short answer. From many US cities, direct flights are about 3 hours.

You can have your 10 hour, multi-leg flights to Hawaii; I’ll be lounging in Costa Rica long before you get off the plane (no offense to Hawaiians; it’s just a trek for most of us to get there, and far costlier too!)

In fact, all of the times we have been to Costa Rica have been direct flights out of either Dallas or Houston. We live (now) in the Austin, TX area so if we were to fly out of the Austin airport, I don’t believe there is a direct flight.

But if you live close to a major metropolitan area, chances are you have a direct flight into the Liberia airport in Guanacaste.

Unlike getting to places like Hawaii, a direct flight to Costa Rica from the US is about 3 hours!

How far is Liberia from Guanacaste Costa Rica?

Liberia is IN Guanacaste. It’s actually the Capital of Guanacaste.

In fact, Liberia is just north of being in the center of the Guanacaste province.  Think of a province as a state in the US. Guanacaste is just under 4,000 square miles.

By comparison, Texas (where I live) is 268,581 square miles. So you could fit Guanacaste into Texas 67 times!

So Guanacaste, like all provinces in Costa Rica is not that big. It does, however, take longer to drive places due to mostly 2 lane roads, occasional dirt or gravel roads, and much slower speed limits (which are in kilometers, not miles). 

What is the best city to stay in Costa Rica?

Best is a very subjective term.

Much of Guanacaste Costa Rica is similar. You have the beaches on the coast and the inland areas are both dry and rain forests, tropical jungles, and a few volcanos. The Capital of Costa Rica is San José, which is far south of Guanacaste.

San José is a bustling metropolitan city similar to New York.

While I love the energy of New York, when I go to Costa Rica, it’s to get away from that kind of energy. So we usually steer way clear of San José.

Here are some of the most popular cities in Costa Rica, both in, and outside of Guanacaste:

Tamarindo

It’s a touristy surf town in Guanacaste south of Liberia right on the beach.

It’s touristy, but I still love it, despite it being crowded, a little pricey, and hard to park in. Great restaurants, nice beaches, nightlife, good sized waves are just a few of the reasons to go. Aside from surfing, it’s also a favorite for eco-travelers too.

Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio is located in the province of Puntarenas, south of Guanacaste.

It’s south of Quepos on the Pacific side and is one of the top tourist destinations. It features rain forests, pristine beaches, and amazing coral reefs.

Considered the most beautiful place in all of Costa Rica (which is saying something given how beautiful the country is as a whole), it also features Manuel Antonio National Park.

Jacó

Another surfing village similar to Tamarindo, also located in Puntarenas, south of Guanacaste.

This is the only place I’ve ever seen macaws in the wild and apparently they are pretty abundant here. Whether you’re into surfing, fishing, hiking, or lounging at top resorts, you’ll find what you want in Jacó.

Puerto Viejo

Located on the Caribbean side which can be hard to get to.

Only a few roads go across Costa Rica from Pacific to the Caribbean, so do be prepared to drive for a few hours, but Puerto Viejo and the nearby Cahuita National Park provide a rare opportunity to see amazing wildlife.

Compared to the rest of Costa Rica, the Caribbean side also sees a unique blend of Latin, Afro-Caribbean, and Bribri cultures. The Bribri are an indigenous people of Costa Rica.

Arenal & La Fortuna

Arenal volcano is Costa Rica’s most well-known volcano, although it has been dormant for 43 years.

The small village La Fortuna sits at the foot of the volcano. Breathtaking views, amazing waterfalls, natural volcanic hot springs set in the lush tropical surroundings.

Perfect for adventure-lovers, honeymooners, families, backpackers, or those who just want to lounge in a beautiful setting.

Monteverde

Monteverde is a small village in the Puntarenas province south of Guanacaste.  It is also considered a major tourist destination because of the abundance of both rain and cloud forests. 

It was recently picked as one of Costa Rica’s Seven Wonders. 

Potrero

But our favorite town to stay in and use as a jumping off point to the rest of Guanacaste is Potrero which isn’t likely to show up in the guide books.

Potrero is basically a small fishing village. But it has nice beaches, friendly people, inexpensive houses to rent, some great fruit and vegetable stands, and some nice restaurants and shops. But what it doesn’t have are mobs of tourists overwhelming it.

While Costa Rica does have your typical resorts like Westin or Four Seasons, you may prefer to do what we do and rent a house.

We have used a variety of travel sites to find the places we have stayed, most often AirBnB and FlipKey (similar site owned by Trip Advisor).

We prefer to stay in houses.  That way we can prepare meals rather than eat out every meal. The last place we stayed had 2 bedrooms, outdoor kitchen & living room adjacent to a pool and it was only $90/night!

What can you do in Costa Rica?

visit Guanacaste Costa Rica Middle Class Dad snorkling off Isla Tortuga on a Calypso Cruise

Here is my oldest daughter Astrid and I snorkeling off Isla Tortuga.

There is actually a ton of stuff to do in Costa Rica if lounging on world-class beaches, picking fresh tropical fruit from a tree in your front yard, or swimming in your private house’s swimming pool isn’t enough.

We have hiked in nature preserves, visited animal sanctuaries, trekked to natural volcanic hot springs in the middle of a forest, just to name a few things.

But 2 of our favorite things are:

ZIP LINING – To visit Costa Rica at some point, for many, means zip lining (often referred to as a canopy tour).

We’ve only done it once and there are hundreds of places offering it, but we loved Turu Ba Ri Nature & Adventure Park (also south of Guanacaste, but there’s plenty of zip lining in Guanacaste too).

Great zip lining, nature hikes, wildlife, and good food too!

ISLAND TOURS – We have only done this once as for us and our budget, it’s a little extravagant, but it was SO worth it! And of course, I have to say this is a little south of the state of Guanacaste in the state of Puntarenas.

We used the amazing Calypso Cruises to go from Puntarenas to Isla Tortuga (turtle island).

The boat was amazing (2 small swimming pools, fresh fruit, full bar), but the island was breathtaking and almost no one else was there.  We dined on the island, pet the wild pigs and went snorkeling too.

We couldn’t recommend them more highly.  If you go, I sure hope Charlie is on your boat!

While it’s always been a family destination for us, Costa Rica is also an amazing honeymoon destination or romantic getaway, so if you’re in need of one of those, check out my very popular post on the Best Places to Stay in Costa Rica for Couples.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Do you plan to visit Guanacaste Costa Rica?

In this ultimate travel guide to Guanacaste Costa Rica, I walked you through exactly why my family loves to visit Guanacaste Costa Rica.

We examined specific travel recommendations, weather, wildlife, national parks and of course the best beaches to see when you visit Guanacaste Costa Rica.

If you have been, what was your favorite part of your visit to Guanacaste Costa Rica?

Make sure to check out my Costa Rica Travel Resource List with links to everything you need!

Not ready to plan your visit yet? Why not save this pin to your favorite Pinterest boards so it will be there when you need it? I update it frequently too!


visit Guanacaste Costa Rica Middle Class Dad Jeff Campbell bio


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Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a husband, father, martial artist, budget-master, Disney-addict, musician, and recovering foodie having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Whole Foods Market. Click to learn more about me

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