Guanacaste Travel Guide – Your Ultimate Resource for Exploring Costa Rica’s Coastal Paradise
If you’ve been tempted to visit Costa Rica by visions of curling Pacific waves, honey-colored beaches, and shores where coconut palms dip low to meet the sands, then chances are you’ve been tempted by Guanacaste province. This most northwestern corner of Costa Rica is one of the most celebrated regions of the country.
The happening surfer mecca of Tamarindo is here, with perfect, cruising point breaks for those who bring the boards. So is the chilled Playas del Coco and the yoga hub of Nosara. These salt-washed relaxation havens are balanced out by an inland of volcanic sierras and smoking volcanos, cloud forests, and eco lodges in the jungles. And if you’re an adventure enthusiast, don’t miss the opportunity to explore the captivating Rincón de la Vieja National Park, known for its breathtaking landscapes.
Check out this customizable Guanacaste tour.
This guide will run through everything you need to know about traveling through the epic region of Guanacaste. It’ll touch on the famous surf towns and the adventure activities in the inland reserves, while also highlighting the best times to visit and the logistics of getting there and around.
If at any point throughout this guide you find yourself with any questions, reach out to The Explorer’s Passage for help building your dream trip. Let’s begin!
My experience in Guanacaste
Guanacaste is the Costa Rica that people dream of while stuck at their office desk or while commuting to and from work. The coastline is where it hits that most quintessentially tropical zenith. There are beaches of all shapes and sizes, few I don’t pine after during those cold winters. I’m talking about the likes of the golden Playa Guiones in Nosara and the glistening Playa Conchal further north.
Rest and relaxation is just half the story for me, though. I also have Guanacaste to thank for my first unforgettable rides on Costa Rican waves. Tamarindo is perhaps the most accessible surf town in the whole Guanacaste region, with fantastic surf schools that cater to all levels. Combine that with the proximity of Lake Arenal and the famous cloud forests that run north from Monteverde and you start to see why Guanacaste is unquestionably one of the must-see corners of the country.
Travel has not only become my passion but also my profession, as I proudly founded The Explorer’s Passage, an premier industry award-winning adventure travel company. We are a team with over three decades of expertise in Costa Rica, confident in our position as the best tour operator in this remarkable destination.
Should you find yourself with questions while reading this guide, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We would be more than happy to assist you in crafting your perfect journey!
What’s in this guide?
- Where is Guanacaste?
- How to get to Guanacaste?
- Getting around
- The best time to visit Guanacaste
- The top places to visit in Guanacaste
- Where to stay in Guanacaste?
- More beaches to visit
- Why travel with The Explorer’s Passage?
Where is Guanacaste?
Guanacaste is as far north and west in Costa Rica as it’s possible to go. The province begins right on the Nicaragua border and rolls south as the Guanacaste Volcanic Mountain Range delineates its eastern end.
Guanacaste also occupies a large chunk of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, too, which is where you’ll find all those lauded beach surf towns, from Tamarindo to Nosara. Guanacaste also creeps up into the famous Central American cloud forests that await northeast of San José – the bucket-list biodiversity hotspot of Monteverde that is no more than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the provincial boundary.
How to get to Guanacaste?
That’s easy. The very fact that Guanacaste’s popular national parks host some of the best beaches in the whole of Central America, let alone Costa Rica, means that it’s among the most accessible regions of the country.
For example, you can arrive from the Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) (also known as the San José International Airport) which is around a 3-hour drive from the Guanacaste provincial border. So you shouldn’t have any shortage of buses or private shuttle options from the capital after you jet in or pass through while connecting from other major destinations further south and east.
The Liberia Guanacaste Airport (LIR) offers another convenient option as it’s located just about a 35-minute taxi ride from the beaches or about 25 minutes from Guanacaste’s vibrant capital city of Liberia. Now the second-largest airport in the country, the Liberia Guanacaste Airport has a range of long-haul links from Europe and North America, including popular seasonal connections from Zurich, London, and Los Angeles.
Liberia, Costa Rica serves as a gateway to the country’s stunning beaches and national parks. The city of Liberia is a great starting point to tour some of the areas that make Guanacaste truly remarkable. Jetting there gets you into the heart of the Guanacaste province, just over an hour’s drive from the waves of Tamarindo and about the same from the western banks of Lake Arenal. As a bustling urban center, Liberia offers modern amenities and radiates traditional charm.
So you made it to Guanacaste, now what? Traveling along some of the major highways, whether by private organized transport or public options, will allow you to see some wonderful attractions. There are oodles of beach towns in Guanacaste to explore that are all linked neatly together by Route 21 as it cuts right through the heart of the Nicoya Peninsula. There are also mountain resorts, cloud forests, and national parks that you can reach by traveling along the well-maintained Highway 1 towards San José, a part of the famous Pan-American Highway.
While some choose to rent their own vehicle, we would caution against it. As is the case across Costa Rica, smaller provincial roads in Guanacaste aren’t always paved and can be prone to landslides and mud. That can make travel by a car rental both unpredictable and challenging, particularly during the rainy season (April to September).
It is for these reasons why opting to plan your trip with a travel company, like The Explorer’s Passage, who has strong local knowledge allows you to take advantage of years of expertise and travel with peace of mind. Be sure to choose a trusted travel operator who is familiar with the local region’s intricacies, ensuring that you make the most of your time in Guanacaste without the potential challenges of driving yourself. This is arguably the best approach for hassle-free transportation.
Another option for getting around Guanacaste is tourist shuttles which have a capacity ranging from 6 to 12 passengers. However, even tourist shuttles can’t quite compare to the level of convenience, comfort, and flexibility offered by a travel company who offers private transportation arrangements to and from the airport, as well as throughout your trip.
The best time to visit Guanacaste
The dry season is widely seen as the best time to visit the province of Guanacaste. That officially runs from November to late-March, but can actually begin in October and linger on well into the summer months in these parts, since Guanacaste is the hottest and driest of all the regions in Costa Rica. Average daytime temperatures remain steady throughout this time, usually 70-90°F (31-87°C). You can also go weeks without seeing a drop of rain. It’s the best beach weather you could ask for.
There are some exceptions to the rule. Firstly, intermediate- and advanced-level surfers might actually want to come in the wet season months of June, July, and August. The waves are bigger and more consistent then, with big storm systems sending up the swell from deep in the Southern Hemisphere.
Secondly, wildlife lovers could also do better with birdwatching and sloth spotting tours in the cloud forests in the months immediately after the wet season, when the numerous national parks are at their lushest and most vibrant. If wildlife is the inspiration for your trip, check out this full species list of Guanacaste wildlife.
The top places to visit in Guanacaste
You could spend months and months exploring Guanacaste province on its own and not get bored. But there are some best places that we think all first-time travelers to the Guanacaste region simply must have on the itinerary. They are:
Playa Tamarindo is blessed with a handful of seriously high-quality surf breaks that cater to all levels of board riders. There’s a hollow river mouth wave to the north (beware of the crocs!) that barrels routinely on southerly swells. All that’s transformed the place into something of a chillout hub, with more after-surf clubs and cocktail bars than you can shake your piña colada at.
Even if you aren’t chasing waves, there are plenty of opportunities for other popular beach activities such as kayaking, catamaran tours, fishing tours, and more.
Tamarindo is known for its prime location in eastern Guanacaste that makes it a major draw for visitors. Despite its modest size as a surf town in Costa Rica, this area offers the convenience of being in close proximity to a vibrant nightlife scene with lively bars, delicious restaurants, and diverse shops. Additionally, Tamarindo provides access to a selection of upscale, all-inclusive hotels and resorts to choose from.
Tamarindo is also right beside Playa Grande, a nesting site for endangered leatherback turtles protected as part of Las Baulas National Marine Park. This pristine beach comes with a relaxed atmosphere, best for swimming, sunbathing, and wildlife encounters.
The jungle-covered sierras of central Guanacaste tumble down to the shoreline in gorgeous fashion around the surf-yoga town of Nosara. A bit further from the big resorts of the northern Nicoya, this one’s for those who prefer to be out of the action while in Costa Rica.
Nosara is known for its more laid-back vibes compared to neighboring beach towns in Guanacaste like Tamarindo. Nosara’s tranquil nature aligns with its famous yoga scene, offering various world-class retreats from both daily classes to week-long immersive experiences.
Nosara itself is a district that has many towns and beaches. Guiones is a town where you’ll find healthy cafes and eco shops strung along the main sands of Playa Guiones, which also happens to host the finest waves in the area (and is great for beginner surfers). There’s also no shortage of locally owned family shops that make up a majority of Nosara’s businesses.
Just north of Playa Guiones, Playa Nosara offers an authentic Guanacaste experience with top-notch lodging, restaurants, and opportunities for yoga and surfing. Other beach towns include Pelada, a small town popular among both tourists and locals, and Garza, a small local fishing town where you might find boats departing for snorkeling tours and whale watching tours.
Venture to the hills above and you’ll find some of the lushest coastal rainforests in this section of Costa Rica, with hiking trails to waterfall tours and more. Or head to the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge, a protected sanctuary dedicated to preserving the nesting grounds of turtles that use the Ostional beach each month to lay their eggs.
- Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park
The Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park straddles the extreme eastern edge of Guanacaste. The national park is a whole world away from the cinnamon-hued beaches that the region is known for. We’re talking 34,000 acres (nearly 13,800 hectares) of rugged highland terrain in Costa Rica that’s carved through by cascading waterfalls and clad in primeval rainforests. There’s even space in the national park for not one, but two volcanic summits!
Rincón de la Vieja National Park also provides access to several marked hiking paths from the Santa María Ranger Station in Guanacaste. Also, don’t miss the chance to get your adrenaline pumping with whitewater rafting and canyoning tours.
- The Bat Islands
The Bat Islands, known as the Islas Murciélagos to the locals, are one of the best-kept secrets of Guanacaste. They fragment off the far northern corner of the province, just opposite the forested headlands of the Santa Rosa National Park.
Diving is the top activity here. Avid scuba veterans come to Costa Rica to score visibilities of up to 100 feet (about 30 meters) and dive sites that go down more than 115 feet (about 35 meters) to reveal sea caves and volcanic reefs. Sightings of the formidable bull shark are very common, as are manta rays and big coral sponges, which are a touch safer to be around.
- Lake Arenal
Just under 16 miles (approximately 26 kilometers) of the 17-mile-long (around 27 kilometers) Lake Arenal lies within the borders of Guanacaste province. Though the adventure mecca of the Arenal National Park is mainly in the neighboring Alajuela province.
Lake Arenal is the largest lake in Costa Rica and a veritable windsurfing haven, offering steady 20-30 mph (32-48 kph) gusts during the dry season months. When the water stills in the wet season, lake kayaking and hiking the surrounding peaks takes over. Get ready for some incredible vistas of the Arenal Volcano on the horizon! If Arenal National Park has caught your interest, check the amazing Arenal Tour we offer.
For more details, check out this customizable Guanacaste tour.
Where to stay in Guanacaste?
Naturally, where you stay in Guanacaste will depend on where you choose to go. But there are some eco lodges, all-inclusive resorts, and hotels that we keep going back to because we think they offer something unique and unforgettable.
Check out our top picks for best places to stay in Guanacaste by location:
- Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort – Treat yourself to a touch of luxury in the midst of hedonistic Tamarindo by choosing to stay at Tamarindo Diria. This highly rated, 4-star hotel offers you front-row seat views that overlook surf breaks and a huge central pool that’s a few paces from the beach. This resort also has all-inclusive packages to choose from.
- W Costa Rica Reserva Conchal – The W Costa Rica resort hotel is a hidden paradise in Guanacaste nestled amidst lush mangroves and sugar-white sands. Admire panoramic reserve views from your suite’s private plunge pool, unwind at the resort spa, and dance the night away at the electrifying Zona Azul club.
- Westin Reserva Conchal – This is an all-inclusive golf resort and spa. Positioned between Costa Rica’s forests and beaches, this 2,400-acre (971-hectare) retreat offers a lagoon-style pool, championship golf course, and rejuvenating amenities like their Heavenly Spa.
- Hotel Boutique Lagarta Lodge – Perched on one of the coastal ridges around Nosara, this hotel has suites that open to visions of black-sand beaches and untouched tropical rainforests rolling north along the Nicoya Peninsula. It’s also got a wonderful infinity pool with the very same eye-watering views!
- The Gilded Iguana Surf Hotel – The original surfer’s spot in Guanacaste with direct access to Playa Guiones, The Gilded Iguana is a hotel loved by surfers, yoga enthusiasts, and adventure travelers. Experience a relaxing yoga retreat or thrilling mountain biking at a historic landmark that brings together Costa Rica travelers of all kinds.
- Olas Verdes Hotel – This hotel is a small beachfront retreat in Nosara. It offers easy access to sand and surf in a serene atmosphere. Olas Verdes is perfect if you’re looking for surf and yoga lessons, exploring nearby restaurants, and hanging out by your private wave-shaped pool.
RINCÓN DE LA VIEJA
- Borinquen Thermal Resort – Get into the Guanacaste jungles and glimpse at the peaks of the Rincón de la Vieja reserve here. Great hiking trails lay at the doorstep of this resort. Also, the rooms are spacious and comfy and beautiful waterfalls are close by, but the real pull has to be the natural hot springs that offer a relaxing soak on site.
- Hotel Hacienda Guachipelín – With views of the dry tropical forest and Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, this award-winning eco-hotel offers 79 comfortable ranch-style rooms and suites. It even offers access to natural volcanic hot springs and tours through the nearby Rincón de la Vieja National Park.
THE BAT ISLANDS (In the Santa Rosa National Park)
- Dreams Las Mareas – Dreams Las Mareas Costa Rica is an emerald sanctuary on the shores of Playa El Jobo. Its all-inclusive family packages include luxuries like limitless dining and drinks, access to tours of the neighboring national park, and chances to explore the pristine beach where mischievous monkeys swing from the Guanacaste trees.
- Nandel Beach Resort – Along the northwest corner of Guanacaste, Nandel Beach Resort has a private beach, two outdoor pools, and a restaurant. Picture yourself still enjoying views of the lush Santa Rosa National Park from the comfort of your air-conditioned hotel room or while lounging on a terrace.
- Arenal Kioro Suites & Spa – This is the ultimate green-friendly luxury retreat in Costa Rica’s La Fortuna. Get ready to unwind in spacious suites, complete with Juliet balconies and volcano views. Access to rejuvenating thermal water spas more than make up for the lack of a beach.
- Arenal Manoa Resort Hotel & Hot Springs – A paradise for both adventure enthusiasts and relaxation seekers. Take a dip in Arenal Manoa’s mineral-rich hot springs or satisfy your taste buds at the resort’s Alambique Bistro, and get a chance to see the day-to-day workings of a typical Costa Rican farm.
- Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa – A five-star resort nestled amidst the lush rainforest and at the base of the majestic Arenal Volcano and near its national park. This resort has it all – nature, adventure, and pure relaxation. Indulge in luxurious rooms, soak in the healing thermal mineral spring river, and explore the exclusive Shangri-La Gardens.
More Guanacaste beaches to visit
While we’ve already delved into some of the most famous hotspots of Guanacaste province, it’s time to uncover more of the beautiful beaches we can’t leave off the list.
Here are some of the other best beaches to visit during your trip to Guanacaste:
- Playa Conchal – Just north of Tamarindo and nearby the town of Brasilito, Playa Conchal in Costa Rica is known for its exceptional sand made up of finely crushed seashells. Surrounded by abundant foliage and pristine, azure waters, this beach is ideal to tour for snorkelers and sunbathers.
- Playa Hermosa – Playa Hermosa has a striking shoreline and powerful surf breaks. It’s a favored destination for seasoned surfers and is known for hosting many international surfing events. Playa Hermosa overlooks the Papagayo Peninsula in northern Guanacaste and is relatively uncrowded, providing a serene environment for those seeking a calm paradise.
- Playa Rajada – Also known as Playa El Jobo, Playa Rajada is a stunning beach that can be found in Guanacaste near the Costa Rica border by Nicaragua near the Guanacaste National Park. This Costa Rican beach offers a remote and secluded coastal experience.
- Playa Sámara – On the Nicoya Peninsula near a small town called Galilea lies Playa Sámara, a beautiful beach adored by Costa Rica visitors. Its captivating landscape, tranquil waters, and laid-back ambiance have made it a beloved destination for those seeking beauty and serenity.
- Playas del Coco – Playas del Coco is a fishing village and a popular beach with a 1.8-mile (3-kilometer) stretch of dark sand beach in the Gulf of Papagayo, near the previously mentioned Playa Hermosa. It is known for its easy access to shops, tours, and restaurants, making it an ideal family-friendly destination.
If you’ve enjoyed these travel tips and are seeking more, The Explorer’s Passage has plenty more hidden-gem attractions, beaches, and more in Guanacaste that we can recommend based on your preferences.
At The Explorer’s Passage, we organize many exciting tours to all corners of Costa Rica, creating unforgettable experiences for our guests. We are experts in tailoring trips to fit your budget, offering many options from tours that can include only the essentials to indulgent trips with all-inclusive hotel stays.
Our dedicated team is here to assist you with whatever you may need from arranging international flights and in-country transfers to planning special excursions, finding authentic restaurants, and much more. Just let our team know what you need!
Why travel with The Explorer’s Passage?
Experience Guanacaste with the best tour operator in Costa Rica. With over 30 years of experience in the tourism industry, our team has extensive local knowledge and networks that you can trust.
We pride ourselves on delivering extraordinary tours based on travelers’ needs and are humbled by our guests’ testimonials. In fact, our dedication has earned us a 5-star rating on Tripadvisor, and awards by Travel+Leisure Magazine and Newsweek. Check us out and discover why so many travelers worldwide choose us. My team and I would love for you to join us on a trip to Manuel Antonio or any of our many other adventure trips!
Founder & CEO
The Explorer’s Passage
About Jeff Bonaldi
Jeff Bonaldi is the Founder and CEO of The Explorer’s Passage, a premier adventure travel company. His mission is to provide travelers with the opportunity to transform their lives and the planet through the power of adventure.
Learn more about Jeff’s story and his company HERE.