Guanacaste doesn’t get quite the attention in eco-circles that other regions of Costa Rica do. That’s a shame. With volcanoes, beaches, mangroves, waterfalls, caverns and a wealth of flora and fauna, this really is prime nature-exploration territory.
The province counts 21 protected areas among its tourism offerings, including some of the country’s best-known national parks.
The dry season is the ideal time to visit, but the upcoming rainy season is enjoyable, too. (But beware: September and October’s heavy rains can impede access, and the insects can be voracious at that time of year.)
The five best-known parks, in alphabetical order, follow:
The main attractions lie underground at Barra Honda National Park (2659-1551), home to 40-plus caverns, about half of which have been explored, 22 kilometers northeast of Nicoya. Guides are a must for visiting the caves, some of which bear descriptive names such as La Trampa (“the trap”) – there’s a sudden drop near the entrance – or Pozo Hediondo (“pestilent hole”), named for the copious amounts of bat guano inside.
Aboveground, capuchin monkeys, coyotes, white-tailed deer and armadillos roam the protected area. Expect rustic accommodation inside the park if you wish to spend the night, but Barra Honda makes a reasonable day trip from several bases in Guanacaste.
It’s more night trip than day excursion when visiting Las Baulas National Marine Park (2653-0470) in Playa Grande, north of Tamarindo. The park takes its name from the leatherback turtle (baula in Spanish) that is its signature attraction, and is one of the animal’s prime nesting sites along the Pacific coast.
Guides are mandatory, with a maximum of 120 people allowed to enter the park each night during the October-to-March season to observe the nesting rituals. (“Night” can mean any time from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m., depending on when spotters give the word.) The December to-mid-February high season fills up especially quickly. Reserve space in advance or by that morning at the latest. While you wait, a visit to the Mundo de la Tortuga (2653-0471) turtle museum gives you a terrific intro into what you can expect to see. You’ll find ample variety of accommodation nearby in Playa Grande and Tamarindo.
Think tropical dry forest with wetland vegetation when you visit Palo VerdeNational Park (2661-4717), 28 km south of Bagaces. Its mangroves and marshes along the TempisqueRiver are home to a variety of animals. Most famously, some 300 resident and migrant bird species, including a native scarlet macaw population, make this one of the country’s prime bird-watching sites.
Your best option for exploring Palo Verde is not the park administration itself, but the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) (2524-0607, www.threepaths.co.cr). The international consortium of university research programs operates one of its three Costa Rican biological stations here in the park. OTS offers rustic, dorm-style lodging – always reserve ahead, as researchers get priority – and an active program of guided nature excursions.
You can’t top Rincón de la Vieja National Park (2200-0296), 25 km northeast of Liberia, and environs for sheer variety of activities. For starters, it houses one of Costa Rica’s five active volcanoes, and its fumaroles, mud pits and whirlpools call to mind a mini-YellowstonePark in the U.S. state of Wyoming. The eight-kilometer Las Pailas trail to the volcano’s summit at 1,806 meters can be rough going and, for safety’s sake, is best accomplished with a guide.
The park’s variety of habitats is home to white-tailed deer, armadillos, howler and capuchin monkeys, sloths, tapirs and always elusive jaguars. Accommodation and guides are best arranged at the half-dozen lodges that hug the park’s borders. (Rustic dormstyle lodging and camping within the park are also options for overnight stays.) Some of the lodges can arrange horseback riding, watersliding, rappelling and zipline tours. Rincón de la Vieja is also a standard day-trip offering with most area tour operators serving Papagayo and northern Pacific coast hotels.
Santa Rosa National Park(2666-5051), 35 km northwest of Liberia, Costa Rica’s first national park, established in 1971, offers an incongruous combination of history, nature and surfing. Every Tico schoolchild learns about the park’s La Casona, one of history’s few military sites in this army-less country. The rambling farmhouse, conservation of which was the original purpose of the park’s creation, was the setting of an 1856 battle that defeated U.S. mercenary William Walker and his band of filibusters.
Santa Rosa also encompasses one of the Americas’ largest remaining expanses of tropical dry forest, and armadillos and coyotes, as well as spider, capuchin and howler monkeys, inhabit its remote reaches. Some of Costa Rica’s trademark potholed roads can transport you to desolate, windswept Witch’s Rock off Playa Naranjo, legendary in surfing circles. Just as isolated, the park’s Playa Nancite serves as a nesting site for olive ridley turtles. Santa Rosa makes a difficult day trip if your plans take you beyond La Casona. Rustic campsites exist within the park, but La Cruz and Liberia offer a variety of accommodation.