Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula

We’ve compiled the best of the best in Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula - browse our top choices for the top things to see or do during your stay.

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  • 1. Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Preserve

    Conquistadores named this area Cabo Blanco on account of its white earth and cliffs, but it was a more benevolent pair of foreigners—Swede Nicolas Wessberg and his Danish wife, Karen Mogensen, arriving here in the 1950s—who made it a preserve. Appalled by the first clear-cut in the Cabo Blanco area in 1960, the pioneering couple launched an international appeal to save the forest. In time their efforts led not only to the creation of the 12-square-km (4½-square-mile) reserve but also to the founding of Costa Rica's national park service, the National Conservation Areas System (SINAC). Wessberg was murdered on the Osa Peninsula in 1975 while researching the area's potential as a national park. A reserve just outside Montezuma was named in his honor. A reserve has also been created to honor his wife, who dedicated her life to conservation after her husband's death.Informative natural-history captions dot the trails in the Cabo Blanco forest. Look for the sapodilla trees, which produce a white latex used to make gum; you can often see V-shape scars where the trees have been cut to allow the latex to run into containers placed at the base. Wessberg cataloged a full array of animals here: porcupine, hog-nosed skunk, spotted skunk, gray fox, anteater, cougar, and jaguar. Resident birds include brown pelicans, white-throated magpies, toucans, cattle egrets, green herons, parrots, and blue-crowned motmots. A fairly strenuous 10-km (6-mile) round-trip hike, which takes about two hours in each direction, follows a trail from the reserve entrance to Playa Cabo Blanco. The beach is magnificent, with hundreds of pelicans flying in formation and paddling in the calm waters offshore—you can wade right in and join them. Off the tip of the cape is the 7,511-square-foot Isla Cabo Blanco, with pelicans, frigate birds, brown boobies, and an abandoned lighthouse. As a strict reserve, Cabo Blanco is open only five days a week. It has restrooms, picnic tables at the entrance, and a visitor center with information panels on park history and biological diversity, but no other tourist facilities, and overnight camping is not permitted. Most visitors come with their own guide. This is one of the hottest parks in the country, so be sure to bring lots of water with you. An official sign at the entrance warns people with cardiovascular problems NOT to walk the strenuous trail to Cabo Blanco beach.

    Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Preserve, Montezuma, Puntarenas, 60111, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $12
  • 2. Las Baulas National Marine Park

    Encompassing more than 1,000 acres of beach, mangrove swamps, and estuary, and more than 54,000 acres of ocean, this wide expanse of sand and sea will make you feel small, in the best way possible. Baula is the Spanish word for leatherback sea turtles, who have been nesting here for thousands of years. While their numbers continue to decline, guides still lead night hikes here between October and May to see leatherback and olive ridley sea turtles lay their eggs. You can also spot scores of native birds like brown-footed boobies and pelicans, kayak through the mangroves and estuary, or learn to surf on some of the best waves in the country. There are no hotels or restaurants on the beach thanks to government regulation preventing development, but there is a taco stand and a ranger station open from 8 am to 4 pm at the entrance to the beach. Be sure to bring water and sunscreen, and your own shade. The park closes to the public at 6 pm and 5 pm during turtle nesting season.

    Playa Grande, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
  • 3. Ostional National Wildlife Refuge

    This wildlife refuge protects one of Costa Rica's major nesting beaches for olive ridley turtles. If you get to go when the turtles are hatching, it is a magical experience. Locals have formed an association to run the reserve on a cooperative basis, and during the first 36 hours of the arribadas (mass nesting) they are allowed to harvest the eggs, on the premise that eggs laid during this time would likely be destroyed by subsequent waves of mother turtles. Though turtles nest here year-round, the largest arribadas, with thousands of turtles nesting over the course of several nights, occur from July to December; smaller arribadas take place between January and May. They usually occur around high tide, the week of a new moon. It's best to go very early in the morning, at sunrise. People in Nosara can tell you when an arribada has begun, or check the Facebook page Asociacion de Guias Locales de Ostional (AGLO) Costa Rica. To avoid overcrowding on the beach, visitors must join a guide-led tour of the nesting and hatching areas for $20 per person. Stop at the kiosk at the entrance to the beach to arrange a tour, or at the Association of Guides office, 25 meters (82 feet) south of the beach entrance on the main road, next to Cabinas Ostional. A new bridge over the Río Montaña has made access easier from Nosara, but it's sometimes difficult to get to from the north during rainy season (May to mid-December).

    7 km (4½ miles) north of Nosara, Nosara, Guanacaste, 50206, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $20
  • 4. Palo Verde National Park

    Because this dry deciduous forest is less dense than a rain forest, it's much easier to spot the fauna along the hiking trails, including white-tailed deer, coatis, collared peccaries, and monkeys. This park's 198 square km (76 square miles) of terrain is fairly flat—the maximum elevation is 879 feet. The west boundary of the park is bordered by the Río Tempisque, where crocodiles ply the waters year-round. The park also holds Costa Rica's highest concentration of waterfowl, the most common the black-bellied whistling duck and the blue-winged teal, with close to 30,000 during dry season. Although not as common, other waterfowl spotted here are the fulvous whistling duck, the glossy ibis, the pinnated bittern, the least bittern, the snail kite, and the very rare masked duck. Other birds endemic to the northwest, which you may find in the park's dry-forest habitat, are streaked-back orioles, banded wrens, and black-headed trogons. In the wet season, the river and the park's vast seasonal wetlands host huge numbers of migratory and resident aquatic birds, including herons, wood storks, jabirus (giant storks), and elegant flamingo-like roseate spoonbills. There is a raised platform near the OTS research station, about 8 km (5 miles) past the park entrance, with a panoramic view over a marsh filled with ducks and jacanas. A narrow metal ladder leads to the top of the old tower, big enough for just two people at the top. For a good look at hundreds of waterfowl, there's also a long boardwalk jutting out over the wetlands. It's almost always hot and humid in these lowlands—March is the hottest month—so be prepared with water, a hat, and insect repellent. Hostel-type lodging in rustic dormitory facilities with bunk beds and shared bathrooms ($13), and family-style meals for overnight guests only ($7 breakfast; $9 for lunch or dinner) can be arranged through the park headquarters.For more information, see the highlighted listing in this chapter.

    Palo Verde National Park, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $12
  • 5. Playa Carrillo

    Unmarred by a single building at beach level, this picture-perfect pristine white strand is ideal for swimming, snorkeling, strolling, and lounging—just remember not to sit under a loaded coconut palm. Signs posted by the municipality announce that the only entry "fee" is: make no fires, and take your garbage away with you. There are some concrete tables and benches, but they get snapped up quickly. This is a popular beach with locals, and it gets quite busy on weekends. The only commercial activity is a hand-wheeled cart selling fruit ices. Amenities: none. Best for: snorkeling; swimming; walking. Sometimes crocodiles hang out at the river mouths at both ends of the beach, so keep a lookout and wade or swim only in the middle of the beach.

    Carrillo, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
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  • 6. Playa Guiones

    This beach is one of the natural wonders of Costa Rica: a wide expanse of light-brown sand, sandwiched between rolling surf and green sea-grape vines starting at the high-tide mark and backed by rejuvenating secondary forest. With some of the most consistent surf on the Pacific coast, Playa Guiones attracts a lot of surfboard-toting visitors, but the always-breezy beach is also a haven for sun lovers, beachcombers, and anyone who wants to connect with nature. The only building in sight is the bizarre Hotel Nosara, which was originally the only choice for lodging in town but is now one of many. Otherwise, this glorious Blue Flag beach has 7 km (4½ miles) of hard-packed sand, great for jogging, riding bikes, and saluting the sun. Because there's a 10-foot tide, the beach is expansive at low tide but rather narrow at high tide, when waves usually create strong currents that can make the sea dangerous for nonsurfers. Most hotels post tide charts. Keep in mind there are no umbrellas for rent on this shadeless beach. Guiones is at the south end of the Nosara agglomeration, with three public accesses. The easiest one to find is about 300 meters (984 feet) past the Harmony Hotel, beyond the parked ATVs and souvenir stalls. Amenities: none. Best for: surfing; walking.

    Playa Guiones, Nosara, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
  • 7. Punta Islita

    The curved beach here is rocky but good for walking, especially at low tide when tidal pools form in the volcanic rock. Sunsets are gorgeous, but despite its Blue Flag designation, this is not a great swimming beach. Be sure to take a stroll through the small village up from the beach, which is a memorable experience. Food and drinks are all available through the Aura Beach Club. Amenities: food and drink; showers; toilets. Best for: sunset; walking.

    Punta Islita, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
  • 8. Rincón de la Vieja National Park

    It might be a trek to get here, but Rincón de la Vieja National Park doesn’t disappoint with its multitude of natural wonders from hot springs and mud baths to refreshing waterfalls and a smoldering volcano. Dominating 140 square km (54 square miles) of the volcano's upper slopes, this tropical rain forest is usually blanketed in clouds, with a short dry transition between January and April. The park has two peaks: Santa María and the barren Rincón de la Vieja. The latter has an active crater, leading park authorities to close some trails, especially during wet season (check the status before you visit). The wildlife here is diverse, with birds, deer, coyotes, monkeys, and armadillos. There are two main entrances: Santa María and Las Pailas; the latter is the most common place to enter the park and is closest to the trails (there's a $1.50 charge for private road use). The park does not have guides; we recommend the nature guides at Eco Explorer and Tours Your Way. Many of the attractions people visit in Rincón de la Vieja are accessible without actually entering the park, since the ranches that border it also hold significant forest and geothermal sites. (For more information, see the highlighted listing in this chapter.)

    Rincón de la Vieja National Park, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $15
  • 9. Bahía Junquillal

    The warm, calm water and relative isolation makes this one of the best swimming beaches on the Golfo de Santa Elena. Stay for the day or camp out right on the beach in the well-kept, shaded camping area with cold-water showers, bathrooms, firepits, grills, and picnic tables ($15 per person onetime park entrance for foreigners, plus $19 per person per night to camp). Compared with other camping areas in Costa Rica, prices are steep since this is part of the Junquillal Bay Wildlife Refuge. You can snorkel if you bring your own gear. Amenities: showers; toilets. Best for: fishing; solitude; swimming.

    18 km (11 miles) west of Pan-American Hwy., Cuajiniquil turnoff, Guanacaste, 50306, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $15
  • 10. Barra Honda National Park

    A mecca for speleologists, the caves beneath the 1,184-foot Barra Honda Peak were created millions of years ago by erosion after the ridge emerged from the sea. You can explore the resulting calcium carbonate formations on a guided tour, and perhaps catch sight of some of the abundant underground animal life, including bats, birds, blindfish, salamanders, and snails. The caves are spread around almost 23 square km (9 square miles), but many of them remain unexplored. Every day starting at 8 am, local guides take groups 58 feet down ladders into Terciopelo Cave, which shelters unusual formations shaped (they say) like fried eggs, popcorn, and shark's teeth. You must wear a harness with a rope attached for safety. The tour costs $30 per person (minimum of two) including equipment rental, guide, and entrance fee. Kids under 12 are not allowed into this cave, but they can visit the kid-size La Cuevita cavern ($5), which also has interesting stalagmites. Both cave visits include interpretive nature hikes. The caves are not open during the wet season for fear of flooding. Those with a fear of heights, or claustrophobia, may want to skip the cave tour, but Barra Honda still has plenty to offer, thanks to its extensive forests and abundant wildlife. You can climb the 3-km (2-mile) Los Laureles trail (the same trail that leads to Terciopelo Cave) to Barra Honda's summit, where you'll have sweeping views over the surrounding countryside and islet-filled Gulf of Nicoya. Wildlife you may spot on Barra Honda's trails include howler and white-faced monkeys, skunks, coatis, deer, parakeets, hawks, dozens of other bird species, and iguanas. It's a good idea to hire a local guide from the Asociación de Guías Ecologistas. The park has camping facilities ($2 per night), and the ranger station, open 8 am to dusk, has potable water and restrooms. There are also a couple of basic cabins to rent ($30).

    13 km (8 miles) west of Río Tempisque Bridge, Barra Honda National Park, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $12 (cash only); cave tour $30
  • 11. Church of San Blas

    Nicoya's last remaining colonial landmark is the impressive, whitewashed, mission-style Church of San Blas. Originally built in 1644, the church was reconstructed after the first church was leveled by an 1831 earthquake. The spare interior is made grand by seven pairs of soaring carved-wood columns. Inside are folk-art wood carvings of the Stations of the Cross arrayed around the stark white walls, a small collection of 18th-century bronze mission bells, and some antique wooden saints. Arched doorways frame verdant views of park greenery and distant mountains.

    North side of central park, Nicoya, Guanacaste, 50201, Costa Rica
    No phone

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: By donation, Erratic hrs
  • 12. Cóbano

    Paquera is the closest city to Tambor, but if you're headed to Montezuma or Malpaís, you'll pass through Cóbano, 12 km (7½ miles) southwest of Tambor. The town has a supermarket, two gas stations, and a large Banco Nacional with the area's only consistently reliable ATM. (Montezuma and Malpaís/Santa Teresa have cash machines, but they tend to run out of money on the weekend.)

    Cóbano, Puntarenas, 60111, Costa Rica
  • 13. Curú National Wildlife Refuge

    Established by former farmer and logger-turned-conservationist Frederico Schutt in 1933, this 106-hectare (262-acre) refuge is named after the indigenous word for the spiky-barked pochote trees that flourish here. The reserve is home to hordes of phantom crabs on the beach, howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys in the trees, red brocket deer grazing in open fields, and plenty of hummingbirds, kingfishers, woodpeckers, trogons, and manakins (including the bird-watcher's coveted long-tailed manakin). The refuge, classified as a Blue Flag project, is working on building an artificial reef. Visitors can stay in very basic beachfront cabins with solar power ($30 per person, including entrance fee); meals are $10 each. Call ahead to arrange for lodging or horseback rides ($15 for one hour; $25 for three-hour tour). Kayaking tours and early-morning bird-watching walks are organized by Turismo Curú. The entrance fee to the reserve is $13.

    7 km (4½ miles) south of Paquera on road to Cóbano, left side of road, Paquera, Puntarenas, 60105, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $13, Daily 7–4
  • 14. Guanacaste National Park

    The 325-square-km (125-square-mile) Parque Nacional Guanacaste, bordering the east side of the Pan-American Highway 30 km (18 miles) north of Liberia, was created to preserve rain forests around Cacao Volcano (5,443 feet) and Orosi Volcano (4,879 feet), which are seasonally inhabited by migrant wildlife from Santa Rosa National Park. The connecting border of these two national parks serves as a biological corridor for birds resettling between cloud, rain, and dry forests. Popular with researchers, the park is just beginning to cater to tourists. There are a few trails for a leisurely stroll and a bird observation deck; if you want a serious hike, it's best to hire a professional guide. In rainy season, roads are impassable; a 4WD vehicle is required year-round. Established under Dr. Daniel Janzen, the park is part of the Guanacaste Conservation Area, a mosaic of interdependent protected areas, parks, and refuges; the goal is to accommodate the migratory patterns of animals, from jaguars to tapirs. Much of the park's territory is cattle pasture, which is regenerating into new forest faster than predicted. Today the park has howler and capuchin monkeys, collared peccaries, white-tailed deer, pumas, sloths, coatis, bats, and more than 5,000 species of butterflies and moths. Among the 300 different birds are parakeets, hawks, cuckoos, and magpie-jays.

    Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $15
  • 15. Isla Tortuga

    This idyllic, unpopulated island has a white-sand beach fronting clear turquoise water, where you'll see a good number of colorful fish, though in the company of many tourists, arriving in many boats of all sizes; try to avoid the weekends if you can. A 40-minute hiking trail (small fee) wanders past monkey ladders, strangler figs, bromeliads, orchids, and the fruit-bearing guanábana (soursop) and marañón (cashew) trees up to a lookout point with amazing vistas. Amenities: food and drink; toilets; water sports. Best for: snorkeling; swimming.

    Isla Tortuga, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $7
  • 16. La Posada del Tope Tours

    Downtown | Transportation Site (Airport, Bus, Ferry, Train)

    There is no bus service to Rincón de la Vieja, but La Posada del Tope Tours arranges shuttle-van transportation to the Las Pailas park entrance for $20 round-trip per person, leaving Liberia at 7 am and returning from the park at 4 pm. This guesthouse is also the only place where you can buy tickets for the Tica bus heading north to Nicaragua. Their transportation services are recommended, but the hostel is not.

    C. Real between Avdas. 2 and 4, 150 m south of cathedral entrance, Liberia, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $20
  • 17. La Selva Wild Animal Refuge & Zoo

    This modest collection of mostly rescued small animals offers a great chance to see them up close in chest-high corrals under the shade of trees and shrubs. The Italian owners are a little eccentric, and the place is not terribly well kept. There are plenty of usually hard-to-see nocturnal animals, so the best time to visit is just before sunset, when the roly-poly armadillos and big-eyed kinkajous are starting to stir. There are also skunks, spotted pacas, raccoons, bats, and scarier species like boas, poison dart frogs, caimans, and crocodiles. A bromeliad and orchid collection is artistically arranged around the zoo. If you come early in the day (the best time to see the day animals in action) your ticket is also good for a return early-evening visit. It's pricey, but the ticket price helps to buy food for the animals. Crocodile feeding time is every Tuesday and Friday at 5 pm.

    Look for signed road on left, just after crossing bridge at south end of beach, Carrillo, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $20, Daily 8–7; last admission 6:30 pm
  • 18. Las Pumas Rescue Shelter

    Sad but true, one of the few places left in the country where you are guaranteed to see large wild cats, including a jaguar, is this animal rescue center. The small enclosures also hold jaguarundis, pumas, margays, and ocelots. The shelter houses other species, including otters, grissons, white-faced and spider monkeys, and scarlet macaws, all native to the area. Some animals and birds are rehabilitated and released into the wild. The larger cats are probably here for life, as it's dangerous for them to be released. Donations to the nonprofit foundation, founded in 2003 by a Swiss conservationist, are welcomed.

    4½ km (3 miles) north of Cañas on main hwy., Palo Verde National Park, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $12
  • 19. Llanos de Cortés

    Just 3 km (2 miles) north of the Palo Verde road at Bagaces, take the dirt road signed for Llanos de Cortés to get to this hidden waterfall less than 2 km (1 mile) off the highway. About ½ km (¼ mile) along the dirt road you'll see on your right a large rock with "Cataratas" scrawled on it. Follow this bumpy road about 1.3 km (0.8 mile) to its end and then clamber down a steep path to the pool at the bottom of a spectacular, wide 50-foot waterfall. This is a great place for a picnic, especially since there are restrooms; avoid weekends if you can when it's often crowded and noisy. Don't leave anything of value in your car.

    Off Pan-American Hwy., Bagaces, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $7
  • 20. Museo Islita

    This open-air contemporary art museum—the only one in the country—is a treasure trove of art displayed in a gallery and throughout the entire village. Supported by Hotel Punta Islita, visiting resident artists have inspired local villagers to create colorful murals and mosaics ornamenting public spaces and buildings, even beautifying the recycling center and trees in the village plaza. The museum building showcases one-of-a-kind textile prints, folk-art paintings on wood, jewelry, and objets d'art made from recycled materials, all for sale.

    Punta Islita, Punta Islita, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Closed Sun.

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