Guanacaste, the province bordering Nicaragua in the Pacific northwest of Costa Rica, has developed tremendously to accommodate the large influx of travelers from all over the world seeking to explore the golden coast.
Known for housing some of the most beautiful beaches in the country (hence the nickname golden coast) and boasting a ton of exciting adventure activities, the province is perfect for all kinds of travelers. The dry climate, fascinating culture and various natural landmarks means visitors can experience the best of Costa Rica all in one trip to the province.
If you’re planning a trip to Guanacaste, picking what to do is crucial to having the time of your life in Costa Rica. Due to the sheer amount of activities available, it may be a bit overwhelming to narrow down the best ones since they all sound incredible. So in this post, we’re going to narrow down the best things to do in Guanacaste and there’s something for everyone, trust me!
With 200 kilometers of coastline, this province has some of the best surfing in the Central America and is one of the must do things in Guanacaste. The southern part of the province has world famous surfing beaches such as Tamarindo which is best for beginners, Avellanas or “Little Hawaii” and Playa Grande.
Since the number of surfing beaches can’t be counted on two hands, surfers can find a surfing paradise all for themselves at the lesser known beaches such as Negra, Junquillal, Guiones and Ostional.
For the hardcore surfers, skip the beaches and jump on a boat to Ollie’s Point and Witch’s Rock, arguably the best spots in all of Latin America. When a swell hits, waves climb up to 6 meters with an offshore break so it’s not for amateurs. Even when there are “no waves” it’s still good at Roca Bruja.
A visit to Guanacaste automatically equals a visit to the beach and it’s a great cheap activity in Costa Rica. If you research the best beaches in Guanacaste, you’ll find mostly these on the list: Playa Samara, Tamarindo, Playas del Coco, Playa Conchal and Playa Flamingo. But when you are here, don’t limit yourself to the popular beaches.
Some of the well known beaches such as Coco and Hermosa are actually the “ugliest” with their black sand and dark waters. Though they are actually very beautiful, they’re not the picturesque tropical beach you see on postcards and if that’s what you want, you need to go beach hopping by boat. Majority of the white sand turquoise water beaches are boat access only, small and not well known, particularly in the Gulf of Papagayo.
Our favorite beaches in Guanacaste are ones we’ve found accidentally or our friend took us there by boat. One we found by driving down a random dirt road. Others were shown to us by locals and we would have never known about them otherwise.
Down in the south of the province, you have the gorgeous white sand Flamingo beach and the famous Conchal beach that is made up of pieces of white shells instead of sand. Head to Playa Penca to avoid the crowds in Portrero Bay or head even further south to another beloved beach, Playa Samara.
Though Arenal and Monteverde take the spotlight for the longest zipline in Costa Rica, Guanacaste boasts excellent adventure ziplines. And with the newly open Diamante Adventure Park that has the longest ocean view zipline in the country, Guanacaste is giving Monteverde a good run for its money when it comes to best canopy tours.
We’ve done many canopy tours in Guanacaste and even if they aren’t the longest or tallest, they are fun. In Guanacaste, most of the ziplines have a special kick or an added feature to make it more adventurous. You can zipline upside, over a river, laying down, tandem, in the dark and over the ocean!
A few of our favorite canopy tours are the one at Guachipelin, Canyon de la Vieja, Diamante and Black Stallion. The ones with the best views are in Rincon de la Vieja Natonal Park where many of the cables are built over a river, through the forest and at the base of a volcano so you get awesome views of all three!
National Parks and Natural Attractions
The dry climate of the area doesn’t house as many birds as the South Pacific or have the abundance of mammals like the Osa Peninsula but Guanacaste has diverse landscapes, it’s not just beaches.
There are volcanoes, the very important tropical dry forests, estuaries, mangroves and rivers that many animals call home. In fact, one of the three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Costa Rica is the Guanacaste Conservation Area made up of three national parks, wildlife refuges and protected reserves.
The most popular park is Rincon de la Vieja National Park as it is well developed to welcome visitors with several nice hiking trails, parking lots and a picnic area. Inside the national park is the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, one of five in the Guanacaste mountain range.
There you can hike through the dry forest to spectacular waterfalls and boiling mud pots or go on a combination tour to white water tube down the river, zipline through the trees and relax in the natural hot springs.
As for natural landmarks, Guanacaste is home to some of the most magical places in Costa Rica. Besides the dreamy white sand beaches, there are charming waterfalls, sky blue rivers, active volcanoes and numerous sea caves to explore.
Some popular places are Catarata Llanos de Cortes, Sensoria, Rio Celeste in Tenorio Volcano National Park and the Tamarindo Estuary. You can experience rain forest, dry forest, volcano and beach all in one trip to Guanacaste!
To best experience the wildlife and natural attractions in Guanacaste, a visit to the many national parks are a must. You won’t find many animals on the beaches like you would in the Osa Peninsula or Caribbean so you need to go inland.
A national park excellent for wildlife is Palo Verde which contains the endangered eco-system of tropical dry forest. Take a boat ride down Rio Tempisque to see caimans, crocodiles, migratory birds, monkeys and much more. Another popular place is Santa Rosa National Park, where there are currently over 100 documented jaguars living free in those lands. However, Santa Rosa is not very developed nor is it easy to get to so it’s best to take a tour in dry season.
Additionally, there are two other important places for wildlife in Guanacaste: Ostional Wildlife Refuge and Marino Las Baulas National Park. These two parks were created specifically to protect the beaches that two types of turtles lay their eggs on, the Olive Ridley and Leatherback sea turtles. During peak turtle egg laying season, thousands of turtles come upon the Ostional shores.
When it comes to marine creatures, you can see it all in Guanacaste. Sharks, dolphins, several whales, turtles, whale sharks, manta and eagle rays, fish, squid, octopus, eels and sea urchins are just a few of the animals you can see out in the ocean.
Humpback whales are commonly seen during the months of August and September and sometimes in January-March in the Pacific coast. They’ve been spotted near Conchal, in the Papagayo Gulf and all the way down to the Nicoya Peninsula.
Diving is one of the must do things in Guanacaste for ocean lovers. I don’t have my scuba diving certification (yet) but Playas del Coco, a small fishing village in the Gulf of Papagayo has some of the best diving in Central America. It is close to several amazing spots such as Bat Islands, Catalina Islands and other local dive sites. Swim with eagle rays, turtles, sharks, dolphins and other creatures of the sea.
If you don’t have your certification either, snorkeling is superb. The crystal clear waters of the Papagayo Gulf are the best as well as the reefs around Samara where you can see eels, colorful tropical fish and maybe a turtle or two!
Snuba is another option for those who want to go beyond snorkeling but don’t scuba dive. Snuba is like scuba diving but instead of a tank, you’re breathing through a tube connected to a raft on the top. You can stay down around 6 meters for a long period of time.
So if you have your diving certification, definitely stop by Coco, Ocotal or Flamingo to go on a dive and if you don’t, go snorkeling to explore the underwater world.
Even though fishing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, fishing lovers will have a blast in Guanacaste. Many of the popular beach towns started out as fishing villages such as Flamingo, Coco and even Tamarindo and it is how many locals still make their living today.
You can go fishing like a local with just a line and reel, standing knee deep on shore or go out on a boat to wrestle marlins, roosterfish, groupers and more. There are many sport fishing charters in Flamingo, Coco and Tamarindo and costs around $400 for half a day.
The best way to explore the beautiful coasts of Guanacaste is by boat. Go on a sunset cruise on a catamaran, enjoy a booze cruise or take a private boating tour. Whichever one you do, it’ll be a wonderful experience. Many tours take you to nearby beaches to swim and snorkel a bit bring you back under a stunning sky for the sunset tours.
We prefer private boat tours because then we can go to as many beaches as we want and further out than the standard catamaran cruise. It’s actually not that much more expensive and you get the whole boat to yourself.
If you’re in the Gulf of Papagayo (Coco/Hermosa/Panama/Ocotal/Four Seasons), we recommend our friend Marcy who owns Mystic Rides boat company. We’ve seen dolphins, turtles, whales and eagle rays with him and he takes us to some of the most beautiful beaches in the area. It’s one of our favorite things to do in Guanacaste that we always share with our family and friends.
Our Favorite Tours/Things to Do in Guanacaste
- Guachipelin combo tour
- Buena Vista combo tour
- Black Stallion zipline and horseback ride
- Kayaking and snorkeling Isla Chorro
- Horseback riding Playa Samara
- Marlin del Rey sunset cruise
- Surf camp at Tamarindo
- Mystic Rides boating tour
- Diamante Adventure Park
- Camping at Ostional
- Rio Celeste hike
For more ideas, check out this sample 5 day Guanacaste itinerary.
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Read about other things to do in Costa Rica here!