If you’re looking for a great taste of Costa Rica’s Pura Vida, the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica is the perfect place to visit. The Guanacaste region is in the northwestern part of the country, known for its spectacular Pacific Ocean beaches and incredible biodiversity. (And as food lovers, we’re here to tell you that the food is amazing as well.)
We’ve narrowed down some of our favorite experiences to give you this list of Top Ten Treats in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Sightseeing, adventures, delicious eats – We’ve got a little of everything here.
1. Hotel Punta Islita
Hotel Punta Islita is hands-down, our favorite place to stay. It’s an incredible resort, built into a cliffside overlooking a private cove. It’s located on the Nicoya Peninsula (one of the original Blue Zones designated for happy, healthy lifestyles and longevity), about a 2 1/2 hour drive from the Liberia international airport.
The resort has a variety of different kinds of rooms, but we are particularly partial to the family-friendly two- and three-bedroom villas, many of which offer a private plunge pool.
There is also an infinity pool on the top level next to the main restaurant, and a recreational pool down below at the beach.
You could be perfectly happy just soaking in every minute at the gorgeous and lush resort and at the serene and private beach, but the resort also offers plenty of excursions and adventures to check out the local area.
There are also two great on-site restaurants (one in the main area of the hotel, and one down the hill at the beach) that consistently delight with local cuisine. It’s also an easy walk to the “downtown” of the tiny town of Punta Islita where there are three mom-and-pop restaurants. (More on that below.)
2. Watching Sea Turtles Lay Their Eggs
This is one of the craziest, coolest excursions we’ve ever experienced. The female sea turtles come up to a protected beach at night to lay their eggs, bury them, and swim back to sea.
To see this in action, you go on a specially licensed excursion (we arranged ours through Punta Islita, but other excursion companies offer tours as well) in the dark of night (9:00-10:00 p.m.) and creep silently along a protected beach until you are able to see a turtle. This may take a while, or in our case, fortunately, a turtle happened to arrive at the same time we did.
The guides shine a red light on the turtle (so as not to distract the turtle) to let you see what is happening. It’s an incredible act of nature to witness.
3: The Freshest Local Foods
Every single meal we enjoyed in Costa Rica was served with love and pride. In fact, one of our favorite parts of the trip was learning about the local and traditional foods.
Some of our new favorite foods include patacones, which are fried and sliced plantains that are then mashed and refried until crispy. Then they’re topped with all kinds of goodness, often ceviche and guacamole. We loved the Patacones Tropical at Restaurant Kimbute in Punta Islita.
Another new favorite was the chorreada costarricense – a crispy traditional corn cake, topped with fresh cheeses, avocado, and pico de gallo (served at Hotel Punta Islita).
The chorreada is traditionally served for breakfast, but we’d happily eat it at any time of day.
And last but certainly not least, we always made a point to order casado, a traditional Costa Rican meal that incorporates rice, black beans, vegetables, a protein, and usually fried plantains as well. (The protein can vary; it’s the combination of items that makes it a casado.)
At least one of us on the trip enjoyed a casado plate at just about every meal, and we loved every variation we tried.
4. Scarlet Macaws
One beautiful thing about Costa Rica is the amazing wildlife that you see everywhere, whether it’s walking right in front of you (lizards, etc.) or flying above your head. We were thrilled to visit the Punta Islita Wild Macaw Reserve (part of the Macaw Recovery Network), conveniently located right next to Hotel Punta Islita) to see the magnificent local scarlet macaws up close. These are some of the most recognizable parrot species in the world. They are renowned for their beauty, intelligence, and charisma; and yet they are experiencing rapid declines in their numbers due to illegal poaching and deforestation.
Currently, there are about 2,000 scarlet macaws in Costa Rica, and only 20,000 to 50,000 in the world. The Punta Islita Wild Macaw Reserve serves as a special sanctuary to a reintroduced population of scarlet macaws.
5: Catching and Eating Your Fish
Why not take a fishing expedition – and then eat the fish that you caught? That’s how we spent a morning on a fishing/snorkeling trip arranged through Hotel Punta Islita. The tour guides picked us up directly from the beach, and then we set off trolling for fish. We caught a large mahi mahi and a large snapper. Then we set anchor for a little bit to do some snorkeling in the area.
Last, the fishermen dropped us off in Playa Carillo, where a van was waiting to take us (and our fish) to Los Delfines restaurant. The Los Delfines chef then cooked up our giant mahi mahi in four different styles.
Kayaking is a great way to see the scenery at your own pace. We enjoyed two kayaking tours – one on the River Oro through a mangrove forest to Camaronal Beach; and one in the ocean, from Samara out to Chora Island.
The mangrove forest kayaking experience was phenomenal – even though we did it in the pouring rain. It sounds strange to say it but, yes, there is frequent rain, and no, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. It’s a nice warm rain that leaves just as fast as it arrives.
The ocean kayak trip to Chora Island is a fairly easy 20-minute paddle. Once you’re there you can snorkel or just chill out on the island and enjoy fresh fruit. (You’ll also be entertained by the lizards and hermit crabs that love pineapple and watermelon rinds.)
(Multiple adventure outlets offer kayaking trips, but for thte Chora Island trip, we used Samara Adventures, which we highly recommend.)
7: Fresh Fruit and Fruit Juices
Speaking of fresh fruit, it’s everywhere. You can find a fresh fruit stand, or fruiteria, on just about every corner. Every excursion we went on offered some kind of amazing fresh pineapple or watermelon snack (or both).
Furthermore, there are tons of beautiful tropical fruits just about everywhere you look. In fact, we could write a whole separate chapter on the fruits we saw in Costa Rica. (And we were thrilled to pass by a dragonfruit farm – We never knew how they grew!)
We also enjoyed some of the most delicious fruit juices we’ve ever had in Costa Rica. Some of our favorites included passion fruit juice, sugar cane juice, and pineapple/mint juice.
Sure, ziplining sounds like a typical tourist thing to do, but it’s So. Much. Fun. Wheeeee!
Ziplining also allows you to get a bird’s eye view of the spectacular forests of Costa Rica. You might not see much wildlife while you’re zipping through the treetops at top speed, but you will certainly see plenty of creatures while you’re walking to and from your ziplining stations. While we were walking between stations, we saw several lizard species, multiple birds, and even a scary giant hornets’ nest.
We booked our trip directly through Hotel Punta Islita but there are multiple companies that can arrange a trip for you.
While you’re surrounded by beautiful scenery, you’ll want to take in some of the local history as well. Exhibit A: The oldest church in Costa Rica, La Iglesia de San Blas in Nicoya, built in 1644.
This white mission-style church stands tall and proud in a center square, used for centuries as a gathering space for townspeople.
The church is said to represent the first interactions of the indigenous Chorotega tribe and Spanish conquerors.
10: Mom & Pop Restaurants
How often do you get to go to a restaurant that’s essentially one person cooking… just for you? We loved getting a chance to visit a few of these micro-restaurants in Costa Rica. In fact, within walking distance of Hotel Punta Islita are three such restaurants: Restaurante Kimbute, Restaurante Donde Cambute, and Don Ramiro.
Don Ramiro is on an unnamed road but just an easy 10-minute walk from Punta Islita. As far as the restaurant staff goes, it’s mostly just our friend Miguel, cooking and serving (and singing) with a smile. We had to reserve ahead of time, and when we got to the restaurant the menu was… whatever Miguel was able to buy fresh that day. Which, of course, turned out to be amazing.
The meal ended on a celebratory note, with a complimentary toast of locally made coconut liqueur.
We loved the feeling that we were getting extra-personalized treatment. Plus, we were happy to support these tiny businesses, especially as many of them are still struggling to get back on their feet after a long lag in tourism.
And that’s our top ten! Of course there are many more things to do, see, and eat…but we hope you enjoy this starter list. If you have any favorites to add, let us know in the comments.
Blogger disclosure: We paid for this trip with our own money. No part of it was sponsored in any way. All opinions expressed are our own.