Lifestyle Feature – A Day Tripper’s Guide to Guanacaste

Lifestyle Feature – A Day Tripper’s Guide to Guanacaste

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Sometimes it’s hard to see beyond the stunning sunsets. For most of us living in or visiting the greater Tamarindo and Playas del Coco areas, our days fall into place around the beach and it’s all beauty and warmth. It may suddenly occur to us that we seldom leave our own little places and patterns of life.

Guanacaste’s landscapes readily take you through prairies and farmland into extensive forests rimming the mountains. In between are clusters of houses and all manner of communities, including some of the oldest in Costa Rica. Much of what we call Tico is, historically, Guanacasteco … generations of families who lived here before and during the Spanish conquest, and still do today.

Venturing outside the major tourist towns and attractions offers a range of shopping options and delicious local cuisine that may surprise you, along with exposure to Costa Rica’s more traditional side. So grab a map or GPS, your trusty wheels and a spirit of adventure, and start exploring!

Santa Cruz

Just 40 minutes from Tamarindo is the peaceful little town of Santa Cruz. Depending on where you live, it may be the closest “big town.” With a population of 21,000, Santa Cruz shares the same name as the canton, or local county, encompassing Tamarindo and the adjoining beaches. It houses the Ministry of Education, the National Registry and the regional police department.
For shopping, Santa Cruz has all the major appliance distributors and a small department store. It also has large supermarkets, a fabric store and quite a few thrift shops.
Santa Cruz has a history of Chinese immigration, with Chinese restaurants to show for it. Chop suey and fried rice have even earned their rightful place on the menu for local festivals. Lei restaurant is known to be the most traditional Chinese experience in town, but do not expect Chinese-American food; it’s definitely Chino-Tico.
Various other Santa Cruz eateries could just as well leave you wanting to come back soon. Donde Esteban, right across the street from Lei’s, offers a traditional buffet, a selection of freshly ground coffee — including a perfect cappuccino — and delectable desserts.
After coming to Santa Cruz from San José to start a new life, Whitney Solis’s family opened Donde Esteban. When asked what the community’s biggest attraction is, Whitney didn’t think twice:
“The people — they are humble, kind and peaceful. Here we have time for family, and we work together. I can walk the street at 10 o’clock in the evening and feel safe.”


Only 15 minutes outside of Santa Cruz, on the “old route” to Nicoya, is the small town of Guaitil. Production of traditional Chorotega pottery sustains the livelihood of village residents who remain dedicated to preserving the legacy passed down through countless generations.
Pottery classes are offered for kids and demonstrations for everyone. Sample some tasty local soda selections just a short stroll away.
You can make a day of it and take a river-boat ride in Palo Verde National Park as well.
Look for more about Guaitil in a future travel and adventure feature.


Drive another 20 minutes past Santa Cruz to Nicoya, the heart of the peninsula. Once the center of Chorotega tribal life, Nicoya was the original capital of Guanacaste. In the middle of town is San Blas church, built in 1644 and the only surviving building from that era. The church also houses a small museum with religious artifacts.
For shopping, Nicoya features the Souvenir La Gran Nicoya, a kind of souvenir super store. Anyone looking for building supplies or a department store-style hardware retailer can find them in Nicoya. Although “not much of a town” appearance-wise, Nicoya features strips of little shops that sell most basic needs. You’ll know you’ve arrived upon encountering the town’s KFC outlet.
The drive to Nicoya is a delight in itself, through scenic rolling hills and pastures. Various family-owned shops along the way are definitely worth stopping by for a look. You’ll find a small Chorotega pottery store, as well as a cowboy supplies store stocked with hats, boots, spurs and all the fixings.


Liberia is the fifth largest city in Costa Rica and home to its second largest international airport. As Guanacaste’s center of government, it’s where all the major civic centers, a regional courthouse and the civil registry are located. It also boasts state-of-the-art private hospitals and the province’s largest public hospital.

Liberia continues transforming itself into a more modern urban hub, having recently added an intercontinental highway overpass. Walmart is new on the scene, along with Universal, Costa Rica’s premier home goods superstore. You’ll also find many appliance stores, car parts stores and discount retailers.

The local shopping mall incorporates a multiplex movie theater, with a subtitled option for most films.

Liberia has a large town center, with Banco Nacional as the center point. Liberia is also home to the Comandancia de La Plaza, the old jail and original barracks, dating back to when Costa Rica still had military forces. The premises will soon house a museum and art gallery.

When hunger strikes, you can try local fare at a variety of Liberia dining spots, as well as McDonald’s, Burger King, Quizno’s and Pizza Hut.

En Route to Liberia

Northbound on the way to Liberia, you can stop at any number of small communities and visit their town squares, each one housing a church, a park and a school. Sitting in one of these park settings and listening to the relatively quiet hustle and bustle can be a relaxing experience.


The town of Filadelfia can be identified by a giant arc on the main road to Liberia. Rebuilt after major flooding, it’s a model town with paved roads, clean streets and the regional government center of the canton of Carrillo. The town square is known for its giant lizards and a building that local residents have covered with historical photographs and newspaper clippings.

Playas del Coco

Playas del Coco is said to be among the oldest beach towns in Costa Rica. Coco is a lively town, very popular with expats and tourists. As in Tamarindo, the 1990s brought foreigners and investment to Coco that spurred fast growth.

Coco today has many gated communities and a town center with lots of places to enjoy international cuisine. Popular restaurants include Coconutz, Zi Lounge and Hard Rock Cafe, all on the main strip. Take your pick of dining spots and live entertainment for enjoying an evening in this vibrant community.

Also on Coco’s main drag you’ll find a shopping center with Auto Mercado, the nicest grocery store in town, plus a Subway, a Pop’s ice cream shop, Arenas clothing store and other shops. Closer

to the beach Coco has a slew of souvenir shops, many of them selling their wares right on the street.

Not far from Coco are two outlying communities not to be missed. The beautiful Playa Hermosa offers some great places to go after a day at the beach. Visit the popular beachfront bar called Aqua Sport, or enjoy a luxurious movie experience at the Beach Cinema Hermosa. The small but well-appointed theatre offers filmgoers comfortable seats, along with wine and beer on its refreshments list.

Playa Ocotal is a smaller and more quaint locale for spending the day. It’s home to a beachfront restaurant called Father Rooster.


As most of you already know, Tamarindo is best known for surfing and nightlife. It is also second to none for gift shopping on the Gold Coast. A shopping spree here can garner some unique and one-of-a-kind gifts. Artisans from all over the world sell their wares in the little shops around town, on the beach and at weekly fairs.

Walking all over town, you will find hidden gems selling locally produced gift items, including beauty products and crafts. The beach offers unique jewelry, Nicaraguan pottery and hammocks. The rotonda (turn-around) has quite a few souvenir shops where you can buy traditional wood crafts and Costa Rica knickknacks. Some T-shirt shops offer fabrics made of local vegetation. Peruse some Bohemian chic boutiques and collections of locally created fine jewelry. If you want a unique or custom-made bikini, Tamarindo has many shops to choose from. Near the Hotel Tamarindo Diria are boutiques selling clothing, shoes, beauty products and locally produced art.

Tamarindo’s Saturday feria (farmer’s market) is a weekly tradition that should not be missed. Local and international artists and artisans gather near the beach and sell their wares. You’ll find an extraordinary array of jewelry, clothing, pottery and art, alongside vendors of gourmet foods, flowers, locally produced wines, cheese and smoked fish. Take some cash and an empty stomach and gather with the locals for a truly homegrown experience.

Toys and kids’ gifts

There are no big toy stores in the Tamarindo area, and toys tend to be expensive. Villarreal’s El Bazaar and Alkimia have many toys and gifts. Mermaids and Pirates is a boutique toy store in Tamarindo’s Auto Mercado shopping center. Also in Tamarindo, Monkey ‘N Croc has toys, crafts and beach gear for kids and the whole family.