Just a day trip away from the busy Tamarindo tourist scene, you may be surprised by the discoveries awaiting in Guanacaste. Travel through prairie farm landscapes into dense forests rimming the mountains. In between are clusters of houses and all manner of communities, some being the oldest in Costa Rica. Delight in the unique shopping spots, delicious local cuisine and exposure to Guanacasteco culture along the way.

Santa Cruz

Just 40 minutes from Tamarindo this peaceful little community may be the next “big town” you encounter. Sharing the same name as the canton (local county), Santa Cruz houses the Ministry of Education, National Registry and 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.

With a history of Chinese immigration, Santa Cruz has many Chinese restaurants along with various other eateries.


Guaitil artisans preserve their ancestral legacy of Chorotega pottery


Just 15 minutes past Santa Cruz on the “old route” to Nicoya, is the tiny 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. All the clay and coloring ingredients are natural and locally sourced, and every tool and piece of equipment is handmade.

Guaitil is one of the best places in the region to purchase authentic pottery for souvenirs, gifts or yourself. Pottery classes are offered for kids and demonstrations for everyone.

You can also sample some tasty local soda food in Guaitil, which makes any road trip with Avanti Rent a Car all the better.


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.

Although “not much of a town” appearance-wise, Nicoya offers more than you might expect in the way of shopping. You can find building supplies, department store-style hardware retailers and little shops selling most basic needs. There is also Souvenir La Gran Nicoya, a kind of souvenir superstore.

En route to Nicoya, through scenic rolling hills and pastures, stop to look inside the various family-owned shops along the way, including a small Chorotega pottery store and supplier of cowboy gear.

Aerial view of Liberia depicts ongoing modern evolution


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 boasts state-of-the-art private hospitals and the province’s largest public hospital.

Liberia continues to modernize as an urban hub, having added an intercontinental highway overpass. Walmart is relatively 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. Banco Nacional is at the center of Liberia’s large town square. The city is also home to the Comandancia de La Plaza, the old jail and original military barracks undergoing conversion to a museum.

When hunger strikes, you can try local fare at a variety of Liberia dining spots, as well as several North American fast food franchise outlets.


The town of Filadelfia can be identified by a giant arch 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 Carrillo canton. 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 among the oldest beach towns in Costa Rica, vibrant and 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 residential developments and a town center with lots of places to enjoy international cuisine. Take your pick from popular dining spots and live entertainment for enjoying an evening.

Also on Coco’s main drag you’ll find a shopping center with Auto Mercado and varied places to shop and eat. Closer to the beach is an array of souvenir shops and street vendors.

Not far from Coco are two outlying beach communities not to be missed: Playa Hermosa, whose beach cinema offers filmgoers wine and beer on the refreshments menu, and Playa Ocotal, a smaller and more quaint locale. Both are popular locations for beachfront dining and drinks.

In conclusion, get out and see the country and what awaits around each corner.

These highlights are adapted from the December 2017 Howler article “A Daytripper’s Guide to Guanacaste,” by Sylvia Barreto Benites.