When thinking on the history of Guanacaste, it’s hard to believe a glitzy tourist town like Tamarindo is arguably its most popular destination. Chorotega native americans lived in this Tico territory before the Spanish conquest, but closer to the eastern shore of the Nicoya Gulf. The 18th Century saw cattle farms and the baptizing of the province as Guanacaste, named for the famous sprawling tree.
This province was also originally in the hands of Nicaragua following the Spanish exit, but was annexed to Costa Rica in 1824 — perhaps the beginning to political boundary disputes between the squabbling national neighbors. In fact, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has even apparently said he wouldn’t rule out seeking an International Court ruling to get Guanacaste back. (Spoiler alert: That would never happen, Danny Boy.) Meantime, some Guanacasteco politicians have even pondered separating from Costa Rica due to what they claim is unfair treatment from San José considering the tourism dollars the province brings to the nation.
Politics aside, all 6,000-some square miles of mostly arid land and 400 miles of coastline continue to remain with Costa Rica. And in Tamarindo, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t know you were in Costa Rica.
Overtly modern stylings, restaurants with a global touch, and cookie cutter plazas sprinkle the Guanacasteco beach town. This does not feel like Costa Rica in the least, but that in of itself is not necessarily good or bad. It’s just different — an island of gringos (some call it Tamagringo) and the occasional Costa Rican family enjoying the wide expanses of arena blanca and ubiquitous sun. The only reminder that this is, indeed, Costa Rica is the occasional flag and casado or arroz con pollo on the menu — a need we were able to satisfy at Gallo Fino where they humorously boasted a TripAdvisor review from susanallen531 of Chesterfield, Virginia. Suffice it to say that Susan was spot on.
There’s only so much one can do in a town like this. If you are of the age, you will gladly partake in the obnoxiously loud beats of clubs named after ocean animals. Otherwise you’re on a retirement vacation, paying the extra bucks to stay someplace a bit fancier and away from the noise. Regardless, this is Guanacaste — a massive swath of land. And in its vastness, there is plenty to see and do all within a short vehicular jaunt away.
We took a cab just 25 minutes or so north to the relatively rustic beach town of Brasilito, known for having the adjacent beaches of Playa Brasilito, covered in darker sand, and the more popular Playa Conchal. Our hosts were Simon and his Venezuelan wife, Hilda, at Hotel Conchal, an easy walk away from the beach even if the sun was downright oppressive. This was a 12-room boutique style hotel with a pool greeting us at the entrance. Bright red colors decorated the hotel over stucco walls.
We found Hilda’s English to be vastly superior to our Spanish as we discussed our plans for the area. Simon came out to meet us shortly following arrival. For some reason I was surprised to hear his English accent coming out of his six foot six frame. Once this set in, it was clear he was in the right place in the world with his light stubble for a beard, single earring, and a voice that blended the best of a soothing radio host and a beach bum. He was all smiles from the beginning, easily one of the more accommodating hosts we have had. Within mere minutes of arriving, he and his wife had our next days planned.
First we had about 30 minutes to get ready for catamaran sailing. All we knew was that a sunset was involved. It ended up being several hours packed with a sail to an island for snorkeling. En route we were treated to a selection of alcoholic beverages by our hosts at Lazy Lizard. Had I known we were in for snorkeling, I might have passed on the second (or third?) glass of rum. Thankfully for horrific swimmers such as myself, we were each given our own little noodle to help us float about like children in a never-ending swimming pool. It sure beat Aunt Mary’s on the Fourth of July.
So there we were, floating around with our heads underwater – our group of about 20, mostly Americans. Highlights included seeing a porcupine fish (the kind that blows up and once almost killed Homer Simpson) and an eel. Once we waded back into the catamaran, we warmed up under the setting sun, filling ourselves with sandwiches, refried beans, fruit, and of course, more booze.
This was not how I would typically spend my time away from home, much less in a foreign country. But we were about eight months in at this point into our year-ish in Costa Rica. One little touristy excursion wouldn’t kill us, so we embraced it – fake tattoos of the company and all. Plus we got to hear all afternoon about how just gosh darn incredible everyone thought we were for moving abroad. Quite the ego boost, even if international relocation is not exactly a trend we started.
Our second and first full day in Brasilito started with some 30’s style jazz playing above us where coffee and breakfast awaited. Once full, we made our way to Playa Brasilito, which was empty as advertised. This was nothing against the beach. Conchal is just simply better. Scottie Pippen was great, but most people are going to want to talk to Jordan when they’re in the same room. Anywhere else in the world, Brasilito would do just fine.
Oddly enough, the beaches do indeed change considerably, separated only by a large rock formation. As soon as we walked onto Conchal, we could see where the name came from. Concha meaning “shell,” and there were millions of them crushed to makeup the sand – an immediate and stark contrast to black Brasilito. There were more people as well, in that there were any at all. But shuffle a kilometer or so down the shore and we were completely isolated. It was starting to become easy to see how people get pulled into this “doing nothing” concept on the beach, something that is a constant struggle for my puppy-esque sensibilities.
When the evening hours came, the second level of Hotel Conchal turned into Papaya Restaurant with relaxing, dim lighting that meshed perfectly with the Middle Eastern soundtrack. Melanie found her chicken curry Thai to be one of her best meals in Costa Rica. And with the clear night sky, we were able to stargaze throughout our meal, most notably toward Uranus, which led to no shortage of immature comments that fifth graders would’ve found hilarious.
Early the next morning we were off to Palo Verde with Jacamar. Two Ticos picked us up and, despite knowing we could speak Spanish, were not shy about hiding their comments of the other passersby. One with Imperial swim shorts met their scorn.
Christhen was fine with the plethora of Pura Vida material out there, because it’s a “slogan of the country.” But Imperial? A beer manufacturer? This escaped him.
“This isn’t a country of drunks, right?” I offered.
Our host continued searching for additional guests.
“No la veo, no la veo a yanqui.”
And so it continued until our fellow travelers joined and we switched to English.
The road to Palo Verde was less of a road and more of generously carved dirt path. This did not mesh well with Melanie, who was battling car sickness and various breakfast beverages bouncing around in her stomach.
We arrived to a small entry point of the Río Tempisque where a small boat was waiting to take us on our tour. The tour itself entailed a slow, motorized excursion along the river in hopes of catching some wildlife. Indeed, seeing wildlife was hardly an issue. Scarlet macaws, crocodiles, bats, white-face monkeys, and no shortage of other birds and lizards could be easily found going through their daily routine along the river. Christhen pointed out a few “Jesus lizards,” named for their ability to scamper across water, and not because they’ve amassed a following of other lizards who inevitably thank them at lizard award shows and sporting events.
Following our tour, we drove through rural Guanacasteco towns where streets resemble recreational running paths and people hooked up their horses when running to the store.
Our final stop of the day came at Rancho Los Coyotes, an outdoor restaurant with smoked, traditional Guanacasteco cooking. Chicken drumsticks, beans, rice, tortillas, squash, and the obligatory side salad — easily one of the best meals I’ve had in Costa Rica and certainly an ideal way to end a humid day baking in the Guanacasteco sun.
Disclosure: Domus Kahuna, Conchal Hotel, Lazy Lizard, and Jacumar offered their services during the production of this video. As always, all opinions are my own.