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Visiting Liberia, Capital of Guanacaste
The city of Liberia, the charming capital of Guanacaste is often used as the jumping off point for visitors with easy access to national parks and Costa Rica’s most famous beaches, but the city itself definitely deserves a few days of your time.
Liberia has grown considerably since the Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR) opened and continues to do so. As a city where the traditional cowboy meets the modern city dweller and whitewashed colonial architecture meets modern conveniences, Liberia offers the best of both worlds. Coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques are popping up like mushrooms to accommodate an ever-growing middle class as well as the leisurely lifestyle Costa Ricans so love to embrace. Even though the happiest country in the world can be described as hospitable in any region you may visit, the smaller cities like Liberia carry the Pura Vida lifestyle closest to its heart.
The Colonial District
Liberia has come a long way from its former reputation as a dusty little cattle town and has fully embraced modern life. But with a history dating all the way back to 1769, colonial buildings are still scattered across the town and bring a rather nostalgic atmosphere to an otherwise colorful city. Take a casual stroll east from the central park known as Parque Mario Cañas Ruiz and feel how every step brings you further away from the bustling center and closer to the colonial past.
Musueo de Guanacaste
The beautifully renovated Museo de Guanacaste has a very interesting story to tell. The flawless, cream-colored façade hides a museum intentionally kept in-between refurbishments. Museo de Guanacaste serves as an occasional host for Costa Rican art exhibits, but also offers an intriguing glimpse into one of its former lives as a city jail. There is no entrance fee and you are free to wander the grounds. Make sure to step down through the creaky, iron gate and explore the former prison cells where you can still see the graffiti on the walls.
Museo del Sabanero (Cowboy)
As a further extension of the colonial styled buildings, Museo del Sabanero can offer you insights into the history of Guanacaste. As part of a larger Cultural Center, this free museum houses photographs and historical equipment illustrating the life once lived by local cowboys.
It is always interesting and educational to visit a museum, but nothing beats the firsthand accounts from a passionate storyteller. Rafael Zúñiga gave life to his first great story in his attempt to fly with green wings of his own making. This ended in a rather unfortunate fall but also awarded him the nickname ‘Pellejo de Lora’ (parrot skin). Pellejito, as his friends call him, has now acquired a rather legendary status in Liberia as a collector of history, memories and some of Guanacaste’s favorite verses and sayings. His passion for conserving local history is only eclipsed by his skills as a storyteller. So visit La Trifulca and browse the seemingly endless collection of historical items and curiosities, but make your first priority a conversation with Pellejo de Lora! Your next walk through Liberia is bound to be a richer experience by comparison.
Parque Mario Cañas Ruiz
Platform for live music and concerts, annual host of the flame of independence, practice ground for local dancers and musicians, … Parque Mario Cañas Ruiz is truly the very heart of the city. People come here to dance, to celebrate, to drink or just to relax. Take a seat on one of the many benches and enjoy a granizado (a beverage served with crushed ice, sweet milk and syrup) available in one of the carts at the border of the park. Parque Mario Cañas Ruiz is your best reference for directions as well as a place you can always return to and unwind.
Fiestas Cívicas Liberia
We have touched upon it a little so far, but you can’t think about Liberia without also thinking about cowboys and bull riding. The end of February and beginning of March marks the time of the Fiestas Civicas Liberia. Part of these festivities are the inaugural parades known as Tope, a colorful display performed by masked dancers, cowboys and girls dolled up in traditional dresses. These cowboys are charged with guiding the bulls safely through the streets every day for a period of two weeks. At the same time, the Campo Ferial houses another group of bulls available for riding, a tradition that carries the symbol of masculinity and bravery to this very day.
Liberia is the perfect starting point for your next adventure. Some of Costa Rica’s most iconic beaches are in close proximity as well as a handful of national parks and canopy tours. If you love to surf, consider a visit to Playa Grande or Samara. Samara you can also combine with a great tour of the tropical dry forests surrounding the area. For the best locations combing gorgeous beaches with a great dining experience or perhaps a lovely night out, you are sure to have a great time at Playa Tamarindo or Playas del Coco. But of you want to marvel at the sheer beauty of the Guanacaste beaches, spend a day or two at Playa Conchal. This little gem with crushed-shell sand and sparkling clear water offers a charming and relaxing retreat as well as a popular snorkeling and scuba diving destination. If you favor the calmer beaches, you can find these at the Gulf of Papagayo. Beaches like Playa Hermosa and Playa Panama are perfect for a family vacation away from the bustle and dangerous waves. Playa Panama is the best beach for safe swimming and Hermosa will show you why the beach is named Beautiful.
You can’t visit Guanacaste Costa Rica without also exploring the nearby national parks including Ricon de la Vieja, Palo Verde National Park and Monteverde. The national park of Monteverde can offer you wildlife tours, unique flora and fauna, a canopy tour, horseback riding and more within 1-3 hours from Liberia. In places like Rincon de la Vieja and also Santa Rosa National Park, you can encounter tropical forests of a different kind – be prepared to explore the phenomenon of the dry tropical forest and what its unique properties are. A national park that should definitely be on your list is the iconic Arenal. Here you can combine adventure with the ultimate relaxation of the Arenal hot springs. Tenorio National Park is another rare gem you can visit, especially for the stunning Rio Celeste Waterfall with the Tenorio volcano looming over the trails.
Guanacaste Costa Rica is also home to the Nicoya Peninsula. Nicoya is known as one of the Blue Zones of the world. Here you can surf and relax at Playa Samara or practice yoga at Nosara. Don’t forget to visit The Ositional wildlife Refuge so you can spot some sea turtles!
While Liberia Guanacaste can definitely introduce you to the Pura Vide lifestyle, the US influences and tourists have left their marks as well. If you want to visit a town close to Liberia and immerse yourself in the real Tico culture, visit the town of Canas only about 20 minutes south of Liberia. There aren’t any tourist spots to recommend this town, other than the beautiful church. But Canas is the place where you come to visit a bar and restaurant and experience local cultures form folk dance to singing. Canas also has a more lively culture related to the cattle raising and bull riding compared to Liberia.
Visit between January and March: Not only will you receive the best weather around this time, but you can be part of the Fiestas Civicas! Other than the parades and the bull riding, you can also enjoy a wide variety of street parties. Keep in mind that the Guanacaste region is known for its dry heat. So pack enough sun block and a hat!
Pack for all activities: In Liberia you can combine a little city trip with a visit to some beaches and national parks so make sure you prepare for all these situations. Pack your bathing suit but if you want to go for a hike, don’t forget bug repellent, good hiking shoes and a hat against the fierce Guanacaste sun. If you venture outside of the city in cloud forest areas like Monteverde, don’t forget your rain attire and perhaps even a light sweater. Cloud forests get a lot of rainfall even outside of the rainy season and temperatures can drop rather drastically, especially at night.
Rent a car: Even though most beaches and parks are relatively close, you may sometimes have to take several buses to reach them. This is why a rental is rather ideal. It also means you can bring more equipment and food / drinks with you within the comfort of your own vehicle. Driving in Costa Rica has also been made a lot easier thanks to the constant improvements made to the roads.
Go on a custom-made tour: If you would rather not rent a car and have only a little time to explore Guanacaste, inquire further about a custom made tour. Simply list all of the places you’d like to visit and let the agency do the rest. Guanacaste is a province with amazing diversity so with a tour, you are sure to make the most of your visit in a short time.
Want more than just a visit? Volunteer and learn Spanish: 3 blocks north from the central park you can find Instituto Estelar Bilingüe, a language school run by Bethany Kirk. Visit Estelar to take some Spanish classes or to join in one of the many projects supporting the local community. If you feel like offering support in another way, consider bringing educational games you no longer have use for and donate them to the school.
Liberia is very easy to reach and you have several options on how to get there. With the opening of a new Costa Rica airport, The Daniel Oduber International Airport, you can now fly to Liberia directly without having to travel to the capital first. Should you travel from San Jose to Liberia anyway, you can take a domestic flight to Airport LIR for around $40, depending on the season. Since Costa Rica is a small country and with Liberia laying at the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 21, you can easily rent a car from San Jose. If you prefer to take a private shuttle you can do so, but keep in mind that these could cost around $200 where shared shuttles will cost you between $50 and $100.
Staying in Liberia
You can a variety of hotels in Liberia from hostels to resorts and boutique hotels. If you are looking for a hotel close to the airport, consider the Hilton Garden Inn. Next to the prime location you can also enjoy free shuttle service to and from the airport. If you wish to be a bit more removed from all the bustle, have a closer look at Hacienda la Pacifica. Located in the small town of Cañas, it remains close to the city with easy bus access, but offers you that little bit more peace.
A new restaurant seems to pop up daily and there are plenty of options available for every budget and every pallet. You will notice the rather loud presence of fast-food chains but these are easily avoided in favor of more classy or local dining. Are you curious about trying Costa Rica’s national food? Then there are plenty of good options to choose from but consider paying a visit to Soda Estelita, only 3 blocks from the central park. They offer fresh, local products for a very low price and are sure to give you an insight in the local food culture, always served with a sincere smile. For a more upscale dining experience, go to La Casa de Cala right next to the park and combine class with local flavors.