Guanacaste and the Northwest
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Guanacaste has been called Costa Rica’s “Wild West.” The name Guanacaste derives from quahnacaztlan, a native word meaning “place near the ear trees,” for the tall and broad guanacaste (free ear or ear pod) tree that spreads its gnarled branches long and low to the ground; during the hot summer, all that walks, crawls, or flies gathers in its cool shade in the heat of midday.
The lowlands, to the west, comprise a vast alluvial plain of seasonally parched rolling hills broadening to the north and dominated by giant cattle ranches interspersed with smaller pockets of cultivation.
To the east rises a mountain meniscus—the Cordillera de Guanacaste and Cordillera de Tilarán—studded with symmetrical volcanic cones spiced with bubbling mud pits and steaming vents. These mountains are lushly forested on their higher slopes. Rivers cascade down the flanks, slow to a meandering pace, and pour into the Tempisque Basin, an unusually arid region smothered by dry forest and cut through by watery sloughs.
The coast is indented with bays, peninsulas, and warm sandy beaches that are some of the least visited, least accessible, and yet most beautiful in the country. Sea turtles use many as nurseries.
The country’s first national park, Santa Rosa, was established here, the first of more than a dozen national parks, wildlife refuges, and biological reserves in the region. The array of ecosystems in the region ranges from pristine shores to volcanic heights, encompassing just about every imaginable ecosystem within Costa Rica.
No region of Costa Rica displays its cultural heritage as overtly as Guanacaste, whose distinct flavor owes much to the blending of Spanish and indigenous Chorotega cultures. The people who today inhabit the province are tied to old bloodlines and live and work on the cusp between cultures. Today one can still see deeply bronzed wide-set faces and pockets of Chorotega life.
Costa Rica’s national costume and music emanate from this region, as does the punto guanacasteco, the country’s official dance. The regional heritage can still be traced in the creation of clay pottery and figurines as well. The campesino life here revolves around the ranch, and dark-skinned sabaneros (cowboys) are the preeminent sight.
Come fiesta time, nothing rouses so much cheer as the corridas de toros (bullfights) and topes, the region’s colorful horse parades. Guanacastecans love a fiesta: The biggest occurs each July 25, when Guanacaste celebrates its independence from Nicaragua.
Guanacaste’s climate is in total contrast to the rest of the country. The province averages less than 162 centimeters of rain a year, though regional variation is extreme. For half the year (Nov.–Apr.) the plains receive no rain, it is hotter than Hades, and the sun beats down hard as a nail, although cool winds bearing down from northern latitudes can lower temperatures pleasantly along the coast December–February. The dry season usually lingers slightly longer than elsewhere in Costa Rica.
The Tempisque Basin is the country’s driest region and receives less than 45 centimeters of rain in years of drought, mostly in a few torrential downpours during the six-month rainy season. The mountain slopes receive much more rain, noticeably so on the eastern slopes, which are cloud-draped and deluged for much of the year.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition