Introducing Area de Conservacion Guanacaste
Among the oldest (established in 1971) and largest protected areas in Costa Rica, this sprawling 386-sq-km national refuge on the Península Santa Elena protects the largest remaining stand of tropical dry forest in Central America, some of the most important nesting sites of several species of sea turtle, and deep historical gravitas. Almost all of the worthy diversions can be found in a vast area known as the Santa Rosa Sector. Famous among Ticos as a national stronghold, Costa Rica has been invaded three times, and the enemy has always surrendered in Santa Rosa.
The best known of these events was the Battle of Santa Rosa, which took place on March 20, 1856, when the soon-to-be-self-declared president of Nicaragua, an uppity American named William Walker, invaded Costa Rica. Walker was the head of a group of foreign pirates and adventurers known as the ‘Filibusters’ that had already seized Baja and southwest Nicaragua, and were attempting to gain control over all of Central America. In a brilliant display of military prowess, Costa Rican President Juan Rafael Mora Porras guessed Walker’s intentions, and managed to assemble a ragtag group of fighters that proceeded to surround Walker’s army in the main building of the old Hacienda Santa Rosa, known as La Casona. The battle was over in just 14 minutes, and Walker was forever driven from Costa Rican soil.
Santa Rosa was again the site of battles between Costa Rican troops and invading forces from Nicaragua in both 1919 and 1955. The first was a somewhat honorable attempt to overthrow the Costa Rican dictator General Federico Tinoco, while the second was a failed coup d’état led by Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Today, you can still see Somoza’s abandoned tank, which lies in a ditch beside the road just beyond the entrance to the park. However, the military history surrounding the park didn’t end with Somoza, as Santa Rosa was later used as a staging point for the US military during the Sandinistas–Contra war.
Although the park was established mainly due to historical and patriotic reasons, in a surprising coincidence Santa Rosa has also become extremely important to biologists. Upon seeing its primordial acacia thorn trees and tall jaragua grass, first impressions of the park are likely to have you believe you’ve suddenly landed in the African savannah, though closer inspection reveals more American species of plants, including cacti and bromeliads. Santa Rosa is also home to Playa Nancite, which is famous for its arribadas (mass nesting) of olive ridley sea turtles that can number up to 8000 at a time!
However, the majority of travelers are here for one reason – the chance to surf the near-perfect beach break at Playa Naranjo, which is created by the legendary offshore monolith known as Witch’s Rock (also known locally as Roca Bruja). The park is home to another break of arguably equal fame, namely Ollie’s Point, which was immortalized in the film Endless Summer II, and is named after US Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. North is most famous for illegally selling weapons to Iran during the Reagan era, and using the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Ollie’s Point refers to the nearby troop staging area that everyone but the US Congress knew about.
Difficult access means that most of the Santa Rosa sector is fairly empty, though it can get reasonably busy on weekends in the dry season when Ticos flock to the park in search of their often-hard-to-find history. And, unfortunately, those breaks can get busy in the dry season too. But in the wet months from July through December, particularly in September and October, you’ll often have the park virtually to yourself.
The park’s Sector Murciélago (Bat Sector) encompasses the wild northern coastline of the Península Santa Elena, and is not accessible from Santa Rosa. Here you'll find the isolated white-sand beach of Playa Blanca (no camping allowed) and the trailhead for the Poza el General watering hole, which attracts birds and animals year-round. The famed surf break, Ollie’s Point in Playa Portero Grande, is in this sector of the park and can only be reached by boat from Playa del Coco or Tamarindo. Or you can do as Patrick and Wingnut did in Endless Summer II and crash-land your chartered plane on the beach (ahem, not actually recommended).