An active volcano with steamy fumaroles and an enchanting forest, that's part of one of the most beautiful and little less known national parks of Costa Rica; Rincón de la Vieja or... the old woman's corner
While driving over the famous Pan-American highway towards the city Liberia in the province of Guanacaste the volcano Rincón de la Vieja can be seen from a long distance away. With its height of 1916 meters it towers over the relatively flat surroundings. From the city it is around 45 more minutes by car to get to the entrance of the Las Paílas sector. This sector for sure is the most interesting part of the national park where volcanic activities can be seen from up close. Getting there by car lets you pass one of the bigger hotels/resorts of the area, Hacienda Guachipelín. When not staying in this hotel there is a fee you have to pay of 700 Colones per person to pass through their property. A dirt road finally brings you to the entrance of the park.
The car can be parked at the entrance where also a small shop can be found that sells all kind of drinks, cookies and other snacks (though it opens around 09:00). Before you finally will be able to go for a hike you have to register yourself at the ranger station. Besides the registration, where they will ask for your Passport, so please don’t forget it, you also have to pay. The entrance fee for the park is $15 U.S., kids up to 12 years just pay $5 U.S. when you are a foreigner. If you are in the luck to be a Tico or Tica and have your ID card with you'll pay just 1000 colones. Local students and children to 12 years just pay 500 colones.
Also small, not really accurate maps of the trails are available for 100 colones. Unless you would take it with you as a souvenir there is no real need to buy it because the trails are clearly marked. Normally there are 4 hikes you can choose from. Though the toughest one, a hike all the way up to the crater is closed for quite some time now due to continues activity of the volcano. The volcano actually is an stratovolcano. It means that the volcano is conical shaped and build up layer by layer of hardened lava. The highest point of the volcano is at 1916 meters above sea-level which is called the Santa María peak. During its existence it created several craters. The most active one is the Von Seebach crater. This crater is called after the German Geologist who lived in the 19th century and studied volcanoes.
1. Las Paílas
One hike in this park you surely should do is the Las Paílas trail. Paílas actually is the Spanish name for cauldron, a big metal cooking pot. The trail starts at the right side behind the rangers post. The entrance of the trail is also marked with a sign for the toilets. The total length of this trail is a little more than 3 km or almost 1.9 miles and it is the most accessible route in this National Park. Though keep in mind, although the pathways are clearly marked you’ll have to pass through rocks and step over tree roots. And the trail surely isn’t flat. Though for people with a normal condition it sure is well doable and the effort absolutely is well worth it.
The first part of the trail brings you to the Colorado river where is a nice picnic spot. The river has to be passed on a small hanging bridge that could use some maintenance. Though the bridge isn’t high and it will give you a more adventurous feeling. After the bridge the circular circuit starts at your left side. While walking on the trail you’ll pass by many majestic strangler fig trees and other vegetation. After some ups and downs on the trail you will find a small waterfall (caterata), though most days of the years there isn’t much water falling down, but still it is a very nice scenic view. After this the first smells of the volcanic activities will enter your nostrils and you’ll soon discover one of the highlights on this trail. Some holes in the ground with boiling water and lots of steam called fumaroles. Don’t forget to look into the sun when the steam passes over your head and through the trees. It sure will gives you a feeling you are walking around in an enchanted forest. Though make sure not to inhale the steam what isn’t good for your health and can give you a headache if you inhale too much of it.
After this you’ll continue the trail through the forest and shortly after that you’ll see a sign that points you towards the Volcancito, or little volcano. Here you’ll find some holes in the ground where you can hear a simmering sound and sometimes see boiling mud. After this you’ll have to pass another river. No bridge this time, but to get an more adventurous feeling you’ll just pass over a fallen tree trunk. Though no worries, the trunk is wide, flattened and there is a rope to hold balance.At the other side of the river there are some more fumaroles and boiling mud. Just make sure you won’t put your fingers inside to feel the temperatures because they are around 78 °C to 106 °C or 172 to 222 Fahrenheit. What you can feel though is the temperature at the side of the river. Here it sometimes will have temperatures of around 30 °C or 86 Fahrenheit, depending if it has been raining or not.
After this part you’ll get in more open areas to end up at the Paílas del Barro, or the mud volcanoes. Some big holes in the ground where the volcanic mud is boiling and creating the most unnatural ‘blobs’ worth staring at for a while. Then before getting back into the jungle you can visit the Paílas del Agua, an acid lake with boiling water and some unnatural orange, yellowish, greenish rocks and Laguna Fumarolas, another beautiful lake with boiling water. Then you get back at the T-junction where you go left and your back at the bridge. In total you’ll need about 2,5 to 3 hours to do this hike and enjoy the environment and maybe some of the animals you encounter on the way.
2 & 3. Sendero de las Cateratas
The park has two beautiful waterfalls that are reachable via the Sendero de las Cateratas, the waterfalls trail. The entrance to this trails can be found at the left side of the park headquarters, behind the picnic area. The first small part you walk in the open through the field where the rangers keep their horses and mules that will be used in case of emergencies to evacuate people from the park.Soon after you enter the jungle there will be a split off. The trail to the right will bring you up to the active crater. The trail ahead will go to the waterfalls. The first part until another hanging bridge that also could use maintenance is easy going. After that you will encounter several steep parts with rocks and tree roots. This trail for sure is more challenging than the Las Paílas route.
After a while you will pass by a place where you hear, but won’t see a river running. There is a small side trail where you can go down to the river. Though most people just pass by here, because they don’t know, it is an interesting part to spend a few minutes on. Because on the right side the river just appears from underground to disappear again into a black hole at the left side. Though, don’t get too close to that hole to avoid disappearing into that deep dark place yourself.
Going onward on the trail will bring you to a small river to cross over just by using some rocks. Then a 15 minutes more you’ll be at a split and around half way to the waterfalls. Now you can choose to go to the Caterata Cangreja which is the trail to the left or the Caterata Escondida that is the trail straight ahead. Because the Cangreja is still a longer walk than the other one the Escondida seems to be the right choice. Though the part to this waterfall is more difficult and more steep. The waterfall is beautiful but the best choice here definitely is the walk to the Cangreja falls. From now on many parts of the trails are in the open so sunblock and hat are a necessity.The final part to the Cangreja waterfall is pretty steep down. But the sight at this waterfall makes all the effort more than worth. The great thing is that this small hidden paradise with its 60 meters high waterfall is a great spot for a swim. So don’t forget to take your swimming suits and towels. No locker rooms available though.
Many people don’t know this spot also has a small hot spring. At the left side of the basin you’ll see a small stream of water. Just swim through the cold water to enjoy the warmer part over there. And don’t spread the secret, because it just is a small spot and there simply isn’t enough room for everyone.
The get back to the exit of the park you just follow the same route as you came. Unfortunately no alternative routes are available for the way back. The Cangreja waterfall will be around 10 km or 6.2 miles and the Escondida is 8.6 km or 5.3 miles there and back. Both will be around 2.5 till 3 hours of hiking. So make sure you’ll be back at the exit before the park closes.
4. El Sendero Cráter Activo
The most difficult trail in this National Park is the hike up to the active crater of the National Park. It is a hike of 8 km’s or 5 miles up mountain. First part will take you through the jungle but after a while you enter the open part with little vegetation and finally you end up at a barren trail. The trail only can be done when the sky is clear, and that normally just is a few days a year. Although the challenge is tempting, safety is more important. Because when the top of the mountain is clouded and therefor misty it is easily to get lost on the top and you wouldn’t want up in the crater.
The track also is closed now for more than a year because of the recent continuously activity of the volcano. The trail is barricaded with just a simple plastic ribbon. Though passing it won’t be smart. Though when the possibility is there and you are that hardcore hiker. This is a great challenge. Be at the park between 07:00 and 08:00 in the morning, and when the circumstances are good the rangers allow you to go up. You will need round 8 hours to do the whole hike up and down. But this brings you on top of the world. From the top you will be able to see the Pacific ocean and the biggest lake of Central America, Lake Nicaragua.
Another lake can be seen inside the surreal looking crater. Depending on the weather and sun the color of the water can be milky white till turquoise blue. The stream coming out of the crater will give prove of its activity together with its hissing and boiling sound. Also here you have to be sure not to inhale the acid steams to avoid getting sick. Also avoid the ultimate edge of the crater to get that ultimate selfie. There are absolutely no fences or whatsoever. Once inside the crater you’ll be history.
The Old Woman's Corner
The name Rincón de la Vieja derived from an old legend. Once there lived a native princess in this area. Her name was Curubande, right… just like the name of the small town you will pass by when going to the park. The young lady fell in love with a man called Mixcoac. The bad luck these lovebirds had was that they both were from a different tribe and that these tribes happened to be living in war with each other. The father of Curubande eventually heard about the affair his daughter had with the son of the enemies chief. So Mixcoac was captured and taken up to the top of the volcano and finally thrown into the crater. At that moment the girl was pregnant of Mixcoac and Curubande then left her tribe to live at a corner on the edge of the crater. When she gave birth to their baby she threw her newborn son into the crater so it would be able to live with her father. The girl staid on the crater rim for the rest of her life until she was an old woman. To survive she had to survive with all the things that the surrounding area and jungle had to offer. So eventually the princess became a witch. Sick people then started to ask where to find the old woman in the corner to seek for her help. So the volcano since then is called the Old Woman's Corner, Rincón de la Vieja. What really is true of this legend, no one knows.
What else to do?
If you are staying a couple of days in the area, or by accident decided to be here on Monday when the National Park is closed, there are plenty more options to do around here. Many of the hotels are providing excursions that can keep you busy for a couple of hours, half a day or even a full day. Prices are all depending on the type of tour you are booking and also in which hotel. But beware that in Costa Rica nothing is cheap, surely not the tours. Good thing though, besides paying in cash most of the providers also accept credit cards.
This area is really great if you are into horseback riding. Many of the hotels offer this excursions or even have their own horses and plenty of land to ride on their haciendas. Just keep in mind that the type of horses they have are small and look skinny. They also are used to walk the same trail a couple of days. So people that never have been on a horse should be able to do this. People with experience even could do it blindfolded and backwards. Some of the tours, depending on the time you would like to spend on the horses, can bring you to a waterfall where you’ll be able to combine the horseback riding with a refreshing swim. Other options are rides to a thermal spring or mud pool. Just make sure you wear long trousers when riding the horse and ask for a helmet. Many times the caballero or guide that goes with you doesn’t speak English, but normally this isn’t really an issue.
Almost everywhere you go in Costa Rica there are operators offering the famous canopy tours. Going from platform to platform through treetops or over a canyon using ziplines is the best description for this tour. Feel free like a bird and it really is a cool and adventurous thing to do. Just listen to the instructions of the guides and enjoy.
Some of the hotels, like Buena Vista Lodge offer some guided tours over the hanging bridges. This will give you the great opportunity to see the treetops and the canopy up close, a visit to the jungle from a monkey view perspective.
Climbing waterfalls and rappelling down waterfalls. Several hotels offer this adventurous tours where you surely will get wet. Doing this tour is for the sportive people who like a challenge. But the adrenaline and beautiful environment will make it a great experience.
Rincón de la Vieja is home to several beautiful rivers that partly flow through canyons. The rivers have nice rapids that you’ll be able to conquer by a floating tube. Just put on your helmet, swimming gear and life jacket and go with the flow. The tube will bring you down the river and give another adventurous experience.
Discovering the environment with a local guide on the mountain bike. Some hotels offer this tour and will take you around the area.
Most of the hotels also offer nature tours. You’ll discover the environment together with a local guide that will point out many interesting facts of nature. There are bird tours, archeological tours and also you are able to get a guided tour at the Las Paílas trail in the park.
There are several hot springs in Rincón de la Vieja. One of the most famous are the Rio Negro (Black River) hot springs. 6 natural pools where you can enjoy the relaxing thermal waters of the hot springs. Don’t forget to remove your jewelry before entering the pool. In opposite of you, silver will get ugly in the pools. Beside hot springs you also have mud pools where you can cover yourself with volcanic mud. Again, remove your jewelry.
Close to the entrance of the National Park you will find Simbiosis. The natural spa is owned by Hacienda Guachipelín en will offer all kinds of things that spa’s offer. After a hike you could take a relaxing full body massage, deep tissue massage, volcanic mud wrap, chocolate wrap and many other kind of things that make you feel like reborn.
Around most of the hotels there are also hikes you can do. Most hotel lobbies can provide you with a small map of the area where that you can go for hikes. Many times there are also small waterfalls up close where you can go for a refreshing swim.
If you did the Las Paílas hike and want to go for a great swim at a beautiful waterfall but don’t want to walk that additional distance to the Cangreja waterfall there is another great option to take a refreshing splash. Leave the park and head for the small shop down the parking lot. From there is a small trail that will bring you to the Oropendola waterfall in 15 to 20 minutes walking. There is an additional entrance fee though. This waterfall isn’t in the park but owned by Hacienda Guachipelín. To visit this waterfall you pay $5 U.S. at the shop and they guy over there will show you the entrance. And again, keep in mind that there are not changing rooms or lockers or anything like that.
Animals of Rincón de la Vieja
The National Park not only has beautiful landscapes and volcanic activity. Also many types of animals can be seen during a hike. Just keep in mind, you are not walking in a zoo but in a National Park. And in contrary with the National Parks like Manuel Antonio and Cahuita where the animals are too much used to people and even try to steal all the food that people bring with them this is not the issue in this park. So please, keep it that way and never ever feed any of the animals. The animals here all are wild and living in their natural habitat. The best way to see them is not to make noise and just respect them.
The most likely animals to encounter in this park are the monkeys. Three of the four species living in Costa Rica can be found in the park. So it is possible to see the howler monkeys, spider monkeys and the capuchin monkeys. Sometimes from up close. Other mammals that sometimes show themselves are the sloth, agouti and the armadillo. Other mammals that are present in the park are the cats like jaguar, puma, jaguarundi, margay and oncilla. But just like the foxes and coyotes that are living in this park the chances for seeing them is like zero. Don’t forget to look for the coati that will hang out around the rangers post mostly round noon.
For reptiles just keep your eyes wide open for snakes. Most seen reptiles though are the ameiva lizards that keep running away from you in the leaf litter. Some bigger reptiles are the black and green iguanas.
Birds that can be seen in the early hours in the park are the great curassow. Big, chicken like birds that are foraging on the forest floor. Common in this area are the colorful motmot with the racket tail, the noisy blue-white magpie-jay’s and not uncommon are the ani’s and the toucans. Best place to spot birds is around the open areas.
But just keep in mind, silence and a good eye is the key to see animals in this park.
Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels and lodges around the National Park. Some of them are close to the entrance of the National Park, others are close to the park as well, but at one-hour driving from the entrance. If you have a car the distance isn’t really a big problem, if you don’t have a car its better to choose a hotel close to the entrance. Closest to the entrance are the Rincón de la Vieja Mountain Lodge and Hacienda Guachipelín. The latter one also have a pick-up service from the center of Liberia or the international airport of Liberia.
The best time for traveling Costa Rica is from November until April. This period is the dry season and from the period of April up to November it is rainy season in Costa Rica. But, it won’t mean that it cannot rain outside the rainy season or be dry during the rainy season. Also the province of Guanecaste is the driest province of Costa Rica with the best weather of the country all year round. Maximum temperatures all year round will be just above 30 oC or around 90 Fahrenheit. Average minimum is around 23 oC or 70 Fahrenheit.
What to bring
A visit to Rincón de la Vieja needs some proper preparations. Because it for sure isn’t a city park that you are going to visit.
First of all… Wear good and comfortable hiking shoes to go for the hike. Don’t be stubborn and think you’ll can do it on flip-flops. The big amount of rocks and tree roots are a challenge and flip-flops won’t give you any stability. Getting back to your car with an injured or broken ankle won’t be the kind of challenge you planned.
If you are used to take walking sticks during your walks it is advisable to take them with you to this park. It gives you extra support when you have to take some big steps up or down.
While walking in the by jungle covered parts it doesn’t seems too hot. But when entering the open parts temperatures seems to rise tremendously. So take sufficient water with you. A bottle of 2 liters of water will do the trick.
While walking you not only lose a lot of body fluids. So make sure you also have sufficient food with you. Extra cookies and chocolate with sufficient sugar is a good to keep your energy level up.
When walking in the covered jungle you won’t really think about using sunblock. Though the open parts can be killing for your skin. For this use sufficient sunblock, and also a higher factor than you normally would use. Also a hat or cap for protecting your head would be a good choice.
At the open parts this very tiny black annoying insects can make turn a pleasant stay into a hell. This little insects are called sand-flies and when they bite they can give you itchy bumps or even allergic reactions. Most repellent that can be bought in Europe won’t scare them away. They don’t give a thing about this so called repellent. Better to buy the green flacon of spray from the brand Off – Deep Woods in the supermarket in Costa Rica. It won’t guarantee that you won’t get bitten. But for sure less than if you won’t use it.
First aid kit
Also advisable is to take a small first aid kit. It always is unnecessary ballast when you take it with you. Though when you leave it at home you’ll be in need of it.
If you are up for the hike to the waterfall, be sure to take your swimming suit and towel.
Though Guanecaste is the driest province of Costa Rica it doesn’t mean it can’t rain. Especially during the rainy season there is more chance on rain in this part of the country. But also when the skies are clear and blue it can rain. At first it sounds strange, but the top of the mountain almost always is hidden in the clouds. Strong winds blow moisture all the way down the mountain where you, when walking in the sun at the open parts, still can get wet.
Like mentioned above, walking in this National Park isn’t the same as walking in a city park. Besides the volcanic activities there are many types of wild animals living in this park. So for your own safety, and of course the safety of other people it is important to keep the following in mind, besides following the rules of the park rangers of course.
Because there is an active volcano in this park there always is a change of a big eruption. So in case of an eruption you would like to leave the area as soon as possible. For this reason always park your car on a manor you can drive away directly. Thus the back of the car should be towards a fence and never the front.
Don’t cross the fences
The fences, though sometimes rotten, are built for a purpose. Crossing the fence for getting a better and closer look at this boiling water and mud isn’t really the smartest things to do. Before you know the edge of the crater breaks of, just at the moment you are standing on top of it.
Stay on the trails
Following the trails are the most safe way to enjoy this park. Just stay on the trail. The park covers an huge area and is connected with several other National Parks and Reserves. Once lost it will be hard to find your way back. The volcanic activities you see next to the trails are the most beautiful ones, but not the only ones. You wouldn’t want to end up in one of those boiling hotpots. And also there are the snakes.
Yes there are snakes. But no reason to panic. Many of the snakes living in the park are harmless and non-venomous. Some species are venomous and even deadly though. Therefor… staying on the path would be the smartest thing to do. When seeing one, you are in luck, just keep your distance and enjoy this beautiful animal, if you got the chance. Most of them will get away as fast as they can. And no! You are not one of those guys of these TV programs on Discovery or National Geographic! Jumping on top of them to try to catch it isn’t cool. It just is stupid.
Other dangerous animals
Beside the snakes there are other animals that can be dangerous. There are puma’s and jaguars in the park. Though seeing this animal in the areas of the trails is almost impossible. The park is huge and the parts you can visit are just a small area. These animals, who actually prefer to be active during night, prefer to stay away from these parts.
Don’t walk alone
Always walk with someone else. Don’t go alone. The Las Paílas trail is quite busy, the other ones are more quiet and when something happens when you are alone it might take too long to get help. When you go hike, just don’t go alone.
Rincón de la Vieja definitely is a must visit in the beautiful country of Costa Rica. So if you have time to pay this part of the country a visit, sure do. The city of Liberia has an international airport and it is less than an hour driving from there to the entrance of the park. From the airport of San José it will be a drive of a little more than 4 hours. Both airports also have car rental services. If you just have a week of holidays you could think about a combination of a few days to Rincón de la Vieja and some other days at one of the many beaches that are also at short distance from Liberia. Pura Vida!
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