Upala, 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of San Rafael de Guatuso, is an agricultural town only 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of the Nicaraguan border. Dirt roads lead north to Lago de Nicaragua. From Upala, a paved road leads south via the saddle between the Tenorio and Miravalles volcanoes before descending to the Pan-American Highway in Guanacaste. The only town is Bijagua, a center for cheese-making (and, increasingly, for ecotourism) 38 kilometers (24 miles) north of Cañas, on the northwest flank of Volcán Tenorio.
Local hiking is superb, albeit often hard going on higher slopes.Several private reserves abut Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio and grant access via trails. For example, about 200 meters (660 feet) north of the park access road, a dirt road leads to the American-owned La Carolina Lodge (tel. 506/2466-6393), a ranch and stables with trails for horseback rides into the park. Another dirt road leads east from the Banco Nacional in Bijagua two kilometers (1.2 miles) to Albergue Heliconias Lodge & Rainforest (tel. 506/2466-8483), run by a local cooperative. The lodge sits at 700 meters (2,300 feet) elevation, abutting the park. Three trails lead into prime rainforest and cloud forest.
Tenorio Volcano National Park
Volcán Tenorio (1,916 meters/6,286 feet), rising southeast of Upala, is blanketed in montane rainforest and protected within 18,402-hectare (45,472-acre) Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio ($10, via the private reserves $1). Local hiking is superb, albeit often hard going on higher slopes. Cougars and jaguars tread the forests, where birds and beasts abound.
A rugged dirt road (4WD vehicle required) that begins five kilometers (3 miles) north of Bijagua, on the west side of Tenorio, leads 11 kilometers (7 miles) to the main park entrance at the Puesto El Pilón ranger station (tel. 506/2200-0135).
Three trails are open to the public. The main trail—Sendero Misterio del Tenorio—leads 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) to the Río Celeste and Los Chorros hot springs; this is the only place where swimming is permitted. Set amid huge boulders, the springs change gradually, from near boiling close to the trail to pleasantly cool near the river. The second trail leads to the Catarata del Río Celeste (Río Celeste Waterfall) and the Pozo Azul, a teal-blue lagoon. A third trail, accessible with a guide only, leads to three waterfalls. You cannot hike to the summit (where tapirs drink at Lago Las Dantas, Tapir Lake, which fills the volcanic crater); access is permitted solely to biologists.
Guided hikes are offered by the local guides association: try Jonathon Ramírez (tel. 506/2402-1330, from $20). The ranger station has a small butterfly and insect exhibit, plus horseback riding. No camping is permitted within the park.
Where to Stay and Eat
There are several backpacker and simple budget accommodations in Upala and Bijagua.
Set high on the mountainside, Albergue Heliconias (tel. 506/2466-8483, rooms $70 s, $85 d, cottages $85 s, $95 d, including breakfast) is the simplest of the eco-lodges; it’s signed in town. It has six no-frills rustic cabins (two have a double bed and a bunk; four have two bunks) with small baths and hot showers, and there are four more upscale octagonal cottages. Dining is family style.
Feeling very much like the horse ranch that it is, La Carolina Lodge (tel. 506/2466-6393, low season $90-105 s, $130-170 d, high season $100-115 s, $150-190 d, including 3 meals and a guided tour) occupies a charming farmstead on the north flank of Tenorio. It has four double rooms with solar-powered electricity and shared baths with hot water. There are also four private cabins with private baths. A wooden deck hangs over a natural river-fed pool, and a porch has rockers and hammocks. Rates include guided hikes and horseback riding.
The elegant hillside Tenorio Lodge (tel. 506/2466-8282, $115 s, $123 d), one kilometer south of Bijagua, offers great valley views from amid heliconia gardens. Its eight peak-roofed stylishly contemporary wooden bungalows have walls of glass, sponge-washed walls, glazed concrete floors, plus king beds, ceiling fans, and chic solar-powered designer baths. The glass-walled volcano-view restaurant (open to nonguests 7am-9pm daily for continental fare) is a class act and features live marimba music. At night, you can soak in either of two cedar hot tubs.
Avant-garde defines the French-run eco-conscious Celeste Mountain Lodge (tel. 506/2278-6628, $133 s, $168 d, including all meals and tax), enjoying a pristine and sensational location three kilometers (2 miles) northeast of Bijagua. Innovative and stylishly contemporary with its open-plan design, stone tile floor, gun-metal framework, glistening hardwood ceiling, and halogen lighting, this dramatic two-tier lodge boasts vast angled walls of glass plus glassless walls with panoramic volcano views from the restaurant and public areas. The 18 rooms, though small, are comfy, with king beds, lively fabrics, and stylish baths. Dining is gourmet (dishes here are “Tico fusion”) and family-style. There’s a wood-heated hot tub. Trails even accommodate disabled visitors, thanks to an innovative human-powered one-wheel rickshaw; packed lunches are prepared. I love this place, where everything is made of recycled materials, right down to biodegradable soaps.
A stunner by any standard, the nonsmoking Río Celeste Hideaway (tel. 506/2206-4000, $190-259 s/d, includes breakfast), eight miles east of the entrance to Tenorio Volcano National Park, features gorgeous tropical architecture with dark hardwoods and rich Asian-inspired fabrics. Set in lush gardens, its 26 bungalows offer a king or two queen beds, luxurious linens, flat-screen TVs, iPod stations, CD/DVD players, private patios, and open-air showers. A free-form pool has a bar, and the Kantala Restaurant and blue-backlit Delirio bar are a dramatic space for enjoying cocktails and gourmet dishes.
Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.