Rincón de la Vieja National Park
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Rincón de la Vieja (1,895 meters), an active volcano in a period of relative calm, is the largest of five volcanoes that make up the Cordillera de Guanacaste. The volcano is composed of nine separate craters, with dormant Santa María (1,916 meters) the tallest; its crater harbors a forest-rimmed lake popular with tapirs. The main crater—Von Seebach—still steams; it features Linnet Bird Lagoon, to the southeast of the active volcano. Icy Lake Los Jilgueros lies between the two craters.
The last serious eruption was in 1983, but the park has been temporarily closed as recently as 2006 due to volcanic activity. The national electricity company has a geothermal plant, Planta Las Pailas, just below the Las Pailas Ranger Station.
The 14,083-hectare Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja extends from 650 to 1,965 meters in elevation on both the Caribbean and Pacific flanks of the cordillera. The Pacific side has a distinct dry season (if you want to climb to the craters, Feb.–Apr. is best); by contrast, the Caribbean side is lush and wet year-round, with as much as 500 centimeters of rainfall annually on higher slopes.
The park is known for its profusion of orchid species. More than 300 species of birds include quetzals, toucanets, the elegant trogon, three-wattled bellbirds, and the curassow. Mammals include cougars; howler, spider, and white-faced monkeys; and kinkajous, sloths, tapirs, tayras, and even jaguars.
Hiking in Rincón de la Vieja
The lower slopes can be explored along relatively easy trails that begin at the two ranger stations. The Sendero Encantado leads through cloud forest full of guaria morada orchids (the national flower) and links with a 12-kilometer trail that continues to Las Pailas (The Cauldrons), 50 hectares of bubbling mud volcanoes, boiling thermal waters, vapor geysers, and the so-called Hornillas (Ovens) geyser of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Be careful when walking around: It is possible to step through the crust and scald yourself, or worse.
Between the cloud forest and Las Pailas, a side trail (marked Aguas Thermales) leads to soothing hot-sulfur springs called Los Azufrales (The Sulfurs). The thermal waters (42°C) form small pools where you may bathe and take advantage of their curative properties. Use the cold-water stream nearby for cooling off. Another trail leads to the Hidden Waterfalls, four continuous falls (three of which exceed 70 meters) in the Agria Ravine.
You’re restricted to hiking one trail at a time, and must report to the ranger station before setting out on each subsequent trail. If you don’t report back, rangers set out to find you after a specified time.
Hiking to the Summit
The summit hike is relatively straightforward but challenging. You can do the round-trip to the summit and back in a day with a very early start; two days from park headquarters. The trail begins at the Santa María Ranger Station (the 19th-century farmstead was once owned by former U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, who sold it to the park service), leads past Las Hornillas and the Las Pailas Ranger Station (the best place to start—it’s four hours from here), and snakes up the steep, scrubby mountainside.
En route, you cross a bleak expanse of purple lava fossilized by the blitz of the sun. Trails are marked by cairns, though it is easy to get lost if the clouds set in; consider hiring a local guide. The upper slopes are of loose scree and very demanding. Be particularly careful on your descent (three hours).
It can be cool up here, but the powerful view and the hard, windy silence make for a profound experience. From on high, you have a splendid view of the wide Guanacaste plain shimmering in the heat like a dream world between hallucination and reality, and, beyond, the mountains of Nicoya glistening like hammered gold from the sunlight slanting in from the south. On a clear day, you can see Lake Nicaragua. Magical! You have only the sighing of the wind for company.
It will probably be cloudy. Set off in early morning. Bring waterproof clothing and mosquito repellent. The grasses harbor ticks and other biting critters, so consider long pants. Fill up with water at the ranger station, which sells maps ($2).
Camping is not permitted, except at Santa María Ranger Station ($2 pp), which has bathroom and shower facilities; bring a sleeping bag and mosquito netting. You can buy groceries at a small store immediately below the ranger station at Las Pailas.
There are several nature lodges on the edge of the park located in the vcinity of Rincón de la Vieja.
The park is open 7 A.M.–5 P.M. Tuesday–Sunday (last access is 3 P.M.). The headquarters is at Hacienda Santa María (tel. 506/2200-0296), about 27 kilometers northeast of Liberia. It contains an exhibition room. However, the main access point to the park is the Las Pailas Ranger Station (tel. 506/2200-0399), on the southwestern flank of the volcano. Admission costs $10; you need to give your passport number.
Getting to Rincón de la Vieja National Park
The road to the Santa María Ranger Station begins from the Barrio Victoria suburb of Liberia (a sign on Hwy. 1 on the south side of Liberia points the way to Sector Santa María), where Avenida 6 leads east 25 kilometers past the ranger station entrance to the hamlets of San Jorge and Colonia Blanca (which can also be reached by a dirt road from Guayabo, north of Bagaces). The road is deeply rutted (and muddy in wet season); a 4WD vehicle is recommended. Santa María is linked to Las Pailas by a six-kilometer trail and by a dirt road that passes through private property ($1.50 toll).
Las Pailas is also reached off the Pan-American Highway via a dirt road from Curubandé. The turnoff is about six kilometers north of Liberia, from where the dirt road leads past the village of Curubandé (10 km) to the gates of Hacienda Guachipelín cattle ranch. The gates are open during daylight hours. The road leads three kilometers to Hacienda Lodge Guachipelín ($1.50 toll, reimbursed if you stay here) and, beyond, to Rincón de la Vieja Lodge and Las Pailas Ranger Station. A bus departs Liberia for Curubandé and Hacienda Lodge Guachipelín at 4:15 A.M., 12:45 P.M., and 4:15 P.M. daily.
Nearby lodges arrange transfers, and the Hotel Guanacaste in Liberia has transfers at 7 A.M. and 4 P.M. daily ($7 pp each way, three people minimum). A taxi from Liberia will cost about $30–40 each way.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition