Volcán Tenorio (1,916 meters), rising southeast of Upala, is blanketed in montane rainforest and protected within 18,402-hectare Parque Nacional Tenorio Volcano ($10 admission, $1 if entered via the private reserves).
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 required) that begins five kilometers north of Bijagua, on the west side of Tenorio, leads 11 kilometers 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 to the Río Celeste and Los Chorros thermal springs (this is the only place where swimming is permitted). Set amid huge boulders, the springs grade gradually, from near boiling close to the trail to pleasantly cool near the river.
The second trail leads to the Río Celeste Waterfall (Catarata del Río Celeste) and the Pozo Azul (a teal-blue lagoon). A third trail, accessible with a guide only, leads to three waterfalls. Contrary to reports, you cannot hike to the summit; access is permitted solely to biologists, who head to Lago Las Dantas (Tapir Lake), named for the tapirs that drink in the waters that fill the volcanic crater.
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. A Malekú cultural exhibit was planned.
No camping is permitted within the park.
Several private reserves abut Tenorio National Park and grant access via trails. For example, about 200 meters north of the park access road, another dirt road leads to the American-owned La Carolina Lodge (tel. 506/8380-1656, www.lacarolinalodge.com ), a ranch and stables with trails into the park. Horseback rides are offered.
Another dirt road leads east from the Banco Nacional in Bijagua two kilometers to Albergue Heliconia Lodge & Rainforest (tel./fax 506/2466-8483, www.heliconiaslodge.com ), run by a local cooperative. The lodge sits at 700 meters elevation abutting the park. Three trails lead into prime rainforest and cloud forest.
Laguna Las Camelias National Wildlife Refuge (Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Lagunas Las Camelias), on the outskirts of the community of San José, 13 kilometers northwest of Upala, is a rare wetland system with abundant caimans and birdlife.
In Upala, the most charming place is Cabinas Buena Vista (tel. 560/2470-0186, $10 pp), a well-maintained wooden clapboard mansion with secure parking. Simple rooms have local TV and private hot-water bathrooms. Alternatively, try Hotel Upala (tel./fax 506/2470-0169, $10 s, $15 d with a/c and TV), on the south side of the soccer field. It has 18 clean, modern rooms with fans, louvered windows, and private baths (some with cold water only).
Cabinas El Rey (tel. 506/2470-0422, $15 s, $25 d), on the road to Bijagua, has eight clean, modern, and air-conditioned units.
You can camp at Posada La Amistad (tel. 506/8356-0285, $4), near the ranger station on the north side of Tenorio. It also has simple cabins ($30 including three meals). Nearby, Río Celeste Lodge (tel. 506/8359-6235, www.riocelestelodge.net , $10 pp dorm, $50 s/d room) may satisfy budget travelers with its three simple rooms, including a dorm with bunks, and a toilet with no seat. It has a rustic roadside restaurant serving local fare.
At Bijagua, Albergue Heliconias (tel./fax 506/2466-8483, www.heliconiaslodge.com , $70 s or $80 d rooms, $85 s or $95 d cottages), on the mid-level flanks of Tenorio Volcano, has six rustic but well-kept cabins (two have a double bed and a bunk; four have two bunks) with small bathrooms and hot showers; plus there are four newer, more upscale octagonal cottages. The simple wooden lodge has a bar/restaurant. The setting is splendid, with magnificent views. Rates include breakfast.
The charming little Belgian-run Sueño Celeste B&B (tel. 506/2466-8221, www.sueno-celeste.com , $69 s/d year-round), on the south side of Bijagua, offers two cozy rooms, each with sponge-washed walls, glazed concrete floors, colorful fabrics, and quirkily lovely bathrooms. The European owners, Daniel and Dominique, are a delight, and you’ll love breakfasting on the Café Galería terrace with views and free WiFi.
Nearby, the similarly impressive Tenorio Lodge (tel. 506/2466-8282, www.tenoriolodge.com , $90 s, $95 d), offering great valley views from a hillside, lies at the heart of a huge property with heliconia garden and trails. Its eight peak-roofed stylishly contemporary wooden bungalows also have walls of glass, sponge-washed walls and glazed concrete floors, plus king-size beds with romantic mosquito drapes, ceiling fans, and chic solar-powered designer bathrooms. The glass-walled volcano-view restaurant is a class act and features live marimba music. At night, you can soak in either of two cedar hot tubs. The café-restaurant is open to the public (7 a.m.–9 p.m. daily) for continental fare.
La Carolina Lodge (tel. 506/8380-1656, www.lacarolinalodge.com , $80 s, $140 d room; $95 s, $170 d cabin, includes three meals and guided tour) is a rustic but charming farmstead on the north flank of Tenorio. It has four double rooms with solar-powered electricity and shared bathrooms with hot water. There are also four private cabins with private bathrooms. A wooden deck hangs over a natural river-fed pool, and a porch has rockers and hammocks. Rates include meals, guided hikes, and horseback riding.
The French-run, eco-conscious Celeste Mountain Lodge (tel. 506/2278-6628, www.celestemountainlodge.com , $130 s, $160 d including all meals plus tax), three kilometers northeast of Bijagua, enjoys a pristine and sensational location at the base of Tenorio with even better views toward Miravalles Volcano. Innovative and stylishly contemporary with its open-plan design, stone tile floor, gum-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, public arenas, and the 18 rooms on two levels. The rooms, though small, are comfy, with king-size beds, lively fabrics, and stylish bathrooms. Dining is gourmet (dishes here are “Tico fusion”) and family style atop bench seats stuffed with coconut fiber. There’s a wood-heated hot tub. Trails guarantee thrills for hikers (visitors with disabilities can opt for an innovative human-powered one-wheel rickshaw); packed lunches are prepared. Biking, horseback trips, and float trips are to be offered. 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, www.riocelestehideaway.com , $149 s/d low season, $199 s/d high season, includes breakfast) features gorgeous tropical architecture with dark hardwoods and rich, Asian-inspired fabrics. Set in lush gardens, its 26 bungalows offer king or two queen beds, luxurious linens, flat-screen TVs, iPod stations, DVD/CD players, private patios, and open-air showers. A free-form pool has a wet bar, and the Kantala Restaurant and blue-backlit Delirio bar are a dramatic space for enjoying cocktails and gourmet dishes. Simply gorgeous!
Buses (tel. 506/2221-3318 or 506/2470-0743) for Upala depart San José  from Calle 12, Avenidas 3/5, at 10:15 a.m., 3 p.m., 5:15 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. daily. Return buses depart Upala at 4:30 a.m., 5:15 a.m., 9:30 a.m., and 9:30 p.m. Buses also run between Cañas  and Upala several times daily.