Tropical Plunges

Favorite Costa Rica Waterfalls & Hot Springs
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Once you've lined up transportation (you can always walk) from Liberia, the next trick is finding the place. First warning: DO NOT follow the signs to the park from downtown Liberia; that road will take you to the ranger station and campground on the east side of the volcano. This is a nice enough spot, but what you want is the ranger station on the west slope.
To get there, head west on the Pan-American Highway, as if you were going to the Nicaraguan border. In approximately 3 miles (5 kilometers) kilometers, you will see a sign on your right pointing to the Rincon de la Vieja Lodge. (If you cross a bridge over the Rio Colorado, you have gone too far.) Turn right onto to this dirt road, and head up into the hills. After passing through a small village (bear right here), you will be charged a small toll at the gate. Beyond the gate the road forks, each way taking you to a hotel. Bear left here.

In a few kilometers, the road divides again. To reach the hot springs turn right toward the lodge; to reach the waterfalls, continue straight uphill toward the ranger station (the road's a little rough, but you'll be fine).



Let me set the scene for you: it's the first day of winter, and I am lying naked on a slab of sun-warmed granite jutting out above a tropical waterfall in a little canyon deep in the jungles of Costa Rica. Layer upon layer of green on green softens the intensity of the noonday sun, burning brilliantly in a sky the color of robins' eggs. The only sounds I hear are the never-ending lullaby of the cascading water, the lazy drone of katydids, and an occasional shriek or hoot from a passing parrot or monkey. My only slender connection to the real world (for surely this world is fantasy) is this pen in my hand.

Well, you get the picture. . .

Costa Rica is a waterfall and hot spring lover's nirvana. Take a country roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, fill it with a half-dozen mountain ranges (including a dozen or so active and sleeping volcanoes), then cover it with 100 to 300 inches (256 to 769 centimeters) of rain per year, and you have the recipe for a waterfall lover's paradise. A walk up almost any mountain stream should eventually lead to at least a small catarata.

But if you want tips on some of Costa Rica's grander water features, you'll need a little more guidance. Allow me. . .

Rincon de la Vieja National Park

In 1992, I probably would have called Rincon de la Vieja National Park, in the state of Guanacaste north of Liberia, Costa Rica's best-kept national secret. By now, I regret to report, the secret is out. Nonetheless, this jewel in Costa Rica's national park system still offers a relatively uncrowded mecca for the lover of wild places. Nestled on the slopes of a double volcano, the park offers cloud forests, alpine lakes, boiling mud pots, hot springs, andof coursea myriad of beautiful falls.

All this exotic natural beauty does not come cheap, however, particularly for the budget-minded traveler. The two lodges at the border of the park are nice, but pricey, and the food is expensive. I highly recommend packing in your food and camping, but there's a small catch there, as well: there are no public buses to the volcano, and in the winter of 1993, a round-trip taxi trip from Liberia was $60. The best I can advise you is to try to bum a ride from a fellow gringo in Liberia.

The payoff for your trouble comes when you arrive. Due to the relative difficulty of reaching Rincon de la Vieja, the crowds are small, and the people there really want to be there (meaning no gobs of beer-guzzling yahoos with squawking radios and gangs of little kids). There is plenty of room to escape on the miles and miles of developed trails, and a hike up any of the 32 streams that drain off the volcano will quickly find you swallowed up in a true jungle experience. Trails are generally well-marked and easy to follow, but guides are available to take you to the hidden places.

The biggest bummer about Rincon de la Vieja is the fact that camping is limited to two small developed campgrounds, one near each of the ranger stations. While they are nice for what they are (a couple of dollars per night to pitch a tent), some of the true wilderness experience is lost.

Seeing the Falls
While the small campground below the ranger station could hardly be labeled a true wilderness experience, it makes a good base for journeys into the park. An excellent way to introduce yourself to the wonders of Rincon de la Vieja is to walk the easy-to-moderate hour-long loop trail to the mud pots, steam vents, and nearby waterfall.

Heading east (away from the ranger station) you will immediately cross the Rio Colorado. In a couple of minutes, bear right at the fork in the trail, away from the catarata. The trail passes through an oak grove, then enters a wide open meadow thick with the aroma of sulfur.

In a few minutes, a trail will cut left toward the fumarillos (steam vents). Continue straight here, following the sign toward the paillas (mudpots). When the trail splits again, stay to your right, toward the paillas (the left fork leads to the lodge, and ultimately to the hot springs). In about five minutes, you will arrive at the fascinating and potentially deadlynatural vats of boiling, oozing, blue-grey mud.

To get back to the loop trail, work your way back to the turn-off to the fumarillos, which of course will now be a right turn. The trail will cut between some smaller (but still dangerous) mud pots, then appear to end at a small hotwater stream. You must work your way across this stream, then head uphill through the underbrush for a few meters, at which point you'll arrive at a gaping hole in the earth with steam boiling out of it.

The faint trail turns left at this steam vent and heads into the forest, roughly following the right bank of the creek upstream. You will pass another huge hissing steam vent, then arrive at a boiling hot spring, obviously much too hot for bathing.

If you look very carefully, you will pick out the trail continuing uphill to your right. The path re-enters the cloud forest and, after one tiny stream crossing, arrives at a pretty rushing mountain stream. A lovely 90-foot (30 meters) waterfall, which can range from delicate to awe-inspiring, depending on water level, erupts from the cloud forest two minutes up this stream. You can take a refreshing dip in the cold pool at the bottom, but it's too small for swimming.

The main loop trailvery well-marked and easy-to-follow by this pointleads up and over a couple of thickly forested hills, passing one of the biggest trees I've ever seen in Costa Rica. Turn right at the fork in the trail, and you will be back home in a couple of minutes.

Except for a mildly irritating olfactory hassle, Rincon de la Vieja Hot Springs (also known as Azafrules) is a wilderness hot-spring-lover's paradise. It is completely undeveloped, clothing optional (at least in my book), perched beside a cool, rushing mountain stream high in the cloud forest on a remote volcano. What else could one ask for?

The water bubbles out from the base of a white cliff at 108°F. (42°C.), but quickly cools to a more comfortable level as it circulates through the 20-foot (6-meter) diameter knee-deep pool. Two smaller and cooler pools have been carved between the main pool and the river. If you really get overheated, the river is only steps away.

Azafrules is a hedonist's Nirvana any time of day, but the most magical time is after dark, particularly when a full moon is on the rise, painting the whole canyon a ghostly silver while you lie sipping your drink in the warm, bubbling cauldron.

The oak grove across the stream from the pools makes a beautiful campsite, buthorror upon horrorin 1992, the park service closed the area to camping; you will be chased out at sunset by the ranger.

If you want to enjoy the springs by moonlight and starlight, you need to camp in the parking area just outside of the park boundary (indicated by the split-rail fence 500 feet (152 meters) to the west of the pools). Otherwise, it's quite easyand funto hike back to the lodge or far campground beside the ranger station by the light of the moon.

Beginning at the point where the road divides with one direction going to the ranger station and the other fork going toward the lodge, turn right toward the lodge about a mile (1.5 kilometers) away.

From the lodge, the hot springs are reached by a 3-mile (5-kilometers) jeep trail. I have successfully made this trip in a 1978 Toyota Corolla twice, but my rear-wheel-drive Toyota pickup failed me and damned near killed me in the process! So I don't advise driving unless you have four-wheel-drive.

plunge Driving or walking, the springs are easy to find. About 1 to 1.5 miles (1.5 or 2 kilometers) from the lodge, the road splits; stay to your left here. You will cross a rushing stream full of rocks, then begin climbing a rather steep hill. Keep to your right, ignoring any small tracks bearing off to the left through tall grass.

The road continues downhill, crosses a muddy creek (where you are certain to get your car stuck if driving), and heads up one more steep hill before entering the forest. The jeep trail dead-ends in a parking area at the fenced boundary of the national park.

To reach the springs (which you can tell are very close by the sulfur smell), cross through the fence and follow the trail to the creek. While the springs are on the left bank, I find it easier to cross the creek downstream, walk through the oak grove on the right bank, and cross the stream again at the pools.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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