Rincon de La Vieja National Park
Last Updated: Jun 16, 2015
Rincon de la Vieja Volcano, composed of nine separate but contiguous craters, is the largest of five volcanoes in the Guanacaste Mountain Range. The still-steaming volcano gives its name to the 35,000-acre national park that surrounds it.
Location : 17 miles northeast of Liberia
Altitude : 6,286 feet above sea level
Area : 34,993 acres
Hours : 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Telephone : 2666-5051
Entrance Fee : $10.00
Rincon de la Vieja National Park was created in 1973 to protect the 32 rivers and streams that make up the area’s important watershed. Within its borders, the park also houses the largest population of Costa Rica’s national flower, the guaria morada (Cattleya skinneri), a species of purple orchid. In addition to plant and mammal life, 300 bird species also make their homes here, and birdwatchers eagerly look forward to toucans, eagles and even the elusive quetzal.
In comparison to some national parks, Rincon de la Vieja National Park seems designed for human exploration. Described as only gently active, the volcano sees very few minor eruptions. At its base, the park’s acres are threaded with trails and paths leading out to waterfalls, volcanic craters, fumaroles, mud cauldrons and hot springs. The Sendero Encantado leads along the park’s lowlands, winding through cloud forest and plains brimming with purple orchids before connecting to the park’s more famous Las Pailas hiking trail.
Las Pailas translates to “The Cauldrons” or, in this case, “The Mud Pots.” A short circuit trail weaves through woods shaded by giant strangler figs, and leads past a seasonal waterfall, sulfurous and steaming fumaroles, a small volcano and, finally, the famous boiling mud pots. Just east of Las Pailas, the Sendero Cangreja sends hikers to tumbling waterfalls that cascade into cool, calm swimming holes and lagoons, including the popular Hidden Waterfalls and La Cangreja Waterfall.
Thrill-seeking park guests may also make the eight-hour roundtrip trek to the Santa Maria crater at the volcano’s summit. The hike usually begins at the Santa Maria ranger station, east of Las Pailas, but hikers may also begin from the Las Pailas ranger station. Scrubby mountainside, tall grasses and a rugged trail await, leading travelers across fossilized lava flows and loose lava rock. The views from the volcano’s summit are fantastic, and on a clear day, it is possible to see straight to Lake Nicaragua.
At the volcano’s base, visitors can relax at Los Azufrales, Rincon de la Vieja’s hot-sulfur springs. Bubbling at a cozy 107 degrees Fahrenheit, the springs are ideal for bathing and unwinding. (Experts recommend a maximum 30-minute limit per soak.) A nearby cool-water stream is ideal to cool off after a stress-relieving dip in the hot springs.
Guests are required to hike only one trail in Rincon de la Vieja National Park before reporting back to the ranger station. If you fail to do so, the park rangers must begin to search for you.
The park’s Pacific (western) side is dry between December and April; the Caribbean (eastern) side is lush and rainy year-round, and sees almost 200 inches of annual rainfall.
Hiking, swimming and bird and wildlife watching are very popular activities in Rincon de la Vieja National Park. While horseback riding arranged by local lodges and hotels is very common outside the park, it is not permitted within the park’s boundaries. Camping is allowed in the park; please ask park rangers for more details and rates.
There are two ranger stations at Rincon de la Vieja National Park: Las Pailas (also known as the Las Espuelas station) and Santa Maria, the park’s headquarters.
Trails wind throughout the park’s nearly 35,000 acres, giving visitors access to Rincon de la Vieja National Park’s volcanic attractions, including sulfurous fumaroles, bubbling mud pots, and a small volcanic crater. Geothermal heat warms the park’s hot springs, and several rushing waterfalls provide perfect cool-off spots after a long hike or heated soak in the therapeutic waters. Trails also lead to the volcano’s summit from both ranger stations.
For a brief park overview, the Las Pailas circuit trail is highly recommended, and its paths play out like a “best of” tour through the park’s most spectacular scenes. Or try the Sendero Cangreja, a trail that weaves through wooded greenery before ending at the park’s most celebrated cascades, the Hidden Waterfalls. For more recommendations, speak with a park ranger.
Flora & Fauna:
Rincon de la Vieja is home to more than 300 bird species, including curassows, bellbirds, parrots, hummingbirds, owls, woodpeckers, tanagers, motmots, eagles and quetzals. Mammals are prevalent here, and coatis, deer, peccaries, two-toed sloth, squirrels and howler monkeys often greet park visitors.
The park is also home to many plant species, and hosts Costa Rica’s largest concentration of its national flower, the purple orchid. Despite the orchid’s beauty, the park’s most interesting plant is the strangler fig, which towers throughout the park, its hollow trunk the only memory of the tree it has devoured.
Place to Stay:
Rincon de la Vieja is very small, and has only a handful of hotels and lodges. Luckily, an option exists for everyone, as the area’s accommodations range from budget to luxurious. Several are working cattle ranches, and guests are invited to take part in daily chores, cattle herding, and horse care. The park’s two ranger stations will also help visitors arrange rustic camping.
The best time to visit Rincon de la Vieja National Park is during the dry season, between December and April, when trails are dry and wildlife gathers at water sources. In addition to lowland advantages, visitors who hike to the volcano’s summit during the dry months are much more likely to enjoy the park’s famous views.
If you plan to visit during Christmas or Holy Week (Easter), plan to book far in advance, as urban Costa Ricans take long vacations during these seasons and many facilities are full.
Air: Visitors can fly directly into the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, or take a local flight from San Jose. Nature Air and Sansa Air offer 40-minute flights daily from San Jose to Liberia starting around $80. Contact 1-800-517-7893 for reservations. From the airport, you may either rent a car or arrange a taxi to your Rincon de la Vieja hotel.
Car: Rincon de la Vieja has two entrances: Las Pailas and Santa Maria. The Las Pailas entrance is the more popular of the two, and is accessed via a bumpy 7.5-mile road. The Santa Maria entrance to the east is more rustic. In the dry season, any midsize car with good clearance can make the trip, but a 4WD will be necessary during the rainy season.
To get to Las Pailas, take the Interamerican Highway from San Jose west into Liberia. Continue 3 miles north and turn right at the entrance marked Curubande/Rincon de la Vieja/Las Pailas. Driving time is roughly 4-4.5 hours.
To get to Santa Maria, take the Interamerican Highway from San Jose west towards Liberia. Before you reach downtown Liberia, turn right at the sign marked Barrio La Victoria/Rincon de la Vieja. This trip will take 4-4.5 hours.
Private Transport: Private transportation services are also available to Rincon de la Vieja. An air-conditioned, comfortable van will pick you up from many popular Costa Rican towns, including San Jose, Monteverde, Jaco, Manuel Antonio and Arenal. 24-hour advance reservations are required. Contact 1-800-517-7893 for reservations.
Bus: The public bus stops in Liberia, where you must hire a taxi or hotel transportation service to take you to Rincon de la Vieja. Buses cost approximately $4 each way and leave San Jose every hour between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. Call 2256-9552 or 2222-1650 for more information.
Taxi: If you are already in Liberia, your hotel can arrange for shuttle service. Be warned that this is the most expensive option, costing $20-$30 per person, each way. You may also hire an official taxi in Liberia for $20-$30 each way, for 1-3 persons.
Rincon de la Vieja National Park is rural; the nearest town is Liberia, a 17-mile southwest journey. Liberia is a gateway to Guanacaste province’s sun-drenched beaches, a mere 90-minute drive from the park. Miravalles Volcano is east of Liberia, in the Miravalles Forest Reserve.