Northeast of Liberia via a dirt road, the 14,000 hectare Volcán Rincón de la Vieja National Park is an enchanting dry mountain forest of 14,000 hectacres containing an active volcano. While many people come to just explore the short, rolling forested trails to the volcanic fumalroles or soak in the springs, there is a longer 18km Summit Trail up to the volcano climbing 1100 meters. Along the way through this very arid forest, you willl encounter a lot of wildlife, including spider monkeys and howler monkeys.
Keep in mind, this park is CLOSED on Mondays. The park hours are from 8am to 3:30pm. Many of the routes are shared by hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
To reach the Las Pailas Ranger Station from Liberia, head north on the InterAmerican Highway RUTA1 for 4.6km. Turn right heading east on a narrow dirt road towards Curubande (10km). In Curubande, veer right. At 13.3km from RUTA 1, there may be a gate operated by a private land owner at which you may have to pay a small fee. At 15.9km, turn left. The ranger station is at 20.7km. Overall the road is a very rough dirt road requiring high clearance 4WD. It should take about 1 hour.
Note: The park is administered from the Guanacaste Conservation Area office in Santa Rosa National Park.
The Sendero Encantago leads through cloud forest full of guaria morada orchids (the national flower) and links with a 12-km trail that continues to Las Pailas (Caldrons), 50 hectares of bubbling mud volcanoes, boiling thermal waters, vapor geysers, and the so-called Hornillas (Ovens) geyser of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. The mud has minerals and medicinal properties used in cosmetology. Be careful when walking around: it is possible to step through the crust and scald yourself, or worse.
The Aguas Thermales trail leads to soothing, hot sulfur springs called Los Azufrales (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 a cooling off after a good soak in the thermal springs. These springs may not look too clean during the dry season of January to April.
Las Hornillas are sulfurous fumaroles on the devastated southern slope of the volcano. Another trail leads to the Hidden Waterfalls, four continuous falls (three of which exceed 70 meters) in the Agria Ravine. Youll find a perfect bathing hole at the base of one of the falls.
The Summit Trail hike is relatively straightforward. You can do the round-trip from the Las Pailas Ranger Station (also called Las Espuelas) to the summit and back in a day (14km round-trip), or two days from park headquarters (36km round-trip). The lower trail begins at the Las Pailas Ranger Station and snakes up the steep, scrubby mountainside through elephant grass and dense groves of twisted, stunted copel clusia, a perfumed tree species common near mountain summits. 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. Be particularly careful on your descent.
From the Las Pailas Ranger Station, here are some distances:
- To Catarata La Canagreja: 5.1km
- To Catarats Escondidas: 4.3km
- To Crater Rincon de la Vieja: 8km
- To Crater Von Seebach: 8km
- To Craterata La Penca: 1km
- To Azufrales Springs: 7km
Here are some basic notes on driving in Costa Rica for the tourist. There is a myth about the quality of the roads and of VW bus sized pot-holes. This may have been true years ago, but on the main routes, this is no longer true. With that said, there are still numerous challenges for first time drivers in Costa Rica. First, do not expect much out of so-call “highways”, like the InterAmerican Highway. The fancy name makes the uninitiated think this is a major 4 lane divided, restricted access road. Well, yes, about 1% is. The rest is two lane (marginally), undivided, rural roads with tons of traffic constantly stopping, turning, passing or driving slowly. Like every other road in the country, you can expect to see on the road numerous unexpected cows, cyclists, pedestrians, bus stops, school crossing zones, dogs, mud slides, police check points, unannounced one-lane bridges, missing manhole covers, and, of course, a never ending stream of semi-trucks driving erratically fast. What you do not find on any roads is much signage. There are infrequent signs indicating the distance to the next town, and even more infrequent are road names or numbers (if at all), including even within major towns. To make matters worse, signs that used to exist are disappearing due to deterioration or theft. Also, do not expect drivers to use their head lights, even in a heavy rain shower, unless it is really dark. This makes passing in rain a game of roulette since you can't see the oncoming traffic. Speaking of dark, do not drive at night since the roads in some areas can be ruled by those under the influence of alcohol.
If you have to drive through San Jose, make sure to do it at dawn to avoid the horrendous traffic all day long, including weekends. Keep in mind several maps show highways passing through San Jose. This is not true. They end abruptly on the outskirts of town and you have to slug it out in a crazy stop-and-go traffic and many unmarked turns to get to the other side all day long. There are unsigned so-called by-pass routes around San Jose, but finding them can be a challenging game of trial-and-error, and they are only marginally better.
If you have to drive on the Nicoya Peninsula, you can expect to find generally better roads with better signage. However, there are numerous unmarked eroded road sides, especially over stream culverts. do not drive at night. Watch out for the iguanas sprinting across the road.
A GPS unit can be helpful when navigating roads, however, the maps in Costa Rica were created using a special map datum. This datum is not usually available on GPS units but the road base maps were created with it. Therefore if you use the default WGS84 datum with a base road map on the GPS unit, you will always show a position being about 0.5 miles to the north of the road base map.
When picking up a rental car, make sure to check all the tires for wear, check the spare tire pressure, check the tire jack, and make sure to test the lock on the spare tire. It would be wise to quickly purchase a can of Fix-A-Flat.