Rincón de la Vieja National Park

The volcano unshrouded

The Rincón de la Vieja National Park is a place of dramatic and varied beauty.  Home to one of the country’s most active volcanoes, the park is made up of shifting landscapes that range from dry scrubland pocked with bubbling fumaroles, to lush, cool forest, filled with exotic wildlife, where waterfalls cascade in rainbow merriment.

Located just an hour and a half from the Hotel Sugar Beach, the Rincón de la Vieja National Park is a must-see for those visiting Guanacaste, in Costa Rica’s Pacific northwest.  Just north of Liberia, the province’s capital, the scenery begins to change as one approaches the park.  Wide fields, green with crops of sugarcane, corn and rice, give way to rocky outcroppings.  In the distance, the volcano sprawls, its summit ever shrouded in clouds.

The winding way

From afar, the multiple peaks of the volcano are clear.  The volcano counts nine cones in total, six of which are still active.  Despite the volcano’s ‘active’ status, this rumbling giant is largely peaceful, content to mutter and hiss in a fairly constant fashion, with occasional vents of ash and gases in recent centuries.

The name of the volcano means “Old Woman’s Corner”, and legend tells of an indigenous princess, Curabanda, who fell in love with the chief of an enemy tribe.  Enraged, her father ordered his daughter’s lover cast into the volcano.  The heartbroken princess fled her tribe, and went to live at the edge of the crater, where she gave birth to a son.  She cast him into the crater to be with his father, and lived out her days alone, becoming a powerful healer.  From this sad story emerges the volcano’s evocative name.

The main entrance to the park runs through a private property, Hacienda Guachipelin, which has converted itself from a working farm to a tourist destination, with a hotel, restaurants, and a wide range of adventures and activities.  Here tourists can ride horses, take zip-line canopy tours, ride inner tubes down gentle rapids and more.

The park is divided into two sectors, Las Pailas and Santa Maria, both with well-marked with trails of varying lengths, whose level of difficulty is suitable to almost any preference.  A short 2-hour hike through Las Pailas takes visitors on an easy loop through the thick forest that surrounds the base of the volcano and out to the fumaroles, on generally flat terrain.  Those interested in a little more exertion can make half-day hikes to the many waterfalls within the park, or make the full-day trek up to the craters and lagoon that grace the volcano’s summit.

Two stations mark the entrances to the park itself, each equipped with picnic tables, restrooms and administrative offices.  From here, visitors can explore the park’s many faces.


The forest that buffers the volcano’s charred landscape gives no indication of the dramatic scenery that lies ahead.  The trees rise tall and dense, sheltering hundreds of birds and epiphytes, including Costa Rica’s national flower, the stunning purple orchid known as Guardia Morada (Cattleya skinneri).  Resident birds include the three-wattled bellbird and the great currassow, both rare and exquisitely adorned, and much prized by bird-watchers.  Mot-mots and Montezuma birds, and dozens of hummingbirds are also among the nearly 300 bird species that live in the park.

Spider monkeys and white-faced capuchin leap from branch to branch in the high canopy, and the deep rumbling calls of the howler monkeys echo through the forest.  On the ground, tiny pacas, or tepezcuintle as they are known locally, roam; shy and lovely, with beautiful markings on their coats, they look like large, sleek guinea pigs.  Armadillos and tapirs can also be seen trundling through the undergrowth.

The park is criss-crossed with 32 rivers, some of which splash downward as stunning waterfalls.  The most notable are La Cangreja and Escondidas, in the Las Pailas sector, and the Enchanted Forest Waterfall, in the Santa Maria sector.

Waterfall rainbow

On emerging from the cool shade of the forest, the landscape suddenly shifts.  A dry, burnt scrubland extends to the base of the hills, stunted bushes that can survive the harsh environment of the volcano.  Here the volcano’s energies are most evident in the mudpots and fumaroles that dot the foothills, releasing the tremendous heat the simmers beneath.  Often times, a spiny iguana can be seen basking along the crusted ridges of the mudpots, above the thickly bubbling mud, cleverly taking advantage of the heat below and above to warm up quickly.  Cooler mud ponds can be found at higher elevations, as well as thermal springs.

For those adventurous enough to summit the volcano, the views on a clear day are breathtaking, extending nearly coast to coast.  Here you can see the jagged line of the volcanic mountain range that divides the country in two, of which Rincón de la Vieja is a part.  A chalky blue lagoon sits at the summit, taking its pastel hue from the harsh acids that simmer up from the volcano’s heart.

It is without a doubt one of Guanacaste’s most worthwhile destinations, offering a wide sampling of the sceneries, animals, plants, and adventure that make this part of Costa Rica so special.

Quick heat

–C. Keogan