Just three hours from the Hotel Sugar Beach lies one of Costa Rica’s lesser-known marvels, the Tenorio Volcano. Though it is one of the country’s active volcanoes, it was only declared a national park in 1995. Since then, trails have gradually been established, and a lucky few have discovered the volcano’s most stunning feature: a sky-blue waterfall, tumbling into a cliff-lined lagoon.
The highways leading to the park are in very good condition, and as you head northward, the sight of the twin volcanoes – Miravalles and Tenorio – edges into view, with Miravalles on the left, and Tenorio on the right. As the altitude increases, the air gets noticeably cooler, and the landscape green and lush. Signs for homemade sheep, cow and goat’s milk cheeses line the road, a tasty souvenir of the region. The road to the volcano itself begins near the town of Bijagua, the last opportunity to buy any substantial supplies. At this point, the road is very rough, and the scene becomes quite rural, with farms and plantations all around. It’s common to see men on horseback slaking their thirst at the local soda.
The entrance to the park is accessed via a steep, winding road that climbs the flanks of the slumbering volcano. The trails are moderately difficult, with some steeper descents and ascents, but the entire circuit can easily be hiked in four to six hours. Shorter loops of just two hours allow less experienced hikers to take in the park’s main attractions, including the waterfall, thermal hot springs, and the joining of two rivers, whose minerals combine to create the brilliant blue that characterizes the Rio Celeste river and waterfall.
The trails begin gently, wide and level, surrounded by dense vegetation. Blue morpho butterflies flit rapidly through the undergrowth, their hue a foreshadowing of the sights ahead. Citronella trees can be found along the path, their pungent reddish berries making for a handy insect repellent. Sharp eyes might spot glass-winged butterflies resting on leaves, all but invisible, or the tracks of elusive tapirs, best seen in September during the Caribbean summer.
Some of the local hotels and lodges offer guided tours of the parks, and experienced guides can point out many of the more difficultly-spotted rainforest inhabitants, such as tree frogs, or describe the medicinal uses of many of the forest’s trees and plants.
Soon the trail tapers, becoming muddier, with buried cinderblocks to give traction. Rough steps are carved into the steep slope, and the smell of sulphur whiffs occasionally from warm vents in the rocky hillsides, reminding visitors the ground they tread is indeed a sleeping volcano. There is no climb to the summit of the Tenorio volcano, but the real treasure lies downward.
The first gleam of blue spied through the thick vegetation that lines the descent to the waterfall is breathtaking. As the waterfall comes into sight, visitors find themselves surrounded by an enchanted, fairy-tale setting. Emerald green mosses cling to reddish stone walls, and the brilliant blue of the waterfall is lightly shrouded by a constant, fine mist. The river tapers as it leaves the lagoon, and the more intrepid can scramble across its shallow and rocky bottom to continue hiking trails along the other side.
Upstream, there is a lookout point over the joining of the two rivers, and a sharp line of blue shows where the cobalt of one river, leached from the volcanic soil, mingles with the minerals of the other. Tufts of river grasses sway bright green in the blue water, and butterflies and hummingbirds flutter in the riparian vegetation.
Further into the trail, another lookout point, or mirador, opens onto a scenic view of distant hills and valleys. Here hummingbirds and other birds are rife, busily feeding at the many blossoms, an excellent opportunity for bird-watchers and photographers.
It’s a moderately challenging and immensely rewarding excursion, best done as a full-day or overnight trip. The volcano’s ecosystem differs markedly from the dry tropical forest of the Guanacaste coast, offering the chance to see a host of new plants and wildlife, and the cooler climate offers relief from the relentless heat of the lowlands.
- From the Hotel Sugar Beach, travel south along the beach dirt road through the town of Potrero, turning right at the fork, left around the plaza, and right again at Bahia Esmeralda (3-way intersection). The road winds until it reaches a 4-way intersection; turn right here (at Perla’s restaurant). Turn left at the net 3-way intersection (at El Castillo), and follow the dirt road until it meets the paved road.
- Turn left on the paved road toward Brasilito and Huacas. Follow the signs to Huacas; continue straight through the town (do not turn toward Tamarindo), over the mountain. 2km past the bottom of the mountain is the nearest gas station, at El Llano. Continue on the same road to Belén; turn left at the 3-way intersection to Liberia.
- Once in Liberia, turn right at the main intersection toward Cañas. After passing the turnoff to the town of Bagaces (but before Cañas), keep an eye out for the #6 highway to Upala. Turn left on the #6 highway, and follow all the way to the town of Bijagua, where you will see signs to the Rio Celeste and Volcán Tenorio.
Please ask our front desk for recommendations on lodging if you intend to stay overnight.