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Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Rincon de la Vieja National Park is sometimes referred to as Costa Rica's Yellowstone, and it is a park with many marvels that is less visited than you might imagine. The centerpieces of the park are the Rincon de la Vieja (1895m/6215ft) and Santa Maria (1916m/6323ft) peaks, which are all really part of the Rincon de La Vieja Volcano, which also includes nine separate craters which are linked together to form a massif -- a "compact portion of mountain range containing one or more summits." The volcano is one of five in the Cordillera de Guanacaste. The volcano is considered active, and the park has been closed due to activity as recently as 2006, though there hasn't been a major eruption since 1983.

Rincon de la Vieja National ParkThe park bubbles and boils with fumaroles, mud pots (pailas), and general geothermal activity. The active crater contains a steaming lake that has, from time to time, erupted, throwing volcanic ash and boiling mud flying into the air and down the numerous rivers in the park. This caused mountain-side residents to flee in 1995 and 1998. Don't fret too much about the activity though, as most of it is concentrated on the north side of the volcano due to the fact that the crater rim is lower on that side. Besides, most of the attractions and lodging are on the southern and western slope.

Rincon de la Vieja National Park Ridge TrailIn fact, you'll find numerous attractions in and around Rincon de La Vieja National Park. Besides the fumaroles and boiling mud pots, there are lakes and lagoons and the park is the watershed for 32 rivers -- a majority of which empty into the Tempisque river. Santa Maria's crater contains a tree lined lake where you may be able to spot elusive tapirs. The main non-active crater in the park is called Von Seebach and it contains the Linnet Bird Lagoon, located just southeast of the active volcano. Between the two major craters you'll find the chilly Lake Los Jilgueros.

There is also an abundance of wildlife in Rincon de La Vieja, including 300 species of birds plus numerous mammals such as collared peccaries, pacas, coatis, three types of monkeys, raccoons, kinkajous, tayras, two toed sloths, white tail deer, and jaguars, just to name a few. So bring your camera and lots of batteries!

Rincon de la Vieja national park is accessible through two entrances with ranger stations: Rincon-Las Pailas on the western side of the park and Rincon-Santa Maria, 5km past the tiny town of San Jorge. The entrance fee at both places is $10. Las Pailas is the more popular entrance point and is closer to more geothermal sites and volcanic features, plus trails to the volcano's summit begin here. The Santa Maria entrance is closer to the sulfurous hot springs and a waterfall. It also includes an observation tower.

Activities In Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Hiking

There are lots of great trails for hiking within the park. One trail east of Las Pailas skirts bubbling mud pots, fumaroles and the so called volcancito, or baby volcano -- the trail is about 3km in length. Along the Sendero Cangreja (sendero means trail) you will pass a swimming hole and then a series of waterfalls, culminating in the largest called the Catarata La Cangreja which is 5km to the east. You can swim in the pool below, which is an otherworldly blue color from the copper salts dissolved in the water. The trail continues along the flank of the volcano from which point you may be able to see the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Guanacaste and Nicoya. If you love waterfalls, you could also check out the trail for the smaller Cataratas Escondidas (Hidden Waterfalls -- groovy name), which are 4.3km west of Las Pailas off a different trail.

For the truly fit, check out the 16km hike up a ridge trail to the top of Rincon de la Vieja and to Laguna de Jilgueros and then back. Since the trek meanders through areas riddled with fumaroles, geysers, and other geothermic activity, it's advisable to get a guide so you aren't surprised by a sudden burst of hot steam, and subsequently burned. The trail is also difficult to follow when it gets foggy, which is happens frequently. You can find guides at the Las Pailas ranger station or at hotels in the area. When hiking along the ridge, stay in the middle of the trail as the edges are mostly gravel and you don't want to risk plummeting to the bubbling, acidic lake in the crater below. Leave by 10am to have sufficient time to summit and return to the ranger station before dark.

If you're at the Santa Maria ranger station, head 2.8km west through the 'enchanted forest', a cloud forest covered in guaria morada orchids (Costa Rica's national flower) to reach the sulfurous hot springs (Los Azufrales - sulfurs) which some believe to have restorative or healing properties. At 42C or 107.6F, they are also crazy hot, so don't spend too much time in them, and afterwards take a dip in the cold-water stream nearby to drop your body temperature back down to normal.

Another note for when you're walking around Las Pailas and any of the geothermic sites -- be careful where you step. While most of the places are cordoned off for safety, you still need to be careful you don't step on a thin piece of crust where you're foot could plunge through and get scalded. Most everything is clearly marked -- just be mindful.

Tours

Through the various tourist hotels and lodges you can arrange a variety of tours in and around Rincon de la Vieja national park. Some of these include guided hikes to hot-springs and waterfalls, horseback riding, mountain biking, rafting and tubing down the Rio Colorado, rappelling, canopy tours, and hanging bridges.

What does Rincon de la Vieja mean?

It translates to Old Lady's Corner or Nook. It refers to a local legend of a young woman who's lover was tossed into the volcano by her angry father. The trauma caused the woman to become a hermit who subsequently developed the power to cure and heal people.

Getting to Rincon de la Vieja National Park

With one of the park's entrances located around 25km from Liberia and it's international airport, Daniel Oduber International, the park is quite conveniently located in Costa Rica's northwest region of Guanacaste.

A 4x4 taxi from Liberia will cost around $30-40 each way and the trip takes about 45min. If you're going to drive yourself, you will definitely want to rent a 4WD vehicle. The road is deeply rutted and during the rainy season it's impossible without a 4WD. If you're staying at a hotel or lodge nearby the national park, they can arrange transfers for you. In Liberia's Hotel Guanacaste you can get a transfer at 7am and 4pm for $7 per person with a 3 person minimum.

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