Known as the park with a watery skin and a fiery heart, Rincón de la Vieja National Park is one of Costa Rica’s steamiest and coolest attractions, in every sense of the word. Here, still-active volcanoes and boiling mud pots meet cold-water cascades and misty cloud forest – a startling and striking combination of many natural wonders, conveniently distilled into one awesome national park.
And yet, for all its delights, Rincón de la Vieja National Park remains one of Guanacaste’s best-kept secrets. On any given day, you’re likely to meet only a few other tourists at the park. The reason? Access. Located a hop, skip, and more than a few bumps up rustic gravel roads, Rincón de la Vieja is not the easiest drive in Costa Rica. But is it worth it? You bet.
Rincon de la Vieja National Park Overview:
Location: 17 miles northeast of Liberia; 62 miles (2 hours) northeast of Tamarindo
Founded: May 10, 1974
Maximum Altitude: 6,286 feet above sea level
Area: 34,908 acres (divided into two sectors: Las Pailas and Santa Maria)
Hours: Las Pailas: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday; Santa Maria: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday-Sunday
Entrance Fee: $15 adults / $5 children
Rincón de la Vieja National Park is one of, if not our favorite national park in Costa Rica. In contrast to many parks, where you walk for hours in hopes of spotting just one thing exciting, here the entire park is an attraction. You never have to wait long for a jaw-dropping moment at Rincón de la Vieja. (See Natural Wonders, below.)
The park is divided into two distinct sectors, Las Pailas and Santa Maria. The Las Pailas sector is home to Las Pailas trail, which winds past La Cangreja and Escondida waterfalls, bubbling mud cauldrons, a mini-crater, steaming fumaroles, hot springs, and other amazements. Las Pailas is also the kick-off point for the Cerro Von Seebach trail, a difficult hike to a still-venting crater.
In the Santa María sector, you’ll head out onto the Colibrí (Hummingbird) trail to visit more bubbling mud, the Bosque Encantado (Enchanted Forest) waterfall, hot springs, and a hard-to-reach but oh-so-worth-it lookout point.
More on these attractions, below.
Several trails zig-zag across the park’s vast acreage, although the two main trails – Las Pailas and Colibrí – are, by far, the most frequented (and accessible).
Las Pailas Trail is the park’s most visited, and for good reason. This 2.2-mile (3.5-km) trail weaves through a startling contrast of rainforest and dry savannah, crossing rivers and brushing against waterfalls, before leading to the real show – likely, the closest you’ll ever be to volcanic activity! Here, you can literally look into the roaring face of a volcancito (mini-crater), hear the pop-pop of boiling mud pots, smell the sulfuric stink of fumaroles, and feel the heat of volcano-fed hot springs. It’s truly a wonder of Mother Nature. The entire circuit takes about 2 hours.
Also accessible from the Las Pailas sector is La Cangreja trail, which (unsurprisingly) wends its way to La Cangreja Waterfall. The trail is mostly flat, leading over parched savannah and by a few rivers, but ends in a steep climb down to the waterfall, which is spectacular and refreshing, year-round.
You can also hop over to the other side of the park, where the Santa María sector offers up its less-frequented Colibrí trail which, as we already mentioned, leads to more bubbling mud, the Bosque Encantado waterfall, hot springs, and a hard-to-reach but worth-it lookout point.
Trails from both sectors also lead to the volcanic summit, as well as to the extinct Santa Maria Volcano, Von Seebach Summit, and several waterfalls. Inquire with rangers regarding trail conditions and volcanic activity, before hiking.
Flora and Fauna:
Rincón de la Vieja National Park is home to more than just an active volcano: the park and its cloud forests, dry forests, rainforests, savannahs, and lowlands protect a bevy of incredible wildlife, including two-toed sloths, white-faced, spider and howler monkeys, peccaries, kinkajous, tapirs, white-tailed deer, and the tough-to-spot jaguar and puma. Additionally, more than 300 bird species, including the three-wattled bellbird, emerald toucanet, crested caracara, Montezuma
pendola, collared trogon, and several species of owls, hawks, woodcreepers, flycatchers, and more, live here.
The park also houses a huge concentration of Costa Rica’s national flower, the guaria morada, or purple orchid, as well as strangler figs, turpentine trees, and impossibly green epiphytes, which in parts of the park, hang from almost every surface. In stark contrast, no vegetation grows in the barren moonscapes that surround the volcano’s crater.
And yet, despite all this, the true magic of Rincón de la Vieja National Park is in its inanimate natural wonders…
Rincón de la Vieja National Park is one of the most unique destinations in Costa Rica if not the world, offering an incredible array of sights you probably can’t [safely] experience anywhere else.
The park’s eponymous Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, the largest and most active volcano in the Guanacaste Mountain range, stands as just one of Rincón de la Vieja National Park’s nine contiguous but separate craters.
The two other craters that are somewhat accessible, albeit via difficult hikes, are the Santa Maria Volcano, which marks the park’s highest point at 6,286 feet in altitude, and the Von Seebach Peak, which still steams on the regular. Note that RdlV Volcano saw an uptick in activity in 2017, and the park has seen periodic safety closures since. Call ahead. (Or just ask us!)
This is the true wonder of Rincón de la Vieja. After all, where else can you get up-close-and-personal with an actual volcancito (little volcano)? Where can you stand beside boiling mud pots, so close you can feel the puffs! of each popping bubble? Where can you sidle up to steaming fumaroles and experience, first hand, their sulfuric belching? Where can you dip your toe in volcano-fed hot springs, right at their origin point?
At Rincón de la Vieja, that’s where!
The park is home to several waterfalls, including the Seasonal Waterfall – yes, that’s its real name – on Las Pailas trail; La Cangreja Waterfall and Hidden Falls, a separate hike from Las Pailas; the Bosque Encantado Waterfall, accessible via Santa Maria’s Colibrí Trail; and Oropendola Waterfall, an 82-foot cascade (an one of our favorite waterfalls in Guanacaste) close to the La Pailas entrance but most easily visited on a hiking or horseback-riding tour.
The National Park System of Costa Rica (SINAC) offers a few recommendations for and requests of visitors to Rincón de la Vieja National Park.
- Take care of your belongings at all times. Do not leave items unattended. (Note: We’re not just talking about human theft here; there’s plenty of Costa Rican wildlife that would love to make off with your packaged snacks, shiny goodies, and other belongings!)
- Speaking of, please do not feed the animals, no matter how cute they are. Even fruit, if it’s not part of their natural diet, can alter their behavior and affect health.
- Always stay on the trails, wear proper hiking shoes, take plenty of water, and pack a flashlight.
- Please do not collect rocks, plants, animals or other souvenirs. This is prohibited by law.
- Any trash you bring into the park, you should also take out.
- If you plan to visit the volcanic crater, you must first consult with the ranger on duty regarding daily schedules, trail availability, and current safety conditions.
- You must enter the park before 12 p.m. if you plan to hike the waterfall trails (Cangreja and Escondida).
Rincón de la Vieja National Park straddles the Continental Divide – a designation much more significant than simple bragging rights. Simply put, this division splits the park into Pacific and Caribbean sides: the Pacific (western) section is parched and dry from December-April, while the Caribbean (eastern) side sees almost 200 inches of annual rainfall, guaranteeing lush landscapes all year round. In both sectors of the park, temperatures climb to 85ºF+ most days.
Facilities & Services:
As Costa Rican national parks go, Rincón de la Vieja is well equipped:
- Public parking
- Potable water
- Mirador/Lookout point
- Picnic area
- Camping at Santa Maria (camping is not permitted at Las Pailas)
How to Get to Rincón de la Vieja National Park:
When it comes right down to it, there are only two ways to get to Rincón de la Vieja National Park: via your own car or someone else’s. Here’s the official how-to-get-there:
DIY Drive: If you’ve rented a 4WD car for your vacation, you’re golden. You shouldn’t have a problem accessing either of the park’s two entrances, Las Pailas and Santa Maria, both of which are bumpy and a bit challenging, but doable year-round with a 4×4. (Note: Don’t try this in a sedan, not even in dry season. A 4×2 may be sufficient December-April but for safety and comfort, we recommend a 4WD with decent road clearance.)
To drive to Las Pailas from Tamarindo, take Route 155/Route 21 northeast to Route 1. Turn right at the sign for Curubandé and Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, then drive approximately 15 kilometers on a paved road. After passing through the village of Curubandé, you’ll reach a metal gate; from here, it’s about 10 more kilometers to Las Pailas, via a bumpy gravel road.
To drive to Santa Maria from Tamarindo, take Route 155/Route 21 northeast to Route 1. Drive east of Liberia and, from there, take the route through Barrio La Victoria/Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja. The trip will take you through the town of Colonia Blanca, where you’ll turn left and drive about 25 kilometers up a bumpy dirt road.
Private Transportation/Tours: If you’re not quite up for the adventure of tackling Costa Rica’s backroads on your own, then your best option is to hire a driver or book a tour to Rincón de la Vieja. With either option, a guide will pick you up in Tamarindo and ferry you to the park in an air-conditioned van and/or 4×4. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
If you’d like help arranging a rental 4×4, private transport, or Rincón de la Vieja tour/day trip, please get in touch with our concierge, Cris! Her services are free and we promise, she’ll hook you up with the best option to match your Rincón de la Vieja adventure style.