Thursday, June 17, 2010

Visiting Volcán Rincón de la Vieja

Along with stunning beaches and diverse rainforest ecosystems, Costa Rica is also home to volcanoes. Lots of volcanoes. There are over 200 identifiable volcanic formations, with only around 100 that show any signs of volcanic activity. And only five are classified as active volcanoes. Most of the volcanoes in Costa Rica lie in the northern part of the country and in the Central Highlands.

Costa Rica´s best known volcanoes are Volcán Poás, Volcán Irazú, and Volcán Arenal. Both Poás and Irazú are easily accessible from San Jose (about 2 hours away), and hundreds of tourists drive up to the crater to take small hikes around the crater. But all of us at Costa Rica Outward Bound like taking the less traveled path…

Volcan Rincón de la Vieja is another popular volcano day trip, but it offers much more than one can see in a day. Rincón de la Vieja National Park contains miles of hiking trails (including a challenging 8 km. climb to the crater) in addition to natural hot springs, waterfalls, bubbling mud pots, swimming holes, and camping!

There are two ranger stations in the park, Las Paílas and Santa María. Camping is only available at Santa María, the campsites at Las Paílas were closed in 2008 (some guidebooks still mistakenly say that there is camping available- there isn´t!). The two ranger stations (puestos) are connected by an 8 km trail.

Santa María
The main draw to Santa María are the campsites which come equipped with potable water, flushing toilets, and showers. Just remember to bring in your camping gear and all food and cooking supplies. The other advantage to the Santa María station is the proximity to the hot springs (aguas termales). A 3 km hike brings you to clear, blue pool of HOT blue water. Other hikes bring you to some small waterfalls and bubbling mud pots (paílas). You can leave early to hike to Las Paílas and see the sights around that ranger station.

Las Paílas
Most visitors to the park enter at Las Paílas. There is a common 4 km loop that goes by numerous mud pots as well as a large waterfall. A beautiful swimming hole is located 1 km from the ranger station. Two waterfalls are located further from the ranger station, a 5 km. hike takes you to La Cangreja, a high waterfall with a swimmable pool at the bottom. If you are interested in the crater hike, you must begin early! The hike is 8 km. each way (16 km. total), and the trail is often closed due to poor visibility.

Aside from camping at Santa María, there are other nearby accommodations. There are numerous lodges, I´m also told that the Rinconcito Lodge offers camping (and is walking distance from the park).

• Entrance to the park: $10 for tourists, 1,000 colones for Costa Ricans
• Camping at Santa María: $2 per person, per night
• Taxi to the park (Santa María or Las Paílas) from Libería: 15,000 colones ($30)

When to Visit
Dry season (December-April) is the ideal time to visit Rincón de la Vieja for numerous reasons, including visibility and transportation. The crater hike is often closed in the rainy season because it is too cloudy. The access road to Santa María also gets very muddy( I had to walk the final kilometer to the ranger station when I visited in June). However, this is all doable in the rainy season, just be prepared with rain gear.

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