Set in the mountains in rural northwestern Costa Rica, the Rio Celeste (Blue River) and waterfall is a breathtaking natural wonder that one has to see to believe. The brilliant blue water, which seems altered at first blush, gets its show-stopping azul hue from a chemical reaction between volcanic minerals. A walk through Tenorio Volcano National Park will take you along the river bed, where you will see (and smell) the Rio Celeste turn from clear to vivid turquoise.
The Rio Celeste is a wonderful addition to your itinerary if you’re visiting the La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano area. Below we share the essentials for planning your visit.
The Rio Celeste runs through Tenorio Volcano National Park in northwestern Costa Rica, north of Lake Arenal. This area of Costa Rica is very rural and features verdant rolling hills, farmland, and pasture complete with plenty of grazing cattle. If you’re looking for an authentic travel experience, be sure to spend a couple of nights in the Tenorio area. Because this area is more remote and has fewer amenities, it sees far fewer tourists than many other parts of the country.
Tip: The Tenorio area is best explored with a rental car, though the public bus is available for the more adventurous.
Tenorio Volcano National Park is a lofty 31,794 acre (12,867 hectare) swath of land that can be accessed through two points: the town of Bijagua on the western side of the park and the town of Guatuso on the eastern side of the park.
If you’re coming from the La Fortuna/Arenal area, you’ll want to enter the park from Guatuso. From La Fortuna, follow Route 4 north for about 40 kilometers until you get to the Rio Frio bridge in Guatuso. Here, take your next left onto a dirt road (follow signs for the Rio Celeste Hideaway). You’ll follow this smooth dirt road for 22 kilometers (20 minutes) until you reach the village of Rio Celeste. Here you’ll pick up the road leading to the trailhead. This road is a bit hilly (4-wheel drive recommended) but paved in the steepest spots.
If you’re coming from northern Guanacaste (e.g., Liberia, Tamarindo), you’ll want to access the park from Bijagua. From Liberia, head south along the Interamericana highway (Route 1). About six kilometers before Canas, take a left onto Route 6 toward Upala. Follow Route 6 for about 35 kilometers to Bijagua. The road turns to dirt for the final leg from Bijagua to the trailhead.
Tip: The Guatuso entrance to the park tends to be less busy than the Bijagua entrance so you’re more likely to have the trails all to yourself.
The hike to the Rio Celeste waterfall is moderately difficult with some steep inclines and a few straightforward stream crossings by rope handrail or rickety bridge. The trails are well maintained but almost always muddy. You’ll find yourself looking down at the ground quite a bit as you navigate in search of solid ground and around the huge tree roots. The scenery is beautiful, however, and makes it all worthwhile. As the park is at a high elevation, it hosts primary cloud forest as well as rainforest and is home to an abundance of wildlife.
The real draw at the park though is, of course, the Rio Celeste. The trail meanders along the serene river, where you can see the Tenideros, the point where two rivers converge and the water turns from crystal clear to stunning blue. Here, you might also detect a strong odor as the chemical reaction between sulfur and calcium carbonate occurs. Another sight is the Poza Azul, a lovely blue pool where you’ll want to take plenty of photos. When you reach the waterfall, it’s a long 250 steps down a nicely constructed staircase. The area around the falls is closed off and no swimming is permitted but you’ll be close enough to get some amazing shots.
Tip: The best time to visit the Rio Celeste is during the dry season of December to April, as rain can cloud the water and dull the turquoise effect.
Allow 3 – 4 hours if you want to see everything the park has to offer. If you’re looking to do a shorter hike, you can skip the Tenideros and Poza Azul and head straight for the waterfall via the Bijagua entrance. Here’s a trail map to help you get your bearings.
Hours: Open daily, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Admission: $10 at the Bijagua entrance. Admission at the Guatuso entrance was by donation at the time of our visit.
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The Rio Celeste is definitely a must see for those travelers looking to check another one of Costa Rica’s natural wonders off their list. For us, this unique river and waterfall only confirmed what we already knew: that Costa Rica can keep surprising you with its magical beauty time and time again.
Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde