Rincon de la Vieja National Park: Volcanic Vents and Tropical Forest

Last Updated: December 17, 2020

Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province in the northwestern part of the country is a popular spot for surfers and beachgoers alike. But many visitors to this relatively flat and dry coastline are also looking to explore some rainforest and volcanoes. Luckily, just a short drive away, there are both. Rincon de la Vieja National Park has all the makings of a great day trip from the beach. In this post, we’ll give you everything you need to plan your visit to Rincon, including updated trail conditions and the park’s Covid procedures.

Volcanic Activity at Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Orientation

Overview

Rincon de la Vieja National Park is a special place because it sits in a part of Guanacaste Province where the flat plains meet the jungle-filled mountains. For this reason, in dry times of year like the busy tourist season (January to April), the forested areas of the park remain green and vibrant.

Rainforest meets the dry plains at Rincon de la Vieja National Park
The transition from dry plains to green rainforest

Since there is more vegetation, there are also better chances to spot wildlife like monkeys and tropical birds.

But arguably the biggest draw of Rincon de la Vieja National Park are the many volcanic elements. Active steam vents and bubbling mud pots can be seen right along the trails!

Location

Rincon de la Vieja National Park is located about 25 km (15 miles) northeast of Liberia, the capital city of Guanacaste. It’s about two hours inland from popular beach towns like Tamarindo and Playa Flamingo, and even closer to Playa Hermosa (1.5 hours).

The 14,300 hectare (35,336 acre) park has two public entrances. One is the Santa Maria ranger station and the other is Las Pailas station. In this post, we cover Las Pailas ranger station, which is a bit easier to access.

For detailed directions to Las Pailas entrance, see the end of this post.

Overview of Trails at Las Pailas Sector – Rincon de la Vieja National Park

The Las Pailas sector of Rincon de la Vieja National Park has two main trails, the Waterfall Trail and the Pailas Trail (click here for a link to the trail map). A third trail leads to the summit of the volcano but is currently closed.   

Las Pailas Trail (Most Popular)

Las Pailas Trail is a 3.2 km (2 mile) loop that passes through open fields and then thick rainforest. This is the most used trail because you can easily see volcanic features (more on this below), and the hike isn’t too long.

Volcanic features along trail at Rincon de la Vieja
Getting up close to some volcanic features

Expect to spend around 2-3 hours on Las Pailas Trail, going at a leisurely pace. About 45 minutes to 1 hour of that time is spent in almost full sun. Be sure to read our tips on what the trail is like and what to bring in the sections below.

Waterfall Trail (Longer Hike)

The second trail at sector Las Pailas is the Sendero de las Cataratas or Trail of the Waterfalls. This trail splits into two trails about halfway through, each leading to a different waterfall. The two waterfalls are Catarata La Cangreja and Catarata Escondida. 

These trails are longer and more difficult. Combined, they add up to about 18 km (11 miles) roundtrip and would take most of the day for an experienced hiker.

If you’re visiting during rainy season (May through end of November), be sure to ask the ranger about current conditions before you start the hike. Sometimes they close one of the trails due to poor conditions.

Tip: If you want an easier hike to a waterfall, right next to Las Pailas ranger station is the entrance to Oropendola Waterfall. This is a gorgeous cascade that you can swim in during much of the year. It’s only about a 15-minute hike to get there. Read our full post for all the details, Oropendola Waterfall: An Easy-to-Access Waterfall in Guanacaste.

Crater Trail (Closed)

For those hoping to climb to the summit of Rincon de la Vieja, there is a third trail, the Sendero Crater Activo or Active Crater Trail. Unfortunately, this trail has been closed for several years and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. This is due to continuous volcanic activity and dangerous gases coming out of the volcano’s crater and vents. Better to stick to the trails around the base of the volcano like Las Pailas.  

Las Pailas Trail: Details About the Hike

Las Pailas Trail was recently updated and is now in much better condition.

There are two distinct parts of Las Pailas Trail. The first is a hot sunny field and the second is a shady forest.  

Las Pailas Trail Rincon de la Vieja
First sunny part of the trail 

Las Pailas Trail: Part 1 – Open Field

Starting off your hike, Las Pailas Trail is a paved path that leads through the shady forest. It crosses a river via a sturdy bridge and brings you to lookout where you can view a volcanic steam vent. This part of the trail is perfect for those with limited mobility as it is well maintained and fairly easy.

After about 10 minutes, the foliage quickly becomes thinner and the trail gets a little more uneven. It turns to graded dirt with some small steps but remains mostly flat.

In the dry season (late December to April), this open field section is almost desert-like and can be extremely hot. We recommend getting to the park in the morning before the heat becomes too intense.

The open field part of the hike is important, though, because that is where a lot of the volcanic activity is seen. Within this section of the trail are three volcanic features.

Fumarole Lagoon

The first is a fumarole lagoon (laguna fumarolica). This is where gases and steam come out of a low spot in the ground. The fumeroles can reach temperatures of more than 200˚F (93˚C) so it is really exciting to see them close up (see cover photo above). You’ll know you are getting close when you smell the sulfur, which has an odor of rotten eggs. 

Acidic Pond

The second feature is a small acidic pond (pailas de agua). The pond has a rich yellow color from volcanic minerals. It looks like something from Yellowstone National Park in the United States. If you look closely, you’ll see gases and steam bubbling up through the water in some places.  

Acid Pond Rincon de la Vieja
Volcanic acid pond viewing area 

Bubbling Mud Pots

The last feature in this sunny part of the park are the clay or mud pots (pailas de barro). Here, gray mud bubbles and boils up from the ground. It is constantly churning and becoming silky smooth.

This rich volcanic mud is the same type that is used locally in spas and at hot springs for mud baths.

Bubbling mud pot at Rincon de la Vieja | Two Weeks in Costa Rica
Silky smooth mud bubbling from the ground

Each volcanic feature is sectioned off with short fences so you can’t get too close. But even from a safe distance, they are impressive. At all the stops, you’ll observe an array of colors and smells caused by the chemical reactions taking place.    

Las Pailas Trail: Part 2 – Shady Forest and a Waterfall

After trekking through the heat and sun, the second part of the Pailas Trail suddenly transitions into much cooler forest. Here, there are more elevation changes and many more steps to traverse. It’s completely worth the effort, though, as you may see some wildlife along the trail. 

Wildlife

On one visit, we were able to spot a family of coati (a raccoon-like animal with a long nose and thin tail), lots of lizards, and a pair of Long-tailed Manakins. These are black, blue, and red birds with two long and wispy tail feathers. They are somewhat rare, so we were really excited.

Long-tailed Manakin in Rincon de la Vieja National Park
A beautiful Long-tailed Manakin

During our most recent visit, we were lucky to see a family of spider monkeys high in a tree. Spider monkeys are also rare, especially in Guanacaste, so that was another awesome sighting. In addition, we saw a few Aracari (birds in the toucan family).  

Spider Monkey Rincon de la Vieja National Park
A baby spider monkey swinging in the trees

In the shadier part of the trail, you’ll find two more volcanic elements.

Mini-Volcano

The first is a mini-volcano (volcancito). Here, you can see what is like a combination of a fumarole (steam vent) and mud pot. During one of our visits, this was all dried up, but on our latest trek (with some recent rains), it was much more active. The hot steam was coming out through the soupy mud, making the mud bubble and churn.

Mini Volcano Rincon de la Vieja
A mini-volcano bubbling and steaming from the intense heat

Steam Vents/Fumaroles

After a bit more hiking, there is another area with some steam vents/fumaroles. These ones are larger that the first ones along the trail and more spread out. With lots of steam rising high up into the trees, it created a cloud effect, which was very interesting.  

Steam Vents Rincon de la Vieja
Steaming fumeroles casting a cloud through the forest

Seasonal Waterfall

The last big feature of the hike is the seasonal waterfall. During the dry season, this waterfall is usually no more than a trickle. If it has rained recently, though, it can be quite spectacular. We caught it at a great time in late November after several days of rain. There is a nice viewing platform next to the waterfall to get some good photos as well. 

Pailas Seasonal Waterfall - Rincon de la Vieja National Park
The seasonal waterfall looking gorgeous at the end of rainy season (late November)

What to Wear/Bring to Rincon de la Vieja National Park

A trip to Rincon can be uncomfortable if you aren’t well prepared. During the hotter months, we have encountered some hikers who either weren’t wearing the proper gear or didn’t bring enough water. And they didn’t hesitate to express their discomfort to us. Don’t let this happen to you!

Here are the essentials to make sure you have a great visit.

Closed-toed Shoes, Sneakers, or Hiking Boots

Although parts of the trail are flat and easy, if you do the complete loop, you will have to traverse some steeper spots. Flip-flops are not recommended.

Sun Protection

A hat and sunscreen are the most important things you will need. These will be essential for the first part of the trail when you are in direct sunlight. 

Water and Snacks

The ranger station is remote and there aren’t any stores nearby. Be sure to stock up on things when passing through Liberia. Bringing plenty of water is especially important because of the heat. Temperatures often creep up over 90˚F (32˚C).

IMPORTANT: Plastic water bottles are no longer allowed in the park. Make sure to bring only reusable water bottles. The rangers will not allow you to bring in disposible ones.

Insect Repellent

Some parts of the trail are bug-free, but we did encounter a few swarms of mosquitoes near the waterfall and in the forested part of the trail. Definitely bring some repellent.

For specific recommendations on sunscreen, repellent, and gear, check out our post, Packing for Costa Rica: The Essentials.

Park Hours

Las Pailas Sector: 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Tues. – Sun. CLOSED MONDAYS.

Price

Foreigners: $15 adults. $5 children (2-12 years old).

Citizens and Legal Residents: ₡1000 adults, ₡500 children (2-12 years old).

Children under 2 are free.

Covid Protocols at Rincon de la Vieja National Park

  • Reserving tickets online (link) is encouraged. Park capacity is limited to 100 people at one time. You can reserve your ticket through the link above but won’t need to pay until you arrive.
  • Credit cards only, no cash accepted.
  • Temperature check and handwashing is required before entering the ranger station.
  • Only one member of each group will enter the ranger station to pay.
  • A mask is required when entering the ranger station. It can be removed on the trails.
  • On the trails, you must remain in your own group (social bubble) and avoid crowding and contact with others. Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet (1.8 meters).
  • Picnics are prohibited within the park.

Directions to Las Pailas Sector – Rincon de la Vieja National Park

From Liberia, take the Pan American Highway (Route 1) going north. Drive 5.8 km (3 miles) and turn right at the sign for Curubande and Rincon de la Vieja National Park – Las Pailas sector. Stay on this road through the village of Curubande de Liberia. Watch for signs for Rincon de la Vieja National Park – Las Pailas sector.

Eventually, you will come to a gate and the road will turn to dirt. At the gate, you will have to pay an attendant (₡800/$1.50 per person, when we visited) to access the private dirt road. Continue on the partially dirt/partially paved road for 20 minutes and you will come to Las Pailas parking lot and park entrance.

Tip: Although part of the road is dirt and somewhat bumpy, it is in good condition. A regular car (non-4×4) would be fine.

Last Updated: December 17, 2020

Have a question about Rincon de la Vieja National Park? Ask it in the comments below.

Some of the links in this post are connected to affiliate programs we have joined. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Visiting Guanacaste during your trip? Here are more articles on places to see and things to do in the area:

Oropendola Waterfall: An Easy-to-Access Waterfall in Guanacaste Right before the entrance to Las Pailas sector is a gorgeous waterfall that flows through a canyon. Read our post for everything you need to know about visiting.

Llanos de Cortez: Another stunning waterfall right off the highway south of Liberia. This one is great for swimming.

The Big Cats of Las Pumas Rescue Center: A wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center near Liberia with pumas, jaguars, ocelots, toucans, parrots, and many more animals.

Palo Verde National Park: If you’re looking for another great park to visit from Guanacaste, read our experience seeing monkeys and crocodiles on a boat tour of the wetlands.

Tamarindo: Where Paradise Meets Convenience – Destination Guide to the popular surf/beach town of Tamarindo, including recommended hotels and restaurants.

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