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.
Rincon de la Vieja National Park is a special place because it sits in a part of Guanacaste where the flat plains meet the jungle-filled mountains. For this reason, in dry times of year like the busy tourist season (late December to April), the area will remain green and vibrant. Since there is more vegetation, there are also better chances to spot wildlife. Another big 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.
Rincon de la Vieja National Park is located about 25 km (15 miles) northeast of Liberia, the capital city of Guanacaste. It’s about 2 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 at the Santa Maria ranger station and another at Las Pailas station. We visited Las Pailas ranger station, which is a bit easier to access. For detailed directions, see the end of this post.
Overview of Trails
Las Pailas ranger station has two main trails (click here for a link to the trail map). Las Pailas Trail is a 3 km (2 mile) loop that passes through thick rainforest and some open fields. This is the most used trail because you can see volcanic features (more on this below). The first part of the trail is also very scenic, with a short hanging bridge that crosses a river, a small waterfall, and really thick forest. Las Pailas Trail is moderately difficult because of uneven ground and many large roots and rocks. Expect to spend at least 2-3 hours on Las Pailas Trail and be sure to read our tips on what to bring below.
Here’s a photo we took of the trail map with the Las Pailas Trail zoomed in.
The second trail is the Sendero de las Cataratas or Trail of the Waterfalls. This trail actually splits into two trails about halfway through, each leading to a different waterfall. 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. Keep in mind that the waterfalls are seasonal, so may not be worth the trek during the dry season when little or no water is flowing. Be sure to ask the ranger about current conditions before you start the hike.
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 is closed and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. This is due to high 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.
What You’ll See
The first part of Las Pailas Trail is mostly thick jungle, which makes it good for seeing wildlife. We were able to spot some coati (a raccoon-like animal with a long nose and thin tail), lots of lizards, butterflies, and some other interesting insects. We also saw different bird species, including Long-tailed Manakins. These are black, blue, and red birds with two long and wispy tail feathers. They are somewhat rare and it was our first time seeing them so we were really excited.
After passing a small waterfall (only a trickle during our visit), Las Pailas trail leads to one of the most impressive features of the park: steam vents, also called fumaroles. These basically look like big holes in the ground that constantly billow steam, while making strange gurgling sounds and giving off a stinky sulfur smell. The fumeroles can reach temperatures in excess of 200˚F (93˚C) so it is really exciting to be able to see them close up.
Farther on the trail, the forest thins out and there are more volcanic features to discover. Although during our visit it was too dry for the mini mud volcano to be active, we have heard that with a little rain it can be quite impressive, spitting up mud almost constantly. The bubbling mud pots nearby were active though and were very intriguing. Tiny bubbles from underground heat and gases constantly churned the thick, gray mud to make it silky smooth. This volcanic mud is the same kind that is used for body and facial masks, so if you want a closer look, hit up one of the spas in the area after your time at the park.
The last section of Las Pailas Trail goes through an open field before looping back into the forest. This section is almost desert-like during the dry season but also really beautiful. Smaller trails off the main one lead to several acidic ponds, also bubbling from the underground volcanic heat and gases. Like other features along the trail, these ponds are sectioned off so you can’t get too close. But even from a distance, they are really impressive and have an array of colors caused by the chemical reactions taking place.
What to Wear/Bring
A trip to Rincon can be uncomfortable if you aren’t well prepared. We saw a few 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 slippery and steep spots.
Sun Protection – A hat and sunscreen are the biggest things you will need, especially for the last 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. Water is especially important because of the heat, often creeping up over 90˚F (32˚C).
Insect Repellant – Some parts of the trail are bug free but we did encounter a few swarms of mosquitos near the small waterfall.
Las Pailas Sector: 7:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Tues. – Sun. CLOSED MONDAYS
Santa Maria Sector: 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Every Day
$15 Foreigners, ₡1000 Nationals
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 to 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 must pay an attendant (700 colones, about $1.50, when we visited) for access to the private dirt road. Continue on the dirt road for 20 minutes and you will come to Las Pailas parking lot and park entrance.
Tip: Although the road is dirt and somewhat bumpy, it is in good condition and regular non-4×4 cars were having no problem accessing the park entrance.
Have a question about Rincon de la Vieja National Park? Ask it in the comments below.
Visiting Northern Guanacaste? Here are more articles on places to see and things to do in the area:
Llanos de Cortes – A gorgeous waterfall right off the highway just outside Liberia.
The Big Cats of Las Pumas Rescue Center – A wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center with pumas, jaguars, ocelots, toucans, parrots, and many more animals.
Tamarindo: Where Paradise Meets Convenience – Destination Guide to the popular surf/beach town of Tamarindo, including recommended hotels and restaurants.
Playa Conchal: The Allure of Shell Beach – Tips for visiting one of Costa Rica’s most gorgeous beaches and info on the all-inclusive Westin Resort.