Rincon de la Vieja National Park lies in the northwest corner of Costa Rica in the Guanacaste province, harboring a great deal of natural resources. With 32 permanent rivers and 16 intermittent streams, this area provides a large portion of water to Guanacaste and houses a myriad of wildlife.
It’s a fairly large national park at 14,127 square hectares (35131 square acres) so you can spend a couple days in the park hiking the trails and experiencing the gems inside. If you only have one day, you can do a combination tour so you get a taste of all the park has to offer.
We’ve done a few combination tours but hiking Rincon de la Vieja National Park is truly the best activity for those who want to see the park in all its glory and beauty. With 7 different trails all leading to different viewpoints, waterfalls and other wonderful natural attractions, there’s no doubt that this is one of the top for experiencing the tropical dry forest.
If you’re planning on hiking Rincon de la Vieja National Park, here are our tips.
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- About the park
- Hours and fee
- The hiking trails
- Where to sleep
- Combination tours
- Tips for visiting
About Rincon de la Vieja National Park
Rincon de la Vieja, or Old Woman’s Nook is a huge volcano at 1,895 meters tall and active with nine identified volcanic cones. It is 1 of 5 of the Cordillera de Guanacaste (Guanacaste mountain range), being the most easily accessible.
It was created back on May 10th, 1974 and is the Protected Wildlife Area is divided into 2 sectors: Santa Maria and Pailas. This national park is especially famous for its large geothermic activity and secondary volcanic activity. The ICE company even has plants in the park, studying and using the natural gas as energy.
Though it is one of the driest national parks in Costa Rica, it still has many rivers and plenty of flora and fauna such as monkeys, agoutis and birds call this area home.
Hours and fee
Rincon de la Vieja National Park is open Tuesday through Sunday, 7 AM to 3 PM (Pailas Sector). The Santa Maria Sector is open every day from 8 AM to 4 PM.
The entrance fee is $15 for adult foreigners and $5 for children ages 6-12.
Location and directions
Coming from Liberia International Airport, drive to Liberia city. Turn left at the large intersection (with the gas station and Santa Rosa Plaza on your right). Drive about 3.5 kilometers and you will see many signs for “Rincon de la Vieja National Park Las Pailas sector.” Turn right into the entrance after the Ebais clinic on your left and continue on this road for about 20 kilometers to the national park entrance and the trail heads.
There is a parking lot where the administration office is, which is where you’ll buy the entrance tickets.
Hiking Rincon de la Vieja National Park
There are 7 hiking trails in the park. Depending on your group’s physical condition, you can do an easy 3 kilometer (1.86 miles) loop around the boiling mud pots, walk a little further to Catarata Escondida at 4.3 kilometers (2.67 miles) or climb 8 kilometers (4.97 miles) to the volcano summit.
*The trail to the crater summit is currently closed as of March 2016 due to volcanic activity. Call the national park information center before you go to check if it’s open.*
Sendero Las Pailas (Boiling mud pots trail) – 3 kilometers loop
For our first trip hiking Rincon de la Vieja National Park, we did the easy 3 kilometers loop to the boiling mud pots.
This trail leads to several different interesting things to see: volcancito (little volcano), a seasonal waterfall, water pools, mud pools and the mud pots.
This trail is very easy, no steeps paths, no switchbacks, just lots of forest and a small hanging bridge.
Excellent option for those who aren’t interested in hiking more than a mile or so or with those who can’t. It won’t take more than an hour to hike the whole loop, even with stopping here and there.
The first half of the trail was under the cool forest canopy with a nice breeze and fresh air. It’s normally very hot in Guanacaste but at the park you’re a few hundred meters up, so it’s a bit cooler normally with a breeze.
Once you walk out of the forest, you encounter this everlasting landscape. All you see is the the mountain range, forest and clear skies ahead of you. It’s amazing how polar opposite the landscape is like in dry season, since most of it is so yellow!
Near halfway of the loop, you encounter the seasonal waterfall. They aren’t joking when they named this waterfall, as you can see it’s barely a trickle! This was taken in February but during rainy season this waterfall is completely flowing.
There are two areas where you could observe the mud pots on the trail, one of which looked like a little lake (laguna fumarolica). The sulfuric smell isn’t too overwhelming and the bubbling wasn’t very intense but starting at it, you realize that this is just one small ingredient to a powerful volcano’s recipe of existence.
Further down the trail, we reach Volcanito (little volcano). This is a great option for those who can’t/don’t want to hike to the summit. You still see a small volcano and this one is really bubbling!
It’s boiling so much that they reach up to at least a foot and you can hear the splattering of mud meters away when the sulfuric smell slowly penetrates your senses. Watch the video to see the mud!
Boiling mud pots may not seem like the most exciting things, but it’s something you definitely don’t see every day and you don’t see in other national parks in Costa Rica. During our hike we encountered several different animals such as coatis and lots of birds so do keep your eyes and ears open.
Sendero Catarata La Cangreja (La Cangreja waterfall trails 5.1 kilometers)
If you’re in the mood for a tougher hike and want to see a gorgeous waterfall in the desert, head the opposite direction of the mud pots trail to the Sendero Cataratas.
It starts off as one trail and branches off to two different waterfalls. If you want to visit both, make sure to get there early and you have plenty of food and water because combined, the trails are 10.4 kilometers (6.5 miles) one way.
We chose to hike the Catarata La Cangreja as this waterfall has a nice pool to swim in. Catarata Escondida is smaller and isn’t quite as “sparkly” (the Cangreja waterfall is known as the blue lagoon).
We set off towards the east (walk up to the left from the entrance office, past a gate) and headed into the forest. For the first half of this trail, you’re under the forest canopy so it was nice and shady.
You have to cross a few small rivers and some parts of the trail under the forest is a bit hilly. Be prepared for when you go back, the last few hundred meters of this trail is very steep!
Soon you’ll notice less and less trees until you get to a clearing. This part, besides the waterfall is the most spectacular part of the hike. You’re in the middle of the national park with the volcanoes, rolling hills and various layers of yellow grass and green forests around you. It took my breath away as soon as we entered the open field.
It’s hard to imagine that there is a waterfall in the middle of there somewhere!
The last part of the trail past the sign gets quite steep and I had to get down on my hands and knees to balance myself. As soon as that part is over, you reach your reward. A tall, sparkling waterfall crashing down into a bright blue pool. We wasted no time jumping into the water, after a very hot and sweaty 2 hour hike!
The water is so refreshing and there are many rocks around to relax on. We spent an hour or so at the waterfall, cooling ourselves off and re-energizing for the walk back.
If you can only hike to one waterfall, I recommend the La Cangreja one over the Esecondida. However, this trail is longer. It’s easy for most of it, but there is a difficult section near the end that is quite steep and has tall steps with lots of rocks so it wouldn’t be wise for senior citizens or those with disabilities.
It took us 2 hours to get to the waterfall since we stopped a lot to take pictures and videos. It took us 1 hour and 25 minutes to get back without stopping. The trail is a total of 10.2 kilometers, which is 6.33 miles. We didn’t see much wildlife during this hike but we saw spider monkeys on our way back!
Where to stay
There are several lodges and haciendas in the Rincon area for those who want to stay close to the national park. The closest one is Hacienda Guachipelin and Canyon de la Vieja (Las Pailas sector). Buena Vista Lodge and Hotel Borinquen are further away. Hotel Borinquen is the most luxurious of all of them, situated deep into the forest on a huge property with very nice, rustic rooms.
Combination Adventure Tours
Most of them include a canopy tour, horseback riding, hot springs and a mud bath. Guachipelin has a 5 km white water tubing and Buena Vista has a waterslide. All of them are super fun!
There are also a couple other waterfalls worth a visit in/near the park such as Catarata Oropendola (at the parking lot right below the main parking lot of the admissions office). The Guachipelin tour takes you to another set of waterfalls that you can jump off of!
Tips for Visiting and Hiking Rincon de la Vieja National Park
- You don’t necessarily have to have a 4X4 for driving in the park. It is not paved but it is not terrible.
- Bring plenty of water and snacks as there are no places to buy either. There is a hose with drinkable water at the admissions office but bring at least 1 liter for each person if you plan to hike the waterfalls trail. More for the summit.
- I highly suggest bringing an insulated water bottle to keep your water nice and cold. It gets very hot so water in a plastic bottle will get hot enough to make soup in a short time!
- A hat, sunscreen and sunglasses are an absolute must. Because it’s much drier in this park, mosquitoes aren’t very bad.
- As for shoes, the Las Pailas 3 trail is very easy and hiking sandals like these will be fine. For the waterfall trails, it’s necessary to wear socks and closed toed hiking shoes.
- The only bathrooms are near the entrance office.
- There are no changing areas at the waterfalls so wear your swimsuit.
- They give you a map and there are usually volunteers who explain the park and trails.
- If you want the waterfall to yourself, go as soon as the park opens. Once it hits around 10-11 AM is when most people get there.
- If you’re staying at one of the hotels near the park, I highly recommend renting a car. You need to go to Liberia for restaurants, supermarkets and banks and a taxi will cost around $20 one way depending which hotel you’re at. With a car, you can drive to various parts of the national park since it is huge.
Read about other national parks in Costa Rica!
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