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Rincón de la Vieja National Park
Rincón de la Vieja National Park is Costa Rica's mini-Yellowstone, with volcanic hot springs and bubbling mud pools, refreshing waterfalls, and cool forest trails. Often shrouded in clouds, the volcano dominates the landscape northwest of Liberia, rising above the sunbaked plains.
It has two windswept peaks, Santa María, 1,916 meters (6,323 feet) high on the east slope, and Rincón de la Vieja at 1,895 meters (6,254 feet) on the west. The latter slope has an active crater that hardy hikers can climb up to, and easily accessible fumaroles on its lower slope that constantly let off steam. The park protects more than 177 square km (54 square miles) of the volcano's forested slopes. The wildlife list includes more than 250 species of birds, plus mammals such as white-tailed deer, coyotes, howler and capuchin monkeys, armadillos, and the occasional harlequin snake (not poisonous). Las Pailas entrance has the most accessible trails, including an easy loop trail that wends past all the interesting volcanic features.
Best Time to Go
Good times to visit are January through May, during the dry season. January can be very windy, but that means temperatures stay cooler for hiking. May to November—the green season—is when the fumaroles and boiling mud pots are most active, but the crater is often covered in clouds so it's not the best time to hike to the top. Trails can get crowded during school break (mid-December through February). Get here early, well before 9 am, if you plan a long hike or a climb to the crater, since the park officially closes at 3 pm but you can still exit up until 5 pm. The park is closed Monday all year.
Best Ways to Explore
Wherever you walk in this park, you are bound to hear the three-note song of the long-tailed manakin. It sounds something like "Toledo," and that's what the locals call this bird. Along with their lavish, long tail feathers, the males are famous for their cooperative courting dance: two pals leap back and forth over each other, but only the senior male gets any girl who falls for this act. The hard-to-spot rock wren lives closer to the top of the volcano. Birding is excellent most of the year here except for January when the weather is dry but often too windy to distinguish between a fluttering leaf or a flittering bird.
The only way to explore the park trails is on foot, along well-marked paths that range from easy loops to longer, more-demanding climbs. The ranger station at Las Pailas entrance provides maps of the park trails and washrooms before you set off. The easiest hike is Las Pailas loop, which starts just past the ranger station; it takes about two hours to hike. If you want to venture farther afield, follow the signs for La Cangreja trail. After passing through dense, cool forest, you'll emerge through an avenue of giant agave plants into an open, windy, meadow. Your reward is the cool waterfall and swimming hole at the end of the trail. There are also warm springs in the rocks surrounding the pool, so you can alternate between warm and cool water in this natural spa.
Saddle up to explore the lower slopes of the volcano, just outside the park borders. Local ranches and lodges organize daylong trail rides to waterfalls and sulfur springs. Your nose will tell you when you are approaching the springs—it's not the picnic lunch gone bad, it's the distinctive rotten-egg smell of sulfur.
Top Reason to Go
The park's forest, alive with the haunting songs of the long-tailed manakin and the loud whinnies of the ivory-billed woodcreeper, is prime bird-watching territory. For intrepid birders, the winding trail leading to the crater is home to the rock wren, which can only be found on these slopes.
Climbing to the Crater
The hike to the crater summit is the most demanding, but also the most dramatic. The trail climbs 8 km (5 miles) through shaded forest, then up a sunbaked, treeless slope to the windswept crater, where temperatures plummet. Be sure to check wind and weather conditions at the ranger station before attempting this hike.
Three-kilometer (2-mile) Las Pailas loop trail showcases the park's famous geothermal features. Along the trail you'll see fumaroles with steam hissing out of ground vents, a volcancito (baby volcano), and boiling mud fields named after pots (pailas) used for boiling down sugarcane.
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