Introducing Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja
Given its proximity to Liberia – really just a hop, skip and a few bumps away – this 141-sq-km national park feels refreshingly uncrowded and remote. Named after the active Volcán Rincón de la Vieja (1895m), the steamy main attraction, the park also covers several other peaks in the same volcanic range, including the highest, Volcán Santa María (1916m). The park exhales geothermal energy, which you can see for yourself in its multihued fumaroles, hot springs, bubbling and blooping ashy gray pailas (mud pots), and a young and feisty volcancito (small volcano). All of these can be visited on foot and horseback on well-maintained, but sometimes steep, trails.
The park was created in 1973 to protect a vital watershed that feeds 32 rivers and streams. Its relatively remote location means that wildlife, rare elsewhere, is out in force here, with the major volcanic crater a rather dramatic backdrop to the scene. Volcanic activity has occurred many times since the late 1960s, with the most recent eruption of steam and ash in 1997. At the moment, however, the volcano is gently active and does not present any danger – ask locally for the latest, as volcanoes do act up.
Elevations in the park range from less than 600m to 1916m, so visitors pass through a variety of habitats as they ascend the volcanoes, though the majority of the trees in the park are typical of those found in dry tropical forests throughout Guanacaste. One interesting tree to look out for is the strangler fig, a parasitic species that covers the host tree with its own trunk and proceeds to strangle it by competing for water, light and nutrients. The host tree eventually dies and rots away, while the strangler fig survives as a hollow, tubular lattice. The park is also home to the country’s highest density of Costa Rica’s national flower, the increasingly rare purple orchid (Cattleya skinneri), locally known as guaria morada.
Most visitors to the park are here for the hot springs, where you can soak to the sound of howler monkeys overhead. Many of the springs are reported to have therapeutic properties, which is always a good thing if you’ve been hitting the guaro cacique a little too hard. Several lodges, just outside the park, provide access and arrange tours. You can also book transportation and tours from Liberia.