Rincón de la Vieja National Park – a guide
December 2, 2019
With so many options to visit National Parks in Costa Rica, you might be tempted to skip the out-of-the-way Rincón de la Vieja National Park.
Don’t make that mistake.
Follow our guide to visiting Rincón de la Vieja National Park.
About Rincón de la Vieja National Park
Rincón de la Vieja National Park (Parque Nacional Rincon De La Vieja) is located in the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica. Established in 1974, it is over 34000 acres in size or about half the size of Honolulu.
Inside the park, there are:
- three waterfalls (one seasonal)
- nine volcanic cones (including the active Rincon Del La Vieja)
- a multitude of other thermal features (also called secondary volcanic activity) such as steam vents and mud pots
- plenty of wildlife
There are 2 entrances to the park:
- the Pacific side (Palia)
- the Caribbean side (Santa Maria)
Double-check the park open date and times. The park is advertised as closed every Monday and closing at 3 p.m all other days. This is true of the Palia entrance. The Santa Maria entrances may have different rules.
The closing time at the Palia gate is a “hard close”. Unlike National Parks in the USA where “closed” means the ranger station closes but the park is still open, the Rincón de la Vieja National park does close and they chase you out.
In Costa Rica, there are some national parks where you are required to use a guide or it is suggested you use a guide to see the wildlife. A guide is not required at this park and I wouldn’t pay for one here. The trails are well marked. Save your guided hike for later in your Costa Rica trip at either the Monteverde area or the Oso Peninsula areas.
Rincón de la Vieja National Park
The park is located about one hour north east of the Liberia airport.
Choose which section you plan to visit – Las Pailas or Santa Maria.
A rental car or an arranged day tour will be your best option. There did not appear to be public buses that went to the park.
On the road to the Pailas section, we were stopped prior to the ranger station and asked, in Spanish, if we were going to park. The man who blocked the road looked vaguely official.
“Sí”, we replied, and a price was named. Handing over a handful of colones, we received these tickets in return.
During the transaction, it was unclear whether this was the ‘toll’ to get to the park via private lands or the actual park entrance fee. We were not charged an entrance fee at the ranger station. But the rangers busy telling stories to each other so it’s possible they were supposed to charge us another fee.
What to do in Las Pailas section
We visited the Pailas section of Rincón de la Vieja National Park so all information in this article is for the Pailas section. The Santa Maria section has different activities.
Enter the park through the ranger station. Drinkable water and restroom facilities are available there.
There are also snakes in jars at the ranger station – my Spanish wasn’t good enough to read the interpretive signs for an explanation.
There are two main trails – the ‘big’ waterfall trails and the thermal loop trails. Despite what some guide books say, the hike to the summit of the crater itself is no longer permitted. (For active volcanoes that sometimes allow crater hikes, check out Irazu and Poas Volcanoes near the city of San Jose.)
The waterfall trail allows you to see either or both of the waterfalls – La Cangreja and Escondida. The park closes the waterfall trail at noon due to its distance (6-miles round-trip) and difficulty – if you haven’t started that trail before noon, then you are not permitted to hike it. Sadly, we missed that cut-off. This hike was highly recommended by other travelers so plan accordingly for your trip.
The Las Pailas, or thermals trail, loop is a about 2-mile loop that starts behind the ranger station. The trail is signed and includes bubbling mud pots, boiling water pools and steam vents. The landscape varies between green canopy and wide-open sun. Wildlife and birds can be spotted along the trail.
Sitting by a steam vent, we spent about ten minutes watching a group of spider monkeys. From a human perspective, it looked like they were alternating between a game of tag and a game of hide and seek.
Staring intently at the ones in the distance, we almost overlooked the one sneaking up ten feet from our heads. As my Costa Rican travels continued, I’d learn these monkeys are well-known for using decoys so their buddy can creep up on you and grab any loose personal belongings (hats, sunglasses, food).
If you miss the waterfalls inside the park, visit the pink building on the other side of the parking lot from the Palias ranger station. There you can pay $10 USD/person to swim in the pool of the Oropendola Waterfall. This private trail also has an early closing time. No hours were posted. But based on the reluctance to sell us a ticket, it seems like we begged our way into entering after a 3:30 “last call” time.
A ten-minute hike to the waterfall includes a rope bridge suitable for one person at a time. The traffic on the bridge can take a while as people stop for photos or battle a fear of heights so pack some patience.
At the waterfall, a wooden platform serves as a place to leave shoes and other items. Climb down a metal rung ladder into the refreshingly cold pool. Swim to the bottom of the waterfall for a photo-op.
I highly recommend the Buena Vista del Rincon. It is a solid 60 to 90 minutes of driving from the Beuna Vista to the Pailas park but well worth the effort.
We drove to Buena Vista from the Coco Beach area. Traveling on remote unpaved roads that seemingly are going nowhere, a gate appears out of nowhere. A gatekeeper asks your name. If it matches one on his list, he opens the gate so you can enter the Buena Vista property.
Plan to use the facility for more than just sleeping. I’d recommend at least two nights with one day to play on the property. We made the mistake of arriving after dark with plans to leave early so we did not get to fully enjoy all the amenities.
Onsite fun at the Buena Vista hotel includes:
- Multiple locations to eat and drink
- Five rustic thermal pools with varying temperatures. Plan for at least 3 hours at the thermal pool area so you can also enjoy the sauna, a massage and the mud bath.
- Multiple trails including a waterfall trail. Hike a few of the trails early in the morning for wildlife viewing.
- Horse back riding
- Star-gazing. The remote location offers astounding star-gazing.
- Eco-adventure options such as jungle slide, hanging bridges and a zipline (all extra cost options).
To get to the thermal pools from the lodge, you can:
- Hike (but know it’s a HOT hike)
- “Shuttle”. The shuttle is actually a trailer pulled behind a tractor. Sign up for a time on the shuttle at the front desk.
- Ride a horse. Extra cost, register at the front desk.
At the thermal area, there are large changing rooms. Towels are provided. You can:
- Soak in different temperature thermal pools
- Take a mud bath
- Relax in the steam room
- Receive an outdoor massage (extra cost)
To continue exploring Costa Rica beyond the Rincon de la Vieja area , check out our Costa Rica 2-week itinerary.