Hiking the Pacific Side of Rincon de la Vieja
Hike Rincon de La Vieja, one of the most famous Costa Rica volcanoes on the Pacific side where you'll be able to visit Las Pailas, the stunning Seabach Crater, Santa Maria Volcano, Las Pailas mud pots, and waterfalls.
The Pacific side of Rincon de la Vieja permits tourists to explore the largest and last remaining tropical dry forests in Costa Rica. Blue River Resort & Hot Springs can set up an itinerary that will keep you busy for a week, but you'll be able to see all the wonders found here in as few as two days. It's possible to do a round trip from Las Pailas Ranger Station (also called Las Espuelas) to the Rincon de la Vieja summit in one day. From Santa Maria Ranger Station (the park headquarters), hiking requires two days. From Santa Maria Station to the Rincon de la Vieja volcano summit the path leads past Las Hornillas (the mud pots) and Las Pailas Ranger Station. It can be easy to get lost when the clouds set in, so consider hiring a local tour guide. It's always worth repeating – bring lots of water, a light coat for rain and a change of clothes to accommodate the changing temperatures.
This Costa Rica volcano trail system is well marked and the park is considered perfect for the average person with its intact paths and the low levels activity of the volcano. There are several entrances into the park along the Pacific side of Rincon de la Vieja, but at one point the paths converge into one. Taking the shortest route saves up to 5 hours so it's important to plan which trail you want to take. The trail begins before the park in the dry forest, then through a transition forest, before entering the park where the rainforest begins. Near the entrance, one tourist writes, "watch out for coatimundis, which can be shockingly bold - enough to attempt steal your lunch."
Inside Rincon de la Vieja, you will pass by one or both park ranger stations– Las Pailas and Santa Maria (the park's head quarters), depending upon where you enter. At the ranger stations, you need to register and pay an entrance fee - $10 for foreigners or $2 for nationals. For safety reasons, guests are required to hike only one trail in Rincon de la Vieja before reporting back to the ranger station. If you get lost the park rangers must commence a search for you.
Entering along trails close to Las Pailas are the most popular routes because they are closest to the many trails leading to a "best of" tour on the Pacific side. Close by are the mud cones and mud pots- small mud depressions that bubble continuously. You'll also find Homillas geysers releasing jets of steam (sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide), particularly during the rainy season. The mud contains minerals and medicinal properties used in cosmetology. The trail weaves through woods shaded by giant strangler figs. Remember, you have the option to end your hike here around Las Pailas or continue on a 1/2- 1 day tour to Las Pailas.
To reach this first section past Las Pailas caldrons at the ranger station is another 6 km along gentle slopes. To reach the active volcanoes, the following 2 km ascent is steep. This hike begins in tropical moist rainforest and as you climb the geography changes to pre-montane wet forest where the trees are covered with epiphytic vegetation and the climate becomes harsher. The final ascent is over exposed lava rock, and at the top you will be surrounded by eerie volcano landscape and on a clear day, stunning panoramic views toward Nicoya and Nicaragua. Some describe entering this hard landscape and windy silence as a profound experience. In between the craters is the icy Lake Los Jigueros. Be mindful that it's best to leave early for the best weather. It can be windy, there are no guard rails and the top can often be immersed in the clouds and rainy.
Consider camping over night in the park. You can go to one of the ranger stations for help, to pay the fees and to make arrangements. You have the option to camp near the top, where you would have to ascend the summit early the next morning before the clouds set in. There is a campsite about 5 km from Las Pailas. It's about two hours to the main attraction, on Seebach crater, the summit from here. Another recommended campsite is southeast of the active volcano called the beach of Linnet Bird Lagoon – a whale shaped lagoon filled with very cold water. Remember mosquito and tick repellent as the grasses harbour ticks and other biting critters. Bring a waterproof tent and clothing (long sleeves are a must).
Hiking The Crater of Santa Maria Volcano
For our thrill seeking guests, there is also the option to hike the 8-hour roundtrip to the summit of the Santa Maria volcano crater. Usually this hike begins at Santa Maria ranger station but can also start at Las Pailas ranger station. Santa Maria Ranger Station is the park head quarters and an old adobe hacienda called Hacienda Santa Maria. It's a 19th century farmstead once owned by former United States President Lyndon B. Johnson, who sold it to the park service. Inside is an exhibition room. Hike along a scrubby mountainside, tall grasses and a rugged trail passing fossilized lava flows and loos lava rock. The views from the Santa Maria's summit are fantastic. On a clear day it is possible to see Lake Nicaragua.
Las Azufrales offers a stress relieving dip in hot springs. Located along the base of Rincon de la Vieja Park, the hot springs bubble up at 107 F. The springs are ideal for bathing and unwinding. Don't stay in the water longer than 30 minutes and utilize the nearby cool-water stream to cool off afterward.
If you plan on hiking up the volcano remember to take plenty of water, pack food, a light coat for the rain and a change of clothes to accommodate the weather.