de la Vieja (1,895 meters), an active volcano in a period
of relative calm, is the largest of five volcanoes that
make up the Cordillera de Guanacaste. It is composed
of nine separate but contiguous volcanic craters, with
dormant Santa María (1,916 meters) the tallest
and most easterly. Its crater harbors a forest-rimmed
lake popular with quetzals, linnets, and tapirs. The
main crater--Von Seebach, sometimes called the Rincón
de la Vieja crater--still steams. Icy Lake Los Jilgueros
lies between the two craters. The last serious eruption
was in 1983. Rincón, however, spewed lava and
acid gases on 8 May 1991, causing destructive lahores
(ash-mud flows). The slopes still bear reminders of
the destructive force of the acid cloud that burnt away
much of the vegetation on the southeastern slope.
attractions are protected in the 14,083-hectare Parque
Nacional Volcán Rincón de la Vieja,
which extends from 650 to 1,965 meters in elevation
on both the Caribbean and Pacific flanks of the cordillera.
The two sides differ markedly in rainfall and vegetation.
The Pacific side has a distinct dry season (if you
intend climbing to the craters, Feb.-April is best).
The Caribbean side is lush and wet year-round, with
as much as 500 cm of rainfall falling annually on
higher slopes. The park is known for its profusion
of orchid species.
diverse conditions foster a panoply of wildlife species.
More than 300 species of birds include quetzals, toucanets,
the elegant trogon, eagles, three-wattled bellbirds,
and the curassow. Mammals include cougars, howler,
spider, and white-faced monkeys, kinkajous, sloths,
tapirs, tayras, and even jaguars.
lower slopes can be explored along relatively easy
trails that begin at the park headquarters. The Sendero
Encantago leads through cloud forest full of guaria
morada orchids (the national flower) and links with
a 12-km trail that continues to Las Pailas (Caldrons),
50 hectares of bubbling mud volcanoes, boiling thermal
waters, vapor geysers, and the so-called Hornillas
(Ovens) geyser of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.
The mud has minerals and medicinal properties used
in cosmetology. Be careful when walking around: it
is possible to step through the crust and scald yourself,
or worse. This trail continues to the summit.
the cloud forest and Las Pailas, a side trail (marked
Aguas Thermales) leads to soothing, hot sulfur springs
called Los Azufrales (Sulfurs). The thermal waters
(42° C) form small pools where you may bathe and
take advantage of their curative properties. Use the
cold-water stream nearby for a cooling off after a
good soak in the thermal springs. Las Hornillas are
sulfurous fumaroles on the devastated southern slope
of the volcano. Another trail leads to the Hidden
Waterfalls, four continuous falls (three of which
exceed 70 meters) in the Agria Ravine. You'll find
a perfect bathing hole at the base of one of the falls.
to the Summit
The hike is relatively straightforward. You can do
the round-trip from the Las Pailas Ranger Station
(also called Las Espuelas) to the summit and back
in a day, two days from park headquarters. The lower
trail begins at the Santa María Ranger Station,
leads past Las Hornillas and the Las Pailas Ranger
Station and snakes up the steep, scrubby mountainside
through elephant grass and dense groves of twisted,
stunted copel clusia, a perfumed tree species common
near mountain summits. En route, you cross a bleak
expanse of purple lava fossilized by the blitz of
the sun. Trails are marked by cairns, though it is
easy to get lost if the clouds set in; consider hiring
a local guide. The upper slopes are of loose scree.
Be particularly careful on your descent.
can be cool up here, but--if it's clear--the powerful
view and the hard, windy silence make for a profound
experience. From on high, you have a splendid view
of the wide Guanacaste plain shimmering in the heat
like a dreamworld between hallucination and reality,
and, beyond, the mountains of Nicoya glistening like
hammered gold from the sunlight slanting in from the
south. On a clear day, you can see Lake Nicaragua.
Magical! You have only the sighing of the wind for
It will probably be cloudy, however, in which case
you may need to camp near the top to ascend the summit
the next morning before the clouds set in (there's
a campsite about five km from Las Pailas; it's about
two hours to the summit of Von Seebach from there).
The beach of Linnet Bird Lagoon--a whale-shaped lagoon
filled with very cold water, southeast of the active
volcano--is recommended for camping. Bring a waterproof
tent and clothing, plus mosquito and tick repellent.
The grasses harbor ticks and other biting critters:
consider long pants.
up with water at the ranger station before your uphill
The park headquarters is an old adobe hacienda--Hacienda
Santa María--about 27 km northeast of Liberia
(a sign on Hwy. 1 on the south side of Liberia points
the way to the "Sector Santa María").
The 19th-century farmstead was once owned by former
U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, who sold it to the
park service. It contains an exhibition room and is
linked by a six-km trail to the Las Pailas Ranger
Station, on the southwestern flank of the volcano.
Las Pailas is reached via a road from Curubandé.
park is administered from the Guanacaste Conservation
Area office in Santa Rosa National Park, tel. 666-5051
(see Santa Rosa National Park, below).