Central AmericaCosta RicaTravel

Hiking the Costa Rican rainforest, alone

Rincon De La Vieja National Park

Most backpackers we met on our travels through Central America seemed to be going in different directions as they crossed the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica. Decision making here was tough because Costa Rica is the most bio-diverse country in the world. There are so many things to see and do in such a small space of the earth and a lot of people pass Rincon De La Vieja National Park.

Crossing the border Nicaragua to Costa Rica
Across the border, where to now?

We chose to go to Liberia, the capital city of the Guanacaste region located in the North West of the country, purely because of it’s close proximity to the border and to the highly recommended Rincon De La Vieja National Park. Liberia also offered several luxury hotels at very reasonable prices.
Best Western El Sitio Hotel & Casino, luxury hotel in Liberia, Costa Rica
Our wonderful hotel in Liberia

Straight to the rain forest!
What better way to experience our first taste of Costa Rica than to visit a volcanic rain forest and it was probably one of the best decisions we made on our round the world trip. Though there were no official Rincon De La Vieja tours, we managed to find round-trip transportation with Hotel Guanacaste for $25.

We were picked up at 7am by our driver and taken around an hour away deep into the lush green landscape of the Guanacaste province. We hiked two trails around the park, the 2 mile Las Palais trail and the 12 mile La Cangreja waterfall trail.

The Las Palais trail – geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pots
As we were somewhat out of season when visiting the park in October, there was literally nobody else around. The Las Palais trail starts with a typical jungle rope bridge of a Costa Rican rainforest.

We were full of energy and adrenaline as we weaved in and out of big beautiful Buttress trees that made up a lot of the 13,000 acres of landscape.

Buttress Trees, wildlife, Costa Rica
Big buttress trees

The roots of these trees cover most of the paths around the park so we had to tread carefully. The smells were equally as incredible as the landscape, imagine fresh greens, colorful flora and sulfuric steam with a hint of tropical humidity.
Typical terrain in the Costa Rica Jungle of tree roots and volcanic rock
Typical terrain in the Costa Rica rain forest

All sorts of animal noises surrounded us and we saw lots of swinging movements in the canopy above. We were well equipped and prepared with a good 300mm zoom lens on wildlife watch.

Hiking through heavily covered canopy in the Costa Rican jungle
Heavy canopy covers the start of the trail

As soon as an opening appeared from the canopy, we stood in awe and watched steamy volcanic cracks vent sulfuric mist delicately into the humid air above the ground.

Rincon De La Vieja National park volcanic activity costa rica
Volcanic activity on the Las Palais trail

The smell of ‘boiled eggs’ was getting stronger the more we moved toward the first ‘attraction’ of the trail, the Laguna Fumarolica.
Volcanic laguna hot spring Costa Rica
The Laguna Fumarolica

The Laguna Fumarolica is the first real taste of volcanic terrain that we experienced in Costa Rica. On a clear day with a bright blue sky, it was like standing inside a painting!

We eventually reached another sign post with directions to the ‘Dancing Mud’ (Bailas De Barro). There are signs to further parts of the park here such as the Santa Maria section and with a 12 mile trail, we decided the mud pots would be enough on this half of the park (plus the Palais De Aguas was closed for maintenance).

Signs on the Las Palais trail in Rincon De La Vieja National Park, Costa Rica
Useful directions indicate distances

The Bailas De Barro (Dancing Mud) has two spectacular parts to it. The first was a small body of creamy mud popping delicate bubbles like thick chewing gum. Standing by in complete silence, we couldn’t comprehend how the depths of the earth appear on ground level in such a majestic way. The bubbling sounds were something we will never forget.

Bubbling mud pots in Rincon De La Vieja National Park, Costa Rica
‘Dancing Mud’

The neighboring part of the first mud pot is a larger body of bubbling water. It was fascinating to see the grey waters sizzling like a scalding hot bath. The canopy shadowed over the body of water giving it an eerie feeling.

Bubbling mud pots and dancing water in volcanic Costa Rica
Sizzling waters

The Las Palais trail loop ends here, and on the way back to the Las Palais entrance, we finally saw our first sign of wildlife. The canopy swung heavily above as berries dropped by our feet on the ground. We looked up and saw a family of ‘white faced monkeys’ swinging by for brunch.
White Faced Monkey in a tree eating in Costa Rica
The ‘White Faced Monkey’

The monkeys were just as intrigued by us as they sat above for around 15 minutes giving us the best photo opportunities.

White Faced Monkey in canopy, Costa Rica
Zoom lens benefits

This was a perfect ending to the trail before heading for lunch at the picnic area outside the Las Palias Ranger Station. Another group of tourists had arrived and several of them scurried over to a tree with their cameras, we joined the fun and it turned out to be a White-throated Magpie Jay (Calocitta Formosa), a bird that is a significant part of the Costa Rican wildlife scene.

White throated magpie jay. The white-throated magpie jay (Calocitta formosa) bird in costa rica
White-throated Magpie Jay (Calocitta Formosa)

It turned out that Costa Rica is one of the most humid places we have ever been to, even in October, and we weren’t expecting the humidity to be close to 100%. It was very important for us to re-hydrate and refuel before attempting the 12 mile La Cangreja hike ahead.

The La Cangreja trail
Nobody prepared us for how long and tough this hike actually was. It got to a point where we thought we weren’t going to make it back in time before dark. This hike is very strenuous, the terrain is difficult, there are steep inclines and great exposure to the creatures of the jungle in pure isolation. Prepare with running socks, a mobile phone, GPS, PLENTY of water, snacks and a good flashlight. The trail begins with a warning sign reminding you of the volcanic dangers ahead.

Warning sign on the La Cangreja Waterfall trail, Rincon De La Vieja National Park, Costa Rica
Warnings of volcanic activity
The rewards are worth every second of the pain, we were overwhelmed by the amount of vegetation and wildlife typical of a tropical rain forest and we were completely alone.

The hike begins with a low incline and a beautiful butterfly garden is situated to the right hand-side.
Start of the La Cangreja Trail, Rincon De La Vieja National Park, Costa Rica
Low incline gets the quads going
We saw all colours of the rainbow as gentle wings elegantly floated around the magnificent flora in the natural garden.
Picture of butterfly in Costa Rica
Beautiful butterfly garden

A thick canopy covers a heavily obstructed pathway, we had to tread carefully over tree roots and were grateful of the deep treads on our shoes. Right into the park, we heard a rustle right by our feet that stopped us in our tracks. We saw the most beautiful snake we had ever seen, not hiding very well from us after being startled! With a red belly and a shy nature, we managed to capture this image before it slithered off.

Snake in the Costa Rica rainforest with a red belly hiding beneath the leaves
A shy snake on the pathway of the trail

The heavy canopy above the trail was so thick, it always felt like it was late in the evening. The trail leads up and down tough hills, stepping on and off rocks and thick tree roots. We wouldn’t recommend the hike if it had been raining or is about to.
Canopy brings darkness

We were a little nervous of the clouds opening up, but the weather was very kind to us.

After a couple of challenging hours, we arrived at a sign where the path splits into two, one way for Catarata La Cangreja (the La Cangreja Waterfall) or Cataratas Escondidas. We chose La Canreja because it was further away and felt it would give us wider exposure to the park.
Sign to waterfalls in Rincon De Le Vieja National Park, Costa Rica

The La Cangreja trail leads across a river and over another bouncy jungle bridge.
A Jungle rope bridge in Rincon De La Vieja National Park, Costa Rica.  
The trail leads immediately up steep hill following the bridge as we passed armies of ants and mosquitoes.

Colonies of ants in the Cost Rican jungle
Treading carefully over colonies of ants

There was no sign of open spaces or a waterfall, and we were 4 hours in. Were we lost or were we struggling with time against the intense heat and terrain?
Costa Rica rain forest terrain aloe vera plants
No end in sight as we struggled with the heat

The canopy above suddenly rustled along with sounds of screaming spider and howler monkeys. The group of monkeys passed right above us with a couple of mothers carrying babies on their backs. We had our own private moment with these beautiful animals.

Spider monkeys

Then finally, we could see an open space and day light!

Costa Rica volcanic terrain
Beautiful scenery around the first opening
The opening was incredible. We walked onto a clay coloured pathway with hundreds of volcanic rocks and the most incredible view of the surrounding scenery. Green fields lined the landscape and it was at this moment when we heard the fierce rumbling of the Rincon De La Vieja volcano.

After 30 minutes of hiking in the basking heat of the open area, the path led to a beautiful field of bright yellow flowers that had attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of bees!

Floral area of the Costa Rican rain forest
Passing by a swarm of bees
The buzzing was something that we would never forget, it really was a once in a life time experience to hear so many bees congregated in one area. We never saw the bees, and stuck to the path leaving nature safely uninterrupted.

The clay path eventually took us down a steep hill that was covered with enormous rocks. Once we climbed half way down, we could hear the sound of running water, we had made it! La Cangreja waterfall was just a few more minutes away. The climb down to the waterfall was probably the most difficult and dangerous part of the trail. We stepped carefully and slowly on the steep, slippery rocks.
Rocky terrain in Costa Rica rain forest
A difficult hike down to the waterfall
The sight of the waterfall was simply stunning. We were surprised to see a group of hikers swimming and taking photographs of their surroundings. Where did they come from?
La Cangreja Waterfall in Costa Rica
La Cangreja
We planned on taking a long rest break but were conscious of time. The last thing we wanted was to be in the middle of the rain forest at night and completely alone!

We tried to sit on a boulder to rest our legs but a local resident was having none of it.

Crab in the Costa Rican jungle
One place to sit and it was occupied by a local resident

The only rock comfortable enough to sit on, and this little beauty wouldn’t allow it. Gracefully defeated, we sat uncomfortably on a the floor for 30 minutes to refuel and reflect on what we had achieved so far. We offered our new friend a few pieces of trail mix which was received with a less than friendly response.

Crab in the Costa Rica rain forest in Rincon De La Vieja National Park
Crabs don’t like trail mix!

We were so daunted about the hike back and thought we wouldn’t have the energy to make it but the alternative of spending the night here was a little less appealing given the millions of species that make an appearance at night, we had to get moving. The big scary hill we just climbed down, we now had to go back up!

It started to get dark and we had no idea how far we were from the entrance. We tried to embrace the moment but there was always that element of panic as with every adventurous decision we seem to make. Contrary to what we thought, wildlife presence became less evident as it got dark, I guess we were kind of hoping to see a tarantula or two and all we saw was this beautiful lizard, probably heading to bed.

Lizard in Costa Rica
All species heading to bed as we battled to leave before dark

We were almost sprinting back to the start of the trail, all six miles!

Hiking back through the La Cangreja trail almost dark in the jungle of Costa Rica
Practically running back to the Ranger Station

It’s funny how adrenaline allows tired aching bones and muscles to perform at their very best when we need to the most!
Costa Rica jungle in the dark
Do the big scary creatures really crawl out at night?

We slashed our hiking time when compared to the first leg, and we eventually reached the trail head. We couldn’t help but feel disappointed it was over. What an incredible experience we had at Rincon De La Vieja National Park. It was one of the best days of our lives and one of the bravest things we’ve ever done. We tell the story to our friends, families and friendly strangers at any opportunity because we feel like we survived being lost in the jungle. Though we were never officially lost, it felt like we were the whole way through and it is adrenaline-fueled experiences like this that make us feel alive.

Our driver told us that he was worried about us as we were an hour or so late arriving back. He pulled over in his 4×4 several times on the way out of the park to show us more of incredible Costa Rica.

He pointed out plants and trees including the leaves of Mimosa Pudica, also known as the ‘sensitive plant’. The plant’s leaves curl away when they are touched to protect themselves against damage and they reopen again a few minutes later.

Mimosa pudica, the sensitive plant in Costa Rica
Mimosa Pudica, the ‘sensitive plant’

We pulled over one last time as the sky turned dark and were guided up a small hill that gave us the most spectacular view of the Costa Rican sunset.

Sunset in Costa Rica
Costa Rican sunset

A fitting end to an already perfect day.

If you would like to contact the park, check out the Rincon De La Veija National Park’s official website.

If you would like to know more about Costa Rica and Rincon De La Vieja National Park, we recommend the following from Amazon:

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Rincon De La Vieja National Park, Costa Rica

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