When God finished painting the sky…

Mr Frommer (or whoever penned his guide to Costa Rica) describes the hike into the Rio Celeste as ‘an easy trail’ that could be jogged in 1 hour or ‘strolled’ in 3 or 4. We honed in on the words ‘easy’ and ‘strolled’  and adding these to the description of the Río Celeste as one of ‘Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets’, we were sold. We should have sought a second opinion.

Part of the Tenorio Volcano National Park, the Río Celeste is incredible. Two clear-water rivers merge and become a stunning blue. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Scratch ‘easy’ and replace it with ‘medium to difficult’, depending on the day. If it’s been raining, you’ll be knee-deep in mud. Some of the inclines are 45 degrees and more, and some of the steps are knee deep. The path, such as it is, is strewn with rocks, crisscrossed with streams, and often littered with fallen trees and branches. So you can scratch ‘strolled’, too. At the very least it’s a hike or a trek. Doable in runners on a dry day but not advisable – yep, I fell flat on my ass on my way down one of those inclines. Hiking boots are the way to go. But I’m still getting ahead of myself.

We paid our $12.00 entrance and trotted off at a nice pace. The beginning of the path has been laid with cement and is reasonably flat. Then there’s a soft climb …. for about 30 minutes, until you reach the Catarata – the waterfall – and the stunning blue pool it falls into.

Its 60-90 ft high (depending on what you read) and is accessed by climbing down some 250+ steps. I managed 150 before I figured enough was enough. I really wanted to make it to the end of the trail, to see where the two rivers meet, and I know my limits. At this stage, I knew Mr Frommer was taking the proverbial or else whoever he had write that part of the book had never gotten this far.

Next stop on the itinerary is the Poza Azul, the Blue Lagoon. The trail gets more difficult with lots of rocks and trees and water to negotiate – and it goes up, and up, and up. I thanked my mother for raising me to be polite, as giving way to those coming towards us and those coming from behind gave me a legitimate excuse to take a breather.

So on we went, past the pool, and across some hanging bridges. Posted signs assured us that they’d take one person at a time but, unlike elevators, the signs didn’t specify size. I didn’t dally. The smell of sulphur was getting stronger and the water beneath us was bubbling in spots. BuLoking over at the volcanic complex from the next viewing point, it was difficult to tell that they were, well, volcanoes: Tenorio 1, Tenorio 2, and Montezuma. It really has five main craters – but we could only see these three. The others are Bijagua and Olla de Carne.

The river slipped in and out of view. The colours were amazing. The creatures of the forest did their part and played their accompaniment beautifully. We hadn’t yet reached the place where the Buena Vista and Quebrada Agria rivers meet, that place called Los Teñideros. Apparently, this roughly translates as the dyeing pool or the dyeing of the rivers, or the stainers. It’s also known as El Teñidero (the dyer). Some say the blue is caused by travertine (a form of limestone) that precipitates out of the water and reflects blue. Others say it’s because of the copper in the water. More still reckon on a chemical reaction between calcium carbonate and sulphur. But the scientists have weighed in. The water is only blue when it’s in the river bed. Take it out and put it in a glass and it’s clear. Turns out, it’s not chemical at all. It’s optical. It’s about how we see the sun reflecting on the water.

Sunlight contains the entire color spectrum, similar to the way we see them all in a rainbow. In any other river sunlight penetrates to a certain depth and no particular color is deflected or reflected back to the surface, so it looks transparent, while in the Río Celeste the water passes some of the Sun’s rays, but reflects the bluish tone group. So the water appears blue to the human eye.

But why here? I did notice a layer of white-looking rocks forming a line across the river where the two colours divide. And I did wonder. And I wondered rightly, as it turns out, because those rocks are covered in a substance…

…a type of mineral that is composed of aluminum, silicon and oxygen, and being suspended in the water, is responsible for reflecting light from the Sun, so that the flow looks blue.

Whatever the explanation, the result is spectacular. Legend has it that when God finished painting the sky, He dipped his paintbrush in the Río Celeste. Why don’t I find that difficult to believe?

PS. About the blue bottle in the featured image… When we stopped at the Blue Lagoon, I noticed it on the fence and thought – interesting! Some clever park ranger has left it here so we can compare blues. When we got the end, to El Teñidero, I saw what I thought was another one. So I moved it, setting it up to take my photo. No sooner had I clicked than a Tico tourist came and snatched it from me. It was his water – the same bottle. He had words. When I showed him this photo, he got it. I hadn’t been trying to steal his water. I looked around a few minutes later, and there he was lining up his bottle and snapping away. And then someone else asked to borrow it. But I’ll have you know – I was in there first.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Earlier this week, I caught myself disparaging the Pacific Ocean and its beaches, saying in the same breath how much I preferred the waters and sands of the Caribbean. I had to slap myself silly to get my head back into reality. There’ll be a time I’ll be damn glad to be on a beach, any beach, regardless of its parent. But this week, I’m being choosy. I am singularly unimpressed with the beaches on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. And with the water. Give me the Caribbean side any day.

So, in search of some diversion, we took ourselves off to the Rincón de la Vieja, an active andesitic complex volcano in north-western Costa Rica.  And yes, I had to look up andesitic – a dark, fine-grained, brown or grayish volcanic rock that is intermediate in composition between rhyolite and basalt. Enough! I don’t need the detail. Enough to know it’s a park with a volcano, one of many in the country.

Part of the Pacific Ring Fire Circle, Costa Rica has over 200 identifiable volcanic formations dating back over 65 million years. Today, however, only 100 or so show any signs of volcanic activity, while just five are classified as active volcanoes.

Our attempt to visit Poas came to nowt as the volcano was closed to the public because of recent activity. Our attempt to visit Irazú came to nowt as visibility was nil. Our attempt to visit Arenal was foiled because of bad information – we got there too late. Park closing times and last admission times are different. Beware. So, rather than try again, we decided to play it safe and at least try to see the bits and bobs that go with volcanoes in the   Rincón de la Vieja National Volcano Park (Parque Nacional Volcán Rincón de la Vieja). It’s the largest volcano in the region of Guanacaste, standing more than 6000 ft tall and 9 miles wide. Dating back 600 000 years, it has at least 9 volcanic craters (of which we saw none – but we’d come to expect that).

Laguna fumarolica


Boiling mud pots


We hiked the flat 2.5-mile loop through the Las Pailas (the cauldrons) sector and contented ourselves with bubbling mud pools, mini-geysers, and fumaroles. [I had to look that one up, too: an opening in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge.]

It stank to high heaven in places and was hotter than I imagine Hades to be, and still it was glorious. I can’t begin to describe the noise in this tropical dry forest – the cacophony of sounds from birds, insects, animals. It’s amazing.

The noble butterflies kept us company. Leaping lizards kept us amused. And leaf-cutter ants kept us enthralled. I’m not a great fan of hiking on a balmy day let alone in 30+ degrees with humidity. Even still, I enjoyed it. The trail is easy; doable in runners. It was sweltering in parts, so I shamelessly brought out my umbrella and mentally apologised to all those Asian women I have smirked at in the past.

There are seven hikes in all, each varying in length, intensity, and reward. This one was grand for me. I know full well that if I go downhill, I will need to come back uphill – I prefer to stay on the flat.

Fascinating as the volcanic bits were, it was the trees and their roots that I’d go back for. I can’t ever remember seeing such complicated knots on something living. Mother Nature truly is a remarkable woman.

Las Pailas sector is open daily (except Mondays) from 7am to 3pm. The Santa Maria sector is open 8am to 4pm. Admission is $15 for non-nationals. Don’t forget to sign out when you leave.


The legend

Rincón de la Vieja means “Corner of the Old Woman”. An indigenous legend tells about Princess Curubandá, daughter of the Curubandé tribe chieftain, who fell in love with Prince Mixcoac, the son of an enemy tribe chief. Curubandá’s father ended her forbidden lover’s life by throwing him into the live volcano crater. Devastated, Curubandá became a recluse living the rest of her life high on the volcano’s slope. She learned natural medicines from the volcano and developed healing powers. People seeking medicinal cures were told to go to “the corner of the old woman” by the volcano. And thus, the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano received its name.