Costa Rica National Parks (Central America)

Park Nacional Volcan Tenorio’ and ‘Rio Celeste’. 

Day 1

Waking up early, we (Caroline, Jon and Vanessa) were keen to head off into the Costa Rican unknown and have our first adventure. After researching and chatting to our host (Emilio), we decided to catch a local bus to Bijagua and explore ‘Park Nacional Volcan Tenorio’ and ‘Rio Celeste’. We quickly gathered what we thought may be needed and headed towards the bus stop. We successfully managed to catch the first bus into town. However the second bus to Bijagua, was another story. We walked to three different bus terminals before finally reaching the 7/10 terminal, where our bus left at 3.30pm.

Whilst on the bus Vanessa luckily got chatting (initially in Spanish but then quickly realising Precilla’s English was so much better than her Spanish, reverted back to English), to her bus buddy, who’s mother lives in Bijagua. Precilla called a family relative and organised reasonably cheap accommodation for us at ‘Las Nuves’ where her aunt owned a cabana, a 3 person room cost $20,000 Colons. She booked this for us. We were very grateful, plus her mother offered to pick us up from the drop off in Bijagua and drive us to the accommodation via the supermarket.

After five very long hours we arrived in Bijagua, got a lift to the supermarket and dropped off at ‘Las Nuves’. Cooked our evening meal and headed off to bed for a reasonably early night.

Day 2

We had chatted to the owner the previous day and she had kindly offered to organise a lift to the start of ‘Park Nacional Volcan Tenorio’ walk. We ate breakfast and were keen to head off. The driver initially was asking $15 but after a little negotiation, reduced the fee to $13.

It took around 1hr down some bumpy roads to get to the entrance. At the entrance we paid $12 each, then had our bags thoroughly checked before heading in (no food or weapons of any sort to protect the fauna and flora).

The walk was 6km long and was predicted to take three hours in total. We started off with a spring in our step, taking in the tropical ambiance and jungle noises. The trail itself was well maintained and extremely easy to follow. We walked along chatting for the first half hour before our first glimpse of the majestic electric blue water through the trees. We walked down approximately 200 steps to the mirador and were extremely impressed with the sheer beauty of the waterfall and how unusually blue the water was.

This was due to the volcanic minerals in the water reacting to the light. Pretty Amazing! After snapping a few photos, we walked back up the steps and took a left turn at the top, continuing on the trail. We walked over wooden bridges, crossed a few muddy sections and saw some spectacular water colours along the way. We were even lucky enough to spot a few monkeys. In total the hike took us 2hrs and was definitely worth a visit.

Caroline desperately wanted a swim, so we managed to convince our driver to take us to a safe spot along ‘Rio Celeste’. Which wasn’t too far. However, as we were driving there, the heavens opened and it started to pour down. We stopped right next to a bridge, and walked down the side to get some shelter under the bridge. Jon whipped his clothes off and went in wearing his underwear, even though the temperature had dropped quite dramatically with the rain, whilst Vanessa and Caroline watched.

Caroline wanted to head in but due to the lack of swimwear (which normally wouldn’t bother her) and the fact that our driver was also sheltering under the bridge, she decided to give this one a miss. We returned to our accommodation, had lunch and chatted for a while contemplating if we could do any other hikes around the area.

Finally after chatting to some locals and discovering that other walks would involve many hours travel, we decided to catch the 3.30pm bus (which ended up being a 4.15pm bus) home, back to San Jose, where we arrived safely some 5 hours later.

Volcan irazu (Costa Rica)

We received specific instruction from our host Emilio to reach Volcan Irazu. We caught a random bus downtown and then at exactly 8am caught the only bus heading for Volcan Irazu. Despite being little over 25km from San Jose as the crow flies, it still took the best part of 2 hours for the bus to wind it’s way out of town, through the low clouds and up the mountain, rising from 1000m to 3400m in altitude, before reaching the entrance to the park.

As usual, we had no idea what to expect and Caroline, who couldn’t even remember if she had been there last time she was in Costa Rica, also wasn’t much help. We paid US$15 each entry to the park and were advised by the bus driver that the bus returned to San Jose at 12.30pm, giving us little over 2 hours.

We immediately noticed that the sky had cleared and that we were standing next to a giant dormant crater, with scorched black volcanic soil surrounding its top. It was possible to walk in a semi-circle around the crater rim and take a few photos, although access beyond the fencing was prohibited for safety reasons.

After a half hour or so we stopped for a quick picnic lunched at designated tables, having obeyed the signs to keep ‘nourishment’ out of the crater mouth area.

After our nourishment we snapped a few pictures of the clouds in the valley below and then walked the 200 or so meters to the mirador at the top of a short steep road. We immediately noticed that we had lost our altitude acclimatisation from a few weeks previously.

After a few more photos we then had a few minutes only to rush back down the same track to the bus before the 2 hour return journey back to San Jose, during which we took it in turns to nod off after our not so tiring morning.

Summary – whilst worth a visit, the volcano is probably a little too accessible for our liking, with only short walks available from the car park/bus stop. The entry fee for non-nationals is over the top (locals pay less than $5) but would be worthwhile if you could access the nearby national park walking trails from the volcano mirador but the access track was restricted for authorised personnel only, meaning a drive back down the hill in order to enter the park via another road some kilometres away.

Braulio Carrillo national park 

Day 1

After several days of frustration with the Costa Rican bus system (which to be fair is very extensive, but just not very efficient) we decided to hire a car (to head to Cahuita on the south east coast) for the bargain rate of $3 per day. What could possibly go wrong? Oh right – an extra insurance charge of $11 (total). Still not so bad but there’s gotta be a catch… Anyway we left Esteban to catch up on work for a couple days. We then caught two buses from Esteban’s apartment to get to the airport to pick up our car, where we spent about an hour collecting it and discovering all those extra catches we’d been worried about – quite a lot of extra expense! Oh well, no turning back now… Pretty chuffed to have a vehicle (and air conditioned comfort in this hot and humid country in wet season)

We set off at the not so early 11am. We then experienced slowwww Costa Rican traffic for many hours, then Caroline forgot to tell Jon where the turn off was to Braulio Carillo national park (in San Luis, a town we’d already past), which we wanted to visit on the way to Cahuita. So we missed that and ended up on a tollway with beautiful jungle and cool clouds, however no exits or entrances, that plodded along at about 60km/hr (if we were lucky). Despite Caroline’s mistake, we happily discovered an alternative entrance to Braulio Carillo national park, which had no one in the car park but us (bonus of visiting national parks on a Monday). An extremely friendly ranger called Guillermo rushed out to show us a sloth in a tree which made Vanessa’s week (basically her main goal for the trip to Costa Rica). He then helpfully gave us a brochure and a hand drawn map and sent us on a few small trails – the Sendero las Palmas, Sendero el Ceibo and Sendero Botarrama. The park entry was $12US which we thought was a bit steep but we just wanted to go walking so we parted with our money. The trails weren’t particularly challenging (except for the heat and humidity) but took us through beautiful jungle and the occasional mirador (lookout) and across many rivers and creeks. The highlight for Caroline was laying down in a cool creek on the way back (Vanessa and Jon just paddled).

Guillermo also gave us a restaurant recommendation for lunch (by this time it was nearly 3 and we were starving) so we pulled up a few km down the highway at Bar El Yugo where we had an excellent (though unnecessarily large) buffet. Yes, Caroline got carried away as usual – with Costa Rican delights such as frijoles (beans) and plátanos con queso (plantain with cheese – way more delicious than it sounds).

Despite our best intentions there was no way we were going to make it to the campsite near Cahuita where we planned to sleep. And we definitely weren’t even going to make it to Puerto Viejo for a swim. It started to pour and continued to pour and Caroline fell asleep in the backseat while Jon and Vanessa came up with an alternative campsite – next to Rio Barbilla under the shelter of a partially outdoor restaurant (La Posa). Luckily the restaurant owners were happy to let us camp undercover and leave the toilet unlocked for us so long as we bought some food. There was nothing vegetarian on the very small menu and we were still totally stuffed from lunch, but couldn’t really camp without giving them business at least, so we bought some plates of rice, salad and patacones, and tried to force it down. While no one was looking Jon quickly stuffed most of it into a ziplock bag to save for later and we thanked them for their generosity. Luckily by then the rain had calmed down so we played cards and set up camp, making plans for an early morning river swim and then on to Puerto Viejo and Cahuita!

Day 2

We were able to make an early start the next morning as the tents were dry and the rain had stopped. After we had all taken a dip in the surprisingly warm Rio Barbilla we set off to drive the remaining distance to Cahuita.

Shortly before Cahuita, we spotted a sloth sanctuary and pulled in to enquire the cost. We decided the admission was a little steep (Costa Rican prices!) but were directed by the person at reception towards a lone sloth lying in a hanging wicker cradle. At first we thought it was a stuffed toy but then slowly but surely it sprung into relative action. The photos did the slow motion movement no justice, so we filmed the moments.

Elated with the flurry of sloth activity we jumped back in the car and continued the short distance to Carhuito National Park and our campsite (Camping Maria (US$9pp )) for the night.

On arriving, we pitched our 2 tents under tarps, next to the ocean, ate our lunch (leftovers from previous day) and headed for the park entrance approx 2km away.

Unlike the other Costa Rican national parks, this one was admission subject to donation, which we felt more acceptable than the inflated 2-tier pricing of the other parks.

The walk follows the coast for approximately 10km. However, we were advised as we set off at 1.10pm that we needed to reach the check-point at 4km by 2pm or else we would be turned back. We felt that we could cover the distance in that time and set off at a fast pace. The problem, as we soon discovered, is the the park is spectacularly beautiful (a combination of jungle and sandy beaches alongside crystal blue water and literally teaming with all variations of wildlife. Meaning that we stopped every few hundred metres to stare and take photos. 

Unfortunately we got to the turning at 2.08pm and, sure enough, despite our protesting otherwise, we were turned back by the ranger who had obviously heard the same excuses many times before. On the very positive side, we had already seen the following animals in little under an hour: monkeys, raccoons, capybaras, turtles, squirrels, numerous lizards, birds and insects.

Undeterred, we walked back towards the entrance at a more leisurely pace, stopping for beach swims and vowed to head back the following morning to do the whole trail.

Back at our campsite we ate a large dinner played a ‘new’ card game (haggis) until later than was necessary and then hit the sack.

Day 3

Vanessa and Jon got up early for a jog along the beach. Unfortunately the tarp above Caroline’s tent had succumbed to the overnight storm, meaning that she had a restless night and therefore declined to join in on the run, opting for an extra hours lie-in. However, she faired better than 2 other campers who found that not only was the tarp useless but their hired tent was as waterproof as a teabag! Luckily the sun started beating down and dried things out pretty quickly.

Returning from their run Vanessa and Jon jumped in the natural rookpool next to the campsite, showered, spotted an amazing coloured frog and joined Caroline for breakfast before returning to the entrance of the national park to complete the previous day’s unfinished hike.

Setting off at a more leisurely pace than previously, we spotted the same variation of animals but also managed to get very close to a Coati (which we thought was an aardvark) and who appeared more interested in looking for food than in us humans.

We passed the (now un-manned) checkpoint around mid-morning and soon afterward spotted a very quiet area of beach perfect for a quick cooling skinny-dip.

A further half hour walk saw us reach the westernmost point of the park (less than 5km from the Pamama border) and where the path turns inland. From here on the trail meanders 2.5km through jungle marshland on a raised boardwalk structure. We assumed that this meant we need not be to concerned about creatures under-foot but when Vanessa spotted a snake which looked more like a thin stick on the boardwalk, we had to reassess.

After another 45 or so warm minutes we reached the other entrance to the national park. We had been advised that at this entrance, which is run by the government, rather than the other which is administered by the locals, the entry fee is higher (a good result for east-west hikers). The total time taken, including stops for swims was a little under 4 hours on a flat and obvious path.

From the entrance we caught a local bus (every 30minutes) the 5km back to our car at the entrance, packed up our gear at the campsite and headed for home.
Summary – Of the 4 national parks we visited in Costa Rica, Carhuito was by far the best, from the point of view of scenery, wildlife and also value for money. It’s a long drive from San Jose (5 hours…despite what ‘mapsme’ says) but it’s more than worthwhile spending a couple of days in this beautiful area.