Our fifth day in Costa Rica opened with dense clouds. The nearby Volcanoes Tenorio and Miravalles, between which our lodge was nestled, were totally invisible, but we decided to head out to the Tenorio Volcano National Park http://www.costarica-nationalparks.com/tenorionationalpark.html for a hike to the famously blue and seriously remote Rio Celeste…
We drove 10km up the gravel road toward Upala and there on the side of the road was a log cabin marking the entrance to the national park. A single ranger was present and presiding over a desk piled high with paperwork, a sign-in sheet, and a wall filled with jars of snakes and lizards and spiders preserved in formaldehyde. We signed our names and paid 5000 colones apiece and head down the trail with our guide Alejandro.
Narrow, hand carved bridges covered the wettest areas of the rainforest. Once we got up into the mountains we hiked in single file, up and up.
Almost immediately the rain began, which of course required a few witty quips about “what’s a rainforest without rain?” and we hiked on and up toward the waterfall spur. Old broken signs and unfinished trail improvements littered the trail and I was reminded about how remote this area really is. Infrastructure development happens at a snail’s pace and the forest is minimally staffed.
The Rio Celeste is a small river that is fed by several other streams and flows for leagues down out of the Tenorio Volcano before it turns into the Rio Tenorio and loses its distinct coloring – our cabin was right next to it back at La Carolina. We glimpsed the river junction where the chemicals mix to form the opalescent deep blue the river is known for. At this junction, one river is augmented with sulfur gasses that arise from fissures in the volcano, while the other fork carries other chemical compounds like copper sulfate and calcium carbonate. At this intersection an exothermic reaction occurs, the water turns milky blue, and its temperature increases several degrees. From here and 27 kilometers downriver the water flows blue.
To get to the Catarata Rio Celeste, the great blue waterfall, we first hiked up into the mountains. But soon enough it was time to trek down into the ravine that holds the waterfall basin. After a few steps down very slippery old steps I was surprised to see a massive staircase completely under construction, being welded together, and very much open to the public. I said many “excuse me’s” and “I’m sorry’s” along the way down, trying not to bump the exposed rebar or get caught in a hole in the steps. Halfway down the incomplete stair turned into a very nice, very sold, and very concrete railed stairway down to the bottom of the waterfall. It was funny to hike down this staircase because I imagine that in the United States the whole park would be closed for an improvement of this kind – they’d never risk a person getting hurt in a construction zone. But here in the middle of nowhere, where 10 contractors have to haul every piece of material and equipment up miles of hills in the mud, by hand, the park is very much open. And I was grateful. Because what if I didn’t get to see the waterfall?
The Catarata itself is such a spectacular color. The pool below is so inviting and I wanted to swim in it so bad, but it was closed recently after a child died swimming in the current. I found the color of the water so unusual it was almost alien. Such a pure teal blue I had to match it with a pantone swatch. It’s really incredible to see the unusual things nature produces – colors, shapes, habitats – so much beauty in the rainforest.
There are cold springs of sulfur gas bubbling up from the volcano as well as hot springs of mineralized water along the Rio Celeste. This is one of those spots. Pure magic. I want to go back and have a swim in it next time, in the rustic rock-lined pool that sits on the edge of the rushing river right before the falls.
Above the Catarata the Celeste pools in a deep lagoon – the Lagun Azul. Here among the low hanging branches and afternoon light the water positively glows. It was the calmest, cleanest, most enchanting river I’ve ever seen.
The pH of the water is unusually acidic from sulfur, copper and a dozen other trace chemicals, so it can’t support any animal life. But tufts of grass-like algae and other plant species have adapted to the conditions of the river and grow in bright abundance in and around the lagoon.
We crossed the river on several small bridges where we marveled at the water and the jungle that engulfed us. Here I am with my dad Steve and his wife Shawn. We had a blast observing the Rio Celeste in all of its different formations, from the Lagun to the Catarata and back.
After the hike – what I consider one of the best hikes of the entire trip – the group headed back to La Carolina for lunch and an afternoon horseback ride through the orchards. Right after lunch we saw three of the horses escape the stables and gallop through the trim gardens! Where were they going? How did they know which way was “out”? The Sabaneros expertly reined them back to the stables within minutes but it was fantastic to see them being so sneaky! The white horse looks exactly like a unicorn from a distance…
After an amazing and relaxing few days at La Carolina I was almost ready for our next adventure. We planned to get up with the sun the next morning and plan our route east, across the Guanacaste region and out toward Playa Junquillal and the beach!