You can’t hold the old woman back. In the expansive Rincón de la Vieja National Park, whose name means “Old Woman’s Corner,” the sheer power of mother earth comes bubbling up through the ground in the form of boiling mud pits, scorching mineral baths and steaming puddles.
The old woman of Rincón de la Vieja, however, does not refer to madre tierra, not directly at least, but to an ancient indigenous healer whose spirit is said to inhabit the volcano (see box).
With a history steeped in legend, the volcano and national park in the northwestern province of Guanacaste is a quick jaunt from DanielOduberInternationalAirport, just outside the provincial capital of Liberia, and is a worthy destination for travelers, residents and locals alike.
Founded in 1971, the park is split into two sectors based around the visually unremarkable Rincón de la Vieja and Santa María volcanoes, two steaming heads of the same landmass that lack the prominent conical shape normally associated with volcanoes. But despite the bland contours, the park is a treasure trove of natural wonders.
According to park guard and guide Waddy Obando, a wide variety of animals stalk and scamper through the both arid and forested terrain at Rincón de la Vieja, including jaguars and other cats, deer, tapirs, porcupines and other mammals. The park is also home to the largest concentration in the country of Cattleya skinneri, the guaria morada orchid, Costa Rica’s national flower. This purple, spring-flowering beauty is one of many orchids found in the park, drawing researchers from the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) for research. In addition, it is one of the few places in Costa Rica where the white morpho butterfly is born, and birdwatchers should make a visit in February to catch the migration of the bellbird, Obando said.
The most visited area of Rincón de La Vieja National Park is Las Pailas, a threekilometer loop along the southern side of the volcano that passes by several geological attractions. The walk itself is an average hike, with some steep ups and downs.
Within the area of Las Pailas, visitors can get quite close to a variety of bubbling mud pits, gurgling mineral ponds or steaming vents of boiling, subterranean water. While these geological features are the advertised attractions of the Las Pailas area, the surrounding area is also remarkably scenic. From twisted, craggy, deciduous forests, to enormous old-growth trees, to open views of the high forests, to the joy of plunging through them, the short walk is long on beauty.
Thirty-two creeks and rivers descend from the park, tumbling over cliffs to create impressive waterfalls and pooling into azure jungle lagoons. For longer hikes, tourists can head to the world-famous, sparkling Cangreja waterfall, known internationally as “the Blue Lagoon,” or the smaller Catarata Escondida, or “hidden waterfall.”
Arriving at the Rincón de La Vieja crater –1,806 meters (5,925 feet) above sea level –requires a full day’s commitment, as the eight kilometers round-trip takes six to eight hours, and no camping along the way means it has to be done in a single day.
The Santa María sector, which has a separate entrance, offers similar geological features, including a geyser of cold, boiling water, the only such phenomenon in the country, Obando said.
From the Santa María entrance, it is a much more formidable journey to the Santa María crater, taller than Rincón de la Vieja at 1,916 meters (6,286 feet), but the hike is marked with attractions. The 16-kilometer round-trip hike – made possible thanks to a campground (with showers, bathrooms and barbecue area, $2 per person, but bring your own tent and gear) near the volcano’s peak – brings adventurers past more waterfalls, boiling mud pits and mineral-inked lakes. The crater itself is off-limits to tourists, but an access trail is under construction, Obando said.
Admission to Rincón de la Vieja National Park costs foreigners $6 and Ticos ¢600. The Rincón de la Vieja sector is open Tuesday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., while the Santa María sector is open seven days a week, 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call the park at 200-0296.
To get to Rincón de la Vieja from Liberia, head five kilometers north on the Inter-American Highway and look for a marked, rough dirt road on the right leading up to the volcano’s eastern slope via Curubandé.
To get to the Santa María entrance, from the stoplights on the Inter-American Highway at Liberia, turn right, head through town about 800 meters, turn right again and continue 200 meters and cross the La Victoria bridge. Look for a sign for Santa María and turn left there onto the highway toward San Jorge. Santa María lies 25 km farther down the road. Four-wheel drive is recommended.
The Old Woman of Rincón de la Vieja
Curubandá was not a satisfied princess, nor obedient in matters of the heart. Unimpressed by the men of her own tribe, her amorous eyes fell on Mixcoac, the hated leader of a neighboring tribe.
Curubandé, the rebellious princess’s father of a remarkably similar name, found no other recourse but to murder Mixcoac by hurling him into the boiling maw of a nearby volcano. The forbidden love had already been consummated, however, and Curubandá fled to the volcano to give birth to Mixcoac’s child, protected by the forests and intimidating terrain, close to the final resting place of her beloved. The bereaved new mother decided it only fitting that her first and only child should join its father in death, and hurled the infant into the mouth of the volcano.
It was there, in the folds of forest skirting the volcano, that Curubandá lived out the rest of her days, attending to the sick and needy as a curandera, or healer. When travelers passed through surrounding communities on their way to visit Curubandá, and were asked where they ventured, they would respond “to the old woman’s corner,” or “al rincón de la vieja.”