Rio Celeste – Tenorio National Park, Costa Rica
By Aída Araya
I had heard a lot about Río Celeste and had high expectations. Even with my mind set to experience something incredible, the panoramic natural beauty that surrounds Río Celeste left me astounded. The human mind cannot conceive of such a level of magnificence and purity until it has seen it. The name Río Celeste, which means Blue River, is obvious in meaning but leaves a lot to be desired in terms of describing the splendor that springs from this corner of Costa Rica.
Located in the canton of Upala, in the province of Alajuela in Costa Rica, and within Tenorio National Park, Río Celeste is the area’s main attraction, overshadowing even nearby Tenorio Volcano. And while the massif contributes to the river’s rich habitat and provides the minerals for the water’s intense colors, the river by itself would be worth the trip.
Like a verdant waiting room before you get to the river, nature covers us with lush vegetation. Myriad animals and birdsong provide the soundtrack along the trails that lead to the river. The hike, which takes around four hours, offers many must-see attractions. Each one offers a different experience, including dye beds, bubblers, vantage point, lagoon, hot springs, and a waterfall. You can visit them all in the same day.
Mother Nature Has Outdone Herself at Río Celeste
The dye beds are two natural springs which, when combined with volcanic minerals, produce the river’s spectacular intense blue hue. Here you can see the difference between the river’s natural color and the dyed segment downstream.
The hot springs are parts of the river that receive currents of volcanic heat and minerals. Swimmers love these warm pockets, which are the only place in the park where swimming is allowed. Be sure not to miss the hot springs.
You’ll get a complete sensory experience at the bubblers. These are boiling springs that emit intense odors of volcanic minerals. If you smell them at the beginning of your trip, you might find them offensive. But after three hours of hiking, you just might be craving a sandwich with tuna and hardboiled egg.
At the vantage point, you’ll find a deck built in a clearing. The view showcases Tenorio Volcano in all its splendor. This is a great place to rest.
My favorite place is the lagoon. This sky-blue oasis of peace is perhaps where you can best experience the river’s visual and olfactory essence. As the water pools here, the blue tint seems all the more brilliant, solid and deep. Because the reaction of this water on humans is still unknown, bathing is prohibited.
However, direct contact with the water is not necessary. The impacting beauty and calm are enough.
The waterfall is an amazing cascade that tumbles into a sky-blue pool, surrounded by rainforest and giant river boulders. Note that swimming is not allowed in the river and the waterfall. Although the waterfall is one of the first sights along the walk, experts (and we include ourselves in this category) recommend visiting it last because the hike to it is very steep, and if you visit it first you might find that you have little energy left for the rest of the hike.
Río Celeste is one of those spectacles in which nature shows off its creative design. A volcano, sky-blue river, forest, hot springs. My words, whichever they may be, will never do this place justice. You simply have to see and feel it. You must visit Río Celeste.
Why is Río Celeste So Blue?
According to local legend, when God created the Earth, the day He was painting the sky He rinsed His brush in the river, dyeing it. My ten-year-old daughter, Juliana Madrigal, opines that “the river is sky-blue because a cloud got big and fat from eating too much, it fell from the sky full of blue water, exploded, and then the river was born.”
The scientific truth, however, tells us that there is a chemical reaction between the water and calcium carbonate and sulfur that come from Tenorio Volcano. The result is the spectacular shade of blue that you see in the river.
Tenorio National Park
Located between two cantons in two provinces, this park measures nearly 13,000 hectares, ranging in elevation from 700 meters to 1,916 meters above sea level.
The park’s main attractions are its volcanic cones, pyroclastic cones, and the Río Celeste’s waterfalls and lagoon.
The park houses a number of life zones, including lowland montane forest, tropical rainforest, and premontane forests. There is precipitation nearly year-round, except for March and April. The park’s average temperature is 23 degrees Celsius, but it varies with elevation.
The park offers a general information kiosk, potable water, restrooms, local guides, talks, and paths.
The entrance fee for foreigners is US$12. Costa Rican residents pay ¢800. The park is open daily from 8:00 to 14:00, but the latest you can arrive is 2pm. Park phone is 2206-5369.
How to Get to Tenorio National Park:
From San José: Take the Pan-American Highway towards Liberia. Five kilometers after the city of Cañas, turn right and go 30 km until you get to Bijagua. Continue five kilometers east, where you’ll see signs for the park. Turn right here and drive around seven kilometers on a gravel road that will take you to the park entrance. It takes about 3:30 hours from Juan Santamaría International Airport in Alajuela.
From Liberia: Just an hour away.
From Arenal: 1:30 hours from Arenal Volcano. A four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance is recommended.
What to bring: Comfortable clothes that can get wet, tennis or hiking shoes, insect repellent, bathing suit, and water.
• Do not leave the established paths.
• Do not take any plants or animals from the park.
• Do not swim in restricted areas.
• Do not go near or under the waterfall.
Albergue Heliconias: Bijagua, Tel. 2466 8483, 2248-2538.
Cabinas Bijagua: Bijagua, Tel. 2466-8050
La Carolina Lodge: 6 km. Norte de Bijagua, Tel 8380 1655
Celeste Mountain Lodge: Tel: 506 2278-6628
Posada Cielo Roto: restaurant, cabins, and camping area. Tel:(506) 2466-6049
Tenorio Lodge: Eight spacious, elegant bungalows with splendid views of Tenorio Volcano, all within seven hectares of primary rainforest and tropical gardens. Two natural lagoons complement this oasis of peace and tranquility. Each bungalow comes equipped with a king-size bed, sofa-bed, private bath with sun-heated water, and fan. The hotel also offers a restaurant, bar, souvenir store. Don’t miss the two open-air whirlpools set amid gardens and volcano views. Tel: 2466-8282.
Our favorite place to stay is Río Celeste Hideaway. This gorgeous lodge is located close to the entrance to Tenorio Volcano National Park, where Río Celeste is located. Within the manicured grounds you’ll find lush tropical gardens, a pool, finely appointed bungalows and suites with private decks overlooking the rainforest, an excellent restaurant, and bar. Costa Rica Tel (506) 2206-4000, US Toll free 1-800-320-3541