To the Volcano’s Slopes

The route from Tamarindo to the 6200-foot volcano Rincón de la Vieja leads first over the forested hills that separate the coast from the inland agricultural valley of the Río Tempisque. Traveling on the narrow but well-paved highway are semi-trucks loaded with sugar cane. Numerous roadside stands offer watermelons and cantaloupes. One business specialized in seeds for rice growers. The district’s major city is Liberia, and Costa Rica’s second international airport is along the highway a few miles before it. The edge of town offers lots of service businesses and office parks. The road to the volcano issues out the backside of Liberia. Finding it isn’t so hard, but the downtown streets are crowded and the driver also wants to be the tourist and look at all the shops and—right between the traffic lanes—the bronze statue of El Sabanero, the rancher who has run cattle over these savannahs since the Spanish arrived around 1520. After a few blocks, we saw the sign to the village of San Jorge and turned right on a residential street. The houses wear lavender and even chartreuse hues, and the tropical limes and oranges sometimes achieved day-glow intensities.

We were following a garbage truck out of town, so it made sense that we would soon come to the dump. For at least a kilometer beforehand, passing over a road that was cut through thick white clay, we were presented with an ugly mess from plastic bags that had blown everywhere and stuck in the branches of trees. It would shock the tourists who come to Costa Rica for la pura vida in the all-inclusive form that shields them from any ugliness.

Susan provides the scale, but this is one of the smaller of the anthills that we saw.
Susan provides the scale, but this is one of the smaller anthills.

Rincón de la Vieja National Park is 20 kilometers up the road, which climbs the volcano’s flank. The name is said to refer to an old lady who used to live in a cave; I’m told it translates as “the old corner.” The park is barely developed at all, and there were only three other cars in the small parking lot at the Santa Maria sector office. A couple of old wooden buildings are evidently left over from some sort of sugar making operation. We had to pay $10 each to hike. A young man named Lenin—“Como el ruso,” he said—gave us our permits. Lenin lives and works up here fifteen days at a time, and then he enjoys six days off at home in Liberia. He first said it’s a nice town, but then changed his mind and said there are drugs and crime. At any rate, everybody was in a different world down there.

Whereas we had broiled inside our little Daihatsu bucket of bolts while crossing the Tempisque valley, the air up here was cool, not much more than 70 degrees. We were just at the edge of the clouds that shrouded the volcano’s peak and briefly thought about putting on our rain jackets as heavy mist blew in sheets, but the cloud stuck to the peak and we went away from it on the 2.75-kilometer trail to the hot springs. The footing was often terrible because of slippery wet leaves and red clay. I went down hard once on my butt and almost sprained my shoulder by reaching back to break the fall. Every few hundred meters, a stream crossed the trail and we had to step over the taller rocks and hope our footing was sure. A little trail off to the side took us through the Bosque Encantado, or Enchanted Forest, with some huge trees and a tremendous cataract of about 20 meters. Rejoining the main trail, we came to the Río Negro. Watching four hikers ford this river from the other direction was enough for Susan, who really didn’t care to try it herself, and we turned back. After retracing our steps a ways, we chose the trail to Pailas de Agua Fría. After laboring 900 meters up a steep trail, we came to a field of weird volcanic mineral buildup with bubbling cool water. A large clump of bamboo sealed off one end. The sulphuric air made us want to take the next express bus out, so we didn’t stay long. We were also starving and wanted to get back to Liberia and have something to eat. We descended to the main trail, again going over unbelievable anthills that would make the most ambitious gophers jealous. Long processions of leaf-cutting ants carried torn pieces of green leaves up the trail against us and into the hills. We were dazzled by a black butterfly with two equal circles, one white, one vivid pink, on each wing. A most bizarre rodent, the agouti, which looked like a huge guinea pig, emitted an “eep” upon seeing us and loped ahead on the trail before disappearing into the forest.

Driving back down to Liberia, we found a típica restaurant and ordered fish platters, and mine came with black beans, rice, spaghetti, and a small salad. Susan’s had cooked vegetables. These were priced at about $6 each. The waitress, Jessica, told us they have karaoke night every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night: there’s a screen for a slide projector that displays the lyrics. I’d love to go back and see it.


El Sabanero statue: 


Leaf-cutting ants:

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