This post was originally written in 2012Costa Rica isn't known for having amazing cities, and anyone who has been to San Jose usually agrees that it's best to spend as little time there as possible. Liberia in the north western part of the country is a lot smaller, very hot, not overly attractive and used mostly by travellers as a transport hub. Liberia has connections to the beaches in Guanacaste and north to Nicaragua. I changed buses there when going from Monteverde to Tamarindo, Tamarindo to San Juan del Sur and San Juan back to San Jose.
But with two of the country's most worthwhile attractions in close proximity to the city, it is worth staying a few days.
Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja
If you are looking for a picture perfect volcano, Arenal is your best bet, towering spectacularly over La Fortuna when its head peaks out of the clouds. But going to Arenal in the hopes of seeing volcanic activity may end up being a disappointing experience, it's been quiet the last 3 times I went through Fortuna in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
For a multitude of volcanic encounters, Rincon de la Vieja is the place to go. The walk to the crater was closed when I visited for safety reasons (Jan 2013), but there are plenty of other things to do and see. I entered the park in the Las Pailas sector, which is the starting point for two major trails. The group I was with decided to begin with the trail to the waterfall, saving the volcanic loop for after lunch.
A rainy morning meant we set off through a wet forest, trying not to slip on the muddy path while dodging berries the monkeys hanging out in the trees above us were throwing in our direction. As it cleared up, the path opened out into a grassy clearing, with views stretching out to the Golfo de Nicoya. We reentered the forest before arriving at the stunning falls. The waterfall spilled over a tall cliff covered in forest plants, which wrapped around the edges of a perfectly formed pool. The water was cool, but was balanced out by the natural hot spring running over the rocks on the side of the pool. The warm water that gathered in the small rock pools was perfect to sit in and relax, but swimming through the cold water again to get back to my bag was less fun!
In the afternoon we ventured on to the loop trail that explores the volcanic area of the park. Despite being a third of the length, I think it took us longer to complete. After going past another impressive waterfall, we started to smell sulfur and pass signs warning us of extreme temperatures. The rain started up again, as did the howler monkeys (which sound like dinosaurs). This, combined with the forest we were walking in, made the location feel a lot more remote than it actually is.
Our first volcanic encounter was a cluster of fumaroles, emitting so much sulfurous steam and gas we could barely see the trees surrounding them. The smell was so overpowering, I could only stay for a few minutes. There was another natural spring nearby, this one so hot the water was bubbling. As the path continued towards a volcancito (small volcano), we noticed bursts of steam sneaking of out much smaller holes in the ground we were walking on. When our thought process lead to what that meant we were walking above, we were torn between hoping the ground didn't give way and surprise that we could even get that close.
My favourite part of the trail was the bubbling mud pots. A collection of large holes filled with mud doesn't sound very exciting, but watching them spit mud into the air was strangely hypnotising. The temptation to wander off the path and get closer was tempting, as the fences were definitely not designed to keep people out. But hearing the popping sounds they emitted was a good reminder of what was under the ground below us and that safety is important.
Getting there: I booked a transfer through my hostel in Liberia for $20. Park entry is $10, bring ID.
Llanos de Cortes
Even though Lonely Planet describes this as the waterfall to see if you only have time for one, it's still easy to think it's "just another waterfall". There are plenty of waterfalls in Costa Rica; often visited ones in Fortuna and Montezuma and ones you see on tours run eccentric conspiracy theorists in Puerto Viejo (that's another story).
A lesser known falls near a small town near Liberia might not be a the top of your list, but it's worth every bit of effort you put in to get there.
Located just outside Bagaces, about half an hour from Liberia, the waterfall is accessed by walking (or driving if you have a car) along a short dirt road off the Interamericana. Marked only by a small store on the corner, you would miss it if you didn't know what you were looking for, but the bus drivers that route are familiar with the turn off. When you get on, tell them you want to go to "la catarata" and they will stop there.
The road leads to a small station where you pay a donation (mil colones is sufficient) that goes to local schools, and then continues to the falls. A short path next to the carpark takes you down to a small clearing in the forest, where a sandy beach joins the large pool at the bottom of the waterfall. The height of the waterfall is impressive on its own, but the added bonus of being able to climb behind the curtain of water and enjoy the falls from a different angle sitting inside a rocky cave makes for a unique experience.
A different trail leaving from the carpark takes you to the top of waterfall. For a Victoria Falls moment in Costa Rica, if you are brave enough you can climb out onto the fall and look over the edge at the pool below.
Getting there: Buses from Liberia to Bagaces leave frequently from the local terminal, the cost should be no more than mil colones. Tell the driver that you are going to la catarata to be dropped off at the road. There is no food at the waterfall, so bring anything you want to eat with you. There is a bakery in the bus terminal that sells sandwiches. To get back, wave down any of the buses going along the Interamericana to Liberia.
In Liberia, I recommend staying at Hospedaje Dodero. Jesus and Shawn are amazing and have a wealth of information about the area. Ask about the path to the other waterfall when you visit Llanos de Cortes. There is a kitchen and common area with hammocks at the back. For anyone who likes dancing, Jesus always knows the best places to go.
A tip I received from another traveller is that Playa del Coco is a good day trip from Liberia. The buses to that beach leave from the Pulmitan terminal, where the buses to San Jose leave from.