The beautifully dry landscape of PARQUE NACIONAL RINCÓN DE LA VIEJA, about 30km northeast of Liberia, encompasses terrains varying from rock-strewn savannah to patches of tropical dry forest, culminating in the blasted-out vistas of the volcano crater itself. The land here is actually alive and breathing: Rincón de la Vieja’s last major eruptions took place in 1995 and 1998, and were serious enough to evacuate local residents. The danger has always been to the northern side of the volcano, facing Nicaragua (the opposite side from the two entrance points), and the most pressing safety issue for tourists is to be aware that rivers of lava and hot mud still boil beneath the thin epidermis of ground. While danger areas are clearly marked with signs and fences, you still have to watch your step: walkers have been seriously burned from crashing through this crust and stepping into mud and water at above-boiling temperatures.
With the right amount of caution, however, this is an enchanting place: brewing mud pots (pilas de barro) bubble, and puffs of steam rise out of lush foliage, signalling sulphurous subterranean springs. This is great terrain for camping, riding and hiking, with a comfortable, fairly dry heat, though it can get damp and cloudy at the higher elevations around the crater. Birders, too, enjoy Rincón de la Vieja, as there are more than two hundred species in residence.Read More
From the Las Pailas ranger station, you have several walking options, with trails leading west to the cataratas escondidas (hidden waterfalls) and east to the Santa María station, along an eight-kilometre path. The most popular and least demanding trail heads east on a very satisfying six-kilometre circuit past many of the highly unusual natural features with which the park abounds, including a mini-volcano and “Pilas de Barro” mud pots; listen out for strange bubbling sounds, like a large pot of water boiling over. Mud pots, which should be treated with respect, are formed when mud, thermally heated by subterranean rivers of magma, seeks vents in the ground, sometimes actually forcing itself out through the surface in great thick gloops. It’s a surreal sight: grey-brown muck blurping out of the ground like slowly thickening gravy. Another feature is the geothermal hornillas (literally, “stoves”), mystical-looking holes in the ground exhaling elegant puffs of steam. You almost expect to stumble upon the witches of Macbeth, brewing spite over them. Make sure not to go nearer than a metre or so, or you’ll be steamed in no time. The combined effect of all these boiling holes is to make the landscape a bit like brittle Swiss cheese – tread gingerly and look carefully where you’re going to avoid the ground crumbling underneath you. Many hikers have been scalded by blithely strolling too close to the holes. The trail also takes you through forest with abundant fauna and flora and be prepared to ford a couple of streams.