You say your trip to Costa Rica must include fuming volcanoes, outdoor adventure and relaxing hot springs but without the crowds and prices of Arenal? We say head to Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park instead which is shaping up to be a cheaper, less crowded, and more exciting alternative to Arenal.
Cheaper than Arenal
Now that Arenal Volcano is no longer erupting (yes, you heard that right), the one big reason to travel to Arenal Volcano National Park and La Fortuna, that crowded eyesore of a tourist town, is to soak in the volcano-heated hot springs that continue to bubble up to the surface even though the lava stopped flowing years ago.
In Arenal it will cost you at least US$25 per person (and up to US$95 per person) for the privilege of stewing in communal juices along with hundreds of others. We know. We did it. Our ho-hum experiences made us determined to find an alternative to Arenal and we think we hit pay dirt in the Guanacaste region of northern Costa Rica.
More exciting than Arenal
Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park is about a 1.5 hour drive from the town of Liberia, primarily on a rocky dirt road in reasonably good condition which winds past bucolic farms and picturesque small villages. Clouds often obscure the park’s namesake volcano so we contented ourselves with sightings of flocks of noisy green parrots and the occasional capuchin monkey along the way.
The clouds did occasionally part, allowing us glimpses of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano which, following impressive explosions in February of 2012, has been put firmly back on the active volcano list unlike the now inactive Arenal Volcano.
Close to the action in Rincón de la Vieja
On a clear day you can see the crater of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano from almost any point on the sprawling grounds of the Blue River Resort & Hot Springs which has 20 cabañas, each with more than 700 square feet (65 square meters) of space and all the amenities you’d expect in a much swankier location including a huge TV, A/C, two double beds, and an enormous bathroom all starting at US$127 for up to five people including breakfast, taxes, and use of all of the hot springs. A family of four would pay more than that just for hot springs access in Arenal.
If looking up at the business end of an active volcano doesn’t release enough adrenaline for you Blue River Resort & Hot Springs also offers day trips to local attractions like Caño Negro. You can choose from a nine platform zip line, a Tarzan swing, horseback riding, hiking, and an activity we think the resort owners need to rename “Extreme Tubing”. After all, when was the last time you needed elbow pads to go tubing?
Welcome to extreme tubing
When the guides for our rafting trip on the Rio Azul (Blue River) handed us not only a helmet but elbow pads as well we thought he was just being overly cautious. Isn’t tubing like napping on the water during which the biggest danger is losing hold of the tube toting the cooler full of beer? Not this time.
For nearly two hours we hurtled down the Rio Azul atop special extra-plump, extra-durable tubes with hand holds. We shot through narrow channels of swift-moving white water, bounced over rocks, pin-ball-machined around boulders and, sometimes, ended up upside down. By the time we reached the take out point we were grinning and very, very grateful for every single piece of protective gear.
See those elbow pads in use in our video, below, shot during our extreme tubing trip down the Rio Azul in Costa Rica which, as you’ll see, really is extra blue.
Less crowded than Arenal
Even with the elbow pads we still ended up with some bumps and bruises during our trip down the Rio Azul, so we were grateful for Blue River Resort’s natural hot springs which fill four very large pools with soothing water directly from the volcano. There’s also a cold plunge pool. When we were at Blue River Resort we were often the only people soaking in pools that could easily have held 20 people.
To get even closer to the healing powers of the volcano guests have free access to a vat of slate gray, sulphury volcanic mud which can be applied to your skin before entering a sauna where the volcanic minerals work their magic. Our skin felt silky for days afterward. One warning though: do not do this while wearing light colored swimwear since the mud stains like mad.
Guanacaste, Costa Rica travel tip
If you’re exploring the Guanacaste region or crossing the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas then you’ll probably need to spend a night in the town of Liberia. We can recommend a budget hotel called Hotel Liberia. It’s central, clean, moderately priced at US$40 double (we recommend haggling) for a private room with a fan, bathroom, Wi-Fi, and ample, secure parking. Dorm beds are available for US$13 per person.
If you’ve got just a bit more to spend on style, check out the nearby Casa de Papel Bed & Breakfast. The exterior of the building is decoupaged with old newspapers (hence the name). Inside is an eclectic mishmash of antiques. Rooms spread out around an interior garden with a pool (a rarity) and a Jacuzzi (even more rare). Rates vary from US$75 double down to US$30 double and quality varies accordingly. The US$30 room, for example, is fan only, tiny, and a bit claustrophobic. Parking, Wi-Fi, and continental breakfast are included.
Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica