Quite possibly our favorite national park. I know, I know, they can’t all be our favorite, but…
Tenorio has everything you could want in a tropical forest natural area and every time we visit we find something new to love. Hiking to the sky blue Celeste waterfall is a highlight, but the hanging bridges in the rainforest and trail to Lago Danta through the cloud forest from the Heliconias entrance are equally amazing.
For decades the area was nearly undiscovered but in 2018 twelve years of bridging river fords and improving roads culminated in the completion of the asphalt all the way to the park entrance. Visits exploded and by April of 2019 the park service was forced to impose quotas on the number of hikers and birdwatchers allowed on the trail.
Our very first attempted visit here we never even made it to the park but it may also be the reason that we now spend so much time in Costa Rica updating the travel map we publish instead of sitting in front of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance imaging consoles in a pharmaceutical biochemistry lab. Thank goodness for getting lost.
At a glance these are what puts the region around Bijagua on the list of the best places in Costa Rica. From ranger station at the west entrance of Tenorio National Park (El Pilón) to the azure tinted cataract a couple of kilometers to the south.
You can make a loop out of the trail by continuing south to the teñiderios (Teñi de rios – dyeing of the rivers) then west along the other bank of the river to the hot springs and out to the road at the west entrance near Catarata Celeste Lodge. The road leads north to the new car bridge over the river and back to the ranger station.
The “Crater Hike” is described on the following page along with a photo gallery.
Main Park Entrance (El Pilón)
The best way to experience the area, in fact the only way to see much of it, is on foot. You don’t have to be a Sherpa to visit the azure blue catarata río Celeste in Tenorio National park or the rainforest shrouded slopes of Miravalles volcano but you do have to walk because they’re only accessible by trail. Anywhere you walk in the area you’re likely to see birds and other wildlife (even in or near town).
The hiking trail to Celeste waterfall and the other attractions around the main entrance is described above.
Heliconias & Lago Danta
There is a little known entrance to the park at Heliconias Ecolodge Community Project. They have a network of excellent trails leading through their private protected forest to a series of hanging bridges through the rainforest canopy. On our last visit we went on the bridges trail under the stars and it was Awesome.
Starting at the top end of the Canopy Bridges trail there is a 3 km spur that climbs up to the national park boundary and on to Lago Danta (Tapir Lake). We’ve never seen tapirs here but we’ve seen fresh tracks and they are more common here than nearly anywhere else in Costa Rica outside Corcovado National Park.
There are also many abandoned or nearly abandoned roads where you can walk or mountain bike around Heliconias, Bijagua or any of the remote lodges and Miravalles National Park is literally right across the street.
Natural Hot Springs
NOTE: In 2017 the park service closed the east entrance and the trail to the hot springs due to overcrowding.
The hotsprings here really are natural. Commercial operations in the region have started the inevitable process of taming the geothermal mineral waters for spas and some of the pools in the National Park are off limits due to dangerously high temperatures, but there are still places along the lower Río Celeste where you can relax your tired muscles in completely natural hot springs (see map at bottom of page).
For your own safety please respect all closures, warnings, and regulations posted by the park administration.
We considered adding an extra star to the rating system just for this region because five out of five doesn’t really do it justice.
Costa Rica is know for its incredible diversity of micro-climates, ecological zones and habitats and this valley between two volcanoes is a perfect example.
The continental divide follows the slopes of volcán Miravalles down to the southeast to a point where Tenorio starts rising just outside Bijagua (in front of the Tenorio Lodge in fact). It’s not dramatic geographically and you won’t notice it as you’re driving or walking because the valley is quite broad here, but this dip in the continental divide is a mountain pass from the Caribbean slope to the Pacific.
This creates a natural flyway from Lago de Nicaragua, Caño Negro and the other wetlands in the northern Caribbean lowlands to the Pacific coast and Palo Verde wetlands along the Río Tempisque. It seems unusual at first to see a flock of Roseate Spoonbills juxtaposed against the mountains but once you look a the geography it’s not surprising that this area hosts species from a wide range of habitats.
Getting There and When to Visit
NOTE: On April 11 2019 the National Park announced on its official facebook page that limits would be imposed on the number of visitors to reduce overcrowding. No more than 500 people will be allowed in the park at one time and no more than 1,000 per day.
The map that’s linked above includes a zoomed out view showing the main ways to arrive in the area along with driving directions from Arenal volcano and the Pacific beaches.
Bijagua is right on the continental divide and Tenorio National Park is split by it but tends to have more wet Caribbean/Atlantic climatic association than dry Guanacaste. It’s always possible it’ll rain but pretty unlikely it’ll be drenching downpours for extended periods.
Tickets & Hours for Tenorio National Park/Celeste Waterfall Pilón Entrance
The Park is open every day (including weekends and holidays) from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. The last entry is at 2:00 p.m.
Citizens and Residents ¢800 ($1.20)
Children under 12 are free
There is no online ticketing or reservation system for Tenorio or the Celeste waterfall trail. Arrive early or join a tour group (agencies have access to advance purchase to guarantee entry).
Use the drop down menu to see weather patterns and other seasonal information for the month you are thinking about visiting.
The town of Bijagua and the Tenorio region were directly in the path of Hurricane Otto on Thanksgiving Day 2016. Ten people were killed and couple of tiny communities in northern Costa Rica were devastated by the impact.
The Crater “Trail”
The top of Tenorio Volcano and the trails leading to it are closed to the public. We entered by special permission with an authorized guide and a baquiano (indigenous guide) who knew the route across the wandering maze of tunnels through the elfin cloud forest at the top.
If you have a chance to climb to the steep walled crater to the volcanically heated warm water lake at the top we highly recommend it. There is one trail that begins near the teñiderios west of the main entrance. It is clearly marked as off limits, nearly unused, and peters out into a maze of game trails after a few hundred meters.
We entered through private property on the south side of the volcano and went by horseback for the first few kilometers across pasture. Once we entered the forest we tethered the horses and continued the ascent on foot.
Because so few people are allowed into the area we were not surprised by the abundance of wildlife – even endangered and shy squirrel monkeys were calmly watching us from the tree tops.