Rio Celeste - Swimming in the Sky
January 1, 1970
The Rio Celeste River
It is said that when the universe was created and God painted the sky he dipped his brush into this river leaving the magical hues of blue and purples to swirl around for eternity… The beautiful light blue colour of The Rio Celeste River is not due to a chemical phenomenon as was previously believed, but rather a result of an optical illusion – a combination of human eye perception and the scattering of sunlight, which is caused by the water. The river changes colour at the point where two rivers merge – one contains large amounts of a white sediment which is comprised of oxygen, aluminium and silicon and the other provides the perfect acidic environment for these particles to grow. The difference in the size of the particles in each river causes the scattering of the sun’s rays and this occurs mainly in the blue region of our spectrum of vision.
The Rio Celeste River is situated in the Tenorio Volcano National Park in the Northern Highlands region of Costa Rica (the province of Guanacaste), 50km from the town of Liberia and 160 km northwest of San Jose. There are two main entrances to the park – Bijagua and Guatuso. Guided tours run from La Fortuna for about $65 per person. If you have a rental car – driving to Rio Celeste is ideal – a mere 1.5 hr scenic drive through pineapple plantations and palm trees from La Fortuna. There are two ways to see this magical river. Firstly to visit the town of Rio Celeste – this incredible turquoise river runs through the town and you can enjoy its beauty free of charge. Rio Celeste has a couple of options for accommodation such as The Rio Celeste Backpackers and the town itself is authentic, tiny and quaint devoid of much tourism. The banks of the river are lined with children and families enjoying the cool waters – a perfect way to immerse yourself in the local culture. This option, however doesn’t allow you to see the actual point where the two rivers meet and the water magically changes colour. To see this you are required to pay $12 to enter Tenorio Volcano national park to enjoy the full experience including hot springs, the waterfall and the actual point where the river changes into its crazy iridescent blue colour.
We were volunteering at an eco hotel on the banks of Lake Arenal (near the town of Tiliran) and decided to make the adventure cheap by hitching to Rio Celeste. Hitchhiking in Costa Rica is fairly easy and our waiting times were surprisingly minimal. We found that tourists in large rental cars hardly ever stopped to give us a ride and that most of our rides were from friendly, easy going local people. We managed to catch only two rides and get all the way to the entrance of the park close to the town of Bijagua. The ranger station is open from 8am to 4pm daily so be sure to arrive early to allow yourself enough time in this beautiful park. There are a number of hiking trails to explore and the area is lush with tropical plants and wildlife. This area is still relatively unknown and is only becoming a more popular tourist destination of late.
Tenorio Volcano National Park
We entered the park and followed the path to the magical waterfall giving us our first glimpse of the incredible colour of the water. The trail snakes alongside the river past bubbling hot springs, view points, a blue lagoon and eventually ends at El Teñidor – the point where the two rivers (the Buenavista River and Sour Creek) merge to create the otherworldly colour of the Rio Celeste River. There are a number of areas in the park where you can deviate from the trail to find a private spot to enjoy a picnic or simply sit quietly and soak up the ethereal feeling of the place. Although there are signs everywhere banning swimming – we couldn’t resist and ventured off the path to find a place to have a cheeky skinny dip – conjuring up images of ancient people bathing in these sulphur rich waters in harmony with nature. We sat next to the river and enjoyed a picnic of fried plantains, some local cheese and fruits.
Feeling like we could stay there forever, but knowing we needed to hitch a ride to La Fortuna we hastily made our way back to the entrance of the park. A taxi driver tried to charge us some ridiculous amount to get to La Fortuna but we were headstrong and felt confident we would be able to hitch. The cars started emptying out of the parking lot – most of them driving back via Bijagua (the way we had come), which is the opposite direction to where we were headed. Our hopes began to dwindle slightly when only two cars remained. Finally a lovely Costa Rican couple wound down their window and asked where we were going – luckily they were headed in the same direction. Our drive snaked through sleepy villages and pineapple plantations, stopping to try the delicious fruit of a cacao bean, we also caught sight of the amazingly beautiful rainbow toucan.
Hot Springs near La Fortuna
We spent the night in La Fortuna at Arenal Backpackers Resort, which has a pool with a swim up bar, but seemed overpriced and lacked character. The following morning we hitched a ride from La Fortuna to the hot springs about 15 minutes drive from the town. These hot springs are open to the public free of charge. We walked under the bridge and up the river to find a more secluded area and wallowed in the hot pools eating olives and nuts and drinking beer for hours. The springs are surrounded by leafy jungle and wildlife and left us feeling warm and healed by the nutrient rich water that bubbles from the volcano nearby. Apart from these two magical experiences – there is much to be explored in the area, from waterfalls to volcano hikes, lake adventures and natural beauty that surpasses all expectations. All of this plus the sweetest tasting drinking water from the magical volcano makes this an experience that will remain with me forever.