Picture an impossibly blue river rushing through a dense green jungle. Toucans chirp in the trees above you; brightly colored lizards scamper across the trail at your feet. Suddenly the trees part and you see a 100-foot waterfall in front of you. This is the Rio Celeste waterfall hike in Tenorio Volcano National Park, Costa Rica.
The park is named after the active Volcan Tenorio, in the northern highlands. The volcano’s slopes form an incredibly biodiverse cloud forest environment, further adding to the mysticism of this hike.
You can hike to the Rio Celeste waterfall on an independent day trip or a guided tour. In this post, I’ll walk you through how to plan the perfect trip to this less-crowded corner of Costa Rica!
Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you decide to purchase through these links, I receive a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.
Why do the Rio Celeste Waterfall Hike?
Traveling around Costa Rica, it’s easy to get a little waterfall’ed out. After all, the country has dozens of easy-access cascades, and it seems like every single one charges a separate entrance fee. You may be wondering, why bother with the Rio Celeste hike?
But this waterfall in Tenorio National Park is really unique and special due to the blue color of the water. The setting is one of the most beautiful and photogenic in the entire country. The hike allows you to see some natural hot springs, a swinging bridge, and plenty of wildlife. And it’s much less crowded than some of the more accessible cascades across the country.
Personally, the Rio Celeste waterfall was my favorite waterfall hike in Costa Rica.
Why is the Rio Celeste so blue?
There have been many myths over the years about what gives the Rio Celeste its blue color. Local lore says when God finished painting the sky blue, he dipped his paintbrush in the river.
A more widely accepted theory has emerged from researchers at Universidad de Costa Rica and the Universidad Nacional. At the river’s start, two streams converge, leading to the exact amount of mineral deposits required to turn the Celeste an impossibly vibrant shade of blue when the sun shines on the water.
The effect is totally natural — and dependent on the sunlight. So you’ll want to plan your Rio Celeste hiking trip for a sunny day. (Hint: Go in the morning before the rains roll in!) When it’s cloudy or raining, the river just looks like a normal river.
Hiking the Rio Celeste Trail
To begin your hike to the Rio Celeste Waterfall, you’ll first need to get to the Tenorio National Park Ranger Station. It’s a few miles outside the town of Bijagua on a good, if curvy and narrow, tarmac road. Parking is available for a small fee.
You’ll pay your park entrance fee of $12 to the rangers. This is also the last chance to use a restroom or purchase water. Be sure to bring at least 1L, as the hike is hot and muggy.
It’s best to arrive right when the gates open at 8 am to avoid crowds.
The hike begins with a stroll on a paved trail through the cloud forest. Keep an eye on the trees for toucans, sloths and monkeys — I saw all three! After about 20 minutes, you’ll reach the clearly marked turnoff for the waterfall.
To reach a good view of the cascade, you have to climb down 250 stairs on a well-maintained boardwalk. It’s steep, but there are plenty of opportunities to take a break. And don’t worry if you don’t want to go all the way down — you start getting great views of the waterfall about halfway.
Be careful with your electronics at the base of the waterfall. The spray reaches the platform and you can end up quite wet!
Swimming in the Rio Celeste is strictly prohibited.
La Laguna Azul
After you visit the Rio Celeste Waterfall, continue along the trail, which turns into a dirt path. It can be very muddy if it’s rained recently (which, since you’re in the cloud forest, it probably has). Lizards are prolific along the path.
The trees open up to your left after a short walk, and you get nice views of the summit of Tenorio. Continue for another half a kilometer or so and you’ll reach a large, deep blue pool.
La Laguna Azul is named for its exceptionally bright blue colors. The concentration of minerals here is high. There is also a natural hot spring nearby, but swimming is not allowed.
If you keep going along the path, the next feature is a swinging bridge over the river. It’s a super-fun spot for photos!
A short while later, you’ll reach El Teñidero. This is the spot where the two tributaries — Quebrada Agria and Rio Buena Vista — converge to form the Rio Celeste.
If you look closely, you can see where the blue color begins, right at the start of the convergence. You can see the mineral deposits floating in the water of the two streams as well.
El Teñidero marks the end of the Rio Celeste waterfall hike. Your only option is to turn around and go back the way you came.
The total hiking distance is 3.5 miles, out and back. You can easily hike the whole trail before lunch, even if you take your time. It’s almost completely flat other than the steps to the waterfall.
How to get to Tenorio National Park for the Rio Celeste Waterfall Hike
There are two options for visiting the Catarata Rio Celeste (the waterfall). You can go on your own, or you can take a tour.
If you plan to visit independently, it’s easiest if you have your own car. You simply have to drive to Bijagua — 2 hours from Liberia or La Fortuna — and take the spur road to the park entrance. Bijagua has gas stations and everything else you need for your Costa Rica road trip.
No car, but still want to visit independently? It’s gonna be a little trickier. You can take a public bus to Bijagua from San Jose or Liberia — check times here. Then you’ll have to take a taxi to the park. This gets pricey — it’ll run you $55 round-trip, including waiting time. You’ll likely need to stay at least one night, more likely two nights, in Bijagua if you’re transit-reliant.
If you don’t have your own car, your best bet is to take a tour to the park. Every tour agency in La Fortuna can book this trip, and there’s little difference between them. This will run you about $90 including transport and a guide. Often they throw in other activities like Rio Celeste tubing (outside the national park).
Other things to do in the Tenorio area
If you have more time on your Costa Rica trip, Bijagua is a lovely place to base yourself for a couple nights. It has a super-low-key rural tourism movement. You’ll likely be one of a handful of tourists in town.
Given how quiet and off the beaten path Bijagua is, it has a surprising number of activities.
Here are a few of the best things to do in Bijagua:
- Explore the hanging bridges at Heliconias Lodge. The canopy tour costs just $12 if you do it self-guided, but it’s just as awesome as the more expensive tours in La Fortuna and Monteverde. Plus, when I did it, I was the only person in the whole park!
- Take a chocolate tour — your guesthouse can connect you with a local farmer.
- Visit the Tapir Valley Nature Reserve. It’s a little on the pricey side, but the night tours in particular get great reviews.
- Do a night walk with Frog’s Paradise. You have a good chance of seeing poison dart frogs (don’t worry, they won’t hurt you unless you lick them), and it’s only $20 — about half the price of similar tours elsewhere in Costa Rica.
- Visit the Bijagua Waterfall, another one of the Rio Celeste waterfalls near the base of Volcan Miravalles.
- Go tubing on the Celeste River (outside the national park). This costs around $50 per person for a two-hour trip.
Where to stay and eat near Tenorio National Park and Rio Celeste
Hands-down the best place to stay in Bijagua is Casitas Tenorio B&B. (This is not an affiliate link; I’m recommending them because I loved my stay there.)
The property has six cabins spread out across a working dairy farm on the slopes of Volcan Tenorio. Each cabin is nestled in the cloud forest, where you’ll definitely hear and see toucans and howler monkeys right from your porch. Many cabins have two bedrooms, they have large bathrooms, and they all have some living space, including private decks. Mine had a mini-fridge as well. Prices start around $100 per night for two people.
Rates include an excellent breakfast, which you’ll enjoy in the open-air dining room with views of the toucans that hang out in the morning. You’ll be treated to fresh-cooked eggs, locally grown coffee with milk from the farm, pastries with the best local jam, a whole plate of fresh fruit, and more.
But the real highlight of Casitas Tenorio is the wonderful staff. They’ll help you organize any activity you want, order takeout/delivery for dinner, and even point out sloths in the trees while you’re eating breakfast!
For your other meals, Bijagua has a handful of restaurants and sodas. Here were my favorites:
- Pizzeria Barrigon: The best pizza in town, really affordable.
- La Terazza: Good pizza, but more expensive. Awesome outdoor dining area.
- El Sabor de Dona Carmen: Awesome casitos, including a huge salad, and they deliver. Great value for money.
Overall, the Rio Celeste waterfall hike is a great day trip or overnight stop on your Costa Rica itinerary. It’s ideal to escape the tourist crowds and see a cloud forest region that hasn’t yet been so heavily commercialized. Don’t miss the Tenorio area when visiting Costa Rica!
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