The Mysterious Rio Celeste

Published: April 23rd 2016
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Driving in Costa Rica was proving to be a frustrating experience. The distances were short – Costa Rica was about the size of North Georgia – but the travel times were long. We were learning that if Google Maps said it should take two and a half hours that we needed to double it and if a Costa Rican said it should take an hour and a half it would be more like four. The trouble was that the posted speed limits were slow and the roads were uniformly bad. There were some nice paved roads, but even they were clogged with traffic and slowed by frequent towns and even more frequent school zones. There were unmarked speed bumps, absurdly aggressive drivers, potholes the size of small cars – we were driving a small car – and animals that seemed to like it better in the road than in the jungle. Once you left the pavement the roads left the realm of frustrating and became comical. The dirt roads were all paved with chunks of stone that were haphazardly spread out forming a somewhat treacherous cobblestone paving. On the good dirt roads the going was slow and bumpy, and I had seen rocky creek beds that were better than the bad dirt roads. To say that having four-wheel drive was a necessity in Costa Rica would be an understatement.

Our journey from Arenal Volcano to the Rio Celeste took in the full spectrum of Costa Rica’s roads. The paved road along the Lago Arenal was winding and steep with frequent potholes and stunning views. Though the road was paved it took us the rest of the day to reach Nuevo Arenal, a town that was moved out of the path of the new lake when they built the dam. Along the way we saw some impressive forest and lake views and some tiny towns. We came around one bend and stopped as a pair of small collared peccaries slowly crossed the road in front of us. By the time we reached Nuevo Arenal we had one hour of daylight left. We stopped at a small roadside restaurant in town and talked with several locals there. The consensus was that it would be folly to attempt the road over the mountains to the Rio Celeste in the dark. We ended up getting a stunning lake-view room in a lovely bed and breakfast just outside of town. We had a pleasant time in Nuevo Arenal, despite our third night in a row with little sleep due to the oppressive road noise and an unfortunate late-night bread-baking incident.

We were on the road again shortly after a wonderful breakfast, including the delicious bread that had deprived us of so much sleep. The road over the mountain was every bit as difficult as the locals had warned us it would be. Our top speed was twenty kilometers an hour and at that speed the little Jimny 4x4 we had shook violently and seemed like it would fall apart at any moment. Luckily the misty mountain scenery along the road was stunning and we didn’t mind the slow pace. The rocky road dumped us out on another paved road and we followed that around to the town of Bijagua, where we had another comida tipica at a roadside soda. The road from Bijagua to the Rio Celeste started out as bad as the previous rocky road, but after a few kilometers it turned into a rollercoaster of steep hills, loose rocks and extremely slow going. Even with four-wheel drive it was tough going in a few places. We reached the ranger station for Tenorio National Park and the Rio Celeste around one o’clock and hit the trail shortly after.

The Rio Celeste was an amazing place. The forest was thick and mysterious, filled with giant trees tangled with vines, and the river was stunning. Our walk started on a paved trail that led through the forest. We crossed over a tall concrete bridge that spanned a gorge that the trail had once descended into. Shortly after the bridge the concrete paving ended and was replaced by gravel and concrete forms where the park staff was working to push the paving further into the forest. From there the going slowed and the trail became muddy and steep. We passed a steady stream of people on guided tours heading back to the parking area as we hiked. Eventually we reached an inviting bench beneath a giant, buttressed tree and a sign directing us down a monumental staircase that broke off of the main trail and led down a steep, forested slope. The stairs were concrete with thick concrete rails that had been finished in a way that made them look like logs. The effect was nice and added to the ambiance of the place. About half way down the staircase we came to a gap in the trees that opened up onto the waterfall below. It was a spectacular sight. The verdant foliage framed a whitewater torrent that launched out from a sunny gap in the cliff face and crashed down into a chalky blue pool of water. It was almost like I was looking down on a cartoon river flowing through a scene in one of my favorite adventure cartoons as a kid, but my mind new it was real. I paused to take a few photographs and then I continued down the stairs to a landing near the blue pool. The waterfall was falling into a cliff-lined, circular pool of aquamarine water. The stone around the pool was stained a deep green from the aluminosilicate in the water, which, through a process of Mie scattering, causes the blue color. The entire scene was in shadow except for a beam of orange sunlight that was shooting through the gap in the cliff with the water setting the mist aglow – It was a spectacular sight. We watched the amazing water for several minutes while we lost ourselves in the roaring solitude of the cascade. Once the tumultuous tranquility of the place had completely soaked in we turned back up the long, slippery staircase and climbed back up to the main trail and continued our hike.

Over the next several hours we took in all that Tenorio and the Rio Celeste had to offer. There were stunning vistas of the three mist-shrouded peaks of Volcán Tenorio from the rickety platform at the Mirador and the still blue waters of the Pozo Azul, or Blue Lagoon. We watched the hot water bubble up from the earth in the Aguas Termales. The guidebook we had told us that we would be able to swim in the hot springs, but the man at the ranger station told us otherwise – We opted instead to wade in a bit to feel the warm water and give our tired feet a rest and it was wonderful! We continued further down the trail and found a series of wonderfully rickety hanging bridges. The first was a graceful suspension bridge that spanned a wide portion of the river and bounced and swayed with every cautious step. The second bridge was a narrow plank walkway supported by two cables beneath the planks. It spanned a deep blue section of water and made for a very picturesque and somewhat adventurous crossing. We both made it across without incident and continued down the trail on the other side. After a few minutes the muddy path left the river and zigzagged through a swampy area on some narrow log bridges that required a good bit of concentration to get across. At that point in the walk we decided to turn around. We had a little over two hours before dark and we wanted to make sure we made it out in time. Just before we crossed back over the bridges we saw a sign that pointed down a side trail to a place called Los Teñidores where two small, clear rivers joined together to form the milky-blue of the Rio Celeste. It was a spectacular place where we could see exactly were the clear water of one of the rivers merged with the other in a colorful display.

We made quick time heading back toward the trailhead and reached the car well before dark. Along the way we saw several interesting birds, including the crested guan, some distant parrots and a lovely hawk, or owl that paused long enough for me to get my camera set up and then flew away. We were not looking forward to navigating the long, rocky road back to Bijagua in the dark, so we decided to look for a place to stay in one of the lodges near the park. Cabinas Piuri, was affordable and located on the bank of the Rio Celeste, so we headed straight there. We were greeted by the friendly proprietor, Alexander, and two of his dogs and then we were shown to a room located down a hill from the main building in a long, pink building that sat on a hillside above the blue river. The well-equipped room was at the end of the building closest to the river, so the flowing water filled the air with a pleasant white noise that guaranteed a good night sleep. We were short on cash and the cabinas had no way of taking credit cards, but Alexander quickly worked out a solution that would allow us to pay for our stay and that night’s dinner once we got back into town the following day, so we quickly agreed and went to get our stuff.

Cabinas Piuri was a dream come true for us. It was peaceful and quiet and located in a clearing beside the river with a stunning backdrop of the surrounding, jungle-clad peaks. As we unpacked and washed off the grime from the day’s adventure the storm clouds rolled in and within an hour of arriving a driving rainstorm engulfed us. We sat in the room beside the open door and relaxed as the rain drummed on the tin roof and the mist billowed through the air. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect setting!

After about an hour we made our way up to the main building for dinner. Alexander and his dogs greeted us at the table and within a few minutes we had a wonderful comida tipica sitting in front of us. The two other groups staying at the lodge arrived a few minutes later and then the local cat, Silvester, arrived to provide the entertainment. After dinner we collapsed into the king-sized bed and were quickly lulled to sleep by the sound of the river and silence.

We woke up well rested and feeling great. It was our first good night of sleep in Costa Rica and our entire outlook had changed. We had a wonderful breakfast and we worked out the final details with Alexander regarding where we needed to go to pay our bill and then we headed back to the room. We changed into our swimsuits and we headed down the slippery slope toward the river. At the bottom of the hill we entered a Garden of Eden sort of place filled with calm pools of milky-blue water joined together by a series of cascades that led all the way down to the river and surrounded with tropical foliage and colorful flowers. The pools were manmade, but inviting just the same. We decided to start our swim in the Rio Celeste itself, so we walked past the pools to the river and a lovely natural swimming hole surrounded by rocks. The river was cold, but invigorating. We floated in the blue river for several minutes and took in the surreal scenery around us – It really was a spectacular place – and then we headed back up to the room, pausing for a leisurely dip in one of the pools along the way.

We rounded up our gear and then we thanked Alexander and got back on the road. We retraced our route back down the rocky road to Bijagua. I was getting surer of my driving skills, so I was able to take in more of the stunning scenery around us. We paused near town to look at a troop of howler monkeys playing in a tree beside the road and then we rejoined the pavement. We found the veterinarian, where we needed to pay our bill, and, after a quick trip to the bank for cash, we were paid up and headed south toward the cloud forests of Monteverde.

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