Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 3: The Bluest Water You've Ever Seen

Destination: Arenal

I woke up with the chickens today, ready for my visit to the Venado Caverns. The last time I went sightseeing among stalactites and stalagmites, my age meandered somewhere in the single digits and my mom was holding my hand tightly. Today would be a bit different, and I was excited to go spelunking amidst humid, bat-dwelling caves.

When Alfredo from Desafio Adventures arrived at 7:45 for my early morning pickup, he asked me if I was ready for the big hike ahead. Surprised, I nodded, curious as to how one hikes through caverns. When we arrived at the central office, it all became clear: instead of heading to Venado today, we would switch with Saturday's upcoming trip, and drive out to the famous Celestial River (Rio Celeste).

this way: rio celeste waterfall

The Celestial River is located in Tenorio Volcano National Park, just south of the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua. The river is colored celestial blue, a phenomenon caused by a mineral mixture of sulfur and calcium carbonate. Science aside, to the untrained eye and non-chemical mind, it's nothing short of pure magic. A 100-foot waterfall only adds to the wonder, as it cascades down moss-covered rocks into the sky-blue pool below.

For more than three years, the Rio Celeste had been on my "Wanted to See Yesterday!" list, and I was so excited to be visiting today. Along with my Desafio guides, Alfredo and Noelia, I would hike the entire park trail, stopping first at the waterfall and impossibly blue river before heading on to other sights, including the bubbling river and a special spot where the blue Rio Celeste blends into a clear-water river, creating a colorful paradise rarely seen in nature.

rio celeste hiking trails

The drive from La Fortuna to the national park took just under two hours. Most of the way was paved, but about five miles before the park entrance, we turned onto a very bumpy gravel road. Alfredo, a big joker, laughed at what he called the "famous Costa Rican massages," and I grinned in response: the potholed roads often feel like rudimentary massage chairs (the kind you return to the store), bumping and bouncing you around in your seat.

When we arrived at the park entrance, we put on our backpacks and readied for the hike. Depending on the route you take, it can last anywhere between two and five hours. We were headed on the longer route, so I knew I was in for a great wilderness trek. Since yesterday was free from any strenuous exercise -- not including the workout my poor heart muscle got on the catapult! -- I was raring to go.

Noelia asked if I had brought a change of clothes. Clueless, I shook my head no. No matter, she explained, we only had to ford the river at the base of the waterfall. (Sometimes, I really feel like my life is the punch line to a joke that's gone way over my head.) Luckily, I really don't mind getting wet, and I knew from experience that the cool river waters would probably be a welcome respite from the heavy, humid air.

colossal leaf-cutter ant nes

We began our ascent into the park, and I soon learned that we would be climbing up, up and up. And when we were finished with that bit, we'd climb up a bit more. Toting my camera proved to be a great excuse and clever ploy for rest time: whenever my lungs felt like they were going to burst, I stopped to proclaim that the perfect photo op had just been identified and could not be missed. I'm sure Noelia and Alfredo were on to me, but they were always great sports, stopping to pose for photos and rest for a few moments.

Continuing our hike (still going up, of course), we witnessed the tranquility of an undisturbed forest. Butterflies flitted through the air, birds played in the trees, and frogs chirruped in the distance. A motmot couple caught our eye as they frolicked in a tree not far from us. An enormous leaf cutter ant nest stretched out for 20 feet to our right. It was all fun and games until Noelia spotted a pink eyelash palm pit viper.

log foot bridge over rio celeste

I love and respect nature, and for the most part accept that I am trespassing through the home of bugs, mammals, birds and reptiles every time I hike through the jungle. I'm prepared to be peed on by howler monkeys, consumed alive by mosquitoes and have even come to terms with the existence of tarantulas (sometimes even in my home), but I maintain a very healthy fear of snakes. In simple terms, I prefer a glass wall between us and, when not possible, I prefer ignorance to knowledge of their presence. This was the second time I had seen an eyelash pit viper in nature, and it lay napping in a tree just ten feet from my face. It was an orangey- red color, and through the binoculars, we could see that it was staring at us with at least one lazy, if terrifying, eye. I moved on.

spectacular rio celeste waterfallAfter about 90 minutes of mostly uphill hiking, the temperature cooled and I could hear the rush of a nearby waterfall. Soon, Noelia pointed out a tiny sliver of the bluest water I had ever seen. My excitement piqued; I would have run headlong down the path if it had not been so slippery with mud and mossy rocks.

When we finally passed through the clearing and into the waterfall area, I was astounded. The water was truly blue: when I scooped it up in my hands, it stayed blue. When I dipped my hand in, my skin looked blue. This was no optical illusion or a reflection from a blue sky: the water was really, truly and quite undeniably the milky blue of a Crayola sky crayon.

blue pool below the rio celeste waterfallI reclined on a rock and enjoyed the cool spray off the waterfall. I had been soaking in my own sweat just five minutes before, but now I was perfectly comfortable and very relaxed. I grabbed the camera from around my neck and began to click the shutter, taking photos from every angle possible. When I was finished, Noelia asked if I was willing to cross the river, despite my jeans and sneakers.

I nodded my consent, and we all stepped into the river. Since I had the camera with me, and was therefore paranoid about falling in, I walked between Alfredo and Noelia. When we got to the deeper areas, where the water went about halfway up my thighs, I grabbed on to both Alfredo's hand in front of me and Noelia's hand behind me; I'm sure our human chain looked ridiculous, but together we walk steadily through the rushing river.

the tenideros: where the rio celeste joins a clear riverAfter we had successfully maneuvered the blue currents, we sat down to enjoy our new view. If possible, it was better from this side, offering a more panoramic vista of the green moss walls, tumbling falls and creamy blue pool below. We took several photos, rested, admired and then decided it was time to move on.

If I thought we had been climbing upwards before, this section of the hike called for a new word to be invented. The rustic trail was composed of cinderblock steps, often reaching more than 2.5 feet tall. I'm 5'4" on a good day, and my legs could barely reach the step above. Grabbing on to any handhold I could, I hauled myself up the vertical path, heaving, huffing, sweating and absolutely loving every minute of it.

monkey business on a "monkey ladder" flying rootWhen we made it to the top -- 20 minutes to ascend 500 feet -- we stopped to rest our lungs and legs. Have you ever had an out-of-body experience? I think I had one today. After all that walking, my legs no longer felt like my own. In fact, I couldn't feel them at all, except for a few firing nerves complaining of soreness and unsure of their ability to carry me onward. After a few gulps of water though, I was back in control and ready to move on.

The last 1.5 miles took us to a bubbling river, where the small bubbles indicated not boiling water, but volcanic gases escaping from under the river surface; a celestial blue pond, where the still water exhibited an even darker hue than at the waterfall; a "dyed" river where the blue river mingled with a clear river and, finally, natural hot springs. Unfortunately, the weather was too hot and humid to tempt me into the springs, but on a cooler day, the rock walls and natural stone seats would have been perfect for an afternoon soak.

fresh tilapia late lunchFour and a half hours after beginning our hike, we were back at the trail head. Walking back to the parking lot, I felt nothing but exhilaration at the long, rewarding hike, and excitement for the lunch to come. We had all ordered fresh tilapia, and I couldn't wait to gobble down the fish that had been swimming in the pond just 30 minutes before. It came out whole, fried and begging to be eaten, and I happily obliged. Taking a cue from Alfredo and Noelia, I even ate the fins, which tasted like one of the most delicious, if slightly fishy, potato chips of my life. Many say that this is the best part of the fish, and now I tend to agree.

By the time I rolled into my hotel room, 12 hours had passed since my morning pickup. Exhausted and body aching, I ran to the shower to wash off, and collapsed into bed. The Celestial River had been a highlight of my time in Costa Rica (and I have seen a lot), and I wanted to relive the day again and again and again.

Day 3: The Bluest Water You've Ever Seen in Pictures