Ecotourism Hotspot: Exploring Rio Celeste, its trails & waterfall

Susan Wesley-Vega | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Rio Celeste: A place you must see to believe

First, “celeste” (pronounced “cell-est-eh”) means “sky blue.” Ri[o Celeste,]( as its name implies, is famous for its natural and spectacular turquoise coloration.  It is located in Tenorio Volcano National Park. In the Park, you can walk the trails through the rainforest and along the river to its waterfall and beyond to where the blue of Rio Celeste starts.  You must see Rio Celeste to understand how this river could be confused as a bit of sky on earth.

© Flickr/Amir Appel

The beautiful blue… Where it comes from

There are scientific explanations about the intense aqua blue color, but we will get to that.  First I want to share a more colorful explanation that illustrates Costa Rican culture.

According to Costa Rican stories and legends, it happened when God was creating the earth and all its wonders. Ri[o Celeste]( got its brilliant and dazzling color when God dipped His brush in the river while He was painting the sky. When you see the river’s water, it will be hard to doubt that it could have been otherwise.

Exploring the Celeste River

You can stop along the main road and see the river and even walk down to the shore.  However, there is more to see and explore!  The best part of a visit to Rio Celeste is exploring its other features.  The Celeste River borders several hot springs; offers a walking trail with a lookout point and 2 hanging bridges; and has one large waterfall the falls into an amazing blue pool.

What is ecotourism?

Ecotourism is tourism with a focus on getting back to nature, visiting natural sites and seeing beautiful views. It’s tourism to countries that treasure (and can still offer) un[spoiled natural resources ]( you to enjoy.  As an eco-tourist you show and share your appreciation of the awesomeness of nature along with local people.  Like them, you are participating in the conservation process

The waterfall trail

First, you do not need a guide.  You can absolutely make this hike along Rio Celeste on your own. It is a straightforward trail that is well marked.  You can’t get lost!

Second, the hike is not a rigorous one. Although you do not need to be in tip-top physical condition to hike the trails; there are a few steep places, roots, rocks and sometimes, mud.  So, if you have knees or ankle problems that usually keep you from walking on uneven surfaces or steps, I recommend going to just the waterfall. Unfortunately this trail is not handicap friendly. It is 3.7 miles (6 km round trip) and takes around 3 hours (with no mud). Depending on the extent of the muddiness, you might be forced to walk slower so it can take longer. 


Fortunately, the first section leading to the Rio Celeste waterfall is probably the easiest part.  To give you an idea, the trail leading from the ranger station to the waterfall is paved and relatively flat. After a short distance, the paved portion ends and becomes gravel leading to a simple dirt trail.  It will be muddy if it has rained recently. The hike to the waterfall is about 30 minutes. Along the dirt portion, there are some short steep areas, a small stream crossing, and lots of roots and rocks to walk around. In spite of all this, it is still a pretty easy walk.

© Flickr/ The.Rohit

A “mirador” (lookout point)

There is a “mirador” (lookout point) down a naturally constructed steps.  It is about a 20-30 minute walk from the entrance. There’s a platform to walk that offers a fantastic view of the rain forest. However, be careful about going up to the top of the platform. Unless it has been repaired, it might not be in safe condition. It is a fabulous spot for taking amazing pictures. The Rio Celeste waterfall is 90 meters (295 ft) tall and cascades into a deep blue pool framed in varying shades of thick green vegetation.


Swimming is prohibited inside Tenorio Volcano National Park

For your safety as well as part of the Park’s conservation plan, it is prohibited to swim in the rivers or pool inside Tenorio Volcano National Park.  By complying you are participating as an eco-tourist and contributing in Costa Rica’s amazing conservation program.  (Some old maps and publications might indicate that swimming is allowed, but it is strictly forbidden in Tenorio Volcano National Park.)

© Flickr/Pontus Aratoun

You can swim in Rio Celeste outside the national park.  In fact, there are kayaking and tube-floating tours.  They are very fun and I recommend them.  To swim on your own, there is a free public entrance by the bridge 1 kilometer (~.6 mile) past the park entrance.  Another option is to pay about $6 per person at Piruri Cabinas to swim in the river.  The water is cold but feels very refreshing!

© Flickr/Ricardo Chavez Benavides

2 enchanting hanging bridges

Continuing on, you pass over the river twice by way of two fun hanging bridges.  The first one goes over the normal river (no blue color). The second bridge crosses over the celestial blue river and it is absolutely breath-taking. Once you cross and pass some trees, you will find yourself in a small open area. Keep going to reach the “teñideros” (dyeing) point.  It is the point where the crystal clear waters in two rivers mix together and dye (color) each other. As the two different rivers converge, the show-stopping blue color suddenly starts. Without a doubt this is the most fascinating part of the adventure.  

© Flickr/Costa Rica Experts

Teñideros: the end of the trail

The trail ends at the teñideros.  I hope you enjoy the walk back to the ranger station and exit just as much.   You can visit the park in 1-2 hours if you only want to see the Rio Celeste waterfall. However, the whole trail all the way to the teñideros will take about 3-4 hours (assuming no mud).  My recommendation is to allow plenty of time to walk leisurely and to take bird- and monkey-watching breaks. This is especially true for your return walk. Rest, take it easy and don’t rush up or down the stairs and trails. (Tell the kids!) A fast misstep could transform into a little slide adventure…

In case you are wondering:  WHY is it so blue? The scientific reason

The brilliant blue water gets its heavenly blue color from a chemical reaction between volcanic minerals. The scientific explanation is that certain minerals coated in silicon, oxygen, and aluminum are suspended in the waters of each of the two separate rivers. This vivid, turquoise-blue color phenomenon in the water happens because of a combination of the mixing of these minerals along with the amount of water flow, and the suspension and reflection of sunlight. It is an amazing phenomenon.

© Flickr/Sten Rettby

4 tips for hiking to Rio Celeste waterfall

1.      The best time to visit:  Go to Rio Celeste during the dry season of December to April, if you can.  Rain can cloud the water and dull the turquoise effect. There are usually less visitors during this time, too.  High season is after April.  Usually, the weather is generally hot during the day and cools off at night. Average temperatures are around low to mid 80s (28 C) and cools off at night to high 60s F (20 C). Notably, this area doesn’t follow the strict dry-rainy tropical season and it can rain in April and January, for example; which are the typical summer months in Costa Rica.

2.      Hours: Tenorio Volcano National Park is open daily, 8:00am to 4:00pm Important: Even though the park is open until 4pm, last admission is at 2pm. If it is high season or rainy, go early.

3.      Admission: A fee is required, but it is very affordable.  $12 for foreigners, ₡800 for citizens and residents and about half price for children. These fees, and any donation that you can make,are an essential part of Costa Rica’s sustainable conservation.

4.      What to bring & wear:

Footwear: Hiking boots or tennis shoes with good traction are the best.  They will likely get dirty if the trail is muddy. If you do not want your shoes to get muddy, you can rent rain boots for $5 outside the park entrance. If you are older or have ankle/knee problems, I recommend wearing good solid hiking shoes. There are a lot of rocks and tree roots you have to walk on.

Clothing & Gear: Mornings can be in the lower 70s, but it warms up quickly as you walk. Light and layered clothing is best, so shorts and t-shirts and a light jacket should be fine.  It can rain without notice at high altitudes.  If you are not up for getting wet in the rain, bring waterproof rain gear including water resistant backpacks and a rain cover.

Water/Food: As with everywhere in Costa Rica, be sure to bring plenty of water.  There are a couple of restaurants near the ranger station that are pretty good (cash only, local currency).  Otherwise, there is nothing else until the towns of Bijagua and Guatuso.

Mosquito Repellent & Sun Block: Always a good idea to take a long, especially for children.

Visiting Rio Celeste waterfall is a “must do” trip

Rio Celeste is fast becoming one of the country’s most popular ec[ological hotspots]( Certainly it is one of Costa Rica’s secret ec[o-tourism treasures]( Not only is it a memorable experience, but it is your opportunity to truly experience a special phenomenon: a little bit of sky on earth that you and your children can touch!  Exploring Rio Celeste, and its trails and waterfall, means visiting the Tenorio Volcano National Park. This is a “must do” trip while visiting Costa Rica.


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