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Rio Celeste in Tenorio Volcano National Park: Hike to the Most Colorful Waterfall in Costa Rica

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Costa Rica is paradise on earth, with abundant wildlife, smoking volcanoes, and an endless array of cascading waterfalls. While the country boasts hundreds of breathtaking waterfalls, Rio Celeste, nestled in the northwest corner of the country, is one of the most famous- and for good reason!

Tucked away in an impossibly lush rainforest, it’s known for its shocking electric blue water cascading down a cliff into a pool 90 meters (295 ft) below. So if you’re looking to see one of Costa Rica’s best displays of otherworldly beauty, buckle up- here’s everything you need to know about visiting Rio Celeste.

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Woman walking down stairs to Rio Celeste in Costa Rica
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About Rio Celeste

To reach the Rio Celeste waterfall, you’ll need to hike on a trail through a luscious rainforest in Tenorio Volcano National Park, which is tucked away in the northwest corner of the country. Past the falls on this trail, you’ll also find bubbling hot springs, two suspended bridges over a turquoise river, and even the exact location that the Rio Celeste changes from muddy brown to its famous azure color.

Woman crossing bridge along Rio Celeste trail in Tenorio Volcano National Park

Some quick facts about the hike:

Length: 2.7 km (1.8 miles) roundtrip to the waterfall or 5.4 km (3.4 miles) roundtrip for the entire trail

Elevation gain: If you just hike to the waterfall, there’s about 91 meters (300 feet) elevation gain, as well as 250 steep stairs down to the base of the falls. If you, instead, take on the entire trail, you’ll gain 217 meters (715 feet) during your hike.

Difficulty: Moderate

Couple looking at Rio Celeste waterfall in Costa Rica

How to get to Rio Celeste 

Chasing waterfalls is one of the most popular things to do in La Fortuna and Rio Celeste is no exception.

Tenorio Volcano National Park is located about 40 minutes east of the small town of Bijagua de Upala. It’s conveniently located about halfway between the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia and the popular destination of La Fortuna, so it can be an excellent detour if cruising along that rout.

Alternatively, it can be reached by a hour and a half drive northwest from La Fortuna.

Man driving a scooter in front of Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna

The easiest way to get to Tenorio Volcano National Park (and, really, to get around Costa Rica in general) is by rental car; the roads here are well-paved so there’s no need for a high clearance or 4WD vehicle.

The drive winds along rolling green hills, through rainforests and small towns- so get ready for a scenic ride! There’s technically no designated parking lot by the trailhead, but you can park on either side of the street in Soda El Pilón’s or Blue Paradise Mini Market’s lots for 2000 colones (or about $3 USD).

Tip: When you’re putting the trailhead in your GPS app, don’t type "Rio Celeste" in- while people colloquially call the waterfall “Rio Celeste” for some reason, that’s actually just the river the waterfall flows into- not the waterfall itself (which is actually called Catarata Rio Celeste). 

To make sure you’re taken to the right place, plug this location into your GPS!

If you don’t have a rental car, there’s unfortunately no public transit you can take to get here. There are, however, plenty of Rio Celeste tours that will take you to the beautiful waterfall from all over the northern portion of Costa Rica, like this tour or this tour.

Unless you need transportation to get to the trail, a tour guide here is not really necessary- the trail is pretty straightforward and well-signed. That being said, a guide can definitely help spot wildlife and flora you might not otherwise notice (plus you’re helping support the local economy!). 

Coati in Teonio Volcano National Park

Getting tickets to Rio Celeste

As of August 1, 2023, you must create a profile on Costa Rica’s National Parks website (which is a bit annoying) and purchase tickets online before your visit to the park. There is not longer a ticket office onsite. You’ll pay about $12 USD per adult or $5 for children under 12 for foreign tourists (credit or debit card only) or 800 colones for Costa Ricans. 

If you forget to buy tickets beforehand, there’s a wifi router at the park that you can use to attempt to purchase them on your phone- but I’ve read that the internet is rather spotty, at best, and can be a bit of a frustrating experience. As a last resort, there’s usually someone on hand that’s willing to purchase it for you online (for an extra fee, of course!).

Rainforest in Costa Rica

When to visit Rio Celeste

The Rio Celeste trail is open every day from 8 AM through 4 PM, although the latest you’re allowed on the trail is 2 PM. 

I’d strongly recommend arranging your Costa Rica itinerary so that you can get here bright and early- Tenorio Volcano is one of the most popular national parks in Costa Rica, so the earlier you hit the trail, the less crowds you’ll encounter. It’s so popular, in fact, that the park limits the amount of people that are in it- 500 people at any given time or no more than 1,000 people per day.

Woman hiking down the stairs at Rio Celeste waterfall

My husband, Justin, and I arrived around 7:45 AM on a Wednesday and were the third people in line for the trail. We sprinted to the waterfall- and were lucky enough to get it completely to ourselves for about 15 minutes (more on that later!).

What to expect along the Rio Celeste trail

After you show the park attendant that you have tickets to the park, a guard will check your backpack for items that are not allowed in the park, like single-use plastic (protip: bring a refillable water bottle instead!), outside food, drones, knives, or cigarettes. Assuming you left your knives at home for the day, you’ll pass on through a ranger station with bathrooms you can use before you hit the trail.

Signs along the Rio Celeste trail

The path leaves directly from here, starting off paved, but, as you wind deeper into the rainforest, it eventually transitions to gravel and dirt. You’ll cross a few shallow streams and after about 20 or so minutes, you’ll reach a junction in the trail- if you continue on straight, you’ll reach the stairs down to the waterfall or you can turn right, to explore the other points of interest, like the hot springs, along the trail. 

For some reason, it’s become the common wisdom, even amongst tour guides, to head to the right first and hit the waterfall on your return trip, so you can save the climb to the 250 stairs back up the stairs for the very last. Frankly, I wouldn’t recommend this approach- given the waterfall is the main attraction along the trail, it gets more and more crowded as the day wears on.

Woman walking down the stairs to Rio Celeste

And while there’s much hubbub about the 250 stairs leading to and from the waterfall, they’re really not that challenging for most hikers that don’t have mobility issues- and also not significantly more elevation gain than you’ll encounter on the hot springs portion of the trail.

Again, even though there were plenty of people both ahead and behind us in line to hike on the trail, Justin and I got the waterfall totally to ourselves for quite a while, simply because everyone else headed to the hot springs portion of the trail first. So TL;DR: get to the trail early and hightail it to the waterfall first, especially if you’re a photographer or simply want to avoid crowds.

Woman walking up the stairs at Rio Celeste

If you heed my advice and head towards the waterfall first (wise choice!), you’ll walk down the stairs, which have a well-maintained railing. Along the way, you’ll have several beautiful vistas of one of the most stunning waterfalls in Costa Rica. While you can’t swim at the pool at the bottom of its curtain, there is an awesome viewing platform at its base.

When you’re done taking in the turquoise water, you’ll make your way back towards the trail and head on to the hot spring portion. After a steep climb for about 0.8 km (0.5 miles), you’ll hit the Laguna Azul (or the Blue Lagoon) on the left hand side, a pool of brilliantly-colored water surrounded by lush greenery and vines.

Laguna Azul in Tenorio Volcano National Park

Past the Laguna Azul, you’ll start to smell the next point of interest before you can see it- once a sulfur smell hits your nostrils, you know that hot springs are nearby!

About 50 meters (164 feet) past the blue lagoon, you’ll pass the Borbollones, a section of the river that is literally boiling. Back in the day, the park used to allow visitors into parts of the river to enjoy the natural hot springs (not specifically by the Borbollones, which would, like, burn your face off), but no longer permits this, due to the popularity of the park (still wanna swim in the beautiful blue water? Check out the Tips section below!).

From here, you’ll cross two bridges- one over a regular ol’ river, called Sour Creek, and one over a brilliant blue one, called the Good View River.

Rio Celeste in Costa Rica

Immediately after this second bridge, you’ll be able to see the point where the two rivers converge and exactly where the brilliant color of Rio Celeste begins, called the Tenideros. I’ve truly never seen anything like it in my life- the water transitions from being a murky brown color to turquoise right in front of your eyes!

So why does Rio Celeste look this way? Local legend holds that God was painting the sky blue and dipped his paintbrush in the river to clean it, leaving behind a trail of vibrant color in the water. While this story is quite dreamy, science tells a different story- there’s a mineral composed of aluminum, silicon, and oxygen that coats the rocks at the bottom of the river here, which is perceived by our eyes as an electric blue color. 

Tenideros along the Rio Celeste in Tenorio Volcano National Park

From here, you simply trace your steps back to the trailhead. If you’re hungry or thirsty after your time on the ol’ dusty trail, there’s a few cafes and food stands outside of the national park (that are somehow fairly reasonably priced!).

Tips for Rio Celeste

Tenorio Volcano National Park is located in the middle of a literal rainforest- so buckle up, cuz I got quite a few tips that relate to rain!

Wear waterproof boots.

This trail gets super muddy during the rainy season (May though November) or even after just a heavy bout of rain. And, as mentioned above, you’ll need to walk through a few shallow creeks along the trail.

As such, regardless of what time of year you visit, I’d strongly recommend wearing waterproof hiking boots, like these for women and these for men, to protect your feet from the Indiana Jones-level muck along the trail. There’s also a spigot towards the end of the trail to wash off your muddy feet before you leave.

Man wearing waterproof hiking boots along the Rio Celeste trail

Be careful about visiting during particularly rainy periods.

The park sometimes closes the trail when it’s super rainy. Even if the trail is open, the river might not look as vibrant during super rainy periods, due to the heavy mud created by the strong current. So if your time in this region of Costa Rica is limited and you’re visiting during a particularly rainy stretch, it may not make sense to risk heading here. 

Bring a rain jacket.

Bring along a rain jacket (like this one for men and this one for women)! While Justin and I were here, it started raining HARD out of nowhere (literally the only rain we experienced in Costa Rica) and it stopped almost as suddenly as it began shortly thereafter. They don’t call it a rainforest for nothing!

Hit this under-the-radar swimming hole.

Want to swim in that beautiful water? While you can’t take a dip in the national park itself, there’s a little pull-off along the road (located here), just 1.2 km south of the trailhead, where you can climb down and splash around in the river.

There’s a handful of parking spots or alternatively, you can leave your car by the trailhead and simply walk here- given there’s no parking attendants to watch your car, that’s what we did.

Woman sitting on rock in Rio Celeste near Tenorio Volcano National Park

This little swimming spot is gorgeous- surrounded by lush trees, huge rocks to sun yourself on, and of course, that beautiful blue water! Don’t forget a quick-dry towel and some water shoes (Justin and I both wore our Teva sandals (his and hers) basically the entire time we were in Costa Rica) to protect your feet from the stabby rocks linking the riverbed.

And if you’re just dying to swim under a turquoise waterfall, I’d suggest checking out the Blue Falls of Costa Rica, located an hour and 40 minutes southeast of La Fortuna. You can actually swim under not one, but TWO jaw-droppingly blue (and jaw-droppingly cold!) waterfalls here, as hummingbirds flit above your head.

Where to stay near Rio Celeste

If you’re looking to explore a section of Costa Rica that’s a bit more off-the-beaten path, Bijagua de Upala may be a great place to spend a day or two. Beyond Rio Celeste, there’s plenty to see and do here, such as observing the amazing wildlife at Tapir Valley Nature Reserve or Finca Verde, which are less crowded and more affordable alternatives to wildlife tours you’ll find in La Fortuna.

Man sitting on the porch in a treehouse in Costa Rica

Consider spending the night at:

  • Finca Amistad Cacao Lodge: Stay on a real working cacao farm nestled deep in a rainforest, complete with rustic, yet cozy cabins.
  • Celeste Mountain Lodge: An ecolodge with a view of two volcanoes, excellent bird-watching opportunities, and yummy cocktails- what more could you want?
  • Sueño Río Celeste B&B: Absolutely beautiful bed and breakfast to kick back and unwind, with hammocks overlooking the mountain views and incredibly friendly and helpful staff.

Rio Celeste is one of the most stunning waterfalls in Costa Rica- so what are you waiting for? If you have any questions about visiting the incredible place, sound off in the comments below.

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4 thoughts on “Rio Celeste in Tenorio Volcano National Park: Hike to the Most Colorful Waterfall in Costa Rica”

  1. Hello. Thanks for your great article! Do you recommend anywhere to grab breakfast to go from Liberia airport to the waterfall? Thanks

    • We have no recommendations from experience, but Cafe La Semilla in Bigagua looks like it’d be right up our alley! You’ll have to report back and let us know what you found. Glad you enjoyed the article. Happy travels!

  2. Hi! Thanks for the article, we visited today and had a few issues. I tought I would let you know if you want to update the article.
    You HAVE to buy your tickets online in advance. On site there is no ticket office. They offer « wi-fi » but it does not work and there is no connection even if you have a sim with data. We tried for 20 minutes and we gave up. The option was to pay someone to do it for us with a big antenna for wifi. We ended up paying $17 per person instead of $12 ( we are four).
    Also, now no food is allowed onsite. We had to leave our lunch in the car. We saw some people on site with food and single use plastic bottles, so the guard is not steady in his bag searchs… 🤷🏻‍♀️
    Other than the unpleasant start, it was really amazing!!


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