The Celestial River
After a hiatus of about 12 years we felt that it was time to return to Costa Rica. We had spent a good deal of time traveling around in the country starting back in 1990. By 1992 we started on a project that, after 14 years, became the book “A Field Guide to the Plants of Costa Rica”. We needed to see if the magic of CR was still there for us so in September we headed down. We knew that much had changed over the years but we didn’t have any real idea how considerable that change was.
Some places seem timeless. Things change but at a pace that seems reasonable, maybe in ways that aren’t noticeable, and then… Of course 2 million tourists a year are going to transform anyplace, particularly a small country that had an economy based on agriculture. Places on the tourist circuit have changed and not always in good ways, still very nice but certainly not the “way it was”. Fortunately not every place is on that circuit.
I hesitate to mention this area in northern CR but it is so special that people need to experience it. There is a small town called Bijagua, near Volcan Tenorio and the national park of the same name. A little town with a couple of places to eat, at least one of those is very good and a couple of places to stay, some very nice (if you find yourself there, check out Sueno Celeste) but not overrun with touristy stuff nor tourists. There are a few places to stay closer to the park entrance.
But this isn’t really about Bijagua, it is about Rio Celeste, in Volcan Tenorio National Park. We had heard of Rio Celeste years ago but it wasn’t easy to get to. Now, thanks to the money coming into the country from tourism Costa Rica has improved roads all over the country. So while Bijagua is easy to get to, the road up to the National Park is good old Costa Rica. You don’t need a 4×4 but be warned, it is a very rough, rocky road like most of them where the pavement ends. The nice thing about national parks in CR is that you have to walk if you want to experience anything, their parks are not autocentric like they are here in the US.
Celeste (Spanish) is defined as celestial (heavenly) or the color sky-blue. Rio Celeste is a heavenly blue, caused, according to legend, by the gods that after painting the sky, cleaned their brushes in this river. There are other places on the planet where improbably blue waters flow, the gods have been busy, it’s a big sky. For us, walking in a tropical forest is magical, the biodiversity is mind-boggling and the gods had to have had one hell of a palette to come up with all of those shades of green. The trail is rough, its rocky with exposed tree roots and, at least in the rainy season, mud. Cicadas buzz and brrr in the trees while you sweat, slip and squelch along, beginning to hear a distant rushing. Photos will not prepare you for the sensory explosion that awaits. If there has been heavy rain, wait a day or two if you can, otherwise you may find the river has gone from blue to a muddy brown.
The river flows unfettered through a verdant forest, leaves wet in the rain and where it slows and pools it is a deep, almost fathomless blue. Where it flows across submerged grass and rock it’s a pale, watercolor blue. The first view of the river is at the Catarata Rio Celeste, where the sky-blue flow hurls itself off of a 60 foot rock wall. The azure shatters to silver and coalesces back to a translucent turquoise in the plunge pool. The park service has built steps down to near the base of the falls. Kind of a surprise considering the extraordinary amount of manual labor several hundred concrete steps down a very steep slope takes. This does make it easier to get differing views of the falls. And is much easier than the half falling slip and slide, using a vegetable belay to keep from a nose-dive down on the rocks below.
If you can tear yourself away from the fall, walk upstream a short distance and you will come to another amazing view. Here two small rivers, the Roble and the Buena Vista join, and here, painting gods aside, the magic happens. The confluence is called Borbollones, the bubbling, an effervescence that turns clear water to blue. Sulphur and calcium carbonate from the volcanic substrate mixes here and voila the sky flows at your feet.