Baby's First Trail Run
2015 was the year I really started running regularly, and the first year I took a solo vacation. I took a week off after Thanksgiving and flew to Costa Rica for some hiking, sunshine, and relaxation. Notice I don’t say I was planning on doing any running there — I wasn’t! But one of my hiking trips was a long trail run in disguise: I just didn’t realize it at the time.
My first full day in Costa Rica brought me to Rincón de la Vieja National Park. I shared a van with a few other hikers, and after a short drive from my hostel in the airport town of Liberia, we arrived at the central ranger station of the Las Pailas sector of the park. (When I arrived in Liberia the night before, I decided to tag along on a trip to the park that my hostel had already arranged — the private van was quite a change from most of my travels on Costa Rica's extensive public bus system!) Our driver gave us a few quick words of advice about drinking water, reminded us to check in with the park rangers regularly, and after a stern order to be back by 4pm for the return trip to Liberia, set us loose.
I went straight to the ranger station to let them know which trail I was going to start with. Because the park is so large and staff so small, the rangers check you in and out to make sure no one is unaccounted for at the end of the day — then they have an idea where to start looking if someone goes missing!
I was sad to learn the trail to the volcano's main crater was closed because of recent seismic activity, but couldn’t argue with that logic! I chose the trail towards less threatening volcanic phenomena first: a quick 3 kilometer loop through an array of the pailas (mud pots) this area of the park was named for. It was the easiest trail, and I wanted to start by heading out into the open before the day got too hot, saving the forest and waterfalls to cool off in later.
I set out towards the grassland along a shaded trail, and quickly crossed a rusty old bridge. The babbling brook below kept looping across the path and when I came to my next crossing, I found it a bit more rustic: a carefully carved tree trunk to scamper across! The impressive forest soon gave way to a clay path and I made good time reaching the pailas.
The mud pots are low pockets of geothermal activity: they might not have the grandiosity of an enormous crater at a mountain's peak, but they're prehistoric and fascinating in their own way. Pools of steaming grey sludge —surrounded by plenty of warning signs— and toxic yellow pits lapping at the edges of enormous ferns and gnarly trees transport you right back to the earth’s early days. They smell toxic, too! But the sight is worth it.
I continued along a few boardwalks and overlooks and into the birdwatching section of the trail, until I found myself leaving this savannah and entering another forest. My paper map and the signage made it clear this trail lead to another part of the park, 6 or 8 kilometers away, and I decided to check it out. I didn’t plan to hike the whole thing but enjoyed the shade and thought I might see something interesting if I continued on a bit.
I knew I would have to retrace my steps, and didn't want my curiosity to mean I missed out on the highlights of Pailas Sector, so I checked my watch and allowed myself 20 minutes to explore the trail towards the Santa Maria sector of the park, named for another mountain. I drank some water and snacked on the peanuts that I had in my bag — luckily I had some portable food with me as there was nothing for sale at the park and I'd be on my feet all day.
I ran into another hiker from my group returning from a similar side trip, and after he passed by, the forest returned to silence. I picked my way up the wide dirt trail until I heard rustling off to my right, and froze to see who or what was joining me. The noise grew louder and soon enough, a pack of coatimundi pranced across the trail! Coatis aren't rare at all, but to my tourist eyes they're more exciting than just a "Costa Rican raccoon". Their doglike noses, funny stripes, and long lemur-like tails held straight up in the air make for a silly sight, but I suppose I'd roll my eyes if a visitor to New York was excited by seeing something as common as a squirrel in Central Park. Even deer in American suburbs grow commonplace. I watched the coatis pass by, then decided to head back to the ranger station at the center trailhead since my little detour had paid off already.
The return trip to the ranger station was quick, and after popping in to let them know I was heading to the other side of the park —where one trail forks to visit two waterfalls— I filled up my water bottle and kept on my way. Costa Rica's water (like their bus system!) is above average, and knowing the water in almost every area of the country is safe to drink makes traveling around a lot easier. When I travel to a country where I need to stick to bottled water, I spend the first few days really stressed out about my new routine — even if I'm staying in a big city where buying gallons of water at a time is easy — but Costa Rica is low-stress. The only area where their water isn't potable is a small and remote marshy region on the Caribbean coast, and even the public water fountains in Rincón de la Vieja were safe for me.
The waterfall trail heads west from the ranger station through a forest, and because my fellow hikers and I had split up so long ago I had the place to myself. With every step I took away from the series of pailas and low grasslands I visited in the morning, the trees grew more impressive and the foliage even denser. Tree roots criss-crossed the trail and the sunlight —which should be quite bright as it was nearing noon— dappled down through the leaves.
Once again I heard a distinct rustling and froze, trying to silently grab my camera. I looked out along the trail ahead and eventually spotted my companion: a tiny little animal, trying to hide at the edge of the trail! At the time I thought it was a young capybara —which grow to be the size of pigs— but after a little research I think it was an agouti, a different tropical rodent. They're even more like squirrels than coatis are, from their skittish nature to habits of burying seeds and role in the forest ecosystem. We stared at each other for a few moments, then I gently walked forward again and it scampered off-trail.
After a kilometer or two I came to a fork in the trail: up the mountain to la catarata escondida, the hidden waterfall, or downhill to la cangreja, the better-known "blue lagoon" popular with swimmers. The first was 4.3 kilometers away from the ranger station, and the second was 5.1km out, and I started to worry I might not have time to visit both. I didn't have a GPS watch or concrete way to track how far I'd come, but I knew I'd hiked some of the trail to the fork already, and as a new runner I thought I had a good sense of how many kilometers I could cover in an hour.
Well, actually all I knew was that 10 km = 6.2 miles, and at the time, that was the furthest I'd ever run! That distance would take me about an hour, back home in New York and out on paved roads. It didn't occur to me that the trails here might be much slower going! The 3km trail through las pailas was a snap, and because I comfortably completed that trail (with a bit of bonus distance) even faster than the generous 2 hours the signage said it would take, I decided that the 2 and 2.5 hours suggested to visit la catarata escondida and la cangreja were also more time than I'd need. Instead of only visiting one and returning to the ranger station with a lot of time to waste, I decided to try and see both waterfalls. If I went up to la catarata escondida first and used less than half the time I had remaining, then I was confident I could visit la cangreja, rest for a bit, and still return to the ranger station in time to catch my ride home.
I had a sip of water, ate a bit of a granola bar and started jogging uphill, though I quickly realized alternating running and power-hiking was more effective than trying to keep a perfectly even pace! I soon left the shady forest and burst into the grassy uplands, overlooking the entire Rincón de la Vieja National Park and the city of Liberia off in the distance. The few large shrubs increased in size as I headed straight up the side of the mountain, and the trail shrank from a wide dirt path to just a hint of grassy singletrack. I could see across waves of rippling grasslands, and only when looking carefully at the slope ahead of me could I discern the actual trail from a distance.
I hiked and ran upwards, and eventually reached a flatter portion: one of the Rincón de la Vieja's peaks! I trotted across it and soon came to a sharp descent on the other side. At this point I started to keep a very close eye on the time. I was enjoying the views in all directions, the thrill of being alone on this mountain, and the joy of running endlessly, but didn't want to be stranded here...
The slope back down took me into another pocket of forest, and after scrambling down a steep rocky area, found myself on the banks of a stream that shot off the mountains edge just feet from where I stood. To my left, it was just a rocky brook — but to my right it was the tip-top of a spectacular waterfall! If only I could see it from the bottom, I thought. I knew this wasn't la cangreja because of the map, but I also didn't think I had gone far enough for this to be la catarata escondida. But it was possible, I concluded, that this was it after all, and the escondida, or hidden, part of the name meant that a visitor couldn't even see the waterfall? What a joke.
I began to run back the way I came, and for this steep leg of the trip, I was doing much more running than hiking! Downhill, across familiar terrain, and after a breather while looking for the waterfall — I made incredibly time heading back to the fork in the trail, and had another bite to eat. My trail running preferences now are nothing like granola bars and peanuts, but those typical hiking snacks served me well enough.
I found out later —when I returned to my hostel and was chatting with the proprietor who arranged the day trip— that la catarata escondida was a little further after all! Apparently if you ford the stream where I stopped, the trail continues around the other side of the mountain. Unfortunately I didn't think that a trail would run straight through such a large stream (and near the edge of a cliff, too!) so I missed it. I could make out a bit at the top of the falls, but most of the waterfall was too far over the cliff for me to see. The hidden waterfall really lived up to its name! I'll have to return some day to check it out properly, but in this case, at least turning around allowed me plenty of time to retrace my steps and run down to la cangreja.
As I passed the fork in the trail and continued running downhill, the path grew wider and flatter than the upper part of the mountain, and felt much less adventurous or interesting — but I was happy to pass through with a bit of speed. There were more tourists, which felt strange after so long alone! Before I knew it, I started to hear more than just birdsong, and slowed down as the trail narrowed to descend to the pool at the waterfall's base.
La cangreja really lives up to its reputation as a beautiful destination — and its "blue lagoon" namesake. It's a tropical waterfall right out of a storybook. The spectacular drop gushed into a deep, cold, turquoise pool, surrounded by boulders perfect for lounging, with a verdant forest encapsulating the entire scene and a hint of blue sky visible through the trees above. There were other hikers and swimmers, but I found a perfectly flat rock to rest on, where I could leave most of my hiking clothes and just go for a dip in my swimsuit without all my gear getting wet. I waded out into the water and rinsed off after a more strenuous day than I planned, then stretched out. After all my concerns about time, I still had more than enough of it to relax here. I ate a bit more, drank up some water, got dressed, and began the hike back out of the basin.
I'm glad I was able to rest before this final leg, as the path I flew down was more work to hike back up! But I wasn't running, so it didn't feel very difficult. I realized I had left la cangreja quite close to another hiker from my original tour group, and we chatted on the hike back to the ranger station. We agreed the hike wouldn't even take us an hour, but my three-part tour of the forest was more ambitious than any of the hikers he'd talked with, and only possible because I'd been running and not just hiking. I didn't know then how much I'd grow to love trail running — but I was certainly off to a good start!
About halfway back to the ranger station, we were surprised to stumble upon a larger group of hikers all gathered in the middle of the trail. I immediately assumed they'd seen an animal —perhaps a dangerous one, like a poisonous spider— because my previous trip to Costa Rica that's exactly what happened. An orange-kneed tarantula perched in the center of the trail had been an incredibly effective roadblock! But here, the tourists were looking at something much more benign: an anteater, having a lazy snack on a branch above all our heads.
We gawked at the anteater, who did not care at all if we talked or snapped photos, then continued uphill and on our way back to the ranger station. We met up with our driver and the rest of our group, and were back in Liberia in time for a small festival with dancing, music, and carnival foods — the perfect way to refuel after a long day of hiking, running, and swimming, right?
If you're traveling to Costa Rica, I’d recommend flying in to Liberia instead of busy San José and taking a day trip to Rincon de la Vieja — whether you’re a hiker or a runner! The park has a lot to offer and I didn’t even get to see it all on my spontaneous outing. I’ll have to go back to check out the crater and other sectors. Years later I still look back fondly on this adventure — not just as the first day of my first extended vacation alone, but as an early, accidental trail run, before I even knew how much I'd grow to love running. It’s a little hard to believe I spent the next magnificent week traveling around Costa Rica and seeking out more hiking trips in between surfing, relaxing, swimming, and drinking guaro and cervezas in tiny bars, but didn't go running again!
I've recently learned about several trail races (from half marathon to ultramarathons) in Costa Rica, including a few held in the Rincón de la Vieja National Park. I would love to make a "pilgrimage" back to Rincòn de la Vieja in addition to exploring some new areas of the country! Perhaps soon I'll be announcing an exotic addition to my race schedule and planning my next "runcation"...stay tuned for ¡más palabras y más millas!