"These are called 'Sombrillas de Pobres'," my Costa Rican friend explained as we walked past the kiddie-pool sized leaves sticking out of the mountainside on our hike down to Bajos del Toro waterfall. "Umbrellas of the poor."
His subsequent story, which explained how indigenous people use the massive leaves to shield themselves from the country's perennial rain, was compelling and not entirely surprising.
Well, except for the fact that the landscape around us seemed less than ideal for human habitation.
In fact, you might say it was downright Jurassic.
Bajos del Toro: Facts and Figures
At more than 300 feet in height, Bajos del Toro is by far the biggest waterfall in Costa Rica. By comparison, the water at Niagara Falls plummets just 167 feet, and even that's huge. Bajos del Toro is touted as "Costa Rica's best-kept secret," but its a mighty conspicuous one—you can hear the water thundering from nearly a mile away if there aren't any other cars on the road.
If you're not Costa Rican—and if you're reading this article, in English, I'm betting that you're not—admission to the waterfall, whose trail closes at 5:00 p.m. just before nightfall, costs $10. Costa Ricans enjoy a discounted admission rate.
Speaking of the trail, while it isn't extremely difficult, it also isn't for the faint of heart. After hiking about a quarter mile into the forest, you'll descend more than 200 steps, before twisting and turning down toward the waterfall, the scenery becoming more and more prehistoric-looking all the while.
This trend is particularly pronounced if you visit near closing time, when you're unlikely to see any other people around.
If you're in the area anyway, make sure to make a stop at Poás Volcano, whose scenery seems equally as otherworldly as what you find at Bajos del Toro. Whether you visit the main volcano, whose cyan-colored water steams like a witch's cauldron, or the emerald (but toxic!) lake adjacent to it, you'll be amazed by how strange the scenery is, given its proximity to the Costa Rican capital of San Jose.
How to Reach Bajos del Toro and Poás Volcano
Poás Volcano is less than two hours from San Jose and even closer to Alajuela, the city where Costa Rica's main international airport is located. Bajos del Toro is about another two hours from Poás Volcano, a fact that seems strange given how close the two seem on the map, but makes perfect sense when you see the condition of the backroads that connect them.
Speaking of backroads, here are two tips for visiting Poás Volcano and/or Bajos del Toro on your own. The first is to rent some kind of 4x4 vehicle—ordinary cars don't handle well on Costa Rica's non-highway roads.
The second is that if Google Maps tells you to take a dangerous-looking fork in the road, but a safer alternative exists in the other fork, use your gut and take the safer road. The software has not updated itself to Costa Rica's most recent road improvements, a fact which saw me stranded on a muddy thoroughfare leading to the city of Zarcero on my way back to San Jose.