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Thursday, 19 October 2006

Holy Smoke:€“ Visiting Costa Rica'€™s Volcanoes

Written by Thomas Lera & Sandy Fitzgerald
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arenalAs a traveler, I find myself schizophrenic. I’m unbearably optimistic in the planning stage, and utterly certain the night before departure I shouldn’t be going and of course have forgotten to plan and/or pack something utterly essential to the success of the trip. My wife is a meticulous and organized packer, who actually uses detailed checklists to ensure we have everything we might possibly need, without over-packing. She used this same method when planning all of our European adventures, complete with minor and major “to see/to do” lists per city visited. She’s assuming I’m as organized and has left all the Central and South America travel details up to me, which silently causes me angst. Our most recent expedition to the Pacific Rim of Fire in Costa Rica, with its seven active volcanoes, was no exception.

We had expected an Indiana Jones-type airplane ride shared with chickens and sweaty natives, but were happily disappointed. Getting there from Washington’s Dulles airport took only 5 hours, including an hour layover in Ft. Lauderdale.

The airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, was well air-conditioned and efficiently staffed. After a few minutes of confusion, with the help of some accommodating locals we located our rental car “host” Dean. Once introduced to our tiny Geo Tracker with 150,000 miles under its belt, we understood why the rental fee had been more than reasonable. Regardless, we set off on a 4-hour ride to our destination, Arenal Observatory Lodge; guide book and map in hand.

We stopped mid-way at a roadside restaurant/canopy adventure stop in San Lorenzo for a typical “Tico” lunch of chicken, beans, veggies and rice, and watched adventuresome people above the jungle canopy attached to zip-lines. This had sounded like a fun thing to do when I described it to my wife while back in the states, but she was having second thoughts now. Thankfully, this well-laid plan of activity did not go by the wayside, and we later returned to San Lorenzo for some highly recommended canopy zipping fun!

The last 45 minutes of our road trip were reminiscent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. As we left the poorly paved main roadway and headed up the mountain to Arenal Observatory Lodge over one gigantic dirt and rock washboard, the road turned more treacherous by the rains. One loosely constructed bridge at a switchback gave us pause, but was crossed successfully, no “fiord-ing” necessary. Reaching the lodge, with its beautiful flowering “campus” (home to more than 300 species of birds), and its splendid view of the lake, jungle and volcano, it was more than worth the kidney-shaking road trip.

Volcán Arenal

Costa Rica's most active volcano looms over the area like an ancient king on his throne. During the day, eruptions occur so frequently that there’s always a massive trail of smoke floating across the sky, and ribbons of dust trailing rocks belched out as they cascade down the sides of the volcano. Nighttime, however, is the best time to see it in action. On a clear evening you can see the amazing spectacle of molten rocks and lava spewing skyward, then falling to decorate the top third of the volcano like raspberry sauce drizzled heavily over a sundae.

Due to the volcano's volatile activity and the capricious weather, the top of the cone is often shrouded in clouds. It is highly possible to spend several days in the area and never catch a glimpse of the volcano. We kept our fingers crossed and late on day two were amply rewarded. We were awoken shortly before 11:00 pm by what we thought was thunder, until we saw the absolutely breathtaking action out of our wall-to-wall window at the foot of our bed. It was so spectacular-we wondered whether it was actually safe to be so close. However, the lushness of our surroundings helped assure us it had been many years since the last full-fledged eruption.




Located in Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal ($7 admission) the volcano stands over 5,200 feet in all its glory in a perfect conical shape. Arenal was actually thought to be dormant for several hundred years until a massive explosion in 1968 threw rocks and ash for miles, killed 84 people, and devastated the surrounding villages. Since then the volcano has been very much awake and is considered one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world.

Centrally located in the northern region of Costa Rica, Volcán Arenal is nestled in between Lake Arenal to the east and the town of La Fortuna to the west. Although small, La Fortuna has many quaint shops, as well as hotels and restaurants to accommodate visitors. It’s incredible to stroll down the main street, lookup and see the volcano dominating the backdrop. In fact, it’s the scene that has inspired many postcards.

If you want to get more up close and personal with the volcano, Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal has several trails leading to great photo-capturing vistas, including those in the lava fields on its backside. An easy walk, accompanied by volcanic rumblings in the background, leading to a more strenuous climb, this trek is worth the effort, especially with an informative guide.

The most extraordinary, luxurious, effortless way to see Arenal is from one of the thermal hot springs between La Fortuna and Lake Arenal. You can relax in a steaming pool and sip on a cold drink while watching lava explode from the volcano’s mouth. There are several different hot springs to choose from in a range of prices and amenities, all worth the price of admission. The only negative aspect is that it is a tourist mecca, since the area is relatively easy to get to.

After several days of exploring the area- we were off to our next home base, La Paz Waterfalls. We had been given loose directions, which included, “when you get to Alajuela, turn right at the big white church. If you get lost, just ask anyone the way to La Paz.” The reason for this last sentence, thrown in almost as an after thought, was two fold…there are absolutely no road signs in Costa Rica, and there was a road on both sides of the church. Taking first one, then the other, and not finding the next landmark as directed, we headed back to the church and did as we were told – asked for directions. By this time the weather was revealing why this was called the rainy season, and people walking by our bright turquoise toy car simply shrugged and quickly moved on.

There was nothing left to do but follow our noses up the mountain in what we hoped was the right direction. We were applauding our adventuresome spirit as we approached a sharp turn on a steep hill, when cars started to charge down the mountain past us at a dangerously fast pace. Just in time, we saw a 2 feet high surge of mud and rocks rounding the corner –we quickly backed into a side street before being consumed by the mass. Waiting several minutes to regain our breath and nerve, onward and upward we climbed, albeit in a different direction.

An hour or so later, expecting another hour’s drive, we almost passed the parking entrance to our lodge, which tumbles down through the jungle growth on the steep side of a sharp bend in the road. A short tour of the grounds, good dinner and a bottle of wine on our balcony overlooking the jungle, we went to bed to gather our energy for climbing up to another volcano the next day, lulled quickly to sleep by the glow of our fireplace.

peace lodgePeace Lodge is located in the La Paz Waterfall Gardens complex, all owned by Americans, Lee and Cindy Banks. Located about an hour above San Jose, for those who find their way directly, this place is a vacationer’s heaven, complete with a serpentarium, ranarium (frogs), an enclosed football field-sized natural-habitat butterfly preserve, more hummingbirds than you’ll ever want to see again in your life, trout fishing ponds, trails along a river to its 5 waterfalls, plus 3 restaurants. All of this and more is there for your enjoyment if you can manage to leave your room, which is a special “cabin” built to blend into its surroundings. From the king-size lodge-pole bed dressed with mosquito netting and luxurious linens, to the rocking couch in front of the stone fireplace opposite the bed, the main room is perfect. Then there is the bathroom with its two hand-painted sinks, romantic tree-branch chandelier with dimmer switch, Jacuzzi tub and grotto-like waterfall shower. And, where we spent most of our downtime, the balcony has a hammock, another hot tub Jacuzzi and relaxing view of the jungle. It was exactly what we needed after our harrowing trip to get there. Well-rested and well sated on the wide array of delicious fruits and other breakfast fare, we set off to explore the region.

Volcán Poás

Towering to the north of Alajuela, the mass of this mighty volcano is covered with a verdant quilt of farms and topped by a dark gray-green shawl of cloud forest. A paved road really does lead all the way from Alajuela to its 8,800-foot summit, winding past coffee fields, patches of forest, pastures, fern farms, and increasingly spectacular views of the Central Valley.


Most of the volcano's southern slope is covered with coffee plantations. (Which, believe me, you can’t get to under your our personal reconnaissance by simply following the tour signs! Take an official tour if you really want to see coffee grown and processed.) The higher altitudes, too cold for that crop, hold massive screened-in fern and flower nurseries, neat rows of strawberries, and the light green pastures of dairy farms. Only the volcano's upper slopes and summit are still covered by cloud forest.

The road forks at Poasito, not far from the summit, where the left route leads to Poás Volcano National Park ($7 admission), the one to the right toward the intersection of Vara Blanca. At Vara Blanca, you can turn left to the Waterfall Gardens or continue ahead winding your way to Heredia.

Within Volcán Poás National Park, a paved path leads from the visitor center to an area directly across from the active crater. The crater is nearly a mile across and 1,000 feet deep, making it one of the largest in the world. Voluminous plumes of yellow-gray sulfurous smoke rise from several points around its inner rim. Visitors are kept from descending into unsafe territory by sturdy steel tubing fences along a series of tiered “patios” from which viewing and picture taking are a delight. With its proximity to San Jose, it is a popular spot, particularly since it has made accommodations for handicapped persons, and gets quite crowded, especially on Sundays. It's not the place to go to commune with nature in solitude, but it is definitely worth seeing. There is a steep half-mile trail from the Poás crater that wends through the jungle another 20 minutes view of the Lake Botos Crater, which is filled with beautiful, but non-hospitable acid-laced, teal blue water. This is a much less populated spot and worth the additional energy required to reach its altitude.

We set off reluctantly after several days of splendor onto our next stop - a volcano located south of San Jose. We thought the worst of the driving had to be behind us, but what we hadn’t counted on was the muffler of our intrepid little car snapping in two. At this point, being quite the adventurers, we didn’t even get upset when the rental car person basically said, “too bad, you’re on your own”. Using what Spanish we could muster between us, we cajoled some locals into helping us, and, after they put us back together with bailing wire scrounged off the side of the road, we were off again…this time a bit more noisily. With good directions from Peace Lodge staff we arrived at our next home base in a friend’s house in Cartago in just over two hours.

Volcán Irazú

Imagine having to clean out your gutters, and sweep off the roof and sidewalk of your home to rid them of the tons of ash that fall from the sky daily, or to drive with the headlights on in the daytime. These are not scenes from a weird end of the world movie. This actually was the case after Volcán Irazú erupted on March 19, 1963. For the next two years, the volcano daily spewed showers of ash that made its way as far as 45 miles north to San Jose, damaging crops and homes in its wake.


Irazú Volcano National Park ($7 admission) covers 5,700 acres, its highest point being 11,260 feet above sea level. On a clear day, there is a spectacular view of both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. The park is remarkable, however, because of its surreal lunar landscape. There are two main craters: the “Diego de la Haya” Crater holds a strangely colored lake, which is sometimes light green or gray and at other times red; and the central crater, which is more than an astounding 985 feet deep. Even the sparse, austere vegetation contributes to the other world feel of the place. Another unique quality of this place is its average temperature of only 45 degrees. Frosts aren’t uncommon, especially at night. Luckily, there is a snack wagon near the entrance that provides hot coffee and chocolate, as well as warm food. For our one night here, we were grateful for the warm food, comfortable bed and relaxation at our friend’s home.

For many reasons, travel stirs up both my fear of mortality and my awareness of the meaning of life. My wife and I agree, however, we are able to forget our fears in moments of shear delight…. as we peek over the rim of Irazú with its bubbling and florescent green sulfur water, remember the stark and dangerous Costa Rican volcanoes of the Pacific Ring of Fire, soar through the jungle canopy on zip-lines or walk above it on hanging bridges. We use these moments to remind us that life this side of eternity is the ultimate adventure for the willing traveler.

road stop


Other Volcanoes to Visit

The Parque Nacional Guanacaste ($6 admission), one of the least developed and visited national parks in Costa Rica, contains Volcán Cacao (5,443 feet). The park is contiguous with Santa Rosa National Park and Volcán Orosí (4,879 feet). Legend has it, if one listens closely, one can hear emitting from the depths of the Orosí Volcano a powerful, echoing voice repeating, "Plata, no; oro, si." ("Silver no, Gold Yes.").

The Miravalles Volcano, located in the Miravalles Forest Reserve, is almost perfectly conical and the highest in the Cordillera de Guanacaste at 6,654 feet. This is an active volcano with plenty of boiling mud pools and fumaroles.

Volcán Rincón de la Vieja, located in the Parque National of the same name, is an active volcano and the largest (6,218 feet) of the five that make up the Cordillera de Guanacaste. It has nine separate but contiguous craters, with dormant Santa Maria the tallest at 6,286 feet. Many trails names’ are broad hints of what you will see…Las Pailas (Cauldrons), Los Azufrales (sulfur hot springs), Las Hornillas (the ovens), and Hidden Waterfalls Trail, which leads you past four continuous falls.

Volcán Barva (6,877 feet), in Braulio Carrilla National Park ($6 admission), is said to have a nice trail to the top. Volcán Tenorio (6,280 feet) is in Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio ($6 admission), and has both a trail to the top and to the thermal hot springs – bring your bathing suit.

Volcán Turrialba (10,922 feet) is in Turrialba Volcano National Park with trails to the summit, the crater floor and one that circumnavigates the rim.

Trips to the tops of these volcanoes range from a half a day to two days of hiking. Always check with the ranger station before starting to get the current information on any activity and so they know you will be hiking there. Many local restaurants in the areas surrounding the volcanoes provide diners with views, as well as good food. Quaint local hotels face the volcanoes, offering spectacular views from afar, great for reminiscing after your up close and personal trek. Information on all of Costa Rica’s National Parks and Volcanoes can be found at

Places to Stay

Arenal Observatory Lodge ( )

Phone: (506) 692- 2070

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Room rates: Range from $ 40 to $ 154 plus tax depending on the season and include: large, clean rooms, all with great views of the volcano, some with balconies – although the beds in those with balconies do not face the windows; roomy bathroom with shower; full, hearty breakfast.

Both lunch and dinner are served in the dining room, and if you’re on campus during meal times, it’s worth it to eat here rather than make the drive down the mountain just to eat. The “Tiko” steak is excellent and goes well with the Chilean wine available at a decent price.

PeaceLodgeatLaPazWaterfallGardens (

Phone: (506) 225 0643

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Standard room rates: Range from $ 195 to $ 245 plus tax and include: all of the wonderful amenities mentioned in this article, as well as an in-room mini frig/bar, DVD and CD player. Fireplaces are gas and have times you can set for up to an hour. Food in all three restaurants was excellent, although a bit expensive and almost too much food in the main dining room. We ended up eating a bigger lunch by the trout ponds, and a salad and appetizer in the dining room at night… great wine list too! The array of food at breakfast was a wonderful start to the day, and launched our fruit with a least one meal campaign at home!

©Thomas Lera & Sandy Fitzgerald, 2006

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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