With its variety of volcanic peaks, misty cloud forests, vibrant wildlife and great outdoor recreational opportunities, Costa Rica is one of the hottest vacation destinations in the world. The small Central American country offers something for everyone, from challenging hikes and adrenaline-filled activities for younger travelers to beautiful, placid retreats for couples and retirees. Perhaps Costa Rica’s most popular features are its many volcanic peaks. Scenic mountains like Arenal and Poas draw visitors from all around the world, but if you’re looking for something a bit further off the beaten path, a trip to Barva volcano may be exactly what you seek.
Irazu volcano is well-known for its fascinating craters and its dynamic history. Poas volcano is similarly popular thanks to its towering height and extraordinary views. Situated between these two famous peaks, however, is a volcano that sees very few visitors other than native Costa Ricans. Barva volcano is rarely mentioned alongside its more famous relatives, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit. In fact, this slumbering, underappreciated stratovolcano complex offers one of the best day hikes in the entire country. One trip to this humble mountain and you’ll understand why Barva is considered one of Costa Rica’s hidden gems.
First and foremost, Barva’s relative anonymity means it’s a great place to escape the throngs of tourists that sometimes flock to the more well-known spots in Costa Rica. You’ll find relatively few other people trekking along the volcano’s wonderful hiking trails on most days, and the tranquil quietude of the place only enhances the stunning views to be had at almost every stop. Streams and rivers flow peacefully down the mountainsides, swirling and filling into the craters left by previous eruptions to create a network of small lagoons. Because the volcano has been dormant for so long, the area has built up a rich diversity of natural wildlife and foliage. More than 500 bird species are said to inhabit the area as well, making it a particularly appealing location for bird watchers.
Barva’s nearly 10,000-foot summit rises above the misty cloud forests and lush rainforests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. The national park is one of Costa Rica’s largest, spanning about 184 square miles within Heredia Province and San Jose Province. Barva and its surrounding park are located within the larger Central Volcanic Conservation Area, which protects several of Costa Rica’s famed volcanoes as well as several other parks and wildlife refuges. The dense vegetation of the area is home to the rare and brilliantly kaleidoscopic quetzal, which boasts a well-earned reputation as one of the most beautiful birds in the world. The region also plays host to a dizzying array of other creatures, including jaguars, pumas, peccaries, tapirs and several species of monkeys.
The volcano itself features three distinct peaks, often referred to as “The Three Marys.” Of the many lagoons found throughout the area, the most well-known is Barva Lagoon. This lagoon, located within one of the volcano’s most prominent craters, is about 230 feet in diameter and approximately 26 feet deep. Nearby are two other lagoons, named Danta Lagoon and Copey Lagoon. It’s believed that the volcano last erupted sometime between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. It’s currently considered to be dormant, but local authorities nonetheless monitor it regularly for any signs of renewed activity.
While the volcano and its parent park are open to visitors from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, it’s best to visit Barva early in the day for the most favorable experience. Like many of Costa Rica’s volcanoes, there are spectacular views to be had from many points along the mountain’s hiking trails, but obscuring fog and cloud cover often roll in during the course of the day. The equatorial climate of the area is warm and humid, but the volcano’s extreme elevation means Barva’s weather is much different from its surroundings. You can expect chilly temperatures and gusty winds on most days, so it’s wise to dress warmly for your trip. Damp, misty weather is also common on and around the mountain at all times of the year, so many visitors opt to pack a rain poncho or waterproof windbreaker as well. Of course, a pair of good hiking boots is all but essential as well.
One of the reasons Barva is less frequently visited than its more famous counterparts is that the volcano is somewhat difficult to access. Though it lies just 14 miles northeast of the capital city of San Jose, the trip to the volcano site is not an easy one. The most common way to reach Barva is to begin by driving, taking a bus or hiring a driver to take you to Sacramento. There are no more paved roads beyond Sacramento, so you’ll need to either hike or use an off-road vehicle to complete your trip to Barva. The paths are rocky, seldom maintained and riddled with potholes, so prepare for a very bumpy ride if you choose to drive to your destination.
Alternatively, some group tours provide transportation as part of their tour packages, simplifying the logistics of your trip. These tour services often include other activities as well, such as ziplining and wildlife tours. Some hotels in the region may also offer services to assist in arranging transportation to and from the Barva area, though it’s important to ask in advance to ensure that options are available. If you opt for a transport method that includes hiking, be aware that some of the trails in the area may be difficult for inexperienced hikers and people of limited physical abilities. Additionally, heavy rains sometimes make the roads near the volcano very difficult to navigate by vehicle.
The main attraction at Barva is undoubtedly the stellar and varied hiking opportunities. If you plan to visit Barva, be sure to wear a pair of sturdy, high-quality hiking boots to ensure that you get the most out of your experience. There are four primary hiking trails at the volcano itself, with each trail offering its own rewards and degree of difficulty. The trails include the following:
Beyond hiking, perhaps the most popular attraction at Barva is the zip lining. This high-flying adventure, available through Canopy Adventure in nearby San José de la Montana, is great and thrilling fun for the whole family. The tours are set up to accommodate people of all ages, and the experienced tour guides provide a great opportunity to experience the area’s cloud forests in a whole new way. The rich diversity of exotic birds makes Barva a huge draw for birders as well. For those who wish to sleep beneath the stars, the volcano area is the only part of the park that offers public camping facilities.
Though the mountain itself is not easily accessible, it is nonetheless located very near some of Costa Rica’s finest accommodations. Indeed, there are great options for travelers of all types. Couples are likely to fall in love with the quaint mountain setting, roaring fireplaces and peaceful, well-equipped chalets at the Hotel Chalet Tirol. The full-service spa and upscale appointments at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation and Inn also make it a hit with young couples and retirees alike. Of course, with guided educational tours of the vast on-site coffee plantation and processing facilities, Finca Rosa is also a wonderful place for java fiends.
One of the most family-friendly lodging options in the Barva area is Hotel Monte Campana Heredia. There’s a wonderful on-site restaurant, fitness center, rooftop terrace and a wide assortment of activities at or near the hotel. You’ll also be given free water park access, complete with several pools and water slides for children and visitors of all ages. The affordable and attractive Tacacori EcoLodge, like Barva itself, offers a more underappreciated option that lies a bit outside of the norm. Tacacori offers charming villas that trade the ultramodern appointments of other hotels and spas for a more rustic and intimate feel. There are gorgeous on-site gardens to enjoy, and the lush, tropical setting is delightfully quiet and peaceful. Birders are especially fond of this EcoLodge given its natural setting and frequent avian visitors.
While there’s certainly great fun to be had in visiting the most well-known places in Costa Rica, sometimes it pays to venture off the trail a bit. Barva volcano is a perfect example. It remains a relatively unknown attraction, offering your own little slice of natural paradise without having to contend with droves of tourists. If you’re in need of a little peace and quiet, strap up your hiking boots and go find your own Costa Rican adventure on the beautiful, tranquil slopes of Barva.
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