Straddling the famed Pacific Ring of Fire, Costa Rica is among the most geologically active countries in the world. It’s home to an extraordinary 200 identifiable volcanic formations, some of which date back to a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Of the 67 volcanoes that are either currently active or dormant, none stand taller than the majestic Irazu volcano. Known locally as The Colossus, the complex shield volcano rises to a maximum height of 11,260 feet. If you’re planning to explore the beautiful natural landmarks of Costa Rica, here’s why Irazu needs to be near the top of your list.
The Mountain of Thunder
There are many tales relating how Irazu came to bear its name, but the most widely accepted is that it represents a fusion of local words meaning “thunder point” or “thunder and earthquake mountain.” The name is certainly a fitting one. Though Irazu has largely rested in silent slumber over the past two decades, it features a lengthy and explosive history. There have been at least 23 eruptions in modern recorded history. The most famous occurred on March 19, 1963, coinciding with the first day of an official state visit by U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Though relatively little damage was done, this eruption did blanket San Jose and surrounding areas in a layer of volcanic ash. The most recent eruption of note was a phreatic eruption that occurred on December 8, 1994.
Exploring the Region
The broad, towering expanse of Irazu is located within the scenic Irazu Volcano National Park. Though its approximately 5,000-acre area makes it one of the smaller national parks in Costa Rica, the park packs a tremendous amount of natural beauty into a small footprint. The volcano itself is accessed by a rugged, serpentine hiking trail that winds for about half a mile up the side of the mountain and around the volcano’s five distinct craters. The desolate land around the craters almost resembles an alien moonscape, as great stretches of worn, wind-whipped gray soils and craggy rocks stretch far into the distance. If you’re fortunate enough to visit the volcano on a clear day, however, the views from the peak are spectacular. Given favorable conditions, both the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east come into view from the top of Irazu.
In contrast to the nearly lifeless area surrounding the volcano’s peak, its flanks are fertile and thriving below the tree line. Lush patches of rainforest cling to the eastern face of the volcano, while dairy farms and vast fields of potato, onion and cabbage crops are grown elsewhere on the rich volcanic soil. Wildlife is very sparse at higher elevations, though coyotes, foxes, owls, porcupines and several species of birds can occasionally be spotted. At lower elevations, the dense forests surrounding the volcano support a broad diversity of wildlife.
If you plan to visit the volcano, be sure to prepare yourself for the trip. The high elevation of the area means the entire national park is above the frost line, and most of the park is even above the tree line. This means chilly temperatures virtually year-round, near-constant wind and ever-present moisture. You’ll want to dress in warm clothing and bring at least a windbreaker to keep out the elements. In fact, some people even bring along a heavier jacket or parka in case the day is particularly chilly. It’s also a good idea to bring sunscreen and apply it liberally. Even if the temperatures are low, the high elevation and very low latitude of Irazu means that solar radiation is often intense.
Irazu is part of the most visited national park in all of Costa Rica, and one of the reasons is that it’s extremely accessible. The volcano lies just 18 miles northeast of Cartago, the former capital of Costa Rica, and the drive to the park is an experience all its own. It typically takes about 30 minutes, winding through beautiful countryside and offering gorgeous views as you slowly climb toward the elevated park area. Driving from the nearby capital of San Jose is similarly convenient.
If you’d rather not drive yourself, bus service is available from the Tierra Blanca stop in Cartago or from the National Theater (Teatro Nacional) in San Jose. If you’re looking for a little more adventure and exercise, there are several half-day mountain biking tours that take you through the Irazu area as well. Some visitors opt to catch a taxi to the park area, but this method of travel isn’t considered very cost-effective. There are also a number of shuttle and group tour options, though you may find that you have less freedom to explore than if you’d traveled on your own. Though park hours run from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day of the year, it’s best to visit early in the morning between the months of December and April for the best chance at clear, unobstructed views from the peak.
Things to Do
Naturally, the most prominent attraction in the Irazu area is the volcano itself. The volcano is a major attraction that offers superb views from the top, but there are also several distinct craters to explore. The main crater, or Crater Principal, is a massive, jagged crater that extends more than 900 feet in depth. The bottom of the crater is home to a large, eerie lagoon with a mossy green hue. The second and smaller of the two most prominent craters, Diego de la Haya, is about 300 feet deep. It, too, is filled with mineral-rich water, the hue of which ranges from brilliant emerald to deep crimson depending on the composition of minerals at any given time.
Spreading out beyond the flanks of the volcano is the Prusia Forest. The forest is a rich, lush expanse of vegetation that is populated by a variety of wildlife, making it a wonderful place to visit for bird watchers and nature lovers. Roughly 10 miles of hiking trails wind through the forest as well, providing plenty of opportunities for outdoor explorers to get some exercise and soak in the natural beauty of Costa Rica. If you’d like to pack a lunch, you’ll also find plenty of great places to stop and enjoy a picnic during your hike. Biking tours are also popular, and many of them weave through the Irazu area and its many forests, plantations and towns.
Though there are few other amenities in the park itself, the volcano is only a short distance from the historic city of Cartago. Our Lady of the Angels Basilica, the Ruins of the Church of Carthage, the Santiago Apostol Parish Ruins and many other must-see attractions can be found in and around Cartago, as well as a variety of local cafes, markets, museums and other sites. The relatively close proximity to the Sarapiqui River means you’ll also have easy access to a number of exciting boat tours.
Where to Stay
Because of Irazu Volcano National Park’s convenient access and central location, you’ll find no shortage of places to stay during your visit. Couples and travelers looking for a convenient location are likely to appreciate the upscale Hotel Presidente San Jose City Center, which is located right in the heart of historic San Jose. Hotel Presidente receives high marks for its plush and attractive accommodations, easy access to a tremendous variety of attractions and amenities and friendly, English-speaking staff. Similarly, Hotel Balmoral is great for couples and families thanks to its upscale accommodations, easy access to public transportation and sophisticated, varied on-site cuisine.
Family travelers would also do well to consider Orosi Lodge, which features a newly built chalet that sleeps up to five guests. The chalet is fully equipped with a kitchen, living room and dining area, and its beautiful rooftop terrace offers stunning views of Irazu. For a trip off the beaten path, Finca Agropecuaria Queveri is a great value that also offers access to a variety of outdoor activities. Built on a rustic farm site, Finca Agropecuaria Queveri offers extraordinary views, biking, hiking, horse riding, rafting, fishing and much more. Meanwhile, solo travelers are particularly drawn to Casa Aquiares Lodge. The price is very reasonable, a great breakfast is included, guests are given access to reliable wireless internet service and the views are simply outstanding.
Costa Rica has often been called the Jewel of Central America, and savvy travelers are increasingly catching on to that fact. It’s quickly becoming one of the best destinations around for anyone looking to explore Central America. The natural beauty, dynamic geology, outstanding recreational opportunities and wonderfully vibrant culture make it a must-visit destination that is wholly unique. There are many things to experience during a trip to Costa Rica, but Irazu is undeniably near the top of the list. It’s a gorgeous area that offers unforgettable views, affordable accommodations and countless ways to get out and explore all that Costa Rica has to offer.
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