Spend a few minutes reading about Costa Rica and you’ll quickly find that it’s a country of extraordinary natural beauty. Verdant rainforests, misty cloud forests and bucolic hills and pastures cover much of the country. A tremendous diversity of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals can be found throughout the region. However, it’s the volcanoes and other geologic features that truly make Costa Rica one of the most popular and beloved travel destinations in the world. Famous peaks like Arenal, Irazu and Rincon de la Vieja attract travelers and adventure-seekers from around the world, but there are other hidden gems to be found as well. The Miravalles volcano is a perfect illustration.
It’s hard to understand how a hulking volcano that towers some 6,653 feet above the surrounding countryside can hide in plain sight, but that certainly seems to be the case with Miravalles. The tallest mountain in the Cordillera de Guanacaste range, Miravalles is considered to be an andesitic stratovolcano. The volcano’s central caldera was formed during a series of tremendous paroxysms that took place between 1.5 million and 600,000 years ago, producing great volumes of ash and causing massive pyroclastic flows to sweep down the flanks of the mountain. Miravalles is currently considered to be dormant, however, as the only known volcanic activity in the historical record is a minor steam explosion that was recorded in 1946.
Despite a lack of volcanic activity at the surface, the Miravalles volcanic system is still quite active underground. In fact, the region is the largest single producer of geothermal energy in Costa Rica. The area offers a diverse range of ecosystems as well. The relatively arid western flank of the volcano is carpeted in savanna and low scrub, while rich moisture from the Caribbean Sea supports thick tropical forests along the northern and eastern slopes. The southern flank is also forested, with rain-gouged canyons running along the slopes and signs of volcanic activity spread throughout the area.
The Miravalles area may not be as high on the list of popular destinations as Irazu or Arenal, but there’s nonetheless a great deal to see and do for people of all ages and interests. Miravalles is part of the Miravalles Volcano Protected Zone, which is also referred to as the Miravalles National Park. The Miravalles Protected Zone was established in 1976 in order to protect the rich biodiversity and natural beauty of the region surrounding the volcano. It encompasses 28,840 acres of forests, jungles and mountains in an area between Rincon de la Vieja National Park and Tenorio National Park. Cloud forests and tropical rainforests cover much of the park. There are also a number of rivers and waterfalls throughout the area, particularly in the more tropical east. Jaguars, ocelots, cougars and other big cats prowl the park grounds, and a number of species of monkeys, tapirs and other mammals can be found as well. Bird watching is also a popular hobby in the area, as the range of ecosystems contained within the park makes it a great place to see a dizzying array of bird species.
Walking through the Miravalles Protected Zone, signs of the volcanic activity brewing and roiling below the surface are unmistakable. Fumaroles, mud pools, boiling water pools, hot springs and other geologic formations are scattered through the foothills and along the flanks of the volcano. An area called Las Hornillas, known in English as “Little Ovens,” is particularly striking. It features an abundance of natural volcanic features, a visitor’s center and museum, guided tours and much more. Of course, you’re also free to venture out and hike the area. There are no designated trails, so it’s best for new and inexperienced visitors to hire a guide to ensure a smooth and problem-free experience. It typically takes about five hours to trek to the top of the volcano, and you can expect plenty of steep inclines and treacherous stretches as you work your way toward the peak.
Miravalles is located in the Northwest Pacific region of Costa Rica, so you can generally expect a warmer and drier climate than you’ll find in many other parts of the country. At lower elevations, daytime high temperatures are relatively consistent throughout the year. Most days reach the high 80s to low 90s during the heat of the afternoon, while nighttime temperatures usually bottom out in the middle or upper 70s. Higher elevations bring cooler temperatures, but unlike some of Costa Rica’s volcanoes, cold-weather gear is rarely necessary on and around Miravalles. Though the weather is fine virtually all year, you’ll typically experience the best conditions between November and August. No matter when you choose to visit, remember to come prepared. Pack a pair of quality hiking boots, light rain gear, sun block and insect repellant to ensure the best experience. You may also wish to bring along bathing gear if you plan to bathe in the area’s hot springs or explore the local rivers and waterfalls.
You’ll find the Miravalles Protected Zone in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province. The area is about 100 miles north of the capital of San Jose, and while it’s located well inland from the coast, it’s not terribly far away from many of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. There isn’t much development near the volcano area, so the small town of Bagaces is often used as a jumping-off point for adventures to Miravalles and the nearby Palo Verde National Park. Bagaces is about 14 miles north of Canas on Costa Rica’s Highway 1. From there, Highway 164 leads northeast and slowly ascends to the volcano area and the town of La Fortuna de Bagaces. A loop road in this area leads toward Las Hornillas, which is home to Las Hornillas Volcanic Activity Center. This center is a prime destination if you’re planning a visit to Miravalles, and it’s a great place to begin your adventure.
If you’d rather not drive to Miravalles on your own, there are several other options available. Taxis can be found in many of the cities and towns in the region, and you may also be able to hire private drivers to take you to your destination. Some of the lodges and hotels in the region may also be able to assist you in coordinating a trip to the volcano zone, but it’s important to call ahead and verify before you put together a plan. Finally, several adventure groups and other day tours provide all-inclusive trips that offer transportation as well as a full day of activities. This option may be somewhat more costly than going it solo, but it’s a fantastic way to simplify your trip and ensure that you get the most out of your visit.
Perhaps the most popular destination in the Miravalles area is Las Hornillas Volcanic Activity Center, and it’s not hard to understand why that’s the case. Las Hornillas is an area of fascinating and dynamic activity, boasting a variety of bubbling mud pools, hissing fumaroles, rejuvenating hot springs and mud springs, tranquil waterfalls and more. There’s even a walkable live crater, which offers the unique opportunity to explore an active crater up close via a series of boardwalks. There’s an on-site sauna as well, and the guided tours and visitor’s center are great ways to learn more about the area and its varied geologic history.
Elsewhere in the region, Rio Perdido Activity Center is also a must-see destination. It’s located within a gorgeous canyon near the confluence of several local rivers, and it boasts a variety of outstanding activities and amenities. There’s tubing and whitewater rafting, a guided tour of the area, zip lining and “Tarzan” swings, a full-service spa, fantastic food and more. There are also a number of adventure tours operating in the area, offering everything from horseback trips to waterfall exploration to crater and canyon tours. Of course, you can also venture into the park on your own for a free-form adventure. Admission to the park is free and the wild, untouched lands offer great hiking, birding and wildlife spotting.
There is perhaps no more unique place to stay in the Miravalles area than at Rio Perdido. The gorgeous hotel is situated near the Rio Perdido Activity Center and its wide variety of activities, so it’s a great place for families and adventure junkies. The site itself is also stunning and intimate, making it a natural choice for honeymooners and couples seeking a quiet, romantic getaway. There are 20 distinct bungalows in the hotel complex, and each offers its own unique experience. Handicapped travelers are also welcome, so Rio Perdido is one of the most versatile places to stay in the area.
If you prefer a more traditional experience, Celeste Mountain Lodge is hard to beat. The lodge is thoroughly modern, but it’s also a warm and welcoming place that offers beautiful and tranquil surroundings. There are plenty of hiking trails and other activities nearby, and the rural location means it’s a great place to enjoy the local wildlife as well. Finally, if you’re after affordable lodgings that are short on frills and big on beauty, you should check out Yoko Termales in Bagaces. The accommodations are simple, but it’s a pleasant place to stay and each room comes with a veranda that boasts excellent views of the volcano and the surrounding area.
A trip to Costa Rica can create enough memories to last a lifetime. The natural beauty, rugged geology and wide range of activities offer something for everyone, and it’s a wonderful place for couples, families, solo travelers and just about anyone else looking to get away and take a walk on the wild side. There’s much to do and see across the entire country, but if Costa Rica is in your travel plans, the Miravalles volcano certainly deserves a spot on your itinerary.
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