Nobody has yet discovered if the ancient tribes of Costa Rica offered virgin sacrifices to the volcano gods. One thing is certain--they had plenty of options for doing so.

Jewels in the Ring of Fire - Costa Rica Volcanoes
Text & photos by Michael L. Smith

Volcanologists have identified over 200 volcanic formations in Costa Rica's territory dating as far back as 65 million years. Of these, only around 100 are commonly listed and fewer still demonstrate any sort of activity today. A handful are classified active and of those no more than half a dozen are ever mentioned in travel brochures.

The abundance of volcanic activity over the millennia has contributed greatly to Costa Rica's landscape and its inheritance of natural resources. Mineral-rich volcanic slopes reaching from the sea to altitudes above 11,000 feet provide year-round temperatures based primarily on altitude. Abundant rain supplies moisture for agriculture plus the necessary ingredient for hundreds of rivers and dozens of spectacular waterfalls. The rich volcanic soil that is the delight of agriculturists supports some of the densest and most diversified forests in the world--forests that are home to myriad species of animals, birds and insects. Colorful butterflies and birds fill the air. Monkeys line tree branches covered with mosses, lichens and epiphytes. Reptiles and mammals roam the jungle floors. Life is everywhere. Costa Rica's "rich coast" extends inland to its highest volcanic mountain peaks.

Volcanoes provide ample resources for human diversion and recreation as well--lakes and rivers for fishing, swimming and boating; rushing rapids for exciting world-class rafting and kayaking; and an abundance of clean air for horseback riding, hiking, camping and mountain biking.

Costa Rica's young (formed within the last 2 million years), active volcanoes with their variety of characteristics capture the interest of many travelers. Arenal stands alone on the plain, a classic cone against the horizon. The main crater of Poás is more than a mile across and 1000 feet deep with an acid lake and lava dome within. Irazú's summit reminds one of photos of the moon--barren, rocky and cold. Turrialba, twin to Irazú, is a wilderness waiting to be explored.

The Classic Arenal Volcano

Classic Arenal

[View photos of Arenal in our Arenal Volcano Photo Salon. This link will appear in a new browser window.]

When we learned about volcanoes in school, our textbooks showed a drawing of a perfect cone standing by itself and spewing red hot rocks from its peak. Few volcanoes are so stereotypical. But Costa Rica's most active colossus looks as if it came straight from those textbook blueprints.

For more than 400 years Arenal Volcano's forest-covered cone sat alone and silent on the edge of the San Carlos plains, exhibiting only a little fumarole activity in its single, dormant crater. In 1968 it erupted violently without warning, spewing molten rock and ash high into the sky, destroying the village of Pueblo Nuevo, killing 78 people, and forming three new craters. It has been active ever since with more or less regular eruptions of lava and ash providing fiery demonstrations that draw curious onlookers from all parts of the world. Arenal's constant activity has covered the two lower craters on the western, rocky slope. Its two remaining craters appear as twin peaks belching ash and rock. [Read a brief history of Arenal's activity.]

The area around Arenal Lake offers a multitude of activities for adventure and nature lovers. Arenal Lake is a popular spot for wind surfers, fishermen and boaters. Fishing and wind surfing tournaments are annual events on this man-made lake created to provide hydroelectric energy. Near La Fortuna is the 230-foot Fortuna Waterfall where a hike down a very steep trail ends at the base of the falls and a small sandy beach.

A major attraction has developed on the volcano's northwestern skirt where a hot river runs. Tabacón Resort has channeled part of the river's flow into several pools and a manicured tropical garden. This is a magnificent place to swim and relax in the shadow of Arenal while watching giant glowing boulders tumble down its slope.

Venado Caves, north of the lake, offer the adventurous an exciting journey underground. Visitors crawl, wade and climb through this dark, sometimes narrow 1.5-mile system of caves. Further north, near the Nicaragua border, is Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. The nearly 2000-acre seasonal lake within the park attracts an abundance of waterfowl including roseate spoonbills, wood storks, anhingas and the seriously endangered jabiru stork. Many endangered mammals such as pumas, tapirs and caymans, and reptiles also inhabit the area. Other animals include sloths, river otters, white-tailed deer and three species of monkeys. The river and channels are full of Caribbean snook, bull sharks and the gar fish, which is considered a living fossil.

The area surrounding Arenal and La Fortuna offers horseback riding, hiking, camping, swimming and lake activities. Many lodges, cabins, hotels and restaurants now support tourism in this northern zone.

Spectacular Poás Volcano

Spectacular Poás

[View photos of Poás in our Volcano Photo Salon. This link will appear in a new browser window.]

Poás Volcano's mile-wide crater attracts scientists and tourists from around the world. There have been nearly 60 eruptive episodes recorded since the mid-1700s. The most recent period of eruptions lasted from 1952 to 1954 when the volcano spewed huge ash clouds and incandescent rocks into the sky and shook the area with subterranean rumblings. The zone immediately around the crater is barren due to continuing sulphur emissions and periodic acid rain generated by the volcano's activity. The rest of the park exhibits areas of thick vegetation. Southeast of the main crater visitors can hike through a very interesting, dense stunted forest and cloud forest to cold-water Botos Lake, in the bottom of another crater inactive for more than two centuries. The main crater's periodic geyser-like eruptions have earned it the misnomer of the World's Largest Geyser. The nearly continuous cyclic activity Poás exhibits, often called Poásian eruptions, makes it unique in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Along with hiking and picnicking in the park and the splendid displays in the visitors center, the surrounding area offers horseback riding, hiking, camping, excellent bird-watching and easy access to La Paz Waterfall, La Selva Biological Reserve and the San Carlos plains. This is a cool, relaxing area boasting clean, fresh air and lush forests.

Towering Irazú Volcano

Towering Irazú

[View photos of Irazú in our Volcano Photo Salon. This link will appear in a new browser window.]

Visitors to the summit of Irazú Volcano often comment that they feel as if they have stepped onto the moon. The area surrounding its four craters is barren and rocky, a result of its last eruptive cycle 35 years ago. In March, 1963 it exploded high into the sky and showered ash on visiting U.S. President John F. Kennedy. It continued to rain ash on the Central Valley for the next two years causing people to walk the streets of San José with umbrellas and masks. It is still possible to find ash in attics of older structures in the valley. Since the beginning of Spanish colonization in the mid-1500s Irazú has never been inactive for periods of longer than 30 years.

Irazú is the largest (covering nearly 200 square miles) and tallest (11,260 feet) volcano in Costa Rica. On clear days both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, as well as a large part of the country, can be seen. It is usually cold and windy and often rainy at the summit. Vegetation is very sparse around the craters. The most prolific plants are Myrtle and the easily recognized giant-leafed Poor Man's Umbrella, and various diminutive plants like clover, mosses and lichen. Away from the crater rims there are areas of open and stunted vegetation, secondary forests, and further down the slopes some remaining primary forest.

Scenery along the way to Irazú is expansive and breathtaking. Much of the fertile slopes is farmed, and views from the road reveal the patchwork of cultivation mingling with dense areas of forest.

Reaching Irazú from San José requires passing by historic Cartago, the original seat of government in Costa Rica. The ruins of a never-completed cathedral, destroyed by a major earthquake in 1910, are a popular landmark and attraction. Every year in August thousands of Costa Ricans walk to the Basilica in Cartago from all corners of the country on a pilgrimage to honor Costa Rica's patron saint the Virgin of Los Angeles.

Just outside Cartago is Lankester Botanical Gardens. Began in the 1950s by British naturalist Charles H. Lankester, this internationally-recognized facility now belongs to the University of Costa Rica. A two-hour stroll along the paths introduces the visitor to bromeliads, cacti, ferns, orchids and other epiphytes, arranged in natural settings.

Rugged Turrialba Volcano

Rugged Turrialba

[View photos of Turrialba in our Volcano Photo Gallery. This link will appear in a new browser window.]

Like all of Costa Rica's volcanoes, Turrialba is a national park. Even so, due to the lack of recent eruptions--there has been no significant activity for more than 130 years--the slopes are fairly well populated with long-standing dairy farms. The greens of pasture and forest mingle in freeform patterns.

Although many adventure tourists know the city of Turrialba (that's where a lot of the white water rafting trips begin), the volcano seems to have been bypassed by tourism--the National Parks Service doesn't even post rangers there--but it's three craters present expansive landscapes and intriguing trekking for adventurous travelers.

Unlike other volcanoes in Costa Rica the craters of Turrialba are accessible. It is possible to climb down to the floor of the central crater where sulphurous fumaroles and geothermic heating of the crater floor are evident.

Towering over 10,000 feet, Turrialba is the second tallest volcano in Costa Rica, bested only by it's twin, Irazú. The high altitude-induced low temperatures and high moisture content caused by the convergence of Atlantic and Pacific air masses creates a paramo-like region reminiscent of Cerro de la Muerte, the highest spot along the Inter-American highway in Costa Rica.

Getting to the craters, however, isn't a simple 4x4 drive up the side of the volcano. The dirt track is often washed out and eroded so badly that vehicle passage is impossible. Besides, much better and more interesting ways exist. For heavy-duty trekkers, the crater area is a four-hour hike from Turrialba Volcano Lodge. The two-hour horseback ride from the lodge is a very pleasant way to travel through this rugged countryside.

Between the city of Turrialba and the volcano lies Guayabo National Monument. This is the largest and most important archaeological site yet discovered in Costa Rica. The site, occupied between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1400 by a rural community of around 2000 inhabitants, preserves causeways, mounds, walls, cisterns, petroglyphs, aqueducts and other structures. Excavation continues at the site, discovered at the end of the last century. Visitors walk trails through secondary growth forests where keel-billed toucans and Montezuma oropendolas are common sights among the prolific bird population. In 2009 the Guayabo National Monument became the third pre-Columbian settlement in Latin America to be recognized globally for its engineering achievements.

Near the city of Turrialba is CATIE, a tropical agriculture research center. The center maintains ongoing research into sustainable agriculture and agroforestry systems. The graduate programs in sustainable agriculture and natural resource management attract professionals from around the world. The facility offers guided tours through extensive collections of tropical plant species that are being cultivated and protected as a genetic resource bank.

Visitors to Costa Rica owe it to themselves to learn a little bit about the character of our volcanoes. After all, these towering, living "mountains" are primarily responsible for the grand variety of microclimates and overwhelming abundance of floral and faunal life that attract many tourists to this isthmus of the Americas.

Jewels in the Ring page 2 -- more information about Costa Rica volcanoes