7 impressive volcanoes in the country of life and fire: Costa Rica

Julia Campos
Julia Campos

The par excellence country of ecotourism is not just fauna and forest. One of the main attractions of this conservationist bulwark is the fact that it’s on top of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, marked by tectonic plates on which most of the world’s volcanoes rise.

Three volcanic mountain ranges cross Costa Rica: the Guanacaste Range, formed by volcanoes which such importance as the Arenal or the Rincón de la Vieja; The Central Volcanic Range, home of the well-known Poás, Barva, and Turrialba, among others, and the Talamanca Range, which has a single volcano.

Arenal Volcano

All together, there are hundreds of lava reservoirs, although only 5 of these craters are active ones. Around many of those craters, national parks have been established to protect the environment that surrounds them. You can walk those areas or go through them by bicycle or on horseback.

Nattule has chosen 7 of them for you to discover the life that surrounds the fire:

1. Poás Volcano

Near the city of Alajuela, 20 kilometers west of San José, this active volcano rises up, although its last eruption was documented in 1953.

At 2,700 meters high, it has three well-differentiated craters. The main one opens in a plain of lunar-like aspect that remains free of vegetation because of the constant emissions of sulfur in the area. With 1.5 kilometers of diameter, it is considered one of the largest craters in the world and remains occupied by a lagoon of acid and boiling waters.

Poás Volcano © ForeverInfinite

The Sombrilla de Pobre trail, one of the three trails of the Poás Volcano National Park, will take you to a spectacular viewpoint from where you can observe this crater. The route takes 10 or 15 minutes on a path in which the Gunneras insignis abound, a plant with huge leaves that was used as an improvised umbrella in Costa Rica. Hence the name of the road.

The other two paths will allow you to enter the heart of the cloud forest that occupies the rest of the 5,600 hectares of the park. While going along it, you can enjoy a great variety of birds and plant species. Among the first, the quetzals, yigüirros or hummingbirds stand out. Among others, you can see bromelias, gunneras, cypresses and orchids.

Gunnera insignis © Jacob Schantz

The Botos Lagoon trail is about a 30 minute walk and it takes you to another one of the craters of the volcano. This time, the crater is asleep. The beautiful lagoon of crystalline waters that occupies it provides supply water to the rest of the park and is the source of one of the most important rivers in the country, the Sarapiquí River. Finally, the Escalonia trail takes you directly to the visitor center.

From San José, there is a daily bus departure at 8 a.m. that arrives at the entrance of the national park in 2 and a half hours. The bus also stops in Alajuela before arriving to the park.

Botos Lagoon © Miss Michelle

2. Arenal Volcano

Since 1968, after more than 500 years of inactivity, the Arenal Volcano began to expel lava and ash. After this happened, it has been considered one of the most active volcanoes in Costa Rica and also, because of this, is one of its major tourist attractions.

This majestic volcano of 1,600 meters of height is located inside the Arenal Volcano National Park, a rainforest that extends along 12,000 hectares in the northwest of the country and that has an exceptional wildlife. This area is shared with animals like the sloth, deer and the quetzals.

Arenal Volcano © David Giambalvo

To visit the Park, the best option is to settle in the village of La Fortuna de San Carlos, located 3 hours by car from the capital, San José, and just 10 kilometers away from the impressive volcano. The almost perfect conical shape of the Arenal is the first picture you will see when you wake up from any of the multiple accommodations of this village.

The National Park has 3 marked trails that you can go through as you like. The Coladas trail will take you to an area where you can still see the solidified lava of the great eruption of 1992. From this place, the closest to the volcano, you will have magnificent views of the largest lake in the country, the Arenal.


The Ceibo trail is named after a 200-year-old ceiba tree, that is more than 50 meters tall which is on one side of the trail. It can be done in conjunction with the Coladas trail, a total of 4 kilometers. The third path, the one of Heliconias, is only one kilometer long and departs from the parking lot of the park.

The area surrounding the Arenal Volcano is also famous for its hot springs. In particular, you can visit the Tabacon River and take a bath in its warm waters which, they say, have healing and cosmetic properties. Another short and easy hike from La Fortuna is a visit to the waterfalls of the same name, an impressive 70 meters waterfall.

La Fortuna Waterfall

3. Irazú Volcano

The largest volcano of Costa Rica infuses respect only with its name. The indigenous word Iztarú, from which Irazú derived, meant mountain of the tremors, this name is not by chance.

The volcano is known for the long list of catastrophes originated in the area, which have been recorded since the beginning of the Spanish colonization. In spite of this, the Irazú remains now inactive and it is possible to visit it following the trails of the Irazú Volcano National Park.

Irazú Volcano

Although the vegetation is scarce due to the altitude (3,432 meters) and the fauna is almost nonexistent, it is worth visiting this park, since the volcano hides a couple of surprises. One of them is the bright green lagoon that occupies one of the four craters. The other surprise is the breathtaking views from the top of the volcano. If you are lucky and the day is clear, you can observe the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans on either side.

The National Park is located about 32 kilometers northeast of Cartago, the former capital of the country partially destroyed precisely by the eruption of Irazu Volcano. From San José, the journey will take you an hour and a half touring picturesque landscapes.

Diego de la Haya Crater © Ricardo Rojas Salazar

Some of the animals you may see in the surroundings of the volcano, among the Andean vegetation that covers it, are coyotes, porcupines, armadillos or wild cats.

4. Turrialba Volcano

The Turrialba Volcano is not very popular among the tourists visiting Costa Rica. In part, for having to compete with his older brother, the Irazú volcano, with whom he shares the base, and partly because of his intense volcanic activity that has motivated the prohibition of accessing him on several occasions. The last one during September 2016, when the volcano threw up clouds of gases and ashes that reached 4,000 meters high, was one of its biggest eruptions.

Turrialba Volcano © Ricardo Rojas Salazar

If the volcano does not show this destructive facet, however, the Turrialba Volcano National Park is a fascinating place of unspoiled nature and incredible views of the Caribbean coast. When access is available, it is possible to reach it’s 3 craters by trails.

On the slopes of the volcano, covered by a green tropical forest, you will find many more species of plants and animals than in the neighboring Volcano Irazú. There, up to 900 species of birds have been identified, including Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored thrush (yigüirro). In addition, the park is also the source of the River Turrialba, the most important in the area, and its waterfall of 100 meters high.

La Pastora Waterfall © Ricardo Rojas Salazar

At the foot of the volcano we find the city of Turrialba. This small town is located about 60 kilometers from San José and is the perfect starting point for your visit to the park.

From the city you can also visit the pre-Columbian ruins of Guayabo, located in the southern slope of the volcano. This archaeological enclave was the main indigenous settlement of the country, which is why it is listed as a national monument.

Guayabo National Monument

5. Rincón De La Vieja Volcano

In the province of Guanacaste, 25 kilometers northeast of Liberia, this volcano is surrounded by mysticism and legend.

They say that an indigenous princess fell in love with an enemy warrior, and the girl’s father threw the guy into the crater. To be always near him, the princess retired to live next to the volcano and learned to heal with the plants of the place, work that she continued doing also during her old days. This is why the people of the area began to call the volcano “the Corner of La Vieja” (“Vieja” means old woman in Spanish).

One of the craters of the volcano

If this has aroused your curiosity, do not pass up the chance to discover this national park, whose environment maintains both, charm and history. Despite being one of the most spectacular protected areas of Costa Rica, it is not as visited as other volcanic areas, perhaps because it is not near any touristic route.

Its greatest attraction is the mixture of waterfalls, fumaroles, geysers and thermal springs that you can find there. In the sector located southeast of the volcano, you will discover everything. There are 2 trails to cross this sector, of 3 and 5 kilometers. The longest one, linear, takes you to the Cangreja Waterfall. The short one is a circular walk through the pailas, small ponds of boiling mud.

La Cangreja Waterfall © Casa Kaiki

If you climb to the top, you will witness the variety of landscapes that take place along the park’s 14,000 hectares. On the Atlantic slope, you can find high forests and understorey dominated by palm trees. As they ascend, these forests get shorter and the trees become twisted and covered with moss. The summit, located at 1,916 meters of height, has very little vegetation.

In the summit you will find the 9 craters of the volcano, of which only one throws up constant fumaroles. The negative part of all this is that you may not have as good views as in other volcanoes, since high winds, fog and showers are frequent at the top.

The fog over Guanacaste © Nazareth

6. Barva Volcano

The Barva Volcano forms part of the Braulio Carrillo National Park, one of the most extensive ones in central Costa Rica.

Although not far from San Jose (about 30 kilometers) it is not one of the most visited parks. Especially because of the irregular state of the road, which requires access by off-road.

Braulio Carrillo Park stands out for its exuberant vegetation, with more than 6,000 species of plants cataloged. The high mountains, rivers, canyons and lagoons also characterize its orography.

Vegetation in Braulio Carrillo National Park © Audrey

But the best thing is the amount of trails with which you count on to explore all the park and to get to the places of major interest. The one that goes up to the crater of the Volcano Barva is 3 kilometers long and the round trip will take you about 2 hours. You will arrive at 2,900 meters above sea level to find a beautiful lagoon of emerald waters surrounded by vegetation.

A path into the Park

The longest trail is that of the Copey Lagoon, a marshy area near the previous one. It is 5 kilometers long and demands a good physical level. The trails of the Vara Blanca lookout and Cacho de Venado are shorter and are perfect to enjoy the sights and to observe forest birds and primates such as the white-faced monkey, the golden spider monkey and the mantled howler.

Lagoon in Barva Volcano

Among the large mammals that live alongside the Barva Volcano are tapirs, peccaries, pumas and jaguars, emblematic species of Costa Rica.

7. Tenorio Volcano

Around this volcano, in the north of Costa Rica, stands one of the best kept secrets in the entire country. The Tenorio Volcano National Park, although difficult to access, hides corners of great beauty and is considered a magnificent place for hiking and to get deep into the wilderness of the area.

The volcano area was listed as a national park in 1995, making it one of the youngest in Costa Rica. In addition to its variety of environments, propitiated by the influence of the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds, you will be amazed with the turquoise color of the waters of the Celeste River, due to the sulfur coming from the volcanic activity.

Tenorio Volcano © oscaracso85

The volcano itself measures about 2,000 meters and has two twin craters. From its summit the views are impressive: you can see the reserve of Caño Negro, Lake Arenal and even the great Lake of Nicaragua.

But if you want to discover the park in depth, the best choice is to hike the path called Misterios del Tenorio. After 3 kilometers you will end up in the Celeste River waterfall or in the Blue Lagoon, where bathing is prohibited because the amount of natural chemicals that it contains.

In addition, the park is also the home of an abundant fauna and it is possible that you might meet with tapirs and mantled howlers. Running into some of the wild cats, ocelots, jaguars or pumas that inhabit the area will not make you very happy.

Celeste River waterfall

The access to the Volcano Tenorio National Park is not easy. Due to the lack of public transportation, it should be added that the shortest route from San José, through Quesada, is practically unpaved and has steep slopes and loose rocks. There is another route, that crosses Cañas, which is in better shape but quite longer.

This is probably the reason why the Tenorio Volcano is not as visited as it deserves. If you dare to try, go ahead. Rent an off-road and jump into the adventure. The end destination will undoubtedly offset the bumps.

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The grass is better treated by a tiger than by an antelope. The feline’s bad reputation is not always justified. Neither is the bad reputation of the volcano. In Costa Rica, volcanoes rather than being scary, have become a tourist attraction. Volcanoes are no longer the bad guys of the mountain ranges. Now, instead of provoking fear, they brighten the day of the traveler.

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