The Last Peak Standing
Looming over the east side of San José, Volcán Irazú pokes its head neatly through the clouds.
Since Poás Volcano’s rough awakening earlier this month, and the continual flow of ash and gas spewing from the peak of Turrialba, Irazú claims the title of the only remaining active volcano that still allows visitor access.
Blás Sánchez, a geologist with the National Emergency Commission, confirmed with the Tico Times there is no connection between the magmatic chambers of Poás and Turrialba; their activity is merely coincidental. Poás Volcano National Park will remain closed indefinitely.
Irazú and Poás have a longstanding rivalry, as they are both easily — I say tentatively — accessible day trips from San José. Visitors prefer the different volcanoes for different reasons, but there is no arguing that standing on the summit of either one is a truly awe-inspiring experience.
The nice thing about Irazú is that it’s accessible by a road leading straight to the summit, and the drive is spectacular. Past rolling hills, potato pastures, and high elevation dairy farms, the bumpy road winds up the southern slope of the volcano and straight to the park.
How to Get to Irazú Volcano National Park
There are several options for getting to Irazú. The most popular is by taking a guided tour, which will cost between $20 and $40 depending on the services included. Pretty much every hostel and hotel in San José doubles as a travel agency, so it’s easy to book. It’s also possible to visit Irazú independent of a tour. Buses Metropoli departs San Jose at 8 AM and leaves Irazú at 1 PM every day, and costs $5 round trip. Or, if you rent a car, you have the ability to stop at many scenic locations on the way up. (I recommend Linda Vista, see bottom for details). Since it is a bit further outside of the city, it’s not advisable to take a taxi.
Once you reach the park there is a large parking lot, along with a small picnic area, bathroom facilities, and a visitors center. A short loop takes visitors past the two main craters and there is a small trail which leads up to the very peak. At 3,432 meters (11,260 ft) above sea level, Irazú is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, and on a perfect day it’s possible to see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. According to local officials it only happens three or four days a year, but even the wispy, rolling clouds that block the view are a sight in themselves.
The summit of the volcano is near the tree line, and the wind and volcanic activity give the barren land an almost moonscape feel. The volcano is most famous for its two main craters: Diego de la Haya and Cráter Principal. Diego de la Haya dips 300 feet (91 meters) down while Cráter Principal reaches over 900 feet (275 meters) and was once famous for a glowing green lagoon, but the water has long since dried up.
Although the last time Irazú awoke was in the 1960s, showering the neighboring cities of San José and Cartago with ash and sending glowing boulders down its sides, it’s impossible to know when the next eruption will be. For now, the only activity rumbling in Irazú’s crater is from fumaroles releasing toxic steam.
Tips for visiting Irazú Volcano National Park
- Bring a jacket. Due to its elevation and location in the cloud forest it can get pretty chilly, especially during the rainy season.
- Try to go early in the morning for the clearest views.
- The dusty sand at the top tends to blow around, so don’t wear shoes or pants you overly care about.
- Remember to wear sunscreen. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, you’re still near the equator.
- It goes without saying, but don’t feed the wildlife and don’t litter.
- The entrance fee to the volcano also grants you access to Prussia Park, so go for a hike through the lush forest after (the entrance is in a different location).
Park hours: 8 AM to 3:30 PM
Entrance fee: 8,000 colones (approx. $16) for foreigners, 1,000 colones for locals
Located about three-quarters of the way up, Linda Vista is the perfect place to stop for a cold drink and try their famous tortillas con queso on your way back down. The locally owned cafe boasts stunning views of both Cartago and San Jose in the distance below, and the walls (and bar, windows, and even the ceiling) are covered in notes, business cards, and money left behind from visitors around the world.