The National Parks of Costa Rica
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Destination content © Christopher P. Baker, used from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica, 5th edition.
The slopes north of Cartago rise gradually up the flanks of Volcán Irazú. The views from on high are stupendous. Every corner reveals another picture-perfect landscape. You'll swear they were painted for a Hollywood set. The slopes are festooned with tidy little farming villages with brightly painted houses of orange, yellow, green, and light blue. Dairy farming is an important industry, and you'll pass by several communities known for their cheese. The fertile fields around Cot look like great salad bowls--carrots, onions, potatoes, and greens are grown intensively.

Volcán Irazú, about 21 km northeast of Cartago, tops out at 3,432 meters. Its name comes from two tribal words: ara (point) and tzu (thunder). The volcano has been ephemerally active, most famously on 13 March 1963, the day that U.S. President John F. Kennedy landed in Costa Rica on an official visit: Irazú broke a 20-year silence and began disgorging great columns of smoke and ash. The eruption lasted two years. At one point, ash-filled vapor blasted up into overhanging clouds and triggered a storm that rained mud up to five inches thick over a widespread area. No further activity was recorded until December 1994, when Irazú unexpectedly hiccuped gas, ash, and breccia. It still rumbles occasionally.

The windswept 100-meter-deep Diego de la Haya crater contains a sometimes-pea-green, sometimes-rust-red, mineral-tinted lake. Fumaroles are occasionally active. A larger crater is 300 meters deep. Two separate trails lead from the parking lot to the craters. Follow those signed with blue-and-white symbols (don't follow other trails made by irresponsible folks whose feet destroy the fragile ecosystems). The crater rims are dangerously unstable. Keep your distance.

A sense of bleak desolation pervades the summit, like the surface of the moon. It is often foggy. Even on a sunny day expect a cold, dry, biting wind. Dress warmly. The average temperature is a chilly 7.3° C (45° F). Little vegetation lives at the summit, though stunted dwarf oaks, ferns, lichens, and other species are making a comeback. Best time to visit is March or April, the two driest months.

Don't be put off if the volcano is shrouded in fog. Often the clouds lie below the summit of the mountain--there's no way of telling until you drive up there--and you emerge into brilliant sunshine. On a clear day you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The earlier in the morning you arrive, the better your chances of getting clear weather.

The ranger booth (no telephone), two km below the summit, is open 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m., but you can visit at any time. A mobile soda serves food and drinks on weekends, and the site has toilets and picnic benches beside the crater, but no camping or other facilities.

The Prusian Forestry Reserve (Reserva Forestal Prusia), within the park, on the southwest flank of Irazú, five km north of Potrero Cerrado, is a reforestation project with a recreation area--Ricardo Jiménez Oreamuno--which features hiking trails and camping and picnic sites set amid pines. There's a "mushroom forest" here, too.

This is an small excerpt from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica. CentralAmerica.Com highly recommends that you enhance your vacation by taking a copy of Moon's comprehensive Handbook with you. For more information visit the Moon Handbooks page on this site.

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