Go to the moon … in Costa Rica!

Volcano Irazu

I remember the first time I visited Volcano Irazu. It was my first year living in Costa Rica. A friend of mine and I rented a car to drive around and explore this magical country we now called home.

Irazu VolcanoWe set out in the morning from San Jose, a hot and bright sunny day. We drove through Costa Rica’s first historical capital city of Cartago, past the soaring and majestic Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels, on up through patchwork farm land ascending the flank of Irazu Volcano. Up and up we wound, past potato and onion and cabbage fields with soil so rich and dark it was nearly black. High up on the volcano’s slope, there is even an area called the “Russian Forest.” It is so high, cool and misty there that you can find myriads of wild mushrooms like in a Russian forest.

So we finally reach the top, all 11,260 feet of it. We’re so excited to be at the summit of a volcano crater. There aren’t many trees up here, so we didn’t much notice the wind from inside the nice warm car. Remember I said it was hot and sunny in San Jose? Sure, we were new to Costa Rica and we thought very appropriately attired in shorts and t-shirts and sandals. It’s the tropics, right? Not up there.

We jauntily open the car doors and hop on out, then dive back in slamming the doors shut, looking at one another with wild eyes. It was FREEZING! OK, well, maybe not truly the kind of freezing with actual ice, but it was really, really close. Who knew it would be so cold with a wind chill that blew away any chance of warmth from the sun? This is Costa Rica for goodness sakes, located between 9 and 7 degrees latitude above the equator! A hot place!

Volcano IrazuWhat to do? Not wanting to waste the trip or the experience, we thought, well, if we move really fast, we’ll keep warmer with exercise. So there we were, two ridiculous-looking California girls in bright shorts and t-shirts, dashing here and there across the crater’s moonscape like crazed hummingbirds. (Just a writer’s note – you actually can see the native Volcano Hummingbird at the top of Irazu.)

I do have to say that cruising around the top of a volcano is a first-class experience. Supposedly NASA astronauts in years back trained up here because the terrain is like the moon. And on a really clear day, you’re so high you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines.

After our mad dash, trying to warm ourselves while huddled over steaming coffee in the Visitor’s Center, we read the guidebook description … “All of Irazu Park is above the frost line, and much of it above tree line. Temperatures hover around freezing, and constant winds … contribute to the bitter cold at the rim.” Indeed!

To do this one-day tour yourself, and in much better style, go with Valle Dorado Tours. They’ll take you with a bilingual guide up to the volcano rim, and then for a visit to the Basilica in Cartago with its fabulous history and on to the Lankester Botanical Gardens brimming with tropical plant life and the gorgeous Orosi Valley. It’s a full day and well worth it!

Just remember your sweater and coat for the summit!

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