The Smoky Giants of Costa Rica

Costa Rica seduced by its beaches lined with tropical vegetation, which surround it to the east (Caribbean Sea) and to the west (Pacific Ocean). But another of his best sightseeing destinations are the towering volcanoes that form the backbone of its central spine; in fact, 5 of them are active and, thanks to the clouds that swirl on their slopes and the ashes that they expel, they help to maintain the fertility of the land and the magnificent mountain forests that cover the country.

42 years of intense activity

The Cerro Arenal, which had been sleeping for more than 4 centuries, suddenly woke up. Its violent eruption caused at least 87 deaths and the loss of some 45,000 head of cattle. A few days later a hot cloud killed 8 people who came in 2 vehicles to help. Since then Arenal has been one of the most active volcanoes in Costa Rica. Until 2010, every night you could see lava rolling down the slope. When that tragic day happened, Arenal was a 1,670-meter cone that could not compete in activity or height with the great volcanoes of the Central Cordillera closest to the capital: Poás, Irazú and Turrialba. On a map, we see that these 3 giants can be connected by a straight line. If we extend this line north, it connects directly to Arenal and then to the equally active Santa María and Rincón de la Vieja volcanoes.

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The 3 main plates in a row of these volcanoes

During his tour of South America at the beginning of the 19th century, the great explorer and geographer Alexander Von Humboldt wondered why the craters of volcanoes seemed to be playing crabs. A century later, Alfred Wegener said that the continents move like icebergs over the sea. Today we know that Wegener’s theory was true: the earth’s crust is fragmented into large plates and along these cracks, earthquakes take place or lava emerges from the depths. Between the cracks, the bottom of the ocean slides like these conveyor belts of airports and drags in its movement the continents which move away or approach, the Pacific coast of Central America coincides with one of these large underwater cracks . There, the eastward pushing Cocos Plate meets the Caribbean Plate and sinks below it. In this active fissure, the great volcanoes of Costa Rica have grown, forming the backbone of the territory.

Small farms in the tropics

At the foot of these summits which still smoke gently, is San José, the capital of the country, on a plateau with a very mild climate. The pleasant temperatures (minimum of 15ºC and maximum of 26ºC) and regular rains (just over 1,000 liters per year) are a privilege in the tropics. Added to this is the fertilizing power of volcanic ash, rich in potash and other mineral salts, which are hot and humid areas that act like fertilizer from the sky. In the 19th century, when the economic potential of coffee growing was glimpsed, free land and seeds were offered to peasants. With this, the central plateau gradually became that mosaic of small farmhouses that can still be seen today. Today, crops have diversified, but the most remarkable thing is that most farmers own and live on their land.

An agricultural orchard

As soon as you leave the airport, the large black nets that shade the tropical flower crops, such as orchids, heliconias and the bird of paradise flower, attract attention. Mango, papaya, strawberry, granadilla, pejibaye, sapote and anona – a variety of custard apples – are some of the fruits of Eden in Costa Rica. Rice, red beans and raw cabbage in a salad are often not missing from any meal and are grown in abundance. Holstein cows, with black and white coats, or orange Jersey cows, graze on the green slopes of the Irazú and Barva volcanoes, giving the landscape a false Swiss air. More unusual are the butterfly farms, whose larvae are exported to the West. Other times, butterflies can be admired under huge latticed domes, such as at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

The storied craters of Irazú

In March 1963, coinciding with the visit of President John F. Kennedy, the Irazú volcano (3,432 meters) experienced its last major eruption, which lasted 2 years and covered the central plateau with a generous layer of ash. The villagers walked around with umbrellas to protect themselves from this persistent mineral rain. About 300 houses collapsed due to the weight accumulated on their roofs. The Reventazón River, which drains the plateau to the Caribbean, has overflowed its banks several times due to the abundant amounts of sediment. Irazú, Costa Rica’s largest volcano, has only active fumaroles left and a bus drops off passengers a short distance from the summit. It has 3 storied craters; 2 of them occupied by beautiful lagoons. On a clear day, from its summit, you can see the 2 oceans that bathe the country. But this usually only happens during the dry season. The rest of the time, the Irazú offers a cold and windy summit through which the clouds parade.

The rejuvenated Turrialba

The neighboring Turrialba (3,329 meters) seems so named because of the white plume that often crowns it (“Torre alba”). Its last major eruption dates back to 1866, followed by a long period of calm. But, from 2003, its activity increased considerably and in recent years it is common for it to spit clouds of gas and even ash. To reach its summit, you have to use an all-terrain vehicle or take a long excursion.

The Caldera of Poas

The Poás crater (2,704 meters) is the most visited in all of Costa Rica. A paved road climbs almost to the top. From there, a short walk to a lookout point overlooks a huge caldera that is home to a bubbling milk-turquoise-colored lake. Sulfur fumes set the scene. It is forbidden to descend into the lake, because sometimes poisonous gases surround it. In the rainy season, from May to November, it is better to go early, because the clouds increase as the afternoon downpour sets in. Nearby is a secondary crater occupied by Lake Botos, a beautiful emerald green. The trail skirts the misty ridges and allows you to discover hummingbirds sipping the nectar of the flowers of the jungle.

Waiting for the end of the world in the Tabacón River

To contemplate the slender Arenal, it is enough to have a room with a view of the village of Fortuna, a stone’s throw from the cone, and to sit down in the evening on the terrace or in the middle of the street. The waters of the Tabacón River, which surprised the boy José Rafael on that tragic morning, continue to heat up. Moreover, a seaside resort with a luxury spa (Tabacón Hot Springs) and other more austere ones, allow you to enjoy its waterfalls and swimming pools among the gray basalt, in the middle of lush vegetation. The water is so warm that only when the first impression is overcome is it possible to indulge in such an experience. Relaxed inside this thermal river, all worries melt away. But who knows: what if the water gradually rose in temperature without you realizing it in time?

Between purgatory and paradise

The volcano that sowed death almost 4 decades ago is today a source of wealth and a pole of attraction. And this is also the case with their brothers in the Central Cordillera. They capture water from the clouds, which become entangled in their stone curtains, and revitalize the ground with their ashes, creating an extraordinary landscape. It can be seen as a paradise or as a place where you can earn your bread by the sweat of your brow, even if it is often both at the same time; “Pura Vida”, as Costa Ricans always like to say.

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