Costa Rica is a land created by a string of active and dormant volcanoes that runs down its center. This guide will give you an overview of how to get to and what to expect from Costa Rica’s most dynamic volcanoes. Make sure to plan time during your vacation to visit the center of the country and experience the unforgettable presence of these living mountains.
The first three volcanoes on our list–Turrialba, Irazu, and Poas–are the closest to the capital city of San Jose. If you’re flying into San Jose, these are the top choices on your volcano menu. The other two–Arenal and Rincon de La Vieja–are further north and are more often visited by travelers who base their Costa Rica vacations in Guanacaste.
Photo by Gary Saldana
What is the most active volcano in Costa Rica? This is a great question! For thirty years, the easy answer was Arenal. Then in 2016, Turrialba suddenly woke up from a long slumber, and continued to rumble and spew well into 2017. Recently, a new spurt of volcanic activity was registered at the lazy Rincon de la Vieja volcano. So who knows which volcano will be the most active during your visit to Costa Rica? It could be any of them! Here’s a look at the five most fiery peaks.
2019 just might be a great year for the national park at Turrialba. The park was closed in 2012 due to dangerous volcanic activity and authorities are looking at reopening it to the public this year. Eruptions of ash and gas in 2016 and 2017 powdered the central valley in gray dust and closed down the Juan Santamaria International Airport on several occasions. You’ll be able to drive close enough to Volcan Turrialba that you can admire its powerful slopes and perhaps watch it puff steam into the air.
Whether or not the park is open, the Turrialba volcanic area is a beautiful and safe place to visit. The best way to get there is to hop in a 4×4 rental vehicle and hit the road for an adventure! You can enjoy hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, zip lines, bird watching, go kayaking on the river and tour a cheese factory. The Turrialba region is known throughout Costa Rica for the soft fresh cheese that takes its name. The year-round rains and rich volcanic soil keep Turrialba’s grass green and its cows.
Volcan Irazu is the closest volcano to the city of San Jose. It is possible to get to Volcan Irazu by driving, or by taking a public bus from downtown. Pack a picnic lunch, enjoy hiking in the park, and keep an eye out for sightings of colorful birds and wild animals like coatis, foxes, deer, and coyotes.
Volcan Irazu has five craters, two of which provide the main attractions in the Irazu national park. Steam rises from the deepest crater, and in the other lies a mineral-rich lake that can appear green, blue, or red. Irazu is Costa Rica’s tallest volcano, with a cone that towers 11,200 feet above sea level. On a clear day–which is a rare occurrence at the top of an active volcano– it is possible to see both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.
Volcan Poas is one of Costa Rica’s most popular and frequently-visited volcanoes. The national park that surrounds the cone and crater is prepared to provide you with a comfortable visit, including a geological museum, a gift shop and cafe, and even paved hiking trails to make the spectacle of the steaming lake in the crater accessible to a wide variety of visitors. In order to keep the environment pristine and visitors safe, only a certain number of people are allowed into the park each day. Make your Poas National Park reservations on-line ahead of time so that you can be sure to avoid being turned away at the entrance. That would be disappointing!
You can drive to Volcan Poas, take a bus, or purchase a tour from pretty much any San Jose tour operator. There are lots of other things to do in the area, so we recommend that you make your trip to Poas a day trip, not just a quick peek at the crater. In addition to hiking, visit the sleepy Costa Rican villages nearby, explore the museum, or drive to a bright blue waterfall near the park.
Volcan Poas has one of the largest volcanic craters in the world, so don’t miss your chance to see it with your own eyes.
Volcan Arenal is located near the town of La Fortuna about half way between San Jose and the beaches of Guanacaste. For decades, Arenal was famous for being Costa Rica’s most active volcano–until its brothers in the central valley started spewing ash and steam in 2016. Arenal is still one of the most spectacular volcanoes you’ll ever have the opportunity to see and is one of the most fun areas to visit in Costa Rica. Hiking and horseback riding trails wind through the hills, there are waterfalls to explore, and natural thermal spring and rivers provide the perfect way to relax afterward.
Whatever you do, plan to spend a night in the area near Arenal! We recommend this for two reasons. The first is that if the clouds above the volcano lift after dark (could happen but no guarantees), the sight of the stark black cone with a red glow at the top standing against the star studded sky will leave you speechless. That, we do guarantee. The other thing that’s guaranteed is how much you will love relaxing in the bubbling thermal springs after dark, while lights play on the jungle foliage around you and perhaps a light rain falls.
Arenal is much-visited, and it’s easy to drive to. Things are spread out enough there that having your own vehicle is very convenient. Another good option for how to get to Arenal is Interbus, a tour and transfer company that runs private vans to popular tourist destinations.
Rincon de la Vieja
Volcan Rincon de la Vieja is Costa Rica’s northernmost active volcano. Eruptions as recent as January 2019 sent columns of steam and bursts of red-hot rocks shooting into the air and filled the area’s streams with mud. This is the closest active volcano to Guanacaste’s popular coasts, and lots of activity centers have sprung up around it.
You can drive your rental car to Rincon de la Vieja, or purchase a day-trip package which includes transportation, admission to the activities that you’ve chosen for the day, and lunch.
You can hike at Rincon de la Vieja, ride horseback through the forest, and enjoy natural thermal mud spas. There are canopy tours nearby, river tubing excursions, and wildlife sanctuaries to visit.
As you can see, there are many active volcanoes in Costa Rica throughout various regions of the country. Our tour concierge is the local expert in helping you plan your visit to any of these areas, assisting you with arrangements for transportation and activity bookings at Costa Rica’s active volcanoes. Check out partner page for A Guide to Costa Rica’s Active Volcanoes: They’re Dynamite!