Racing the Clouds at Poas Volcano

Even before moving to Costa Rica, we had wanted to visit Poas volcano. Considered to be the largest active crater in the world at almost a mile (1.5 kilometers) wide and 300 meters (900 feet) deep, Poas is an icon in Costa Rica. Part of the reason for its popularity is its location. Poas is close to San Jose and the international airport, making it an easy day trip on either end of a vacation. But Poas is a must-see in its own right. The crater lake is one of the most acidic in the world, having a pH of around zero. This makes the lake very toxic but also gives it an intense blue color. The striking pictures of Poas’ aquamarine water and fascinating geology were enough to make us want to visit, but then, to intrigue us even more, in early 2017, the volcano ejected a dense plume of mud and steam 300 meters (984 feet) into the air.

While living on Lake Arenal, we took a road trip to the Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui region and knew we had to fit in a visit to nearby Poas. Unfortunately, we can’t say that it was everything we dreamed it would be (keep reading to find out why), but we picked up some good tips along the way.

 

Poas Volcano and Crater, Costa Rica
Poas Volcano. Photo Credit: Philippe Guillaume

We arrived at Vara Blanca in the mid-afternoon. This small, mountain town in the foothills of Poas volcano is about an hour’s drive from San Jose and took us a little more than two hours from La Fortuna. Since we were visiting in August during Costa Rica’s rainy season, we were delighted that it was a fairly sunny day. Our original plan was to visit the national park first thing the next morning and get a good view of the crater before any clouds developed. But seeing that the sun was out once we arrived, we quickly changed course and headed straight for the park entrance, thinking that tomorrow could be worse.

After climbing the steep hill in our car and catching some awesome views of the Central Valley below, we reached the park entrance. At the gate, there was a line of about ten cars waiting to get through. We started to worry at this point because the clouds were beginning to build. Five minutes later, we had paid our entrance fee ($15), parked the car, and were practically sprinting up the paved trail to the edge of the crater. As we got closer, it started to drizzle. Closer yet and we could smell the sulfur from the volcano in front of us. And as we reached the viewing platform, there she was, in all her glory.

 

Poas Volcano Clouded Over
There’s a crater down there somewhere…

 

It took us a while to absorb the fact that we weren’t going to see the crater. We took turns being overly optimistic that a sudden breeze would lift the fog, but after about 15 minutes and increasing rain, we succumbed to defeat.

Something that we have learned by living in Costa Rica though is that no day is a waste. With our raincoats zipped, we walked some of the trails nearby. Before long we had spotted a species of bird found only in this type of cloud forest called the Large-footed Finch. Since we have become official birding geeks since moving to Costa Rica, this was pretty cool to us. The pair was hopping around, turning over wet leaves on the ground with their oversized feet, searching for food. We also saw some colorful Variegated Squirrels eating and stashing acorns in the nearby trees.

 

Large-footed Finch, Costa Rica
Large-footed Finch

 

When it really started to rain, we took shelter in the park headquarters and perused the small museum (good for kids) and gift shop. Since it was the weekend, dozens of local families were around, enjoying a picnic and just relaxing. Family time, especially on Sundays, is an important part of Costa Rica’s culture and everyone was still having a great time, regardless of the weather.

 

Poor Mans Umbrella. Costa Rica
Jenn, hiding under the leaf of a “Poor Man’s Umbrella” plant.

 

The next day the weather was still cloudy so we explored more of Vara Blanca and the area around Poas. We found that even without a good view of the toxic volcanic lake, the Poas area was well worth a visit. Still, we were disappointed to have not seen the crater, so wanted to provide some tips for those of you planning a visit.

Tips for Visiting (and Actually Seeing) Poas Volcano

  • Go During the Dry Season (December to April)– Poas is known for being clouded over due to converging winds from the Pacific and Caribbean slopes and for this reason people advise to visit during the dry season. Is it possible to see it during the rainy season? Sure it is but there are no guarantees. If you’re coming during the rainy months, increase your chances by giving yourself a couple of extra days in the area and race to the volcano on the first clear one. Even if it’s not clear when you get there, stick around because subtle shifts in the wind are known to lift the clouds.
  • Get to the Park Early– Cloud cover increases as the day goes on so everyone suggests getting to the park early. Ironically, we discovered that the park actually doesn’t open until 8 a.m.—go figure! Still the best thing you can do is to get in line before they open the gates, not only for the clouds but to avoid the crowds. Poas National Park is one of the busiest parks in Costa Rica so by arriving early, you’ll miss the mid-morning influx of tour buses, vans, and cars too.
  • Visit the Crater First, Hike Second– Although the park has some “trails,” you don’t really hike up to the volcano; it’s more of a leisurely walk. The main trail from the parking lot is a wide, paved avenue that is great for people with disabilities (even wheel chairs), kids, and tourists who might have had too many Imperials the night before. If you do want to explore the few other trails within the park, make sure to visit the crater first then do some hiking while the crowds fill in.
  • Bring a Jacket– Even if it doesn’t rain during your visit, sometimes it can be cool at the top of the volcano. Poas sits about 2,700 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level so at that altitude, you’re almost certain to feel a chill.
  • Pack a Cooler– The weather wasn’t picnic-worthy when we visited, but the park has some great areas to hang out if you want to spend the day (with tables, bathroom facilities, etc.). They also have an on-site cafeteria. If you just want to see the crater, you could easily be in and out within 30 minutes, but we recommend hanging around for a bit longer. At Poas’ elevation, in the cloud forest, there are a lot of cool plants and animals around that are much less common in other areas of the country.

 

Have you visited Poas? Were you able to see the crater?

Last Updated: October 7, 2018

 

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28 Comments

    1. Thanks for sharing those amazing pics Sigg! We especially like the volcano selfie… that could be a whole new fad.. Wildlife up there is definitely a little sparse, but I guess the travel Gods were trying to throw us bone to make up for all the clouds. Thanks for posting!

  1. That’s too bad you didn’t get to see it. So many things are elusive in Costa Rica! When we were there we only saw Arenal peak through for a few minutes. Everything is still worth seeing, like you said. Such a beautiful country!

    1. Arenal is another volcano known to be elusive- glad you at least got to see the peak. We’ve heard of people staying right at the base and never seeing it their entire stay. Hope you make it back soon for another visit. Dry season is best for the volcanos- we learned that the hard way!

  2. Sounds amazing! I would be eager to visit the morning we arrive (7am), but our hotel doesn’t offer tours to that volcano. Can you recommend a tour company or private tour operator to take us from San Jose?
    Thanks, Nicole

    1. Hi Nicole, Lots of companies offer tours. Anywhere Costa Rica has a couple of combo tours that include a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Doka Coffee, etc. and other companies do half-day tours to just Poas too. But you don’t really need a tour to visit this volcano and might be better off just having your hotel arrange private transport for you. The park has well maintained trails and you can just walk right up to the crater, plus it’s not too far from San Jose so it would probably be a lot less expensive to hire a car than to go as part of a tour. Hope that helps!

  3. Thanks for all the tips throughout your website.
    How is the road from Arenal to Poas? I’ve read that Hway 126 is not very good. We are thinking about staying in PV de Sarapaqui and then going to Poas for the day, and then perhaps onward to Arenal.

    1. Hi Bob, great question. Our drive from La Fortuna to Poas was really smooth and beautiful. Route 126 was curvy and hilly but recently re-paved so easily manageable (no 4×4 needed). Coming from the Sarapiqui direction we saw amazing waterfalls springing out of the distant mountainside and you will also pass (almost go underneath) the La Paz waterfall which is definitely worth a stop. Other than Route 126, the roads between Poas and La Fortuna (Route 140 and Route 4) are very flat and smooth pavement so your trip should be a breeze. If you do need a car, make sure to check out our special rental car discount. Have a great trip!

  4. Hi Jenn and Matt
    I was wondering if you have visited Irazu volcano yet? If so, what are your thoughts on it vs Poas? We are trying to decide whether to see Irazu and the Turrialba area or see Poas and the Alajeula area.
    Thanks
    Sabrina

    1. Hi Sabrina, We haven’t visited Irazu yet but have heard that the crater lake has been dried up for a couple of years now. We have been to the Turrialba area, though, and it is a nice place to visit if you want to whitewater raft (the Pacuare River is excellent) or if you’re into archaeology and want to learn about Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian past (Guayabo National Monument). I think overall, we’d lean towards Poas because the crater is pretty spectacular if you can manage to see it and it has a few shorter trails to do too even if you can’t. There’s also a coffee tour in the area and an awesome waterfall, Catarata del Toro, nearby if you’re looking for other things to do.

  5. wow! Interesting read! And you had a similar experience to what we had last year at Volcan Irazu. We got up too late (9ish) from Orosi, headed to Irazu. And- it was Sunday – Valentine’s Day – DO NOT DO, people!!! LOL… We wondered why there was a HUGE lineup all the way up to the volcano. They said it was because the parking lot was full. Finally – at least an hour later – we had turned off our car and sat and waited…. anyway we got in – and were told if we went early enough we could see both the Caribbean and Pacific side – needless to say, that didn’t happen. However the volcano itself was spectacular and the clouds were SO beautiful. Also the ride up was spectacular, with the trees all hoar-frostish… very cool drive. Anyway for this year’s trip, I hope we get up early enough to actually SEE Poas….

  6. Sabrina, we were at Irazu last Feb. and it was dried up, yes. Still pretty spectacular, but I would go with Jenn & Matt’s suggestions if you have to pick one or the other. This coming year we are going to try Poas.

  7. We’re planning on going to Poas Volcano the next day after arriving to Costa Rica (San José), staying there for the dat and heading to La Fortuna afterwards. Where would you recommend us to stay the night?

    1. Hi Maria, We have stayed at Tiquicia Lodge and liked it. It’s simple but comfortable, affordable, and fine for a short stay. For something a little nicer, there’s Poas Lodge, which is very close to the national park. People also really love the Peace Lodge, which has a nice property with waterfalls, walking paths, and wildlife enclosures. All of these would be a good option for continuing on to La Fortuna.

  8. Hi, can you still pay $15 at the gate, or do you have to get tickets ahead of time? We might not leave the air port till 10am by the time we get our car, do you think we could still make it?

    1. Hi Nicole, We have heard that you now have to get tickets ahead of time, but we don’t know the details of this yet as we haven’t done it ourselves or for a client. You are supposed to be able to get them online in advance through this government website by creating a login (click “check in”). The website can be buggy. This website has some instructions for how to use it. Hope that helps!

    1. Hi Suz, It’s about an hour or slightly more depending on traffic getting out of the city. Make sure to check before heading out because the volcano has been active lately. As of yesterday, it is closed again to the public.

    1. Hi Joan, Sorry for the delay. Yes, the government recently made significant changes to how visitors can access the park. Now there is a ticketing process where you must purchase tickets in advance and can only enter during the time that your ticket permits. Make sure that the park is open before setting out – a couple of weeks ago it was closed due to volcanic activity, but we think it is back open again.

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