Volcanoes and Waterfalls: The Ultimate Costa Rica Day Trip

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Bucket List Worthy  

The main crater at Poas Volcano, Costa Rica.
The main crater at Poas Volcano, Costa Rica.

It’s as if the world has turned upside down—from my perch on the rim of Poas Volcano, I’m looking out over a carpet of clouds that surrounds the main crater and stretches from here to the horizon. Some 900 feet below, steam billows from a slate-green lake, creating the illusion that the volcano itself is responsible for the heavy cloud.

Looking down into a volcano is truly humbling. There is no more direct way to experience the power of nature in a brief moment of rest from the work of building mountains, building a planet.

That’s when I notice the sign posted nearby. “No Fumar,” it reads in Spanish.

I chuckle at the irony of a no smoking sign on a volcano and move on, obeying the sign’s other ordinance… “20 minute maximum stay in this area.” There is much more to see and do on the slopes of Poas today.

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A short hike from the main crater at Poas is an older crater, Botos Lagoon.

Early Rise Key to a Great Day

Of the dozens of options for enjoying a vacation in Costa Rica, Poas is where to go for the best day trip in this attraction-rich Central American country. But you have to be strategic about the timing.

San Jose, the nation’s capital, sits on a high plateau in what’s known as the central valley, which is nearly surrounded by mountains. Many are active or dormant volcanoes. Poas is the nearest to the airport at about 30 miles. If you’ve just flown into Costa Rica or if you’re vacation is about to end, stay near the airport or on the slopes of the mountain itself for easy access to the summit as early in the morning as possible before it shuts in with cloud.

Volcan Poas is a national park and opens to the public at 8 a.m. Entrance costs US$10. It’s a popular day trip destination, partly because the walk to the crater is so easy and short. To beat the crowds and get clear views of the craters, arrive as close to opening as possible.

Even this early in the day, cloud is already beginning to spill into the crater, which will soon be all but blocked from view. I take a detour back to the parking lot via Botos Lagoon Trail.

The cloud forest up here is dense and verdant, some tree limbs so heavy with epiphytes like orchids, mosses, ferns and bromeliads that they’ve crashed to the ground under their own weight, creating great heaps of plant life on the forest floor along the trail. We’re above 8500 feet altitude. The air is thin, so walking slowly is a good idea. I catch whiffs of sulphur that make the going a little more challenging.

The reward is worth the half hour hike. The trail opens onto a view of an old crater that’s now an emerald lake hemmed with lush jungle. The giant leaves of “poor man’s umbrella” and a garden of flowering shrubs that attracts humming birds and butterflies frames the view. I want to stay all day, but there is much to do.

Toucans perch on your arm in the aviary at La Paz Waterfall and Gardens.

Strawberry Fields Forever

The other major attraction here is La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a half hour drive down the slopes of Poas and around its eastern flank. La Paz means “peace,” and this pastoral landscape is certainly peaceful.

The drive itself is worth the trip. The road takes me through green, misty pastures where milk cows loll, past roadside fruit stands that also sell fresh cheese, and around fields of strawberries covered in sheer cloth to protect them from the tropical sun. The fertile volcanic soil and the frequent cloud cover that supplies water to farmers and protects their crops and livestock from the strong sun make these slopes ideal farming country.

I stop at a small restaurant and order a strawberry milkshake made with fresh, local berries and milk from these farms. It’s simply the creamiest, freshest, most delicious I’ve ever had.

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The Blue Morpho is just one species in the Butterfly House at La Paz.

White Magic

From the 16,000 acres of cloud forest in Poas Volcan National Park tumble many swift streams and rivers. La Paz is a private attraction built around five successive waterfalls accessible by a very well maintained trail just a single kilometer long. Admission is steep at US$40, but there’s plenty of value here.

Following the map handed to me at admission, I check out the impressive rescued jungle cats. Two jaguars show off powerful paws and teeth as they wrestle for the best sleeping spot. In the aviary, toucans with foot-long colourful bills perch on my arm. Outside, dozens of wild hummingbirds with colours that resemble wet metallic paint zoom past my head on their way to and from feeding stations. Displays of snakes, frogs and monkeys are fascinating, but it’s when I enter the butterfly house that I think I might never leave.

Blue Morphos butterflies float about, lighting on flowers, dishes of fruit and, yes, my head. It’s as if the colour of Costa Rica’s tropical seas have somehow been distilled into their wings. Other butterflyies of sunflower yellow and mandarin orange, chartreuse and navy flit and light, drinking from flowers and feastings on papaya and banana. Everyone in the place has a grin plastered to their face.

I tear myself away and head along the trail to the waterfalls. It’s the dry season, but you’d never know it. There’s a heavy mist in the air that crosses the line into rain and back again several times. Nearly 15 feet of rain drenches this side of Poas every year, guaranteeing that the five waterfalls are always thundering down the mountainside.

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One of five waterfalls at La Paz Waterfalls and Gardens.

The trail opens to views of the waterfalls from the riverbank, from a bridge, and from an adjacent rock face. The most thrilling is a section of platform that tucks in behind the cascade known as Magia Blanca or “White Magic.” Downstream at the next platform, I look back at the falls and discover the origin of its name. After staring into the falls for some time, I look at the cliff beside the falls. It appears to be moving skyward. This trick of the eye works only at this waterfall and deepens the mystery of the place.

Dusk is approaching, so I leave the waterfall trail and find the gift shop at the end where a shuttle waits to take me back up the steep road to my car. There’s just enough of this best day in Costa Rica remaining to stop at one of those roadside stands for some fresh fruit and cheese for the drive back down the mountain.

 

 

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