TURRIALBA – A year and a half ago, ash and larges plumes of noxious fumes from the Turrialba Volcano forced the closing of the surrounding national park. Last Friday, officials gave the green light for the park to reopen.
In recent weeks, the National Emergency Commission (CNE) lowered the alert level for the Turrialba Volcano from yellow to green, paving the way for visitors to return to park trails that feature impressive views of the volcano, one of five active volcanoes in Costa Rica.
In preparation for the park reopening, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the Foundation for the Development of the Central Volcanic Range (Fundecor) and the Conservation for the Central Volcanic Range (ACCVC), invested more than $35,000 in repairs to roads, trails and the construction of a new park ranger station.
“The reopening of this park to the public was made possible due to the great collaborative effort put forth by the many organizations present here today,” said Ana Lorena Guevara, vice minister of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET), prior to cutting the ribbon at the entrance of the trail leading to the volcano’s crater. “All the proper adjustments have been made and we are assured that this beautiful park is again safe to allow tourists to explore and visit the natural wonder of an active volcano.”
The Turrialba Volcano National Park was officially closed in August 2009 when increased volcanic activity caused the CNE to issue a yellow alert for visitors. The volcano continued to emit gases and ash throughout the final months of 2009, and the CNE and Costa Rican Red Cross held several mock evacuations in the town of Santa Cruz, located at the base of the volcano, to prepare residents for a possible eruption.
On Jan. 5, 2010, the Turrialba Volcano experienced its largest eruption in more than 140 years, spewing ash, rocks, gases and helium into the air and covering Santa Cruz and surrounding communities in soot. Forty residents were evacuated and moved into temporary shelters, while ash from the eruption was reported to have carried as far as the San José neighborhood of Desamparados, about 40 kilometers away.
Gases and ash from the volcano covered nearby trees, turning them yellow (TT, Jan. 8, 2010).
“The January 5 eruption was the biggest since 1866, but it wasn’t as dangerous or problematic as people tried to make it seem,” volcanologist Jorge Barquero told The Tico Times at last week’s reopening of the park. “It was a pretty normal, small eruption and was something that we’d seen before. The reason the ash was blown to San José was because of strong winds, not because the eruption was particularly strong.”
As activity calmed in the volcano’s crater during the last year and a half, the CNE began in September 2010 to evaluate the park’s status. They also asked that access roads be improved and emergency escape plans created (TT, Sept. 21, 2010).
In recent months, investment by ICE, Fundecor and ACCVC has been used to improve the steep, rocky roadway that winds up towards the park entrance, reinforce pathway fences, pave the trail that provides tourists with a view of the Atlantic Ocean, and create evacuation routes for visitors in case of an eruption.
“The improvements that have been made to the park meet all the requirements to ensure the safety of all visitors,” said Fundecor’s Gustavo Jiménez. “To make sure tourists are entirely safe, it will be mandatory for all visitors to wear a hat, goggles and small masks near the crater of the volcano as a precautionary measure.”
The temperature near the Turrialba Volcano’s crater ranges from 16 degrees Celsius (61 degrees Fahrenheit) to 8 C (46 F). A combination of low-lying clouds and hovering ash often obstruct the view of the crater, and the mirador (lookout point) might provide only a close-up shot of a cloud. With the recent requirement that visitors must wear a safety helmet, goggles and small breathing mask, a trip to Turrialba might not yet provide the ideal spot for a family vacation.
However, with reduced volcanic activity, residents in Santa Cruz are enthusiastic about the potential return of tourists. Several restaurants and cafés near the entrance to the park thrive on revenue generated from tourists and the reopening provides hope for a return of much needed income.
“We have three primary attractions in the town of Turrialba, the Pacuare River, the Guayabo Ruins and the Turrialba Volcano,” said Alfonso Pérez, Turrialba’s former mayor and a legislator from the National Liberation Part. “The closure of the park definitely hurt many of the small businesses in the area that rely on tourism to provide for their families. Reopening the park will undoubtedly reactivate a part of the local economy.”
As that happens, area residents say they hope the still mildly rumbling volcano will slowly fall back into another 141 years of slumber.