POÁS VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK, Alajuela — I once stayed at an all-inclusive resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where an attractive young woman in a bikini would come out to the pool about 11:30 and dance and clap and tell everyone it was time for water aerobics, even though most of the guests were zonked out on their backs in the sun with a frosty umbrella drink before noon.
“Don’t be lay-see!” Paula would say, unable to pronounce the Z in “lazy.”
I’ve tried to remember Paula’s advice when traveling: Don’t spend too much time lying around. Get up and go somewhere. Do something. Anything! Don’t be lay-see!
In that spirit I got up Saturday morning and made an overdue pilgrimage to the most visited park in Costa Rica, Poás Volcano National Park, which unlike millions of other people on this planet, I have never visited.
It was Costa Rican Mother’s Day, and my mother is in heaven, but in her honor I drove to the top of the volcano in her 2012 Nissan Altima, which proved to be a perfect vehicle for powering up and maneuvering the good, paved roads that lead here.
A park ranger at the gate gave me a woeful look and said, “Está totalmente anublado.” It’s completely covered in clouds. “No se ve nada.” You can’t see anything. “Y cuesta 15 dólares, igual.” And it costs $15 anyway.
He looked at me like he expected me to turn the car around, drive straight home and get back into bed. What would Paula say?
I paid my $15 but asked the guy if people can call ahead to find out what conditions are like. He said yes, call 2482-1226 and just ask.
I backed into a parking space, got out of Mom’s car and immediately noticed that it was freaking cold here. The average temperature is 12 degrees Celsius, 54 Fahrenheit, but it felt colder than that today. Good thing I brought my leather jacket, which I have never used before in this country.
I walked into the cloud-shrouded park, which had a forlorn, otherworldly feel, a little eerie, with the craggy branches and the wet moss and the total absence of direct sun.
The 6,506-hectare park ranges in altitude from 1,200 to 2,708 meters, 50 percent higher than Denver, and most of it is cloud forest. The dense vegetation that covers the mountain, except where it’s been killed by acid rain, thrives on moisture carried by clouds, never mind the 3.5 meters (138 inches) of annual rainfall.
So the fact that the park was completely covered in clouds, even on Mother’s Day, was perfectly normal.
Poás is among the most accessible parks in Costa Rica, as you can drive straight to it on paved roads and there’s wheelchair access all the way to the main crater.
The 10-minute trail to get there is called the “Poor Man’s Umbrella Trail” after the humorously named plant “sombrilla de pobre” (Gunera insingnis), which has such big leaves that a poor man lacking an umbrella could take shelter under them in a downpour.
The crater, as advertised, was completely covered in clouds. Yet you could tell by the size of the viewing area and the sturdy rails that there was something huge and spectacular that the clouds were covering.
Volcán Poás has a crater lake that is 1,320 meters wide, 8/10 of a mile, and 300 meters deep. The water is extremely acidic and measures 58-93 degrees Celsius (136-199 Fahrenheit). So the fishing is not very good here.
Also, Poás constantly belches carbon dioxide into the air, sometimes up to 500 tons in a single day, not exactly helping with Costa Rica’s plan to become carbon-neutral by 2021.
The big wooden sign in front of the main crater says we’re at 2,574 meters above sea level, almost 8,500 feet, or more than a mile and a half in the air, so you might find yourself short of breath as you walk the easy trails here when they go uphill.
The eruption of Volcán Poás in 1910 spewed a column of rock, mud, ash and gas five miles (8,000 meters) into the air. Another major eruption in 1953 produced a four-mile ash cloud and gave the crater its current shape.
I walked the 30-minute Laguna Botos trail, a loop that leads to an emerald lake in one of the volcano’s three craters, long dormant, 365 meters in diameter and a beautiful green (on a clear day) because of sulfuric acid in the water.
On the sendero to Laguna Botos I walked through dark, tangled forests that might have been inspired by the brothers Grimm. This would be a good place to film the story of Hansel and Gretel, I thought, or perhaps a remake of “Red Riding Hood.”
Back at park headquarters I toured the museum, which includes a cutaway of Poás Volcano. An old woman in a wheelchair was sitting in front of it, and her daughter was telling her in Spanish that it looked just like a cake.
I thought: A Mother’s Day cake! I was happy to see that someone had decided to celebrate the day by bringing her mother to Poás.
One of the signs in the museum says Poás “is the most visited protected wild area in the country, with an average of 300,000 people per year.” That’s in a country of 5 million.
The secret of Poás’ popularity is its accessibility: Anyone can drive here and back from the Central Valley in a day and find trails that the smallest child or the oldest grandmother can navigate.
What you find at the end of the trail — on a clear day — is a steaming, smoking, milk-colored lake surrounded by what looks like the surface of Mars.
To Mom: Wish you were here!
To everyone else: If you haven’t been to Poás lately, or ever, just do it! (But call ahead.)
Don’t be lay-see!
IF YOU GO
Getting there: With your own vehicle, take Highway 1 from San José toward the airport in Alajuela. After the first tollbooth, there’s a brown sign telling you to turn right to get to Parque Nacional Volcán Poás, but I found it easier to follow the second sign, which tells you to go straight. After that, there are plenty of signs to point the way, and the Waze app can do the same.
What to bring: Be prepared for cold and rain. Wear long pants and bring a jacket or sweater.
When to come: Earliest is best, as the volcano is most likely to be clear in the morning.
Admission: $15 for foreigners, 1,000 colones for nationals; parking 1,500 colones.
Hours: Open daily 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Phone: To check on weather conditions before visiting, call 2482-1226.
For more info: http://www.sinac.go.cr/AC/ACCVC/volcanpoas/Paginas/default.aspx
Contact Karl Kahler at [email protected].