Poas Volcano in March 2020

Our Visit to the Active Poas Volcano in Costa Rica

Last time we visited Poas Volcano, four years ago, we walked up to it, then walked around on a few paths, without a tour.

Since then, it erupted a few times, last time briefly in September of last year (2019). Though none of the latest eruptions were full-fledged, violent, with lava, the one in April of 2017 was bad enough to cause park closures.

The series of eruptions of gas, ash, and rocks damaged buildings and trails in the National Park. It forced authorities to close the park after evacuating visitors and nearby residents.

The eruptions started on April 9th with an increase of toxic gases and fumes, followed by an eruption on the 12th. Two other explosions on the 14th created a column of ash and vapor of over three km around the crater. A few other smaller eruptions followed two days later, but the largest one came on the 22nd. At that time the volcanic rocks damaged the park buildings and community buildings nearby.

The park remained closed until September 2018, when it partially reopened. But since then visitors only have limited access and strict regulations.

The volcano also erupted twice within the last year, 2019, once in February, then again, in September.

Most of the trails in the park are still closed, only the main observation area is open, and the short paved trail leading to it. Only ranger-led tours are allowed even in this area.

We learned all this during the briefing, where our group watched a video about the recent eruptions, facts about the volcano, and safety measures we needed to follow.

Making a Reservation

When we decided to visit Poas Volcano National Park, we knew nothing about the closures. We planned to spend a day in the park, visiting the main area, then taking the trails through the park, to the nearby lake and other viewpoints.

When we stopped at a hotel the night before, I noticed a sign offering to make reservations to visit Poas for a small fee.

“Do you need reservations to visit Poas?” I asked, since last time we just drove up to it, and that was our intention this time, too.

“Yes, you can’t visit without a reservation,” answered the hotel owner.

“Really? Why?”

“Because it’s active. But you can make the reservation yourself online. If it’s confusing, we can do it for you. The site is only in Spanish and it’s hard to navigate.”

At this point, I wasn’t sure what he meant about very active, his English wasn’t perfect; was the volcano active, or busy with too many people visiting? But he wrote down the site address for us, and we told him we’d try to do it ourselves. We’d ask him to do it if we couldn’t figure it out.

As computer savvy as we are, we were about to pay him to do the reservations for us. But after the third (or fourth or fifth) try, when we were ready to give up, we finally got it.

The reservations required our passport numbers, ages, and answers to a bunch of other questions. We had to sign up for a specific time, and be there at least ten minutes before. But instead of telling us a specific tour was full, if it had no room, the site just kicked us out, without explanation. Start over. But finally, we got virtual tickets for a tour at 10:30 am.

We would join a group of no more than 50 and stay no longer than 20 minutes. Then a long list of possible mishaps and dangers followed. By the time I was done reading it all and signed that we understood and took the risks, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to go.

Visiting Poas Volcano

We drove up and after parking the car, we followed others into the building. There, we were all handed hard hats, and lead into a small amphitheater. Nothing else was open, not the museum, nor the gift shop we remembered from the previous visit.

After watching a documentary about Poas, the most active volcano in Costa Rica, one of the rangers talked for a few minutes, explaining the regulations of the visit. In Spanish first, then in English. I understood part of the Spanish version, part of the English, but we thought we’d just follow the group. We had a ranger leading us, watching everyone closely as we walked up the 0.3-mile paved trail to the main overlook.

I expected shortness of breath, as warned, but other than going uphill with a touch of altitude sickness (we were over 8,000 feet high), I was fine. So was everyone else in the group, consisting of only locals – and us.

At the overlook, the smell of sulfur was overwhelming, taking me back to my childhood in the sulfur-thermal baths and caves in and around Bálványos in the Carpathians.

The active Poas Volcano in March 2020

The clouds just parted when we visited, so we could clearly see the carter, showing off its beautiful green-blue color, and even some of the yellow of the sulfur around its perimeter.

A lone squirrel was running around underfoot, seeming slightly insane. Living by an active volcano might do that to a squirrel. He acted like Scrat from Ice Age, so that was the name we gave him. At some point, he took a piece of rock into his mouth and disappeared under the rim.

Scrat the squirrel of Poas. photos by Karen Fromm
Scrat the squirrel of Poas. photos by my daughter, Karen Fromm

Yes, most people were more entertained by Scrat the squirrel then the beautiful, stinky, very active volcano. Although the ranger showed us all a few pieces of volcanic rock that landed at our level at some point… if it happened again, hopefully, the hard hats would protect us.

View of Poas volcano as the clouds part above...

But other than smoking a bit, the volcano didn’t give us any indication that it might attempt to spew rocks at us. The twenty minutes we spent at the overlook gave us plenty of time to enjoy it, take our pictures and even watch the antics of Scrat the squirrel.

About Poas Volcano National Park

Poas Volcano National Park is not only about the one crater. It also protects a cloud forest and tropical rainforest habitats in an area of around 5600 ha at an elevation between 7874 and 8885 feet (2400 and 2708 meters). Other than the main crater, it also incorporates another crater lake, Lake Botos, filling an inactive crater.


Where is the Poas Volcano?

Poas Volcano National Park is in Costa Rica, about an hour from its capital, San Jose.

When was the last time it erupted?

The latest large eruption of Poas Volcano took place in April of 2017. Smaller ones continued, with the latest one in September of 2019.

Is it open to the public?

Visiting the volcano is partially open with limited access, and advance reservations.

Are reservations necessary?

Yes, you definitely need reservations; make sure you have the number, they look them up at the gate. Have your passports ready to verify your identity. If you are not registered, you will have to turn around.

What to expect when visiting Poas Volcano?

You will be required to wear a hard hat, attend a briefing, and join a group of no more than 50 people led by a ranger to the main observation area. The trail leading there is paved, 0.3 miles long. You are allowed to spend 20 minutes in the observation area.

When is the best time to visit?

The park is open daily from 7 am to 2 pm, with the last entrance at 1:30 pm. For the best view, try to book an early tour, since it tends to cloud over by noon. Pick a sunny day, or it might be cloudy all day and you might not be able to see the crater.

Is it safe to visit Poas?

It is as safe as possible. The park closes if they register too much volcanic activity, you will not be there when an eruption happens. If you have to cancel due to closures, they will refund your money.

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