Irazú Volcano

Irazú Volcano Facts

Country: Costa Rica
Province: Cartago
Coordinates: 9°58'45"N 83°51'09" W
Elevation: 3,432 m / 11,260 ft
Volcano type: complex stratovolcano
Typical eruption type: Strombolian/Vulcanian
Recent eruptions: 1963- 1965
Activity status: Active

Irazú is Costa Rica's highest volcano and because of the easy access it's a very popular destination for volcano tours. What attracts visitors here are magnificent views that can be seen from the top of the mountain. If the skies are clear you can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean from the summit. The Main Crater (Crater Principal) of Irazú Volcano, filled with a water rich in minerals, is also very photogenic; the color of the lake can change, often fluctuating between emerald-green and crimson-red depending on the type of minerals present in the water (mostly iron and sulfur).

Irazú Volcano is situated only about 55 km (34 mi) from the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose and 39 km (24 mi) from the former nation's capital Cartago. This is, of course, is very convenient for traveling volcano enthusiasts but can be seriously bothersome for the Ticos. The explosive eruptions of Irazú that started in 1963 and continued until 1965 released huge amounts of ash causing a lot of damage to the nation's capital, Cartago and other nearby towns. In fact, one of the reasons the capital was moved from Cartago to San Jose in 1823 was the proximity to Irazú that resulted in numerous earthquakes that stroke the city in the past. Although currently the only activity in the crater is in form of fumaroles releasing toxic steam, Irazú is potentially very dangerous and can wake up with explosive eruptions some time in the future. Irazú's activity is these days regularly monitored so for now, tourists on their volcano tours are safe.

Summit of Irazú Volcano, Irazú Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
Summit of Irazú Volcano. Photograph by Fred Hsu

Map of the summit area of Irazú Volcano, Irazú Volcano National Park, Costa Rica
Map of Irazú's summit area

Irazú Volcano National Park

The Irazú Volcano National Park was established in 1955 and covers an area of 2,300 ha (5,705 acres) around the volcano. Except for the higher parts of the volcano that have little vegetation, a lot of the park is covered by forest (mostly on the Caribbean side of the mountain) and is currently being re-forested in the areas which were destroyed by the previous eruptions. Also due to the volcanic eruptions as well as human activity on volcano's lower slopes, the wildlife in this park is not as abundant as in other parts of Costa Rica. The animals you can find here include rabbits, foxes, coyotes, armadillos, porcupines, hummingbirds, robins, woodpeckers or owls.

A paved road leads right to the summit, where there is a small visitor center, open from 8:00am to 4:00pm. In the visitor center there are some volcanism - related displays and a coffee shop. Near the parking lot you can find bathroom facilities and picnic tables.

The summit of Irazú strikes the visitors with its lunar-like landscape. The trails in the summit regions are limited and only about 1 km (0.6 mi) long and lead the visitors around the southern rim of two major craters. First stop on the path from the visitor center is the Diego de la Haya Crater, about 80 m (260 ft) deep, with elongated shape, approximately 690-1000 m (2,260 - 3,280 ft) in diameter. The crater has a flat bottom filled with volcanic ash. A small pyroclastic cone is east of the Diego de la Haya crater.

Farther on the trail visitors can admire the spectacular view of the Main Crater and its lake. This crater, active during the last eruption, has a circular shape, 1,050 m (3,445 ft) in diameter and is 300 m (980 ft) deep. The level of this picturesque lake, filled with rain water, varies. This is the most photogenic point at the summit and together with great views, undoubtedly the highlight of the volcano tour to Irazú.

When to go and weather

Because of the high altitude temperatures on the summit are around freezing point and constant winds make it feel even colder, so remember to take at least a warm sweater and a jacket/windbreaker with you. Sunscreen is also advisable as at this altitude the intensity of the sun is very strong.

The best time to visit the summit of Irazú is early in the morning when the clouds are less likely to obscure the views. December to April are the months when you can expect less rain. Due to very high elevation, many times the cloud cover in the Central Valley is below Irazú's summit, so you may have a pouring rain there and bright sunshine at the top of the mountain. Even if you get to the summit during a cloudy period, sometimes it pays to wait an hour or so - the cloud cover may disappear quickly.

Irazú Volcano Tours

There are tour operators in San Jose that organize Irazú Volcano tours for about $30-$70 per person. Such day or half day tours typically also include visits to other local attractions like coffee plantations, historical haciendas etc. If you prefer more flexibility, rent a car or hire a private driver who will take you to the volcano and will also serve as a local guide (prices vary, but expect around $150-$200 per full day trip, which for a group of 3 or 4 could be a better deal than organized bus tours). Lodging is not available in the park and camping is not allowed - most travelers will stay in San Jose or nearby haciendas.

Bar Restaurant Linda Vista, situated by the road from Cartago to Irazú, at the elevation of 2693 m (8,000 ft) is a frequent place where organized and individual volcano tours make their stop for coffee or lunch. Owners of the restaurant claim that it's the highest restaurant in Central America; the views from there are really spectacular.

Other Costa Rican Volcanoes: Arenal  •  Poás  •  Rincón de la Vieja  •  Turrialba