The distinction between earth and sky seems more an ongoing negotiation than a fact from atop Irazú, the tallest active volcanic peak in Costa Rica and an easy half-day trip from Academia Tica’s Coronado campus.
There are more clouds below us than above on this dry May morning. They unfurl at our feet like plush white carpets reaching all the way to the Caribbean Gulf on one side and the Pacific on the other.
On a clearer day we could see two oceans at once, a staggering perspective unique to this place in Central America. But even in the company of clouds and intermittent fog we can take in all of Central Costa Rica, a dense mosaic of rain forests, farm, rivers and mountains, home to over 500,000 thousand species of life and counting.Looking away from the limitless horizon to the black sand underfoot. Eyes plummet 300-meters down to the bottom of Irazu’s principal crater, a monumental hole in the ground painted lifeless grays and blacks by the same process that created the brilliant greens surrounding us, highly productive and populated agricultural regions.
Irazú formed in the Pleistocene era, (between 2 million and 12,000 years ago). In the past 100 years the volcano has experienced seven eruption cycles, the latest occurring from 1963-65, when debris choked rivers and flooded the city of Cartago. San Jose (and nearby Academia Tica) are a much safer distance away, though one account recorded 20 inches of ash falling on parts of the city during the 1963-65 eruptions. While often pictured with an ephemeral lake, Costa Rica is in the middle of a dry spell (by tropical standards), and the bottom of the crater is dry and visible this year. This ever shifting topography masks two roiling magma chambers another 3000 meters below the surface.
Tempted to try out ground as nebulous and inviting as the sky, but signs warn us that gravity slides can result from the slightest disturbance of the barren slopes. The national park here provides drive-up access and paved paths to the principal crater, utilizing a relatively stable terrace on the south side called Playa Hermosa, where hardy plants and animals stake claim on the volcanoes first habitable areas.
Scraggly tufts of grass dotting Playa Hermosa eventually thicken enough to host picnicking Tico families, low shrubs make a tenuous comeback, and then the first fierce little Myrtle trees post up. Sparseness ends abruptly at a tree line so dense we can only hear the human visitors laughing, scrambling and clamoring within it. Climbing into this forest on the edge of desolation, we startle hummingbirds and lizards galore, ascending to a ridge above the principal crater where we are rewarded with even more epic views of this strange and wonderful place.
Uniquely accessible for an active volcano, Parque Nacional Volcan Irazu is an easy day trip for students at Academia Tica, who can go with an organized tour group or independently via bus, rental car or taxi. Irazu is but one of many volcanoes that forge the highland backbone of Costa Rica.