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Irazu Volcano, the Orosi Valley and Lankester Garden

Destination: Cartago, Orosi Valley

It was 5 am and still dark outside when my alarm clock, our neighborhood rooster, roused me from sleep. I gulped down my morning coffee. The transition from night owl to morning person complete, I was now raring to go, ready for my second tour with Expediciones Tropicales. Today we were sightseeing in Cartago Province, a part of the country I knew little about, and home to Irazu Volcano, the Orosi Valley and Lankester Botanical Gardens.

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My journey began at 7:30 am, as I was the first guest to be picked up by our Expediciones Tropicales bus. Our driver patiently navigated the clogged San Jose streets, retrieving 13 other passengers before we headed towards Irazu, the highest volcano in Costa Rica.

Another ten-hour day ahead of me, I was eager to meet my tour companions and hear their stories. We were an international crowd, from Mexico, El Salvador, England, the U.S. and Costa Rica. Our tour guide Marcel gave us a bit of background on local ecology in alternating Spanish and English as we made the hour and twenty-minute trip to Irazu Volcano National Park.

We traveled east via the Pan-American Highway and then slowly climbed into the clouds, on switchback roads that crisscrossed up the volcano slope. We saw large fields of onions, broccoli, cabbage and mustard growing in the black volcanic soil, some of the most fertile in the country. Dubbed the "Idaho of Costa Rica", the farmlands along Irazu's slopes produce vast amounts of hearty potatoes which are later sold at the local farmers' market.

Nearly there, we made a pit stop to warm ourselves up with hot cocoa and coffee at a popular mountain-top restaurant. We were 10,000 feet above sea level, and it was downright chilly. As I put on my jacket and pined for gloves, I felt kind of sorry for the two guests that wore only shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.

The temperature hovered around 45 F, as we were now in the paramo, an ecosystem like that in the Andes, found only at high elevations, between the forest and snow lines. Marcel seemed unconcerned by the large clouds rolling in, assuring us that we would get a glimpse of one of the volcanic craters. Our bus scaled the remaining 1,260 feet to the desolate landscape that marked the entrance to Irazu National Park.

Unlike anything I've ever seen, the area around the craters resembled a moonscape, a vast expanse coated with black ash. It felt like we were on another planet; the absence of wildlife and lush vegetation was strikingly different from the fertile fields we had just passed. One of Costa Rica's active volcanoes, Irazu Volcano infamously erupted in 1963, raining clouds of ash on Cartago, San Jose and most of the Central Valley for nearly three years.

Mixed with rain, the ash formed a mild sulphuric acid resulting in severe respiratory problems for local inhabitants. Volcanologists speculate that Irazu has been erupting for over 500 years; however, it has recently entered a dormant phase to the great relief of farmers and property owners along the slopes. (Not to mention our tour group.)

On a perfectly clear day, you can see both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts from the volcano. The sky dark and misty, we were lucky to see three of Irazu's five craters. The first was completely filled with a slate-grey ash. The view that I had anticipated was of the principal crater, 3,445 feet in diameter, the bottom filled with lime green water. Depending on mineral concentrations, the lagoon can also take on a red hue, but today it was unmistakably chartreuse.

Other than oak and cedar trees, interspersed with poor man's umbrella plants and patches of scrubby grass, the area was bleak and eerie. We spotted a sooty robin, one of a few species that thrives in the high altitudes of the paramo.

An ominous band of black clouds rolled above us, but our luck continued as the rains abated. We descended the mountain, bound for La Basilica de Los Angeles, a famous church dating back to the early 17th century in the heart of Cartago.

Built where a young indigenous girl saw The Virgin herself, the church is regarded as a holy Mecca and is the destination of a religious pilgrimage by thousands of Latin Americans every August 2nd. Inside the elaborate cathedral, Ave Maria played softly and parishioners either walked or slowly crawled on their knees to the altar in prayer.

Amid all of this religious fervor, we had worked up an appetite, so we departed the former colonial capital of Cartago, and drove southeast to La Casona de Cafetal, a popular Tico restaurant nestled in a coffee plantation and overlooking the Cachi Lake. Along the way, we passed the hydroelectric Cachi Dam and entered the Orosi Valley, a flourishing agricultural basin, known for its coffee and flanked by enormous jade mountains.

The spectacular scenery and good company added ambiance to our scrumptious casado lunch of grilled sea bass, ripe plantains cooked in molasses, rice, beans and salad. Coffee was the central theme for dessert of homemade flan de coffee, a creamy, coffee custard served alongside our very own traditional coffee makers, known as coffee-socks.

Our bellies full, we traveled a few miles down the road to The Dreamer's House, a family-run gallery where artisans exhibit elaborate carvings made from coffee and drift wood, the latter found along the banks of the Reventazon River, famed for its whitewater rapids.

We continued on to the small village of Ujarras, to view the ruins of the country's first colonial church, founded by missionaries in 1570. In an account now common in Costa Rica and other Latin American countries, the church was constructed by Spanish settlers where a fisherman purportedly saw The Virgin. Over the years, earthquakes and floods have taken their toll on the structure, leaving only the limestone framework.

As we were leaving, Marcel pointed out that Ujarras was once a muggy, mosquito-infested area, forcing Spanish settlers to relocate to the higher grounds of nearby Paraiso and Cartago. Today, the village was free of mosquitoes as well as the noise and cars of the city; it seemed to me an ideal setting and a nice place to call home.

Fields of chayote, also known as christophene or pear-squash swathed the roadside on our way to Lankester Botanical Gardens, our final stop for the day. Our guide revealed that women used to smoke chayote leaves during the colonial era, a sort of clandestine tobacco.

Lankester Gardens spans 27 acres of trails and houses over 3000 plant species. Founded by British botanist and orchid-buff, Charles Lankester, it is now run by the University of Costa Rica. The gardens feature bromeliads, palms and cacti growing amid secondary pre-montane forest, but most visitors come to Lankester to view the more than 1000 orchid species.

March and April are the busiest months, as most orchids are in bloom then. We walked through hobbit-sized tunnels of bamboo, past gigantic epiphytes and a sea of purple bromeliads. Marcel thoughtfully mentioned that the bromeliads likely hosted over a dozen tarantulas. Just the mention of a hairy spider and I was out of there, hot on the trail to the orchid conservatory.

The greenhouses held hundreds of vividly-colored orchids, including some miniature species. Gazing at their seductive colors and shapes, I somewhat understood an orchid-hunter's obsession with collecting such beautiful plants. We also saw several carnivorous pitcher plants, their well-adapted shape a deadly trap for insects. It was almost 4:30 pm and our visit to the gardens had come to an end.

During our hour-long return to San Jose, a couple of my tour companions expressed regret about their abbreviated stay in Costa Rica. Despite the foreboding weather, we had managed to escape the rain and see a beautiful part of the country that is often overlooked by visitors. Although I am the proud new owner of a 4x4, it was nice to sit back and let an experienced driver handle the poorly-signed backcountry roads and kamikaze drivers. The tour moved at a gentler pace than the "4 in 1" excursion I had taken a few days earlier and our knowledgeable Expediciones Tropicales guide, Marcel, was passionate about Costa Rica's history and ecology.

Irazu Volcano, the Orosi Valley and Lankester Garden in Pictures

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