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San Jose Day Trip: Barva Volcano

Destination: Heredia

Navigating in Costa Rica could be described as either a really un-funny joke or as an adventure. Setting out for Barva Volcano, my parents and I opted for the latter, not allowing unmarked roads, poor directions or labyrinthine streets to get us down. (We would later learn how difficult this promise would be to keep.)

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According to my guidebook, the volcano could be accessed at Braulio Carrillo National Park's Sacramento ranger station. On the map, it looked simple: a fairly direct route travels first through the towns of Birri and later San Jose de la Montana before arriving in Sacramento. In practice, the drive wasn't so easy.

At the Birri crossroads, we had a decision to make: turn right, turn left or go straight. No signs pointed to Barva Volcano, and my map was woefully lacking in detail for Birri's tiny roads. Rolling down my window, I asked a resident where to go. "Turn left!" he indicated in a solid and confident voice. We turned left.

Less than a mile later, a big, brown road sign indicated that we were heading to Poas Volcano, not Barva. My father pulled into a steep driveway, and we turned back toward Birri. Another brown national park sign told us to turn left for Barva Volcano onto what would have been our original straight option. No problem.

We drove up a narrow road that was riddled with small potholes. Bumping along, I studied the map. I was mostly sure of where we were, and the large road sign had given me confidence. Unfortunately, the narrow road soon veered off into turns, forks and other confusing conundrums.

Rolling down my window again, I asked if we were headed to Barva Volcano. "Barva?" asked the young man. "Turn around, it's back down the hill." I quickly clarified that we were looking for the volcano, and not the town of Barva. "Ahh," he said, "yes! Poas is this way!" Anxiety gripped my throat -- I knew that it was one of the least-visited volcanoes in Costa Rica, but could it really be this difficult to find Barva Volcano?

Making an executive decision, my parents and I voted to carry on instead of turning back. I poured over the map, and we made the best directional decisions we could. Soon, we were driving through impossibly green fields perched on a mountaintop overlooking the Central Valley. Glimpses of the panorama below took my breath away -- the clear day offered miles and miles of sweeping valley views.

Small signs on the roadside indicated that we were in San Jose de la Montana. We were doing well, even if the going was very slow. The roads were so narrow that two cars could not pass each other without requiring substantial bodywork afterward. Our 4WD Bego continued the upward climb, precariously close to the road's edge, which had no barrier to prevent us from toppling off into the valley below. I chose not to look that way.

After several solitary miles on the now-dirt road, we saw men working on the shoulder. I was sure that they would know where we were, so I rolled down my window to ask. Eyes widening, one told us that we were absolutely on the wrong road and that we had to turn back. Fueled equally by my own hubris and by a lack of confidence in the directions yet given, I suggested that we soldier on. Soon, I was glad that we had.

An alpine hotel sat balanced on the mountainside. We pulled in, and I went to ask at the front desk. Surprisingly (or maybe not) the hotel employee had no idea how to get to Barva Volcano. A guest, however, did. Overhearing our conversation, he asked if we were on our way to the national park. I nodded my head carefully, afraid to believe that he could help. "That's where we're going," he explained, "I've been there a bunch of times." Here's how to get there...

We were on the right road, just 15 minutes from the Sacramento ranger station. He told us that we would arrive at several forks in the road, and that we should turn left at each. He was completely confident, and for the first time, I believed what I was told. Probably because he had confirmed that I had been right all along. (I liked that.)

Ten minutes later, we knew that we were almost there. The road had turned from potholed and dusty to rocky and mildly terrifying, just as the guidebook had foreseen. The views had gotten even better, if that were possible, and I hollered to stop every 500 feet for a photo op. It was getting late, though -- we had planned to arrive by 9:00 a.m., and the clock was already pushing 10:30.

Soon, we saw the signs for the Sacramento base station. As we pulled up, a mildly surprised ranger popped her head out from inside the ranger station, indicating that we should park outside of the gate. There were no parking spaces and only room for two cars to park on the dirt hill.

We walked up to the ranger station and accepted the proffered map. The friendly ranger offered up several suggestions for the day's hikes, and we decided to take the Cacho de Venado trail -- a mile-long, easy walk through primary and secondary forest -- before ascending the remaining mile to Barva Volcano's largest crater, now a cold-water lake. Unfortunately, the ranger informed us that we could not continue on to the other craters: the 6.2-level earthquake of two weeks prior had caused landslides on the trails.

We began the uphill hike to the trail, looking all around us. Braulio Carrillo is considered a rain forest, but here at Barva Volcano's nearly 10,000-foot elevation, the flora and fauna resembled that of a cloud forest. Epiphytes -- mosses, lichens and vines -- covered the trees, coating the forest in dazzling greens. Red bromeliads dotted the trees, fooling us more than once into thinking we had spotted a resplendent quetzal.

The Sendero Cacho de Venado (translated: Stag Horn Path) began with well-groomed, rustic trails. They soon transitioned into gravel and wood beam trails, and we alternated between looking above into the trees and down at our feet -- we didn't want to trip! Though we didn't see any exciting wildlife along the trail, we heard birds chirping in the trees and saw myriad flowers dotting the path. Tiny creeks gurgled under our feet, and a moss-covered footbridge provided a pretty photo op.

An hour after beginning the trail, we emerged out onto the main path again. The air was getting progressively thinner, and even though the trails were not very steep, our chests heaved with effort. It was almost noon, so we decided to take a rest and eat our picnic lunch in one of the park's pavilions. After stuffing ourselves with sandwiches and apples, we started up the hill.

The path was wide enough to be a road, but only the most fearless driver could have navigated on an ATV -- the potholes were at least two feet deep and rocks jutted up everywhere. The one-mile hike climbed and climbed -- there was no reprieve from the uphill journey -- and we stopped often to catch our breath. Finally, we arrived at the sign for Barva's main crater.

Turning onto the final stretch, I stopped: before me, steep, wooden steps seemed to climb for miles. My body already ached and my throat was raw from the cold air, but I was determined to see the crater. Together, we lumbered up the stairs and arrived at the now-dormant volcanic crater. It was foggy and cold. Very, very cold.

Tiny fish swam in the water below and animals lingered at the water's edge. Though we didn't see anything up close, I saw shadows hopping along the shoreline and heard vague animal noises from inside the forest. We sat and stared at the lake, watching the mist oscillate in opacity. Unfortunately, the clouds never rolled out to afford us a view.

Shivering from the chill, we walked down the stairs back toward the ranger station. Happily, the previously-uphill walk was now, logically, downhill. We relaxed and looked up into the trees. 30 minutes later, just 1/4 mile from the ranger stations, we saw signs to the Vara Blanca scenic overlook. The path, though muddy, looked stable, and we decided to test our luck.

Half a mile later, I was questioning our decision. Most of the natural path was navigable, but several sections were so muddy that traction was nearly impossible. Even though I was wearing high-tread hiking boots, I slipped down the path -- mud-surfing would be the best way to describe it -- and looked for handholds to steady myself.

Suddenly, my parents and I emerged at the lookout point. The valley stretched out in front of us and a cloud-covered Poas Volcano loomed close. Below us, landslides highlighted the aftermath of the disastrous earthquake -- we were looking out over some of the most badly damaged sections of the country. It was one of those views that leaves one awestruck, and the only appropriate action was to sit down and stare at the beauty and devastation.

It was nearing 4:00 p.m., the park's closing time, so we stood up to finish our walk back to the ranger station. The half-mile, muddy uphill walk took significantly longer than the descent, and I focused on finding my footing to avoid any messy spills. Before long, we emerged onto the main path and walked the remaining feet down to the ranger station, where we bid the park and ranger adieu.

The drive home was much easier and faster than the morning's wanderings -- this time we didn't have to stop for directions -- and we arrived at my house less than 30 minutes after leaving the Sacramento ranger station. Even though I had experienced the route first-hand, it was difficult to believe that the rainy, cloudy, epiphyte-covered forest was located so close to my suburban home: Barva's misty slopes truly feel like another world.

San Jose Day Trip: Barva Volcano in Pictures

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