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Poas, Irazu or Arenal: Which Volcano Suits You

Poas, Irazu or Arenal: Which Volcano Suits You

Want to see Costa Rica’s famously active volcanoes, but short on time? The three most popular – Poas, Irazu, and Arenal – each has its own draws and unique appeal. Use our quick overview to determine which volcano suits your travel style and wish list.

Poas Volcano

  • Location: 34 miles northwest of San Jose, in Poas Volcano National Park
  • Elevation: 8,900 feet
  • Summary: Comfortable day trip from San Jose; one of the Central Valley’s biggest attractions.
  • Accessibility: A two-hour drive from the capital, Poas is Costa Rica’s most accessible (and only wheelchair-friendly) active volcano.
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Crowd Factor: High, especially during the dry season. However, the park is large enough that loud tour groups won’t detract from your views or overall experience.
  • Biggest Draw: The volcano's aquamarine boiling lagoon, which fills the world’s second largest crater at 9/10th of a mile wide.
  • Scenery: Primarily cloud forest and areas of stunted forest.
  • Trail Difficulty: Easy. A paved road leads right to the volcano lookout point; the half-mile Botos trail winds through cloud forest to the pretty Botos Lake. The 30-minute hike ends at a wonderful picnic spot.
  • Wildlife Sightings: Look for black guans, toucanets, flame-throated warblers, tanagers and hummingbirds.
  • Amenities: The park has a visitor center with restrooms, a small cafe, souvenir shop, and informative museum.
  • Travelers Tip: Arrive at 8:00 a.m. for your best chances of clear crater views. Avoid weekends and holidays when the park is especially crowded.
  • Best Time to Visit: While common wisdom dictates the dry season months of December – April, plenty of travelers get stellar views throughout the year. September and October are the region’s wettest months.

Irazu Volcano

  • Location: 38 miles east of San Jose, in Irazu Volcano National Park
  • Elevation: 11,260 feet
  • Summary: Irazu is Costa Rica’s tallest volcano; the last major eruption was in 1963, during a visit from President John F. Kennedy.
  • Accessibility: An easy hour and a half drive from San Jose, Irazu is often part of a combo day tour that includes Orosi Valley and Lankester Garden.

  • Crowd Factor: Moderate. You’ll encounter fewer travelers here than at Poas Volcano, but early morning tour groups arrive en masse during the dry season months of December – April.
  • Biggest Draw: The lime green waters in the 3,445-wide principal volcano crater. On a clear day, both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts are visible from the summit of Irazu.
  • Scenery: Cloud forest and sub-alpine paramo as well as barren, ash-covered areas that resemble a moonscape.
  • Trail Difficulty: Very Easy. A flat, half-mile trail winds between the principal crater and Diego de la Haya, Playa Hermosa, and La Laguna craters, forming a loop with the entrance road.
  • Wildlife Sightings: Mostly high-altitude avian species, such as volcano juncos, sooty robins, woodpeckers and hummingbirds.
  • Amenities: There is a visitor center with a coffee shop, picnic tables and restrooms at the entrance of the park.
  • Travelers Tip: It gets very cold on Irazu; dress warmly and bring a jacket as temperatures average in the mid 40’s.
  • Best Time to Visit: March and April are the driest months, offering your best shot at good weather and spectacular views.

Arenal Volcano

  • Location: 80 miles northwest of San Jose, in Arenal Volcano National Park
  • Summary: One of the planet’s ten most active volcanoes, Arenal delights with fiery displays of lava and glowing boulders, safely viewed from nearby lookout points, hotels and hot springs.
  • Elevation: 5,357 feet
  • Accessibility: A 3.5-hour scenic drive from San Jose, Arenal is a popular day trip offered by San Jose tour companies. 
  • Crowd Factor: Moderate to High. The local hot springs fill up quickly, but surprisingly few people hit the park’s more remote trails.
  • Biggest Draw:  A toss up between watching rocks the size of cars tumble down the volcano slopes and relaxing in Arenal’s mineral rich hot springs.
  • Scenery: The habitats, which range in altitude from 3,281 to 5,357 feet, include cloud forest, tropical rainforest and lowland rainforest.
  • Hiking Difficulty: Easy to moderate; tourists are prohibited from hiking to the volcano summit. The park has four trails that span just over five miles. Be sure to ask park rangers about current trail closings due to volcanic activity.
  • Wildlife Sightings: Resident species include howler and spider monkeys, coatimundis, sloths, parrots, trogons, hummingbirds and motmots.
  • Amenities: A ranger station and restrooms are located at the entrance to the park. Visitors may stay overnight at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, the only lodge within the park's boundaries.
  • Travelers Tip: Light rain gear is advisable. Independent hiking is permitted, but several tour operators offer guided trips through the park, which usually affords better wildlife viewing.
  • Best Time to Visit: Arenal is so immense that it creates its own weather system. Clouds roll in and out at a moment’s notice, so there is no distinct dry season. Locals say that September and October actually yield the most consistent volcano views.