Costa Rica lies on the eastern edge of the “Ring of Fire”, a collection of volcanic arcs and ocean trenches encircling much of the Pacific basin and characterized by highly volatile seismic conditions. As a result, much of the western coasts of the Americas, the Aleutians, and the eastern coasts of Asia are susceptible to tremors, earthquakes, the occasional volcanic eruption, and a general sense of unease (I live in California. It’s weird living on a fault line.). It’s crazy to consider that a country smaller in size than West Virginia is home to nearly seventy volcanoes, with six being active. Paos Volcano is one of these six; as recently as 2009 seismic activity in the immediate vicinity of Paos caused the deaths of forty people and virtually erased two tiny hamlets that clung to its lower slopes. And still the Paos National Volcano is visited by a constant stream of the curious, even though it’s occasionally shut down due to vast clouds of noxious gases and toxic steam vented by fumeroles, cracks in the rock that release super-heated sulfurous vapors.
Luckily it was open to visitors the day we went. Luckily too the wind didn’t shift and envelope us in poisonous gasses. As it was we got a pretty good view of the main crater at an elevation of nearly 8,800. We had driven up a series of windy roads to within a short walk of the crater; short though it was we were winded by the thinner air. Heck, just over two hours before we were at sea level! During our journey from Jaco to Poas the temperature had dropped from 95°F at the coast to the high 50’s at the crater’s altitude, a pretty significant shift. This kind of drastic variation in topography and climate is characteristic of the appeal of Costa Rica; beaches and mountains, rivers and rainforests, dry forests and volcanoes, dense urban areas and tropical jungle.
It makes for a fascinating visit, to be sure. The crater was dramatic, nearly a mile across, with a stink of sulfer, the bare and suppurated rock faces scarred with the evidence of eons of upheaval. Apparently one of the most acidic lakes in the world, the accumulated rainwater in this crater is superheated and volatile, sitting as it is on a live volcano vent spewing sulfuric acid. The interaction of the lakewater and the profound geologic forces underneath create dramatic geysers, great billowing clouds of steam, and lava spouts.
The light was gloomy, overcast. Constantly shifting winds blew the clouds of mostly harmless steam in different directions. A mighty fogbank hung over the green ridge to our right. The aura was majestic, wild, and full of the nervous tension of titanic, barely-checked forces. Just amazing. Like a visit to Mordor. I kept expecting Gollum to peer out from behind a rock with glowing eyes.
Instead of Gollum we had a great driver named Roy and a very pleasant young guide by the name of Manuel, a knowledgeable part-time high school teacher who pointed out the wild bromeliads, the cute reddish-orange squirrel, the broad-leafed plant nicknamed the “poor-man’s umbrella”, and the tiny avocados that quetzals feed on. He also fielded dozens of questions we posed him — we peppered him with random queries about highways and culture and plants and statistics and history and government and topography and ethnography. He was an engaging guide with a real enthusiasm for his country. Nice guy.
From the main crater we climbed another 150 feet up a moderately steep and well-tended path cut through a dense and tangled low forest. Regina and I both felt a bit light-headed and winded from the quick assent, but our brief exertion was rewarded with a spectacular view of Botos Laguna, a beautiful small lake enshrouded in fog, formed in the crater of another volcano, this one dormant. Through the cloud cover we could spy stretches of beaches on the far shore of the lake. It was a picturesque view with a slightly eerie aspect. It was a glimpse into an unknown world — violent, primeval, almost untouched by man. An awesome sight.
We rested briefly at the top before resuming our trip and heading down the mountain.
After a very quick stop at the under-renovation educational exhibit, we departed Paos, awed and excited by our visit. In our small tour bus we wound down the mountain through the Central Valley — all rolling hills and agricultural swaths marching to the verdant horizon. The sky bore aloft pillowy clouds against of backdrop of the brightest blue. The land was beautiful.
Next stop: Doka coffee plantation…