The Costa Rica Travel Blog is the current traveller, will-be traveller, has-been traveller, and should-be traveller's guide to everything Costa Rica. Information, stories, news, and advice written by the Pura Vida! eh? Inc. team; Costa Rican insiders, outsiders, and everywhere-in-between-siders.

The Best Costa Rica Volcanoes: What To Know About Arenal, Irazu, Poas, Rincon De La Vieja, And Turrialba

The Best Costa Rica Volcanoes: What To Know About Arenal, Irazu, Poas, Rincon De La Vieja, And Turrialba

NOTE: The content on this page was last updated on July 19th, 2017.

Want to know our pick for the BEST VOLCANO TO VISIT in Costa Rica?
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Costa Rica volcanoes

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COSTA RICA VOLCANOES: THE REALITY OF EXPERIENCE FUNNELING

If your travel alter ego is anything like ours, it’s indecisive and a bit greedy. When it comes to experiencing something new (such as exploring Costa Rica volcanoes) we can’t make up our minds. We usually want it all since there is much to be learned from the unknown and unfamiliar, but when budget and time constraints bring us back to reality we’re usually left having to handpick one experience over a plethora of others.

This feat we call “experience funneling” is a common reality of trip planning that most travellers face when narrowing down which Costa Rica volcanoes most warrant a visit. Not to assume that every traveller would be interested in exploring all of Costa Rica’s active volcanoes if they had both the funds and vacation time available to do so, but for those of you who, like us, who recognize and appreciate difference in nearly everything, deciding which volcano would be the best to visit is no easy task. Throw in opposing opinions offered via a variety of printed and online websites (popular travel forums included), and making a decision seems virtually impossible. Especially when considering that the majority of experts in the field are quick to identify one volcano as better than the rest, despite having only visited one or two in the bunch and short of having a complete range of experiences to pull from when drawing such a definite and all-encompassing conclusion.

Bearing this in mind, let’s start at the beginning so you can, with our help, work your way down to determining which volcano would be the best to visit for you. As noted above, Costa Rica offers a number of active volcanoes. Simply put, and to avoid falling into an endless pit of arguments surrounding volcanology terminology, there are five: Arenal, Irazu, Poas, Rincon De La Vieja, and Turrialba. Given the ambiguity that exists around the classification of a volcano as “active” (primarily whether a dormant volcano is in fact active if it is not extinct but also not currently erupting), one could argue that Costa Rica has more or less than this number. For the purpose of our blog post (and in line with what most Costa Rica travel and tourism references also choose to cite), we aim to focus on those we consider to be active given their internal activity and/or occasional gas/smoke/ash eruption. Not coincidentally, these five volcanoes are also the most inviting as each is developed enough to encourage travellers to visit via easy access to/from, entrance into, and exploration of its designated national park. Travellers often ask us whether volcano visits are allowed, legal, and/or even possible, and we can confirm (so long as there is no current alert restricting access to the volcano’s region) that tours to each of the following five volcanoes are not only permitted but also encouraged. For the most part (with the exception of the Turrialba Volcano), entrance to/from each is also monitored for visitor safety and national registration, and given the tours’ historical and geographical components, they are an educational highlight of many travellers’ Costa Rica vacations.

Without further ado, here’s what you should know about Costa Rica’s five active volcanoes: the Arenal Volcano, Irazu Volcano, Poas Volcano, Rincon De La Vieja Volcano, and Turrialba Volcano.

Costa Rica volcanoes
Ricky; Arenal Volcano National Park

COSTA RICA VOLCANOES: THE ARENAL VOLCANO

Arenal Volcano National Park / Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal)

The Arenal Volcano is Costa Rica’s most frequented volcano by international visitors. Many claim the obvious cone-shaped structure and off-and-on stream of gas that can be seen escaping the crater have garnered its popularity (rock and heavier gas/ash eruptions were visible prior to 2010), but we argue its appeal is rooted in its location. Situated smack dab in the heart of the country’s epicenter of adventure (La Fortuna), the Arenal Volcano is a centerpiece on the tabletop of tourism development and accessible from either airport (SJO San Jose or LIR Liberia). Ensuring smooth trip functionality is a central part of any vacation planning, and if you can kill two, three, or four birds with one stone while visiting one central destination (figuratively speaking of course, as we are far too avid birdwatchers to ever endorse killing an actual bird), why waste travel time and funds not doing so? The Arenal Volcano makes sense to visit for any/all travellers who want to see, tour, and learn more about a volcano during their trip, among experiencing so much else. For the do it all type of traveller, you’re in luck. Tours of the Arenal Volcano can be combined with a variety of other local activities including hanging bridge tours, waterfall tours, national park tours, mountain biking tours, horseback riding tours, and hot spring attraction visits (these options comprise half-day and full-day combo tour choices that incorporate a volcano-viewing experience, although plenty of other non-volcano-related activities are also available in the area, such as canyoneering, ziplining, birdwatching, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, stand-up paddling, and day tours to Rio Celeste, the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, and/or the Venado Caves). Given that the steep-sloped volcano cannot be climbed (visitors are limited in their walks/hikes to the volcano’s base via entrance into the Arenal Volcano National Park or nearby Silencio or 1968 trails) visiting the crater is not possible. The closest travellers can get to the Arenal Volcano’s top is via a multi-hour strenuous hike up Cerro Chato, the Arenal Volcano’s mountainous neighbour to the south. For more information about this hiking experience please see our related blog post: A Proposal To Remember: Costa Rica’s Cerro Chato Hike.

What to know about visiting the Arenal Volcano

Experience type: volcano visit, educational walking tour
Location: La Fortuna (west of downtown La Fortuna–nearby El Castillo)
Operating hours: 8:00am to 4:00pm daily
Recommended for: travellers interested in volcanoes; all ages welcome
Is a vehicle and/or transportation required? yes
Is parking available on-site? yes
Are bathrooms available on-site? yes
Degree of physicality required: low-to-moderate degree of strength/endurance required
Suitable for the mobility impaired/wheelchair access: no (national park trail is defined but not smooth/paved)
Other: as an alternative hiking experience, some travellers opt to visit the Arenal Volcano via the Silencio Trail or 1968 Trail (for more information about the Silencio Trail please see our related blog post: El Silencio Trail Hike & Volcano-Viewing Experience).
Don’t miss: the area at the back of the park (Las Coladas Trail) where you can view old rocks that once erupted from the volcano and the giant Ceiba tree (El Ceibo Trail) (for more information about the Arenal Volcano National Park please see our related blog post: A Walk In The Park: Arenal Volcano National Park).

Don’t miss our Arenal Volcano Tour discounts:

Arenal Volcano Tour (Arenal Volcano National Park) (La Fortuna/Arenal)

Arenal Volcano Tour (Arenal Volcano National Park) with Los Lagos Hot Springs (La Fortuna/Arenal)

Arenal Volcano Tour (Arenal Volcano National Park) with Paradise Hot Springs (La Fortuna/Arenal)

Arenal Volcano Tour (Arenal Volcano National Park) with Baldi Hot Springs (La Fortuna/Arenal)

Arenal Volcano Tour (Arenal Volcano National Park) with Ecotermales Hot Springs (La Fortuna/Arenal)

Arenal Volcano Tour (Arenal Volcano National Park) with Springs Resort Hot Springs (La Fortuna/Arenal)

Arenal Volcano Tour (1968 Trail or Silencio Trail) (La Fortuna/Arenal)

Arenal Volcano Tour (1968 Trail or Silencio Trail) with Baldi Hot Springs (La Fortuna/Arenal)

Arenal Volcano Tour (1968 Trail or Silencio Trail) with Ecotermales Hot Springs (La Fortuna/Arenal)

Arenal Volcano Tour (1968 Trail or Silencio Trail) with Springs Resort Hot Springs (La Fortuna/Arenal)

1-Day Arenal Volcano Tour with Volcano Hike & Hot Springs (Guanacaste)

Costa Rica volcanoes
Nikki; Irazu Volcano National Park

COSTA RICA VOLCANOES: THE IRAZU VOLCANO

Irazu Volcano National Park / Parque Nacional Volcan Irazu

The Irazu Volcano is the raspberry swirl to the Poas Volcano’s vanilla. What on earth are we talking about? Underestimating the value of a little extra something that kicks plain and familiar up a notch to unsuspecting and downright delicious. Don’t get us wrong, we’re all about the vanilla, as there is something pleasantly satisfying about its simple flavour that somehow never gets boring. But, once and a while, what has always been good is upstaged by something better, at least for a brief moment in time. That’s how we felt the first time we visited the Irazu Volcano. Having a handful of visits to its biggest competitor under our belts–the Poas Volcano–we never thought we would top the awe-inspiring moments we have had atop Poas upon witnessing its mammoth crater as the clouds roll out, right there, in front of our faces. Then we met Irazu (most notably, its principal crater), and it became apparent that our previous crater-bonding experiences had merely prepared us for the big one. Yes, technically Irazu is the highest volcano of the five active volcanoes (11,000+ feet above sea level, and more than double the height of the majestic Arenal Volcano), but that’s hardly our point. Its crater is seemingly grander in a variety of ways (despite its crater’s dimensions being comparable to those of Poas). Irazu deceivingly appears wider, deeper, and more eerily-obvious a volcano crater than Poas, leaving us (and likely other travellers too) questioning how it is even possible that we could be standing where we were standing at that very moment, kicking up black sand beneath our soles, taking in the ashy and sulfuric air, and restrained by a wood-rail barrier barely 10 feet away from the volcano’s sinking slope. During our first visit, Ricky and I both looked at each other and expressed the same worry: “There is no climbing out of that pit if anyone should happen to cross the barrier and fall in.” It was a terrifying thought, but one that amplified the beauty and power possessed by the giant hole we stood at, mouths dropped and gawking. It is this feeling of inferiority to nature that continues to draw us in for return visits, and one of the reasons why the Irazu Volcano is a popular choice among like-stimulated travellers.

What to know about visiting the Irazu Volcano

Experience type: volcano visit, educational walking tour
Location: Cartago (north of downtown Cartago–nearby Tierra Blanca)
Operating hours: 8:00am to 3:30pm daily
Recommended for: travellers interested in volcanoes; mobility impaired individuals; all ages welcome
Is a vehicle and/or transportation required? yes
Is parking available on-site? yes
Are bathrooms available on-site? yes
Degree of physicality required: low degree of strength/endurance required
Suitable for the mobility impaired/wheelchair access: yes (national park trail is smooth/paved)
Other: make the most of your visit to Cartago by combining a visit to the Irazu Volcano with a visit to the nearby Ujarras Ruins, Cartago Ruins, Our Lady Of The Angels Basilica, Duran Sanatorium, and/or the Lankester Botanical Gardens
Don’t miss: the Linda Vista Restaurant en route to/from the Irazu Volcano National Park (this gimmicky restaurant is covered in business cards and currency collected from travellers and countries around the world)

Costa Rica volcanoes
Nikki; Poas Volcano National Park

COSTA RICA VOLCNAOES: THE POAS VOLCANO

Poas Volcano National Park / Parque Nacional Volcan Poas

Costa Rica’s Poas Volcano is arguably the easiest and most accessible volcano to visit. Given its central location (an approximate 1 hour drive from the SJO Alajuela International Airport), the availability of daily organized volcano tours, and the fact that the road to/from the volcano is paved and easily accessible to travellers with their own rental vehicle, there is virtually no excuse why travellers could not plan a visit to the attraction. Although the Poas Volcano may not be the most enthralling volcano to visit given its basic hike quality (visits to the volcano’s principal crater require a short walk along a paved road from the reception/entrance/parking lot), lack of wildlife-spotting opportunities (given the park’s tourism traffic, wildlife-viewing is not overly abundant, however opting to take the Lake Botos Trail off Poas’ main Crater Trail can increase visitors’ chances of spotting something of interest), and average “wow” factor, for those not looking for a complicated or overly physically-active volcano experience (ie. older travellers, mobility-impaired travellers, and/or families with young children), this volcano’s tour experience is ideal. Similar to Irazu Volcano visits in that the principal crater can easily be accessed and fully viewed (when the clouds roll out), visitors of the Poas Volcano can check stand at the top of an active volcano and take a selfie with a volcano crater off their bucket lists.

What to know about visiting the Poas Volcano

Experience type: volcano visit, educational walking tour
Location: Alajuela (north of downtown Alajuela–nearby Poasito)
Operating hours: 8:00am to 3:30pm daily
Recommended for: travellers interested in volcanoes; mobility impaired individuals; all ages welcome
Is a vehicle and/or transportation required? yes
Is parking available on-site? yes
Are bathrooms available on-site? yes
Degree of physicality required: low degree of strength/endurance required
Suitable for the mobility impaired/wheelchair access: yes (national park trail is smooth/paved)
Other: make the most of your visit to Alajuela by combining a visit to the Poas Volcano with a visit to Lake Botos (accessible via entrance into the Poas Volcano National Park) and/or the La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Don’t miss: the educational display inside the building at the entrance, rare yellow-green squirrels (if you can spot them!), and Lake Botos

Don’t miss our Poas Volcano Tour discounts:

San Jose Combo Tour with Poas Volcano, La Paz Waterfall, & Doka Estate Coffee Tour (San Jose)

Costa Rica volcanoes
Nikki; Rincon de la Vieja National Park

COSTA RICA VOLCANOES: THE RINCON DE LA VIEJA VOLCANO

Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park / Parque Nacional Volcan Rincon de la Vieja

Visits to the Rincon De La Vieja Volcano are unlike visits to Costa Rica’s other four mammoth beasts. Although the Arenal, Irazu, and Poas volcanoes are popular tourist attractions accustomed to foreign guests popping by for a few hours at a time (while the Turrialba Volcano experiences the opposite, as it is barely advertised, underdeveloped, and rarely visited by travellers), the Rincon De La Vieja volcano hosts a welcoming experience all its own. Given the volcano’s distance from well-known cities and beach towns (it is an approximate 1 hour drive from Liberia, anywhere from a 1.5 to 3 hour drive from the Guanacaste beaches depending which Guanacaste beach is selected, an approximate 4 hour drive from Monteverde, and an approximate 4.5 hour drive from La Fortuna/Arenal), most travellers who opt to visit the Rincon De La Vieja volcano during their trip also choose to spend at least 1 night at a hotel in the region. Not surprisingly, the hotels have caught wind of this trend and have developed a variety of popular full-day tours that can be participated in both on-site at their accommodation’s property and inside the Rincon De La Vieja national park (in addition to hiking tours conducted through the national park, many lodges in the region also offer on-site horseback riding tours, waterfall visits, canopy ziplining tours, hanging bridge tours, waterslide rides, hot spring pools, mud pits, and/or spa treatments). The idea is to entice visitors to spend a day enjoying the attractions that their business has to offer, in combination with a visit to (and in most cases, at the base of) the volcano. From a traveller’s perspective, the overnight stay is a smart one as it creates an opportunity for a variety of experiences to be had in conjunction with the volcano tour/visit (accomplishing a similar kill two birds with one stone feat that we mentioned above in reference to the Arenal Volcano, but at the cost of a slightly compromised tour experience). Why the lower quality experience? Because the Rincon De La Vieja Volcano is situated close to the Guanacaste plains–one of Costa Rica’s driest areas during the summer/high/busy tourist season–and is unable to offer the same lush, green, rainforest landscape/views that the La Fortuna region provides. Of course, if a visit to/from the La Fortuna region does not interest you or bode well with your vacation budget/itinerary constraints (as is the case for many travellers who plan to stay at all-inclusive resorts lining the Guanacaste coast, limiting their Costa Rica expeditions to day trips to and from the resort), a visit to Rincon De La Vieja is a decent option B.

What to know about visiting the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano

Experience type: volcano visit, educational walking tour
Location: Rincon de la Vieja (northeast of downtown Liberia–nearby Curubande)
Operating hours: 8:00am to 4:00pm Tuesday-Sunday (the national park is closed every Monday)
Recommended for: travellers interested in volcanoes; all ages welcome
Is a vehicle and/or transportation required? yes
Is parking available on-site? yes
Are bathrooms available on-site? yes
Degree of physicality required: low-to-moderate degree of strength/endurance required (note: a high degree of strength/endurance is required to make the multi-hour trek to/from the Santa Maria crater, if experiencing this trail/site is desired)
Suitable for the mobility impaired/wheelchair access: no (national park trail is defined but not smooth/paved)
Other: make the most of your visit to Rincon de la Vieja by combining a visit to the Rincon De La Vieja Volcano with a stay at a local lodge (we like the Buena Vista Lodge and Hacienda Guachipelin) and taking in the popular Mega Combo Tour, Extreme Mega Combo Tour1-Day Adventure Tour, or 1-Day Nature Tour.
Don’t miss: the mud pools (if taking the Las Pailas Trail) and/or the waterfalls (if taking the Cangreja Trail)

Don’t miss our Rincon de la Vieja Volcano Tour discounts:

Rincon de la Vieja National Park Tour (Guanacaste)

Hacienda Guachipelin 1-Day Adventure Pass (Rincon de la Vieja)

Hacienda Guachipelin 1-Day Nature Pass (Rincon de la Vieja)

Buena Vista Lodge’s Mega Combo Tour (Rincon de la Vieja)

Buena Vista Lodge’s Extreme Mega Combo Tour (Rincon de la Vieja)

Costa Rica volcanoes
Ricky; Turrialba Volcano National Park

COSTA RICA VOLCANOES: THE TURRIALBA VOLCANO

Turrialba Volcano National Park / Parque Nacional Volcan Turrialba

The Turrialba Volcano is Costa Rica’s least visited active volcano. Partly due to its location in one of Costa Rica’s relatively tourist-free zones, the volcano’s hindered popularity among travellers is also a result of its lack of development (the national park does not have a ranger station, and for this reason it is unable to provide travellers with the same level of accountability, security, and education that the other volcanoes provide, not to mention beneficial amenities including a visitors’ centre providing secure parking, bathrooms, and/or information booths). This being said, travellers looking for a rugged and more isolated volcano hike will find it in Turrialba. The same absence of tourism development exists in the town of Turrialba itself. The city is one close to our hearts, as Ricky grew up in a small town about 25 minutes from the town’s centre, and, if you ask us, it is a city before its time (we predict Turrialba will slowly evolve into Costa Rica’s next La Fortuna over the next 15 years, especially if the volcano continues to erupt as strongly and as often as it has been over the last year). If you’re the kind of traveller who likes to be able to say “I was there and did it first”, then we would recommend touring the Turrialba Volcano. If not (and you would prioritize security over spontaneity), we would recommend saving the Turrialba tour for your return visit to Costa Rica one day, and until then, taking in one of the other four volcanoes that is more suited and set for your upcoming arrival.

What to know about visiting the Turrialba Volcano

Experience type: volcano visit, educational walking tour
Location: Turrialba (northwest of downtown Turrialba–nearby Santa Cruz)
Operating hours: 8:00am to 3:30pm daily (note: this national park is not monitored by a ranger/visitor station)
Recommended for: travellers interested in volcanoes; all ages welcome
Is a vehicle and/or transportation required? yes
Are bathrooms available on-site? no
Is parking available on-site? no (vehicle must be left at the entrance as this national park does not have a ranger/visitor station)
Degree of physicality required: moderate degree of strength/endurance required
Suitable for the mobility impaired/wheelchair access: no (national park trail is rough and not smooth/paved)
Other: make the most of your visit to Turrialba by combining a visit to the Turrialba Volcano with a visit to the Guayabo Nacional Monument (for more information about the Guayabo National Monument please see our related blog post: History, Archaeology, and Excavation: Costa Rica’s Guayabo Nacional Monument).
Don’t miss: the coffee plantations between downtown Turrialba and Santa Cruz (en route to the Turrialba Volcano)

SO, OF THE ACTIVE COSTA RICA VOLCANOES, WHICH IS THE BEST VOLCANO TO VISIT?

As we’ve touched on in previous posts (The Best River For Rafting In Costa RicaWhich Costa Rica Hanging Bridges Are The Best? Comparing 4 Popular Hanging Bridge Sites In Arenal And MonteverdeWhich Costa Rica Zipline Is The Best? Comparing 6 Popular Canopy Tours In Arenal And Monteverde, and The Best Hot Springs In La Fortuna / Arenal, Costa Rica: Baldi, Ecotermales, Tabacon, or The Springs Resort), choosing anything as the best is an impossible challenge. Each traveller varies from the next in terms of interests, budget, needs, and abilities, and for this reason we cannot simply label one volcano over another as a be-all, end-all option. However, like always, we aim to provide travellers with the details needed to make smart trip planning choices. Call it what you wish, here’s where our experience, knowledge, bias, and personal voice comes into play, as we’ve developed the following valuation list to identify where we feel one (or sometimes two or three) volcanoes surpass others according to a variety of factors.

Which volcano national park is the easiest to access via organized guided tours run to/from the San Jose/Alajuela area?

POAS VOLCANO

Which volcano national park is the easiest to access via organized guided tours run to/from the San Jose/Cartago area?

IRAZU VOLCANO (followed by TURRIALBA VOLCANO, although a multi-hour drive would be required to/from San Jose/Cartago)

Which volcano national park is the easiest to access via organized guided tours run to/from the La Fortuna/Arenal area?

ARENAL VOLCANO

Which volcano national park is the easiest to access via organized guided tours run to/from the Liberia/Guanacaste area?

RINCON DE LA VIEJA VOLCANO (followed by ARENAL VOLCANO, although a multi-hour drive would be required to/from Liberia/Guanacaste)

Which volcano national parks offer the highest quality volcano-viewing experience?

ARENAL VOLCANO, POAS VOLCANO, and IRAZU VOLCANO

Which volcano national parks offer the highest quality crater-viewing experience?

POAS VOLCANO and IRAZU VOLCANO

Which volcano national park offers the highest quality hiking experience?

ARENAL VOLCANO and RINCON DE LA VIEJA VOLCANO

Which volcano national park offers the most rugged/isolated hiking experience?

TURRIALBA VOLCANO

Which volcano national parks are the easiest to walk/hike?

ARENAL VOLCANO, POAS VOLCANO, and IRAZU VOLCANO

Which volcano national park offers optional challenging multi-hour treks for more experienced hikers?

RINCON DE LA VIEJA VOLCANO

Which volcano national parks are wheelchair accessible/best for the mobility impaired?

POAS VOLCANO and IRAZU VOLCANO

Which volcano has a typical “cone” shape (children often desire to see this)?

ARENAL VOLCANO

Which volcano national park offers hot springs onsite?

RINCON DE LA VIEJA VOLCANO (note: ARENAL VOLCANO offers volcano hot springs as well, however these are accessed via hot spring attractions scattered around the La Fortuna area and not within the boundaries of the national park itself)

Of the active Costa Rica volcanoes, which offers a destination with the most things to do/see beyond simply visiting the volcano?

ARENAL VOLCANO in La Fortuna and RINCON DE LA VIEJA (followed by POAS in Alajuela, then IRAZU in Cartago, and lastly TURRIALBA)

Which volcano offers an opportunity to view lava?

NONE

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you visited one of the above mentioned Costa Rica volcanoes / national parks? What did you think?

Pura vida!

Nikki and Ricky

DIY Costa Rica

Costa Rica tour discounts



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