Costa Rica’s Poás Volcano National Park

One of the best day trips from San José, Costa Rica, is a jaunt into the cloud forest at the summit of Volcán Poás National Park. Poás is an active stratovolcano about 8900 feet high; its last major eruption was in 1954. Today the crater steams, fumes, and regularly releases small geysers. The dwarf forest surrounding the crater protects a host of high-elevation bird species, as well as the little-known Bangs’s Mountain Squirrel.

The main crater of Poás is about a mile across and nearly 1,000 feet deep. From the edge, when the mists part, you can see the pastel-hued sulfuric lake at the bottom of the crater.

Poas crater

An active fumerole in the crater of Poás Volcano

Well-maintained trails lead to the main crater, to an extinct crater lake (Laguna Botos), and through the dwarf cloud forest, which is stunted by cold, high-elevation winds and by acid rain from the volcano.

Poas Laguna Botos

Laguna Botos fills a second crater, no longer active, at Volcán Poás

Most days, clouds cover the volcano’s summit. Mornings are usually clearer than afternoons. Even if the crater isn’t visible, you can still seek out the special inhabitants of the cloud forest. Poás is an excellent place to find Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, as they feed upon the nectar of bromeliad flowers.

Poas epiphyte

Bromeliad flowers attract Fiery-throated Hummingbirds

Large-footed Finch

A Large-footed Finch at Laguna Botos, Costa Rica

Along the edges of the trails, you may find Large-footed Finches and Black-billed Nightingale-Thrushes.

Yellow-thighed Finch

One of a troop of Yellow-thighed Finches at Volcán Poás

Yellow-thighed Finches and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers travel in small flocks through the shrubs. Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatchers are more secretive, but if you’re sharp-eyed and lucky, you’ll see them as well. Even the supremely beautiful Resplendent Quetzal is possible.

Bangs's Mountain Squirrel, Syntheosciurus brochus

A Bangs’s Mountain Squirrel at the overlook for the main crater of Poás

Bangs’s Mountain Squirrel lives only in Costa Rica and Panama at an altitude of 6200 – 8500 feet, and is perhaps most easily found at the summit of Poás Volcano. Although it spends much of its time in the treetops, this small squirrel will also venture to the ground. Up until the 1980s, only four individuals of this species were known! If you find one in Poás, you are seeing a special critter, known from only a few locales.

The visitor center offers displays, a cafe, and a gift shop. Entry fee to the national park is $15 per person for nonresidents; it is collected at a booth near the park entrance, whatever your method of transport.

Sulfuric gas emissions can close the park to visitors.

Getting there: Visitors access the road to Volcán Poás from the town of Alajuela, near San José, either by driving a rental car, taking a bus from Alajuela, or arranging a trip through your hotel or tour operator. Some tours include a visit to a coffee plantation or butterfly garden. A tour arranged by your hotel may cost $30-50 more per person than a bus (depending on what is included in the tour), but undoubtedly is easier, especially for folks who don’t speak Spanish. You may also be able to set an earlier departure time, to arrive when fewer clouds obscure the summit.

If you are feeling adventurous and go by bus, you’ll need to catch the bus at about 8:30 AM from San José to Alajuela, then continue on the once-a-day bus from Alajuela to Poás. The bus to Poás leaves its passengers at the summit at about 10:30 in the morning, and picks them up at about 2:30 PM; four hours at the summit is a good amount of time for hiking the trails and birding.

Buses are confusing because there are so many terminals for different routes. The bus from San José to Alajuela leaves from a terminal directly across the street from the Merced Church, at Avenida 2 and Calle 12/14. Bus terminals, too, are notorious for thievery; you should be fine during daylight hours, but stay aware and follow normal precautions to prevent problems.

Alternatively, if you have a rental car, driving will give you more flexibility and allow you to visit earlier in the day, when weather is usually better and before the crowds arrive.

Poás offers visitors easy access to an impressive volcano and to high-elevation cloud forest, all in a short drive from San José. It well deserves its fame as a top destination in friendly Costa Rica.

Narca Moore Craig
Narca Moore Craig

Narca’s lifelong passion is exploring wild nature and sharing what she discovers, through wildlife art and writing. For 30 years, she led natural history and birding tours on six continents, for companies such as Naturalist Journeys and Betchart Expeditions, and their clients, including the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, California Academy of Science, World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and AAAS. Travels have carried her from the Australian Outback to the frigid waters of Antarctica; from misty cloud forests high in the Andes, to the steamy lowland Amazon; from the shores of Lake Baikal and the oak forests of Andalusia to the savannas of Africa. Even though birds most often draw her attention, all wild creatures, flora, skyscapes, and landscapes are compelling. Now retired and living in the shadow of Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, Narca continues to explore the wide world, and to write about nature travel for Miles Geek!

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