My first experience with high altitude (that is heights over 10,000 feet), was in Costa Rica, a country roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts. It amazes me to think that these small land masses, whether the Hawaiian island of Maui, home to the dormant volcano Haleakala, or Costa Rica, can have such staggering heights, everything from sea level to thousands of feet in the air, and yet they do.
While I had wanted to visit Poas Volcano, a place that was described as simply beautiful by everyone I knew who had visited, no public buses went there. As I was a study abroad student, I didn’t have access to a car (not that I wanted to drive in Costa Rica though; the roads were abysmal and many a driver performed death defying feats on more than one occasion). So my option was to visit Irazu Volcano, another volcano located in the Central Valley, and one in which there was weekly bus service from San Jose’s downtown.
I made plans to visit Irazu with a friend of mine who also interned at the local newspaper where I had been working. Earlier on in my semester I had visited La Fortuna, which is home to the very active Arenal volcano. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Irazu. I read that at the top (all 11,260 feet) it’s possible to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on a clear day; however, these days are few and far between. My visit to Irazu was definitely a normal day from a visibility stance, quite cloudy.
The bus ride from San Jose’s downtown took about 75 minutes, and as we neared the volcano, I remember the bus driver getting on the intercom to let the passengers know that it would be very frio (cold) at the top and to put on any jackets we had. Having never visited anywhere before at such a height, I underestimated what a difference the temperatures would be. In San Jose, temperatures had been in the low 70s. By the time we made it to the summit, the temperatures had dropped more than 30 degrees. I had brought only a light jacket (which is all one needs when living in the Central Valley) and was freezing. This was also my first encounter with understanding how altitude sickness can completely wreak havoc on a person’s health. At such high altitudes, your body reacts to the lower amount of oxygen available. While I wasn’t at Irazu long enough for this to affect me, everything is done more laboriously at such a high altitude, at least your initial contact.
At the top I saw little. I can’t stress how much that was the case. While the summit has several craters, one which contains Diego de la Haya, a green crater lake, I saw none of it due to the poor visibility. When at the top of Haleakala on Maui, I thought the scenery resembled Mars, so brown, so barren. However, there was sunlight. At the top of Irazu, it was incredibly dark, and almost depressing-a landscape befitting a cruel exile, all due to the effects of clouds covering the summit.
My friend and I didn’t do much except try to see the sights that we couldn’t. We spent a large amount of time inside the small visitor’s center, drinking the lackluster hot chocolate they sold as a means of trying to warm up, waiting until the bus would make the return trip.
So much of Costa Rica is stunning-the lush greenery of the Central Valley, the arid looking landscape of Guanacaste, the incredible beaches found along both of its coasts. However, Irazu was ugly, like Hades only it wasn’t beneath the surface. One thinks the closer you get to the sky, the closer you get to heaven. A visit to Irazu will show you this is not the case. And yet Irazu is one of those landscapes that mentally, I will never forget. Anywhere has greenery, anywhere has beaches, but does anywhere have this?