Celebrating the Oldest National Park in Costa Rica

Poas Volcano crater on a clear day. Photo credit: Juan K Gamboa

Poas Volcano crater on a clear day. Photo credit: Juan K Gamboa

Today in Costa Rica we celebrate Poás Volcano National Park, which is the oldest national park in the country. It was founded on January 25th, 1971 and is the most visited national park by locals and foreigners alike. The volcano remains active to this day, with clouds of smoke frequently emitting from the main crater. Since 1989 the size of the lake crater has been shrinking and the amount of acid rain increasing, damaging some of the flora in the surrounding areas of the park and farming lands nearby.

Poas Volcano National Park, Lake Botos fills an extinct crater at the end of one trail, and is home to many cloud forest birds including hummingbirds, tanagers, flycatchers, toucanets, Costa Rica’s national bird the clay-colored robin. Photo credit: Juan K. Gamboa

The story behind the name Poás is a curious one. Continue reading

Volcán Barva


The lagoon in the crater of Barva Volcano

This weekend, I visited Braulio Carrillo National Park for the second time, but at a different sector: Barva Volcano. I’d been to the Quebrada González area further east in July of last year, where the ecosystem is more tropical rainforest than the high-altitude cloud forest of a volcano. The Quebrada González eBird hotspot has 382 species reported in 288 checklists at the time of writing this post; in stark contrast, the Volcán Barva hotspot on eBird has 82 species in only 8 checklists, including my own contribution despite arriving at the national park at around 11am, nowhere near ideal circumstances for birdwatching.

This discrepancy is likely explained both by the fact that Barva is at a higher elevation and therefore less diverse in terms of species count, but also a pretty small chunk of this massive national park. The lower diversity, however, is compensated by a higher rate of endemism, which is what occurs along high mountain gradients where habitat needs are specialized. For example, I spotted a Spangle-cheeked Tanager that’s endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama, and there were lots of special bromeliads and mossy, licheny trees to admire. Continue reading

A Volcano That Fanned the Arts

The deep volcanic crater, top, was produced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815 - the most powerful volcanic blast in recorded history. PHOTO: Iwan Setiyawan/KOMPAS, via Associated Press

The deep volcanic crater, top, was produced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815 – the most powerful volcanic blast in recorded history. PHOTO: Iwan Setiyawan/KOMPAS, via Associated Press

That the volcanoes have power is plain, cemented truth. You hear of their trail of ravage – ash, rocks, lava, evacuation, barren lands. The volcano vocabulary is dreary, if you may say so. But not the eruption of Mount Tambora. For this be the reason for many a flood, famine, disease, civil unrest and economic decline.

“The year without a summer,” as 1816 came to be known, gave birth not only to paintings of fiery sunsets and tempestuous skies but two genres of gothic fiction. The freakish progeny were Frankenstein and the human vampire, which have loomed large in art and literature ever since.

“The paper trail,” said Dr. Wood, a University of Illinois professor of English, “goes back again and again to Tambora.”

Continue reading


Sulphur Vent – Solfatara

Solfatara, a shallow volcanic crater in Pozzuoli, near Naples, is a hotbed (no pun intended) of geothermal activity. Upon walking into the depression, hemmed round by steep hills, the smell of rotten eggs greets your nose. The stench comes from the clouds of sulphurous steam pouring forth from vents in the rock. The Romans believed that this steam had healing properties Continue reading

Encased in Ash

Encased in Ash – Body Mold from Pompeii

In 79AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted with disastrous consequences for the residents of nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other cities in the Campania region. Flows of boiling mud and rock rushed down the slopes, clouds of noxious fumes billowed upwards in the wind, and thousands of tons of rock and ash rained down upon the countryside. Pliny the Younger saw the eruption and likened it to a pinus, a pine tree. This may baffle some American readers, who may be accustomed to see pine trees that taper from a wide base to a narrow point Continue reading

Sledding a Volcano

One volcano-related assumption which I’ve had to let go of since arriving in Central America is that a volcano is a volcano.

Anyone who grows up in Scotland knows that mountains are not just ‘mountains’. There are mountains, but there are also ranges, hills, Bens, and Munroes. There are the kind that, although tall, the fitter of us can walk up without much in the way of equipment; there are others which may be smaller but are impassable unless you really know what you’re doing.

I wasn't expecting it to be so blue...

Continue reading

Mombo Jombo

Early this morning Pierre and I set out from Morgan’s Rock towards Granada, which is maybe two and a half hours away. Before reaching the city, we turned onto a road that led to Mombacho Volcano, an inactive peak with several extinct (and some fully collapsed) craters. The volcano is protected by the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve, created in 1996 by the several local fincas on the volcano’s foothills that comprise the NGO Cocibolca Foundation. Our time at Mombacho, described in the rest of this post, is part of the exploratory trip that Pierre and I are taking over the next three days, assessing the possibility of connecting Morgan’s Rock’s tour offerings with other operators in the area.

The day’s activities started at the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve (MVNR), where we met our guide Jennifer. We decided to take the longest trek, called the Puma Trail, so named because there are some big rocks and even caves that pumas are said to live in, although none have been sighted in a decade. Prior to starting this four-hour hike we stopped by an area called Los Fumalores where Jennifer had fun by daring us to put our hands in a small hole next to the trail, reassuring us that no snakes would be inside. As we placed our hands near the opening in the ground, we could immediately feel a stunning temperature difference. The place is called Los Fumaroles because sulfuric gases rise from volcanic holes and crevasses in hot gushes, heating the surrounding stone to a surprising degree. This area also provides a nice view of Las Isletas, which are known as children of Mombacho because they are islands initially created from a volcanic eruption. I mentioned Las Isletas very briefly here.

The Puma Trail’s path is very well maintained, Continue reading

Colonial History & Volcanic Mystery

We left in the morning with Bismar and the guests, transported by the senior driver Inocencio. Our first stop was about an hour and a half away: a town called San Juan de Oriente but known as La Cuña de los Artesanos, or “Artesans’ Cradle,” because literally everyone in town works with crafts for sale to tourists or hotels. We entered one of the pottery shops and went downstairs into the workshop, where a young man was waiting to give us a short presentation on pottery. He explained about his family’s business slowly in Spanish and Bismar translated for the guests. Then he took his seat at a wheel and started shaping a small bowl, using several homemade tools—a bicycle spoke, for example—to straighten its edges. The expression on his face showed how much he enjoyed the work, which certainly looked fun even should one have to shape clay all day, every day. After a couple minutes, a small and perfectly round pot was on the table in front of us. He talked some more about clay and then said, “At this moment in the process, the clay is still very fragile,” and demonstrated by plunging his fingers into the side of the vessel, leaving a deep impression in it.

Leaving the wheel, he led us to a larger table where wall lampshades were being made. Tools like a polished beach pebble and a child’s plastic spinning top were used to spread and smooth the paint that was applied with a brush made of a hollow pen and the hair of the girls in the family. A small kiln sat smoking in the corner, baking about twenty of the lampshades. Once the guests asked a couple questions, we thanked the young man, whose unbefitting name it turns out was Stalin, and went up to, of course, the pottery store. Continue reading