The delicate land bridge that links the Americas was born of volcanoes, thrust up above the ocean’s surface only 30 million years ago—the flick of a hummingbird’s wing in geological time. Costa Rica itself was merely a fiery archipelago of smoking islands until the sediments settled and Central America formed 27 million years later.
Today, there are some 200 known volcanic structures in the tiny country, most sitting quietly dormant beneath the undulating rainforests. But when these strato-volcanoes do awaken, their typically viscous lava, now impregnated with gasses, explodes with a dramatic force, creating such spectacles as the 1963 eruptions of Volcán Irazu, and glowing lava flows of Volcán Arenal, Costa Rica’s most famous attraction.
Including both of these bombastic beauties, there are five volcanoes considered active, all well worth a visit. Rounding out the list are the hiking paradise of Rincón de la Vieja, Costa Rica’s most massive volcanic complex, convenient to Liberia’s international airport; coffee-carpeted Volcán Poás, close to San José and star of the country’s most visited national park; and Volcán Turrialba, currently erupting almost daily and producing a torre alba (white tower) of ash and steam above the Orosí Valley. A dozen other fantastic volcanoes retain their impressive silhouettes and epic craters, just waiting to be seen up close.
Though Volcán Arenal is currently enjoying some downtime, emitting only gasses rather than the lava flows for which it is so well known (fear not, however—it is neither inactive nor dormant, and experts predict that its iconic lava flows will return shortly), these volcanoes remain among Costa Rica’s top attractions, bringing in hikers, climbers, and hot spring lovers from around the world.