Two days ago I arrived in Costa Rica  to lead a National Geographic Expeditions 7-day “Volcanoes, Jungles & Wildlife”  program, in association with Backroads  (billed as ‘The World’s #1 Active Travel Company’).
This special family trip promises to be lots of fun.
We’ll begin today with a visit to Poás Volcano National Park . This being dry season, we stand a very good chance of arriving at a cloud-free summit (2,708 m)—a chance to gaze down from a mirador (lookout) over a still-active 1.5-km-wide crater, with simmering fumaroles and a sulphuric lake far below. Fantastic!
Costa Rica boasts seven active volcanoes. Poás is one of two that permit you to drive to the summit. It’s just a short (one km) walk from the parking lot to the mirador along a path lined with ’poor man’s umbrellas’  (Gunnera insignis)—high-altitude plants with huge leafs resembling elephants’ ears.
On a clear day you’ll thrill to vast views stretching to both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea… but get there early (no later than 9am is ideal), as clouds typically begin to form by 10am, enveloping you in fog.
Poás Volcano National Park is just a 90-minute drive from San José , the Costa Rican capital, for which reason it’s the most visited national park in the nation. A mid-week visit is less crowded.
Arenal Volcano National Park 
A relatively youngster, Arenal is the most visually dramatic of Costa Rica’s volcanoes. Rising from the Northern Lowlands  as a perfect cone, it has been the most consistently active of the volcanoes in recent decades, spewing out lava and/or red-hot rocks on a daily basis. Then, in September 2010, it suddenly went quiet. Even if you don’t witness a small eruption, the vista is spectacular. Dry season is best, as clouds often smother the upper reaches in rainy season (May-October).
Las Hornillas Volcanic Activity Center 
This small crater, on private land on the mid-elevation slopes of Miravalles Volcano , in Guanacaste , lets you get as close as is comfortable to an active volcano. Trails permit you to scramble among bubbling mudpots and hissing, stinking fumaroles. You can even bathe in thermal mud.
Irazú Volcano National Park 
The scenic drive to the summit of Irazú Volcano (3, 432 m) is reason enough to visit this national park, just one-hour drive east of San José . Relatively quiescent today, it last blew big on March 13, 1963. On all but the sunniest days, you’ll want warm clothing for walking the main trail, which leads past the rim of three craters. The key crater is filled with a pea-green lake.
Turrialba Volcano National Park 
The most easterly of the volcanoes has traditionally been off the travelers’ radar, despite the appeal of the rustic Turrialba Volcano Lodge  as a perfect base for exploring. Turrialba Volcano (3,340 m) awoke from a period of dormancy in 2005 (it last erupted in 1866) and has since January 2010 been highly active, belching out huge plumes of smoke and ash, for which reason it is considered the most likely volcano to erupt in the near future. On November 5, 2012, Costa Rica’s Comisión Nacional de Emergencias—National Emergency Commission —issued a warning for residents living within the five kilometer zone. The park has been off-limits to visitors since 2006. But it can be viewed safely from such vantage points as Hacienda Tayutic .
Now that you’re ready to travel to Costa Rica, buy Moon Handbook Costa Rica .
If you're traveling only to San José and the Caribbean, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to the beaches of Nicoya, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to Arenal and/or Monteverde, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Arenal&Monteverde  pocket guide.
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker .
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker