Climbing a Volcano: Part 1

Well hello there! It’s been quite a while since my last post! I suppose a worldwide pandemic will do that. I have plans to write another post about living in Costa Rica during a pandemic, so I won’t go into detail here. However, I will say that I am grateful that outdoor activities are allowed, and the national parks are open. This led me and a few friends to a weekend jaunt up Volcán Turrialba (Turrialba Volcano)! This is a two-part series (due to the fact that I simply do not know how to be concise and reading really long posts is hard). I hope you enjoy!

If you aren’t yet aware, one thing to know about Costa Rica is that pretty much every new experience brings its own set of challenges. If you expect things to happen with ease, Costa Rica is not for you. It’s all part of the fun and adventure! This is important to know, when learning where our adventure began, which was a couple of months ago when trying to make reservations for this hike in February. Most of the national parks here are reservation only, which is great because the numbers are extremely limited due to Covid. It also helps for this particular national park since, well, it’s an active volcano, so, you know, best to not have millions of people up there at once!

Actually, now that I mention it, let me first tell you a little about Volcán Turrialba. You may or may not have heard me talk about the volcanic ash that sometimes rains down on San Jose. That ash is from Volcán Turrialba, which was dormant for many years, but started building volcanic activity again in the early 2010s. I was here in Costa Rica for some of its big eruptions in 2015 and 2016. The ash would be carried from Turrialba to San Jose, and we would often find our things covered in it. One time the ashfall was so heavy that it looked like a snowstorm and everyone got sent home from work! It was crazy! Pics below (taken by me on September 19, 2016).

So, due to the volcanic activity, the national park had been closed since 2012. However, it re-opened in December of 2020, with some new safety precautions like hard hats and eruption shelters put in place. We were very excited for one more outdoor activity to be available to us! Of course we started researching right away to make reservations, which is where the adventure begins.

We wanted to go mid-February for my friend’s birthday, so I began the reservation process. Like most things in Costa Rica, it was not nearly as easy as one might expect!

How to Make Hiking Reservations in 13 Annoying Steps

  1. Talk yourself through phone anxiety to call the phone number from your favorite author of your favorite Costa Rican publication, the Tico Times. (I get most of my CR information and “how tos” from Alejandro’s posts, but on the day that I called, the number listed was not working.)
  2. Do a little more googling and find the SINAC (basically the Costa Rican National Parks Service) web site listing for the park. Call the number listed on the site. Learn quickly that the number was not the National Park, but instead, someone’s home. The person was so kind (and clearly used to getting these calls) that she then gave a different number to call.
  3. Call the second number only to learn that it had been disconnected.
  4. Find email address on SINAC web site. Email the address to ask about reservations. Wait patiently for a reply, only to have the email bounce back. Address undeliverable.
  5. Click link on SINAC web site that said you can make reservations/get info there. Learn quickly that the link was dead.
  6. Do one final google of “sinac Turrialba” to find a different SINAC page, with a different phone number.
  7. Call new phone number and finally talk to someone at the National Park! However, then be told that you can’t make reservations over the phone, so you have to go to a different web site and do it through there!
  8. Refuse to let the lady hang up the phone until web site correctness is confirmed. It was!
  9. Try to book tickets, but realize that most dates and times are sold out. Try every weekend day and every hour until you find enough tickets available for March 20 at 6am. Do some self talk to remind yourself that getting up at stupid o’clock is worth it when you are doing it to hike an active volcano! (More on this later.)
  10. Book tickets. Learn that booking is not confirmed until payment is sent by SINPE Movil (the CR version of Venmo, sort of).
  11. Try to pay through SINPE Movil. Bank randomly says it exceeds the maximum transaction amount, although you have surely sent more in the past.
  12. Get frustrated, take breaths.
  13. Wait until the next day, go through the exact same SINPE Movil steps with the exact same amount. And it works! Booking confirmed!!!

So, for those of you reading this to research how to book tickets to hike Volcán Turrialba, please save yourself some trouble and go directly to That is, of course, if the process hasn’t changed by the time you are reading this!

You know by now that reservations are required, but you should also know that a guide is mandatory. So, when you make the reservations, you are are actually booking the guide, not paying to enter the park. You pay to get into the park once you reach the entrance, which is about halfway up the mountain. If you are reading this as part of planning your visit, I think it’s $12 per person if you are a foreigner, but I paid 1,000 colones + IVA as a resident. They only take credit cards, so be sure to have your ID and credit card on your person for the hike!

So, we stayed in a “nearby” airbnb called Villa Boyeros (5/5 stars, highly recommend, here is the link, and here are some pics of the views from the house [the one of the house on a hill by itself is the actual house {how many times can I say “house” in one sentence?}]).

The house was 33km (20 miles) from the meeting spot for the hike, but if you’ve ever driven in Costa Rica, you might guess that 20 miles does not take 20 minutes, as one would expect in the USA! Au contraire…it was 1 hour and 10 minutes away. So we put the location in Waze and were on our way at 4:30am or some crazy time like that.

Now, the web site with all the information had a blurb that said:

Se recomienda ingresar por el Sector de La Pastora de Santa Cruz ya que la carretera Tapojo por Santa Cruz es solo para vehículos 4×4. Por lo tanto la ruta más adecuada es de La Pastora empezar a subir rumbo al Volcán Turrialba, un kilometro antes de llegar a La Central desviarse a mano derecha, de ahí un kilometro mas hasta llegar a la Finca Monte Calas.

I will be honest; I kind of skimmed it, and my Spanish reading comprehension in general is my worst Spanish skill (plus there’s a “ya que” in there, and I still don’t really understand “ya que” so I glazed over it). So really all I got out of this blurb (which was in bold and also was repeated in the email confirmation) was “blah blah blah 4×4 blah blah blah arrive at Finca Monte Calas”). But what it actually says is “it is recommended to enter via Sector de la Pastora de Santa Cruz because the road through Tapojo through Santa Cruz is only for 4×4 vehicles, so the more adequate route is La Pastora.” Now, two things here are an issue. First, I didn’t realize it said there are two roads and one is not recommended. Secondly, I thought my friend’s car was 4×4 when, as we will soon see, it is not (I was yesterday years old when I learned that four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive are different…I still don’t understand why; isn’t 4 wheels all of them?). One other issue in all of this is that, as previously mentioned, we were driving at stupid o’clock, which meant it was still dark (the sun rises at about 5:40 these days). This will be an important detail momentarily.

So, there we were, driving up a very steep and rocky, windy road, headed to Finca Monte Calas. There were a few iffy spots where we weren’t sure if we’d make it, but Stella (my friend’s car) prevailed and we continued to climb. Until she didn’t. Eventually we got to a spot we simply could not climb. Try as she might, Stella was unable to go any further. Her front tires spun and spun, but the car did not move. It also downpoured pretty consistently the night before, so the road was wet and muddy, too. This was all happening at 5:56AM. We were only 4 minutes away from a reservation for which we were supposed to arrive 30 minutes early! So, we crossed our fingers, and our friend drove his car up, dropped off his wife and son, and came back down to get us. We found out later that as he was doing that, his wife spoke to the guide, and the guide nearly left us because we were so late. The guide also kindly pointed out, “well of course you are stuck. You came the wrong way! You should have followed the signs.” And here is where I remind you that it was dark when started climbing the mountain! We saw no signs! Between that and our poor reading comprehension, we had no idea that we were on the wrong road (sheesh, thanks a lot, Waze!).

Long story long, we somehow made it before the guide left with the rest of the group (the groups are maximum 17 people, so we were able maintain our social distancing, thankfully). We quickly got our hard hats (aka cheap plastic construction-looking hats that we are pretty sure would not really do much in the event of projectile volcanic rock being hurled in our direction) and were on our way!

To find out how the hike went, and to read about our biggest adventure yet, go to Part 2 here!

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