Wednesday, March 16, 2011
A Giant in the Highlands of Costa Rica
Contrary to what some people think it is not a geyser, the wrong name was the result of a misidentification by the old time European explorers. Nevertheless, the Poás volcano in Costa Rica is surely one of the most fascinating volcanoes in the world. The turquoise lagoon-like crater measuring more than 1,400 yards in diameter that unfolds before you at the park’s lookout site is part of a rather unusual stratovolcano.
Stratovolcanoes, as known by vulcanologists, are a type of volcanoes made up of layers of different materials (lava, volcanic ash, and so forth). The unusual peak comprises a series of active and inactive craters and other geologic structures, all surrounded by lush montane forests teeming with birds and other wildlife. The volcano has three main structures, the main crater (which draws hordes of tourists ), and two inactive craters, the beautiful Botos lake (Laguna Botos) and the Von Frantzius cone, named after a 19th century German naturalist. Even though one of the most touristic places in Costa Rica, the highland national park offers some of the most breathtaking volcanic vistas in Central America, and of course an amazing botany.
The paradisiacal crater and the neighboring Laguna Botos stand up at an altitude of 8,884 feet overlooking the Caribbean lowlands to the north. The seemingly calm and dormant crater is a rather busy nostril of the earth. It is constantly emanating gases and steam and every now and then it spews out columns of water and mud more than 200 yards into the sky. The highly manicured touristic infrastructure –thankfully only a small area of the park-- contrasts with the tremendous beauty of the crater and the 16,000 acres of highland forests surrounding it. The cloud forests of the park have witnessed mayhem in the last thousands of years. There are definite records of volcanic activity at least in the last two hundred years. In the early 1900’s the Poás volcano was particularly busy when it catapulted 2-mile high columns of mud, sulphur, rocks and ashes right from the innards of the earth. According to the vulcanologists the different manifestations of volcanic activity of the colossus are quite atypical and even some of the eruptions resemble those of submarine volcanoes. This is not the typical volcano you have seen on TV spewing red blazing lava…
The Poás volcano is part of a series of volcanic craters that are lined up around the Central Valley of Costa Rica, the main metropolitan area of the country. The majority of the peaks are inside protected areas that preserve a rich and unique biodiversity. The National Park was created by law in 1971 and enlarged in 1994 to include an adjacent inactive volcano called Cerro Congo (Howler Monkey hill). The volcanoes make up the Cordillera Volcánica Central (central volcanic mountain range) a very rainy area with bright green, lush, and soggy forests. The Park is about a 1 ½-hour drive from San José on winding roads snaking through coffee plantations, dairy farms, and cloud forests. However it is important to advise that driving in Costa Rica can be challenging, to say the least… I wouldn’t recommend it for non-adventurous drivers. Although the situation is changing with a new road safety legislation passed and stricter law enforcement. Anyhow, there are plenty of public and private transportation options that can take you to the park safely.
Since the volcano is the center of attention, many laypeople miss the botanic jewels and the wildlife that inhabit the park. However, some squirrels and yellow-thighed Finches are often more docile to humans than you’d want them to be!
Costa Rica is an outstanding biodiversity hotspot, which throughout time, has served as a land bridge between North and South America. As a result, the flora is a fantastic hodgepodge of plant communities with floristic affinities from the Amazon, the Andes and even North America. The highlands of the country are home to plant species that have evolved locally --with an astounding number of endemic species all originating in either North America, such as oaks (Quercus), alder trees (Alnus) and magnolias, or in South America such as dwarf bamboos (Chusquea).
The variety and uniqueness of the flora in the national park is worth a visit by both plant amateurs and specialists. However, the volcano itself is really a must see, especially if you have never seen a volcano in your life. Take a walk through the moist and eerie forests, almost permanently covered by a veil of fog; there, you can admire an amazing assortment of colorful wildflowers that pop out from apparent green sameness. Especially common and eye-catching are the blooms of the native wild blueberries locally known as arrayanes (Vaccinium) or the so-called “rose of the volcanoes” (Monochaetum vulcanicum) which belong to the melastome family. The papa de venado or “deer potato” (Bomarea costaricensis) is a vine with showy red tubular flowers pollinated by the abundant hummingbirds of the park.
The elfin forests get a primeval jurassic-esque character with its many tree ferns and Poor Man’s Umbrellas (Gunnera insignis). Heads up! You might have the opportunity to see a Resplendent Quetzal one of the most beautiful birds you could ever see in your life. The astounding Poor Man’s Umbrellas don’t escape the eye of even the slackest non-plant person; with leaves bigger than 6 feet in diameter is one of the most remarkable and common plants in the park. Poor man’s umbrellas have a unique symbiotic relationship with cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) which live in the plant’s stem. The gigantic leaves of the unusual herb make excellent goofy Facebook photos for the many tourists that walk the paved trail to the crater. The primeval plants along with sudden bursts of sulfuric smells drifting on the wind from the volcano remind you who really rules the land here.
The dwarf bamboos found in the park are the only bamboo species native to Costa Rica. The big bamboos you see in the lower elevations of the country have been introduced from Asia and South America. Dwarf bamboos are typically found in the country’s highlands, in open areas and the forest understory. Stands of these short bamboos occur in the other major mountain range of Costa Rica, the Talamanca Mountain Range. There, dwarf bamboos make up most of the vegetation in the majestic páramos a unique moor-like highland ecosystem also found in the Andes of South America. The open areas of the park have showy stands of cipresillo (little cypress) (Hypericum strictum) a low bush related to St John's Wort that has bright yellow flowers and erect stems. The north American plant lovers would be amazed to find greenbrier in Costa Rica (see photo) there are a dozen native species of Smilax throughout Costa Rica, some lowlands species are thought to be the ultimate panaceas and are popular in folk medicine.
When traveling to the Poás volcano in Costa Rica make sure to swerve from the tourist-crammed crater lookout and explore the amazing flora. Stroll the park’s trails and enjoy the botanic jewels it has to offer. The highland forests of the cordillera will take your breath away as will the mighty Poás volcano which refuses to sleep…