San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nochebuena Museum at Irazú Volcano: The Facts and Figures Behind the Smoke

Costa Rica plays an active and spectacular part in the Ring of Fire, that circle of volcanoes around the Pacific Ocean known for its sometimes devastating pyrotechnics. Oceania, Asia and North and South America are bound by one of the world’s largest tectonic plates, a geological phenomenon that has intrigued, and humbled, scientists and travelers for many decades.

It’s no surprise that the Central Valley’s Poás and Arenal volcanoes are the country’s two most heavily visited potboilers; they are spectacular to say the least, and visits are always accompanied by a slight frisson of worry that they could blow again, at any time.

Towering over Cartago to the east of San José, Irazú Volcano ranks third in the country in terms of visitors who come to admire its startlingly mint-green crater lake and fabulous views, which on a clear day stretch over both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

This highest of the country’s volcanoes, at 3,432 meters (11,260 feet), may not be active right now, but it was so in recent times (geologically speaking), and still inspires awe.

Until recently,many Irazú Volcano viewers went away wanting more than just a T-shirt and some postcards. Despite an improved souvenir shop and café that offers some literature on the country’s untamable cones, visitors wanted the whys, hows and, more specifically, the whens of volcanic behavior. Luckily, members of a Tico dairy and vegetable farming family on the flanks of the volcano decided to fill the information gap.

Federico Gutiérrez, owner of the Nochebuena hacienda just five kilometers before the national park entrance, in November opened what he proudly claims is Costa Rica’s first volcano museum. It developed in response to the endless questions asked by clients of his already established restaurant about Irazú, its 1963 eruption, the effects on the local populace – in fact, just about anything to do with volcanoes.

Gutiérrez, his father and brothers put their heads, building skills and firsthand knowledge together to construct and equip the museum. It’s not easy to miss, with a huge yellow sign on the roof upside of the park approach road. While this is no Guggenheim, it does have a lot of fascinating tidbits and hard facts about things volcanic.

Possibly the most illustrative contribution is the 20-minute video at the start of the museum’s tour. Subtitled in English, the film vividly describes Costa Rica’s role in the infamous Ring of Fire, with historic footage of Irazú’s devastating pyroclastic spewing from 1963 to 1965. A first enormous ash cloud bursting forth on March 13 seemed to welcome then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy as he landed on Tico soil during an official visit. Kennedy departed, impressed, but over the next two years, ash and gases plagued residents around Cartago and San José, causing respiratory sickness and burying land, roofs and vehicles under a corrosive layer of muddy slush.

The exhibits continue with clearly laidout notice boards, interactive displays and newspaper articles outlining the history and legends of early volcanic activity, including several three-dimensional models.

A further room explores the social history of Irazú, with a miniature highland cottage complete with video chat from its “occupant” and a display of some typical fauna of the zone.

Rounding out a visit to the museum, a two-kilometer, self-guided trail wanders past a majestic stand of hundred-year-old oaks, survivors of three eruptions, and the source of the Birris River, which at 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) is purportedly the highest spring in Costa Rica. Looking over the land, with its picturesque farmsteads and patchwork fields, its volcanic fertility even at these elevations is obvious, though one should never forget at what cost.

Prices and Information

NochebuenaMuseum is open every day, 8:30 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. Admission costs ¢2,500 ($4.80) for adults and ¢1,500 ($2.80) for students; group rates are available.

The museum is tagged onto an attractive pinepaneled restaurant offering a tasty range of dishes, all-day breakfasts and well-stocked bar. Starters cost $2-3 and main courses $5-9, with a sinful array of freshly prepared sweets for $1.30-2.50, thanks to Gutiérrez’s mother, who is in charge of the kitchen.

A three-room cabin is available for rent with fireplace, kitchen and living room, for $50 double occupancy plus $10 for each additional guest.

The museum is 5 km before the IrazúNational Park entrance (the park is 32 km from Cartago). For more information, call 530-8013 or e-mail


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