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At 3,432 meters ( l 1,260 feet), Iraz˙ is the highest volcano in Costa Rica. It is also one of the most active, and certainly the most feared, a rumbling presence, continually steaming, boiling and fuming, that has practically destroyed the city of Cartago on more than one occasion, and played continuing havoc with the lives of farmers who till the soil and raise livestock on its slopes. But paradoxically, the volcano is also a benefactor. Its ash renews the richness of the soil, even while it blocks water pipes and roads.

The distinction of Iraz˙ among volcanoes in the modern world is that it is one of the few semi-active ones that can easily be viewed up close. A paved highway climbs right to the peak, which is protected as a national park. If you happen to ascend when the peak is free of clouds -a near impossibility during the rainy season, and an uncertain condition even in dry times- you'll be rewarded with views to both oceans, or at least to a good part of the country.

Visitors to Iraz˙ should be prepared with warm clothing. A couple of sweaters will do, though a down ski jacket would not be too much. Rain gear will help even during the dry season, when wind-borne moisture will sting the skin.

The ride up Iraz˙ proceeds slowly, through pastures and corn fields. Past the town of Cot, the air becomes increasingly windy and cold, and the trees more twisted. On the cool, ash-fertilized slopes, potatoes are the main crop, along with carrots and onions. And there are many dairy farms, all now recovered from the 1963-65 calamities, and awaiting the next ones.

Sites on the way up Iraz˙ include the neat farming villages of Potrero Cerrado and Tierra Blanca, each dominated by a church; a pair of miradores, or lookout points, furnished with concrete picnic stools, and a rambling old white, tile-roofed sanatorium.

Past the sanatorium, a trail leads to the Prusia Forestry Reserve on the western slopes, an area that was replanted after it was turned into a desert in the 1963 eruption. Hiking trails, campsites, and picnicking facilities are available. Common trees are pine, alder and eucalyptus. There is also an unusual mushroom forest, where some species grow up to a foot across.

You’ll find a run-down hotel about 20 kilometers out of Cartago, 12 kilometers from the crater.

Over the last few kilometers of the ascent, the face of the mountain changes dramatically, from green pasture to oak forest laden with epiphytes at the park boundary, then to a seared, boulder-strewn primeval surface of ash and bare soil where wind-beaten ferns and shrubs maintain a tenuous hold. Around the next turn, one half expects to encounter a herd of dinosaurs poking their heads through the mist. Charred tree trunks stand as monuments to the last period of intense activity, while a few younger saplings take root for what will probably be an abbreviated life in the severe surroundings.

Once atop Iraz˙, you can examine a small exhibit on geysers, fumaroles, mudpots, ash, and other forms and evidence of volcanic activity. Slog through the ash and view the craters-slowly. The air at this altitude is short of oxygen, and you will be short of breath, as well as buffeted by wind and mist. The Diego de la Haya crater contains a lake, tinted to a rusty hue by dissolved minerals. The main, western crater, which swallowed up several earlier craters, currently shows virtually no activity or gas emissions.

There are active fumaroles on the northwestern slope. Much of this, it bears emphasizing, will not be visible because of the clouds that shroud the peak even during much of the dry season. But even when the top of Iraz˙ is clouded over, a few minutes of exposure to the nasty environment and a glimpse of the fantasy-world landscape will be long remembered.

Avoid the area on the side of the main crater opposite the parking lot.