Volcano Watching in a CJ-3B


Irazú, Costa Rica, 1963

The Irazú Volcano, 14 miles (24km) east of the capital San José, is the highest of several active volcanos in Costa Rica -- see a map of Costa Rica (1) (230K JPEG). Irazú has erupted frequently in historical times; its most famous recent eruption began on 13 March 1963 and continued until 1965. (2) It produced limited amounts of lava, but took nearly 50 lives, and showered San José and much of the central highlands of Costa Rica with ash for over a year, causing heavy damage to infrastructure, agriculture and public health.

Costa Rica, 1963This dramatic photo of a Jeep parked at the top of Irazú during that eruption, was taken in November 1963. If you think the Jeep is dangerously close to the steam and ash blasting out of the crater, check the background and you'll see dozens of people climbing up to the edge for a closer look!

Bob Christy saw the photo in Will Martin's book So I Bought an Air Force. The book is the amazing but true story of how Martin bought a fleet of P-51 Mustangs and other aging planes from the Nicaraguan Air Force, and spent years getting them back to the U.S.

Surprisingly, the Jeep in the photo is from Japan. It's a CJ3B-J10, built by Mitsubishi between 1955 and 1961. Powered by the Japanese version of the Hurricane 4 engine, it has the standard 80-inch wheelbase, but with more overhang at the rear, providing about 7 inches of extra length.

Note: William Gamboa located the motor vehicle registration (70K JPEG) for the Jeep, which carried plate number 966. The make was listed as Willys, as stamped on the hood. The only giveaway to its origin was the Japanese engine number: JH418446.

Will Martin graciously provided a scan from his original slide (copyright W.W. Martin 2013), and described how he took the photo: "My wife Patty had flown down to Nicaragua with me in a B-26, and we went to Costa Rica after delivering the bomber. At that time tourists were allowed to go right up to the mouth of the volcano, although our host, Juan Bonilla, the airport commandant, had expressed concern about us doing that. We rode most of the way in his VW bug, but I believe we took that Jeep the final distance because the road wasn't good.

"Our visit was without incident. However shortly after, Irazú belched a large boulder, which landed on someone. The Costa Rican authorities closed the road to the volcano the same day."

January 1964There is also a remarkable series of photos of the eruption by John Malmin, published in the Los Angeles Times in January 1964. Science editor Irving S. Bengelsdorf wrote in that article:

"For 10 months the almost 300,000 inhabitants of metropolitan San Jose have been living in the 'valley of the shadow of death.'

"Since last March, volcano Irazu (ee-rah-SOO), an active, 11,260-ft. monster, has been dumping thousands of tons of extremely fine, pulverized, grayish-black, gritty volcanic cinders and ashes over this Central American capital.

"The citizens of San Jose walk the street carrying umbrellas, but there is no rain. They wear sunglasses, but there is little sun. The interminable fall of ashes and cinders makes life miserable indeed. For the blizzard of 'black snow,' which does not melt, has turned this once lush and green metropolitan area into a tortured and crippled city. Parts of the Central Valley are dead, and other sections are dying."

John Malmin also took a photo of workers cleaning up volcanic ash in the streets (90K JPEG). (3)

Meanwhile, Another Eruption

San Jose, 1963The early days of the volcanic activity in March 1963 coincided with the tumultuos reception for U.S. President Kennedy on his visit to Costa Rica. (4)

As LIFE magazine reported on 29 March, "The 11,260-foot-high Irazú volcano erupted spectacularly last week, scattering eye-smarting ashes on the capital of Costa Rica, but hardly anyone here gave it a thought. San José had a blowout of its own going strong -- an explosion of enthusiasm for John F. Kennedy." (5)

See more details in M606 Jeeps Escort JFK on CJ3B.info.

San Jose, 1963This July 1963 photo by MG Leonard (6) shows the view of Irazú from San José, 14 miles away, but with the wind blowing the ash to the north, toward Nicaragua -- see the map of Costa Rica (1) (230K JPEG).

A 1966 study from the U.S. Geological Survey stated: "The initial outbreak on March 13, 1963 started with a series of great explosions that hurled out much ash, blocks, and bombs, but the activity soon settled down to alternating periods of explosive eruptions and quiet emission of steam." (7)

1963The study goes on to say: "Accelerated runoff of rainwater from the ash-covered slopes of the volcano caused destructive floods, mudflows, and landslides. The climax of the eruption probably occurred during December 1963 and January 1964, when ash and incandescent scoria were erupted voluminously and the magma rose to within 100 meters of the lip of the vent." (7)

It seems accurate to describe Will Martin's trip by Jeep to the edge of the crater in November 1963 as "playing with fire."

This photo of the crater is from a 1963 postcard. (8)

2012A similar view of Irazú, now part of a national park, was photographed by Rafael Golan in 2012. (9) The main crater, 1000 feet deep, contains the green lake Diego de la Haya. There is a road leading right up to the summit, with a bus service. From the top it is possible to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on a clear day, but the summit is often covered by clouds. (10)

There have been a couple of brief eruptions since 1965, the most recent being an explosion in December 1994. (2)

Willys History in Costa Rica

1957I don't know when the first Willys Jeeps arrived in Costa Rica, but this ad shows that CJ-3Bs were imported by Castro, Zeledon & Co. who had offices in the "northeast corner of the station of the F.E. al P." (Ferrocarril Eléctrico al Pacífico, the railway which connected San José with the Pacific port of Puntarenas.)

The ad says, "Take this opportunity... American product, all-steel... from today until 31 December... ₡ 16,500 cash." (This amount in Costa Rican colons was about $3,000 US.) The ad is reportedly from 1957 (11) but the artwork is one of the 1952-53 Willys-Overland illustrations with the incorrect hood height.

In another ad (170K JPEG) aimed at agriculture, there is some local detail added to the illustration, and the headline is "Mr. Farmer, take this opportunity!"

It seems quite possible that Jeeps were also brought in from Mitsubishi in Japan, since Costa Rica was one of the first countries to import Toyota Land Cruisers, in 1957. A few years later, CJ-5 Jeeps, Kaiser Jeep trucks and Jeep Commandos were apparently assembled in Costa Rica by Auto Tecnica S.A., from the mid-1960s to late 70's. (12)

2012As of 2016, Club Jeep Willys Costa Rica doesn't seem to include a lot of CJ-3Bs or other civilian flatfenders.

This restored 1954 Willys was seen for sale online in 2012 in Cartago -- see the map of Costa Rica (1) (230K JPEG).

2013Interestingly, the only other high hood I've seen for sale online in Costa Rica recently is, like the Jeep at the volcano, a Mitsubishi. It appears to be a J56 model, built in Japan in the 1970's.

Willys Volcano Tour in Indonesia

IndonesiaIf you like the idea of volcano watching in a Willys Jeep, there is at least one place where you can still do it -- Mount Merapi ("fire mountain") in Indonesia

According to Wikipedia, "Smoke can be seen emerging from the mountaintop at least 300 days a year, and several eruptions have caused fatalities." There is a museum commemorating a village destroyed and over 300 people killed when Mount Merapi erupted lava on its southern and southeastern slopes in 2010.

IndonesiaThe Merapi Jeep Tour Community is a co-op of local drivers offering Jeep tours to the museum and up a pretty rough road to the lava fields near the top of Mt. Merapi. For more details, see Tourism in Java's Land of Ghosts from The New York Times.

Thanks to Bob and Mindy Christy for finding the photo of the Jeep at Irazú, and Will Martin for providing a scan of the photo, from his book So I Bought an Air Force. -- Derek Redmond


  1. Base map by Eric Gaba at Wikimedia Commons.
  2. Irazú Volcano, Costa Rica: Eruptive History at google.com.
  3. "Volcano covers Costa Rican valley in ash", Los Angeles Times, 19 January 1964.
  4. Photo from "JFK Was The First U.S. President to Visit Costa Rica" at QCostarica.
  5. "We Will Build a Wall of Dedicated Men" by Lee Hall, LIFE, 29 March 1963.
  6. Photo by MG Leonard, used under CC license.
  7. "The 1963-65 eruption of Irazú volcano, Costa Rica" by Murata, K. J.; Dondoli, C.; Saenz, R., Bulletin Volcanologique, December 1966, at Harvard.edu.
  8. Postcard courtesy of Imágenes Tropicales.
  9. Photo by Rafael Golan, used under CC license.
  10. "Irazú Volcano" at Wikipedia.
  11. "1950-1962 Willys Jeep Ads Costa Rica" at AMC Costa Rica.
  12. "Timeline of American Motors in Costa Rica" at AMC Costa Rica.

See John F. Kennedy's visit to Costa Rica, in M606 Jeeps Escort JFK.

Also on CJ3B.info, see the volcano movie Dante's Peak.

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Last updated 26 January 2016 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
All content not credited and previously copyright, is copyright Derek Redmond