Climbing Cerro Chirripo

Scroll down for info on reservations, transport, and why Chirripo is a public health risk

Hikers who drag themselves out of their sleeping bags in the early hours of the morning, don their woolly hats and strike out towards the summit in the dark can have sunrise at the highest point in Costa Rica all to themselves.

After a groggy two-hour walk and a final scramble up to the peak of Cerro Chirripó, the intrepid walker sits 3,820 meters above sea level (about 12,533 feet), with valleys, lakes, and blankets of calm, white clouds spread out below. There is no sound except the wind and an occasional bird, a world void of human presence. It is rumoured that on clear days, you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts simultaneously.

Costa Ricans take great pride in the activity of hiking the 20 kilometres (about 12 miles) from the little village of San Gerardo de Rivas to the stark peak that provides such a sharp contrast to the beaches and rainforests of the rest of the country.

Some even claim, wrongly, that it is the highest point in Central America – that title is claimed by Volcan Tajamulco in Guatemala, which reaches an impressive 4,211 metres of altitude, easily outstripping Cerro Chirripo.

Foreigners who are not in the know can find it hard to get into the national park. This isn´t the kind of mountain you can just turn up at and expect to climb – oh no, it´s far more executive than that. Ticos make reservations months in advance to ensure their space in the Los Crestones refuge that lies a few hundred metres below the peak.

Backpackers have been known to camp outside the park office gates in San Gerardo de Rivas from 3 a.m. in the morning to be the first in the queue for the ten places that officers say they always have free for the following day.

The walk is worth the difficulty in securing tickets, largely because it provides such a refreshing change to the rest of the country. Instead of packing your bikini and flip-flops, you´ll be needing a scarf, hat, sturdy hiking boots, a portable stove and all the food you want to eat during the time that you´re in the park

The hike technically starts out four kilometres (2.5 miles) outside Chirripó national park and winds its way up through ever-changing vegetation on obvious paths. It´s a friendly mountain, and you won´t need a guide. Cloud forest surrounds the trail for the first few kilometers, and birdlife is plentiful. Among the more interesting species is the emerald toucanet, a bird that is slightly smaller than a regular toucan, with green feathers and a long yellow and black bill.

After about 10 kilometers (some six miles), the trees thin out and are replaced by short flowering bushes, and the clouds disappear. Lizards of every colour and pattern bask on the rocks.

Between the start of the trail and the peak, hikers ascend 2,300 metres (7,546 feet), starting at around 1,500 metres above sea level, about 4,920 feet. Each kilometre is marked with a named sign, which is helpful until you get nearer the top where the kilometres take on names such as “The Burns” and “The Repentants” – accurate, but not very encouraging after six hours of walking.

At the top, the sun is often fierce, and the weather is unpredictable. One minute you can be burning in the hot sun, the whispy clouds floating up from the lower valleys, and the next you can be listening to the sound of thunder chasing you across the hills, the clouds threatening you with a colossal storm. And then suddenly it´s sunny again.

The lodge is basic, but not as cold as everyone says it is. Take a good sleeping bag and several layers of clothing. You´ll be given a bunk in a dorm room, and can use the big kitchen to eat in, but the stoves are usually rented out for use by big groups. Bizarrely, there are two computers where guests can use internet – by far the most modern thing about the refuge.

Various trails lead out from the refuge. They go to the eerie Los Crestones, an outcrop of rocks that resemble organ pipes sitting at the top of one peak, and to various lakes and lesser summits.

Many people reserve two nights in the refuge in order to spend the middle day hiking around the valleys. This may be good for resting the legs, but the most spectacular hike is certainly the one that leads to the summit, which can be done on the second day at dawn before descending the mountain. Some people have been known to hike the entire trail and get back down to San Gerardo de Rivas within a day. It usually takes them about 14 hours, but isn´t recommended unless you´re properly in shape.

Reserving a bed in the refuge
To do this you have to get in touch with the ministry of environment office in San Isidro del General, the nearest city. Call (00506) 2771-3155 or (011506) 2771-3155 if you’re in the states. If they tell you it´s full, you can always try your luck and go to San Gerardo de Rivas anyway. If you have about 5 days to spare and don’t mind turning up at the park office at 6 in the morning, you’ll almost certainly get a place with two nights booked. If you’re limited on time, be advised that when the guards say they always have 10 spaces held for the next day, this is not strictly true. If ten people turn up on a Thursday and reserve two nights in the reserve, the people who turn up on Friday will find there are no spaces left for the next day. And they won’t be allowed to reserve for the day after, as you can only reserve one day in advance. The number of spaces available could be less than ten as well, as it is decided on a daily basis how many extra people will be let up

Getting to the park – Get a bus to San Isidro del General, which is located on the panamericana and is often referred to as Perez Zeledon. Then catch the local bus to San Gerardo de Rivas. This is very cheap and runs twice a day in each direction, one at 5 a.m. and one at 2 p.m. On the way back they are two hours later. A taxi costs about $25 from San Isidro. From the bus stop, the administration office is a couple of hundred metres downhill, and the park entrance is a couple of kilometres uphill.

Chirripo national park – public health risk
Can´t get a bed at the refuge, even though people who´ve been there say there are spares every night? There´s a good reason why not. Chirripo´s septic tank was recently found to be failing, unable to cope with the demands put on it by over 70 people a night.

In order to avoid the park being shut down entirely by the health ministry for posing a public health risk, the park´s administration decided to limit the number of visitors that come every day. Each night, at least 20 of the 60 beds in the refuge lie empty.

At the beginning of April, a group of local businessmen went up to the reserve to do the repairs to the tank themselves. They had already paid for the materials needed to do the repairs, with the help of Banco Nacional, pulling together because of the damage the space limitation is doing to tourism in San Gerardo de Rivas. The repairs cost a total of about $10,000.

But even with the repairs, park administrator Oscar Esquivel says the tank will not be strong enough to support more tourists – it will just be efficient enough to stop the park from being shut down. The locals are now preparing a report with a petition that asks for 75% of the beds to be filled each night.


One Response

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