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.

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Hammocks and hummingbirds – San Gerardo de Rivas

If you do get stuck waiting to go up Chirripo, or even if you’re not an altitude hunter and never wanted to go up that far anyway, San Gerardo de Rivas is a thoroughly beautiful place to hang out. The village is strung along the road that leads from San Isidro del General and ends up at the Cloudbridge Reserve, leaving the rest of the mountain to undisturbed nature.

The Cloudbridge Reserve is a private project to protect and reforest the lush valleys below Chirripo. Various trails weave through the reserve, passing by waterfalls and at one point giving a vista over two waterfalls in the valley below, surrounded by green. You could easily spend a day wandering the beautiful paths, but beware that it rains a lot here – more than at the top of Chirripo, which often has its head above the clouds. Visit http://www.cloudbridge.org.

Hot springs are the other attraction, but you´ll be more in need of a cold shower after walking up the insane incline to get to the pools. If you’ve already been to Arenal and spent enough money to eat for a week on the entrance to Tabacón, you might be disappointed. There are two small man-made pools set into the rocks, and one of them could be better described as tepid than hot. It is a great place to meet locals though, as it is often packed with Ticos who bring picnic feasts for a family day out, especially at weekends and on holidays.

But one of the best thing to do in San Gerardo is relax on a balcony or in a hammock, watch the many species of colourful birds darting around the flowers that cover everyone’s gardens, have a pizza on a balcony overhanging the valley, and appreciate one of Costa Rica’s most attractive and authentic little towns.

Places to stay:

Casa Mariposa

This is a hummingbird and hammock-filled chill-out house, built next to a valley that drops down to a little stream, and only a few yards from the trailhead. The dorm room’s walls are half carved out of the rocks of the mountain, with beds resting on natural ledges, and a massive boulder almost obstructing the way to the bathroom opposite. Meals can be cooked in the homely kitchen, where there is a communal food basket to rummage through before you set off on the hike. Guests often cook together, as the cosy hostel is perfect for getting to know other people of all ages and nationalities. Everyone usually congregates in the kitchen and lounge, where there are several comfy sofas, and books to exchange or read. The real bonus, though, is the hammock garden. Just uphill from the dorms, three hammocks and various chairs are set under a small roof, with a sweeping view of the valley below. Hummingbird feeders ensure that the little birds are fluttering around you all the time, with the occasional visit from an emerald toucanet, and plenty of butterflies. Greenery and flowers are abundant, and friendly owner John is now working on a project to clean up the stream bed that is near the hostel, and make a waterfall that falls from a cave into a peaceful, natural place for his guests to visit. Telephone: 2816-7573.

El Descanso

If you’re trying to get away from the gringo crowd for a while, this is a very Tico place to stay. It’s much closer to the park admin office too, which makes it more convenient if you need to be down there by 6.30 a.m. to make a reservation. The best thing about it, however, is the homage to Chirripó’s biggest annual event – the Cerro Chirripó race. One day a year, usually in March, a bunch of crazy people get together and run from San Gerardo de Rivas’ football pitch to the refuge and back. Considering it took me 6 hours to get up there and 5 down – and I ached afterwards – I can’t help but respect the balls of these people, some of whom do the distance in less than 3.5 hours. Pictures from twenty years of racing are hung all over El Descanso’s dining room. Owner Francisco Elizondo used to win the race every year, but now that he’s past seventy he falls into the veterans category. He still wins that category. Apparently there is also a crazy gringo with an enormous white beard who runs the thing in cut off denims and bare feet. He, predictably, is usually the last down the mountain. If you arrive at El Descanso and it looks shut, just holler a bit and you will be attended to. Phone: 2369-0067.

Hiking out to the hidden Cabécar people

Standing next to her family’s water pipe, 4-year-old Sandra winces at her first encounter with the fresh, strong taste of toothpaste.

Living in her remote home in the jungle-covered Chirripó Indgenous reserve, she is a seven-hour hike away from the nearest shop that sells such things as a toothbrush and a tube of Colgate.

Her unevenly spaced and slightly browned teeth are experiencing this today thanks to a Christmas donation of toothbrushes and small toothpaste tubes from a Western well-wisher.

The art of toothbrushing has just been demonstrated to her and 15 other squatting children by Daniel Montoya, who puts as much energy into the lesson as if it were a revolutionary new invention.

“Brush forward, back, forward, back. How do you say teeth in Cabécar?” Montoya asks through a mouth of foam.

Montoya and his colleague Hector Soto started coming to the reserve after they received an unexpected knock on the door of their Christian mission, Voz Que Clama in Tuis, Turrialba. A Cabécar chief was standing outside, asking them to help his community.

There are few people who will spend the energy to visit the remote community, and the villagers often feel forgotten by the rest of the country.

Indeed, in a recent United Nations survey, 77 percent of Costa Rica’s inhabitants admitted that they did not know that 22 indigenous territories exist within the borders of their country. 73 percent of the very few indigenous people left in Costa Rica live within or close to these territories, keeping them largely separated from the Tico majority.

For Soto, Monotya and their 12 volunteers, the journey here started the day before with a three-hour drive in the back of a truck, up a dirt road to the village of Quetzal.

From there it is a two-hour downhill hike to the valley bottom on trails just wide enough for a horse to pass between the banana palms. Continue reading