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Exploring Chirripó National Park ★★

At 3,819m (12,526 ft.) in elevation, Mount Chirripó is the tallest mountain in Costa Rica. If you’re headed this way, come prepared for chilly weather. Actually, dress in layers and prepare for all sorts of weather: Because of the great elevations, temperatures frequently dip below freezing, especially at night. However, during the day, temperatures can soar—remember, you’re still only 9 degrees from the equator. The elevation and radical temperatures have produced an environment here that’s very different from the Costa Rican norm. Above 3,000m (9,840 ft.), only stunted trees and shrubs survive in a habitat known as a páramo. If you’re driving the Inter-American Highway between San Isidro and San José, you’ll pass through a páramo on the Cerro de la Muerte.

Hiking to the top of Mount Chirripó is one of Costa Rica’s best adventures. On a clear day (usually in the morning), an unforgettable view ★★★ is your reward: You can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea from the summit. Although it’s possible to hike from the park entrance to the summit and back down in 2 days (in fact, some daredevils even do it in 1 day), it’s best to allow 3 to 4 days for the trip in order to give yourself time to enjoy your hike and spend some time on top, because that’s where the glacier lakes and páramos are. For much of the way, you’ll be hiking through cloud forests that are home to abundant tropical fauna, including the spectacular quetzal.

Several routes lead to the top of Mount Chirripó. The most popular, by far, leaves from San Gerardo de Rivas. However, it’s also possible to start your hike from the nearby towns of Herradura or Canaan. All these places are within less than 2km (a mile) or so of each other, reached by the same major road out of San Isidro. San Gerardo is the most popular because it’s the easiest route to the top and has the greatest collection of small hotels and lodges, as well as the national park office. Information on all of these routes is available at the park office.

When you’re at the summit lodge, you have a number of hiking options. Just in front of the lodge are Los Crestones (the Crests), an impressive rock formation, with trails leading up and around them. The most popular, however, is to the actual summit (the lodge is a bit below the summit itself), which is about a 2-hour hike that passes through the Valle de los Conejos (Rabbit Valley) and the Valle de los Lagos (Valley of Lakes). Other hikes and trails lead off from the summit lodge, and it’s easy to spend a couple of days hiking around here. A few trails will take you to the summits of several nearby peaks. Hikes should be undertaken only after carefully studying an accurate map and talking to park rangers and other hikers.

There’s talk bubbling up of building a $20 million, 8 to 9 km cable car line to the summit, which would lure a significant number of tourists to the park. Though many see it as a pipe dream.

Warning: It can be dangerous for more inexperienced or out-of-shape hikers to climb Chirripó, especially by themselves. It’s not very technical climbing, but it is a long, arduous hike. If you’re not sure you’re up for it, you can just take day hikes out of San Isidro and/or San Gerardo de Rivas, or ask at your hotel about guides.

Movin’ On Up

From San Gerardo de Rivas, the 14.5km (9-mile) trail to the summit lodge is well marked and maintained. The early parts of the trail are pretty steep and will take you through thick cloud forests and rainforests. After about 7.5km (4.7 miles), you reach the “Water Ridge,” a flat ridge that features a small shelter and water spigot. This is roughly the midway point to the lodge and a great place to take a break.

From Water Ridge, three steep uphill sections remain: Cuesta de Agua (Water Hill), Monte Sin Fe (Mountain Without Hope), and La Cuesta de los Arrepentidos (The Hill of Regret). As you continue to climb, you will notice the flora changing. The entire elevation gain for this hike is 2,200m (7,215 ft.). La Cuesta de los Arrepentidos, your final ascent, brings you to a broad flat valley, where you’ll find the summit lodge. This hike can take anywhere from 6 to 10 hours, depending on how long you linger along the way.

Entry Point, Fees & Regulations: Although it’s not that difficult to get to Chirripó National Park from nearby San Isidro, it’s still rather remote. Moreover, the most difficult part of hiking Chirripo just might be the arcane reservation system. Before climbing Mount Chirripó, you must make a reservation with the local office of SINAC, which administers national parks ((tel) 2742-5083). The office is officially open from 8am to noon and 1pm to 4pm, Mon through Fri for reservations, though it begins taking reservations on the first Monday of every fourth month for the subsequent next 4 months in the future. Slots sell out fast—often on the first day. In the past, walk-in hikers were allowed to climb up the next day, but this practice has ceased and advance reservations are now required.

Once you have a slot, you must then check in with Aguas Eternas Chirripo ((tel) 2742-5097; www.chirripo.org) in San Gerardo de Rivas. This is a consortium of local businesses that handles the specific reservations for room and board up at the summit lodge. Without excellent Spanish skills and persistence, it’s very hard to reserve a slot in advance. Many folks rely on their local hotel or an agency to do so. The park service allows a maximum of 3 nights at the lodge.

Once you have reservations all ironed out, you will need to get to the trail head. You have three choices: car, taxi, or bus. If you choose to drive, take the road out of San Isidro, heading north toward San Gerardo de Rivas, which is some 20km (12 miles) down the road. Otherwise, you can catch a bus in San Isidro that will take you directly to the trail head in San Gerardo de Rivas. Buses ((tel) 2771-2314) leave about a half-dozen times daily from the bus station beside the central market, a block or so south of San Isidro’s central park, beginning around 5:45am. It costs C1,010 one-way and takes 1 1/2 hours. Buses return to San Isidro daily at roughly the same frequency every day. A taxi from town should cost around C15,000 to C20,000.

Because the hike to the summit of Mount Chirripó can take between 6 and 12 hours, depending on your physical condition, consider taking a taxi so that you can start hiking when the day is still young. Better still, you should arrive the day before and spend the night in San Gerardo de Rivas (there are several inexpensive cabinas, a couple of mid-range options, and one very nice hotel there) before setting out early the following morning.

Alternative Booking Options

Because the reservation process is so complex and difficult for foreign tourists, your best bet is to coordinate your climb with a local hotel or tour operator. Costa Rica Trekking Adventures ((tel) 2771-4582; www.chirripo.com) has some of the most extensive selections of Chirripó climbs.

Note that camping is not allowed in the park. It’s possible to have your gear carried up to the summit by horseback during the dry season (Dec–Apr). Independent guides and porters can always be found outside the park entrance in San Gerardo de Rivas. They charge between $30 and $40 per pack, depending on size and weight. In the rainy season, the same guides work, but they take packs up by themselves, not by horseback. The guides like to take up the packs well before dawn, so arrangements are best made the day before. The entrance fee to the national park is $18 per day.

Staying at the Summit Lodge: Once you get to the lodge, you’ll find various rooms with bunk beds, several bathrooms and showers, and a common kitchen area, as well as a simple restaurant. It has good drinking water. Note: It gets cold up here at night, and the lodge seems to have been designed to be as cold, dark, and cavernous as possible. The showers are freezing. It costs around $40 per person per night to stay here, and this includes a sheet, blanket, and sleeping bag. Buffet meals at the restaurant run around $10 for breakfast and $15 for lunch or dinner.

Race to the Top

If simply climbing the tallest peak in Costa Rica is too mundane for you, join the annual Carrera Campo Traviesa Al Cerro Chirripó (www.carrerachirripo.com). Held the third or fourth Saturday of February, this is a grueling 34km (21-mile) race from the base to the summit and back. The record time, to date, is 3 hours, 15 minutes, and 3 seconds.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.