Parque Nacional Chirripó ($15 for 2 days, $15 per extra day) protects 50,150 hectares (124,000 acres) of high-elevation terrain surrounding Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak at 3,819 meters (12,530 feet). The park is contiguous with Parque Internacional La Amistad to the south; together they form the Amistad-Talamanca Regional Conservation Unit. Flora and fauna thrive here relatively unmolested by humans. One remote section of the park is called Savanna of the Lions, after its large population of pumas. Tapirs and jaguars are common, though rarely seen; the forests also protect several hundred bird species. Cloud forest, above 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) elevation, covers almost half the park, which features three distinct ecological zones. The park is topped off by subalpine rainy páramo, marked by contorted dwarf trees and marshy grasses.

Crystal-clear stream on Cerro Chirripó. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Crystal-clear stream on Cerro Chirripó. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Cerro Chirripó was held sacred by pre-Columbian people. Community leaders and shamans performed rituals atop the lofty shrine; lesser mortals who ventured up Chirripó were killed.

One remote section of the park is called Savanna of the Lions, after its large population of pumas.Just as Edmund Hillary climbed Everest “because it was there,” so Chirripó lures the intrepid who seek the satisfaction of reaching the summit. Many Ticos choose to hike the mountain during Easter week, when the weather is usually dry. Avoid holidays, when the huts may be full. The hike from San Gerardo ascends 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) and is no Sunday picnic but requires no technical expertise. The trails are well marked but steep and slippery.

The park service is pushing the lesser-known Herradura trail (minimum 3 days, 2 nights), via Paso de los Indios, with the first night atop Cerro Urán.

The weather is unpredictable; dress accordingly. When the bitterly cold wind kicks in, the humidity and wind-chill factor can drop temperatures to freezing. Rain is always a possibility, even in “dry season,” and a short downpour usually occurs mid-afternoon. Fog is almost a daily occurrence at higher elevations, often forming in midmorning. Temperatures can fall below freezing at night. February and March are the driest months.

The mountain plays host to the annual Carrera Internacional Campo Traviesa de Chirripó each February, a rugged race to the top and back.

Guides and Equipment

No guides are required for hiking the Termómetro trail, but they are compulsory for the Herradura trail. The communities of San Gerardo and Herradura run an association of guides and porters (arrieros, tel./fax 506/2742-5225); its office is 50 meters (165 feet) below Cabinas El Descanso. Prices are fixed at $60 per day, with a 16-kilogram (35-pound) limit per porter. If you want to attempt the Herradura trail, check with the pulpería (tel. 506/2742-5066) in Herradura.

You can rent tents, stoves, sleeping bags, and other equipment at Roca Dura and Cabinas del Descanso; stoves are permitted only within the Los Crestones hut. Be sure to bring the following:

  • Warm clothes—preferably layered clothing for varying temperatures and humidity. A polypropylene jacket remains warm when wet.
  • Rain gear; a poncho is best.
  • Sturdy hiking boots.
  • A warm sleeping bag, good to 0°C (32°F).
  • A flashlight with spare batteries.
  • A compass and a map.
  • Water. There is no water supply for the first half of the hike.
  • Food, including snacks. Dried bananas and peanuts are good energy boosters.
  • A bag for garbage.
  • Wind and sun protection.

Climbing Chirripó

You can do the 16-kilometer (10-mile) hike to the summit in a day, but it normally takes two days (three days round-trip). Call MINAE (tel. 506/2742-5083, Mon.-Fri.), the government department that administers national parks, three days in advance to register, and pay your deposit at Banco Nacional; if you arrive without reservations, pay your fee at the ranger station at San Gerardo. There are distance markers every two kilometers. Pack out all your trash and bury human waste.

Descending Cerro Chirripó. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Descending Cerro Chirripó. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Day 1

Today is 14 kilometers (9 miles), mostly steeply uphill. Less-fit hikers should begin not long after dawn, as it can take 12 hours or even longer in bad conditions (fitter hikers should be able to hike this section in 6 to 7 hours). You can hire local porters to carry your packs to base camp.

From the soccer field in San Gerardo, walk uphill about 600 meters (0.4 miles) to the Y fork; turn right, cross the bridge, and follow the rocky track one kilometer (0.6 miles) uphill. The trailhead is well signed on the right, 100 meters (330 feet) above Albergue Urán (you can drive up to this point with a 4WD vehicle; several homesteads advertise parking for a small fee). There’s a stream 500 meters (0.3 miles) beyond Refugio Llano Bonito, beyond which you begin a grueling uphill stretch called La Cuesta del Agua; allow at least two hours for this section. The climb crests at Monte Sin Fé (Faithless Mountain). You’ll see a rudimentary wooden shelter at the halfway point, beyond which you pass into dwarf cloud forest adorned with old man’s beard.

About six kilometers (4 miles) below the summit is a cave large enough to sleep five or six people, if rains dictate. From here a two-kilometer (1.2-mile) final climb—La Cuesta de los Arrepentidos (Repentants Hill)—takes you to Centro Ambientalista El Páramo lodge, beside the Río Talari beneath an intriguing rock formation called Los Crestones. It has heating, but be prepared for a cold night anyway.

Day 2

Today, get up and onto the trail by dawn to make the summit before the fog rolls in. It’s about a 90-minute hike from the hut via the Valle de los Conejos (Rabbits Valley). On clear days, the view is awesome. With luck, you’ll be able to see both the Pacific and the Caribbean.

You can head back to San Gerardo the same day, or contemplate a round-trip hike to Cerro Ventisqueros, the second-highest mountain in Costa Rica (by permit only); the trail begins below the Valle de los Conejos. Another trail through the Valle de las Morenas, on the northern side of Chirripó, is off-limits without a permit, as is the Camino de los Indios, a trail that passes over Cerro Urán and the far northern Talamancas.

Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.