Some 20km northeast of San Isidro, PARQUE NACIONAL CHIRRIPÓ is named after the Cerro Chirripó, which lies at its centre – at 3819m the highest peak in Central America south of Guatemala. Ever since the conquest of the peak in 1904 by a missionary priest, Father Agustín Blessing (local indigenous peoples may of course have climbed it before), visitors have been flocking to Chirripó to do the same, finding accommodation in the nearby villages of San Gerardo de Rivas and Rivas.
The park’s terrain varies widely, according to altitude, from cloudforest to rocky mountaintops. Between the two lies the interesting alpine paramo – high moorland, punctuated by rocks, shrubs and hardy clump grasses more usually associated with Andean heights. The colours here are muted yellows and browns, with the occasional deep purple. Below the paramo lie areas of oak forest, now much depleted through continued charcoal-burning. Chirripó is also the only place in Costa Rica where you can observe vestiges of the glaciers that scraped across here about thirty thousand years ago: narrow, U-shaped valleys, moraines (heaps of rock and soil left behind by retreating glaciers) and glacial lakes, as well as the distinctive crestones, or heavily weathered fingers of rock, more reminiscent of Montana than Costa Rica. The land is generally waterlogged, with a few bogs – take care where you step, as sometimes it’s so chilly you won’t want to get your feet wet.
Many mammals live in the park, and you may see spider monkeys as you climb from the lower mountain to the montane rainforest. Your best bet for bird-spotting is in the lower elevations: along the oak and cloudforest sections of the trail you may spot hawks, trogons, woodpeckers and even quetzals, though in the cold and inhospitable terrain higher up, you’ll only see robins and hawks.
The weather in Chirripó is extremely variable and unpredictable. It can be hot, humid and rainy between May and December, but is clearer and drier between January and April (the peak season for climbing the mountain). Even then, clouds may roll in at the top and obscure the view, and rainstorms move in very fast. The only months you can be sure of a dry spell are March and April. Temperatures may drop to below 0°C at night and rise to 20°C during the day, though at the summit, it’s so cold that it’s hard to believe you’re just 9° north of the equator. Be advised that it’s not possible to climb Chirripó in October or the last two weeks in May, when the trail is closed for maintenance.