Explore The Zona Sur
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.Read More
Almost everyone who climbs Chirripó goes up to the accommodation huts first, rests there overnight, and then takes another day or two to explore the summit, surrounding peaks and paramo – it’s not really feasible to climb Chirripó in one day. During high season, you’ll have company on the path up the mountain, and the trail is well marked with signs stating the altitude and the distance to the summit. Watch out for altitude sickness, though; if you have made a quick ascent from the lowland beach areas, you could find yourself becoming short of breath, experiencing pins and needles, nausea and exhaustion. If this happens, stop and rest; if symptoms persist, descend immediately. The main thing to keep in mind is not to go off the trail or exploring on your own without telling anyone, especially in the higher areas of the park. Off the trail, definite landmarks are few, and it’s easy to get confused.
The hike begins at 1219m and ends at 3819m, the summit. It’s almost entirely uphill and so exhausting that you may have trouble appreciating the scenery. On the first day most hikers make the extremely strenuous fourteen-kilometre trek to the accommodation huts – reckon on a minimum of seven hours if you’re very fit (and the weather is good), up to twelve hours or more if you’re not. In San Gerardo de Rivas you can hire a porter to carry your gear for you (around $60 per 20kg). On the second day you can make the huts your base while you hike to the summit and back, which is easily done in a day, perhaps taking in some of the nearby lagoons.
The walk begins in a cow pasture, before passing through thick, dark cloudforest, a good place to spot quetzals (March–May are the best months). After a relatively flat stretch of several kilometres, where you’re likely to be plagued by various biting insects, you’ll arrive at a rest station halfway to the accommodation huts. Some people stay here, splitting the hike into a less-taxing two days, but conditions are extremely rustic, with three sides open to the wind. The Cuesta de los Arrepentidos (“Hill of the Repentants”, meaning you’re sorry at this point that you came) is the real push, all uphill for at least 3km. At Monte Sin Fé (“Faithless Mountain”), about 10km into the trail, is another patch of tropical montane forest, more open than the cloudforest. Keep your eye out for the refugio natural, a big cave where you can sleep in an emergency, from where it’s just 3km to the accommodation huts. At the huts, the land looks like a greener version of Scotland: bare moss cover, grasslands and a waterlogged area where the lagoons congregate. There are no trees, and little wildlife in evidence.
The rangers based up here are friendly, and in the high season (Jan–April) you can ask to accompany them on walks near the summit to avoid getting lost. Do not expect this, however, as it is not their job to lead guided walks. It’s just ninety minutes’ walk from the accommodation huts along a well-marked trail to the summit – there’s a bit of scrambling involved, but no real climbing. You’ll need to set off by dawn, as clear weather at the peak is really only guaranteed until 9 or 10am. There’s also a little book in a metal box where you can sign your “I did it” message; bring a pen. From the top, if it’s clear, you can see right across to the Pacific. However, you’re above the cloud line up here, and the surrounding mountains are often obscured by drifting milky clouds.