South Pacific: Chirripó: 12,533 Feet Above Sea Level

At 12,533 feet above sea level, sunshine breaks through the clouds to reveal the Central Valley and Pacific Ocean lying in the distance below …

Changing directions, mountains and the Atlantic lowlands come into view, with the ocean stretching just beyond the horizon. This dreamy world seems like paradise. It is one of the few places where one can stand atop a mountain and see both oceans.

Chirripó is an indigenous word meaning “Land of the Eternal Waters.”

From Chirripó’s main peak, numerous lagoons come into view, tranquilly set among lavish surroundings. Many large rivers are born from the slopes of the Talamanca Mountain Range, including the Chirripó, Atlántico, Telire and Ceibo rivers. Chirripó is the highest mountain in Costa Rica, and the second highest in Central America. UNESCO has declared it a Biosphere Reserve and one of its World Heritage Sites.

If you want to experience Chirripó, first consider that most unforgettable experiences involve sacrifice, getting to the top of this majestic mountain isn’t easy.

The trail leading to the peak begins in the small town of San Gerardo de Rivas, a peaceful village with one church, one “pulpería” (small grocer’s shop), a school, soccer field and a few homes. There are also several inexpensive and basic lodges.

Think about spending the night in San Gerardo in order to start the climb early the next morning.

The ascent to Crestone’s Base, the national park’s shelter, is fascinating due to changes in altitude, climate, topography and soil. You will pass pastures, various types of forest and “páramos” (cold, high, rocky grasslands).

The park holds the record for the lowest temperature ever registered in Costa Rica, at 16°F. Nights are cold, with temperatures dropping to 32°F. Days are warm, and temperatures reach 65°F.

If you’re ready for the challenge, the first day’s hike will take you to a shelter, where you can spend the night if you wish to make the trip in two days. Depending on your physical condition, hiking to the shelter will take between six and 12 hours. Don’t be discouraged by the difficulty of the climb, a treasure awaits at the top.

From the shelter, Chirripó’s main peak is another two hours of walking. The shelter is a good base for exploration at the top.

One of the mountain’s most interesting geomorphological discoveries are the diverse glacier formations, U-shaped valleys and terraces, which reveal how masses of ice passed through some 25,000-30,000 years ago. Some formations remain unchanged since then. Other sites to visit include Morrena’s Valley, Valley of the Lakes, Rabbit’s Valley, Lion’s Savannah, Ventisqueros Mountain and the Crestones, a huge rock formation just in front of the shelter.

Located 16 miles northeast of San Isidro de El General, the park spans an area of 126,000 acres. Its diverse wildlife includes some 60% of the vertebrate and invertebrate fauna in the country, more than 300 bird species, and at least 250 species of amphibians and reptiles. It is home to the largest population of tapirs in Costa Rica, and a variety of mammals including monkeys, coyotes, pumas and jaguars. Many ornithologists visit the park in search of the heralded and mystic quetzal, recognized by its gaudy plumage and soaring flight.

According to history books, Agustin Blessing, a missionary of the Talamanca region, was the first white man to reach Chirripó’s summit in 1904.

Travel Tips

Take the Pan-American Highway to San Isidro de El General and follow signs to San Gerardo de Rivas. Or, take a bus to San Isidro, and a taxi to San Gerardo.

What to bring? Good hiking shoes, sun screen, water, flashlight, sleeping bag, raincoat, warm clothes for the nights, energy food for hiking, candy or chocolate and other essentials. Don’t bring unneeded items that will add weight to your pack. Gas stoves and blankets can be rented at the shelter.


Previous South Pacific: Marino Ballena National Park, Golfito and the Osa Peninsula
Next Northern Region: La Fortuna, Arenal Volcano, Río Celeste and Venado Caves
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