Cerro Chirripo. Conquering Costa Rica’s Highest Mountain
by Mira Nencheva
From Rio Claro we catch the TicaBus to San Isidro de El General, the largest regional city of 45, 000 population at the crossroads between some of Costa Rica’s most important destinations. The ticket costs less than $3 per person and it takes 4 hours to get there. In the beginning, we pass through palm oil plantations and jungles. Further, as we climb higher, the road starts curving along a wide shallow river, passing through small villages and dry forests. The TicaBus is a big comfortable bus serving all Central American countries, and it’s not too expensive.
Midway, we make a long bathroom stop next to a big buffet restaurant on the road and in the late afternoon we arrive in San Isidro lying in a valley at the foot of the mountains, clean, tranquil and beautiful. A large white neo-Gothic cathedral sits heavy at the eastern end of the Town Square. We eat in a small Peruvian restaurant- one of the cheapest places in town where the food is pretty decent, and sleep in a hotel. The room for the three of us is $35 per night and it is pretty basic. It has two double beds and a TV. The bathrooms and showers are shared- outside of the room. But there is hot water and we wash our dirty clothes in the shower. We have only a couple of T-shirts, shorts, underwear and socks each, so we have to wash them every time we can. We are super happy to sleep in beds, after spending the past few nights camping on the beaches of Osa Peninsula and sleeping in a tent.
In the morning, we take another bus to a small picturesque village up in the mountains- San Gerardo de Rivas. Our main purpose in Costa Rica is to climb its highest mountain- Cerro Chirripó rising at 3820m above sea level . It is located in the Chirripó National Park and is famous for its ecological wealth and extremely high biodiversity. San Gerardo is the town from where the trail begins.
Parque Nacional Chirrpo
There, we visit the Park Service where our ordeal begins. First, we have to make a reservation. We fill forms; write down names and passport numbers. Then, with a piece of paper and a reservation number, we go to another place to do a bank transfer ($7 per person; Maya pays too for the bank transaction) and pay the park’s entrance fee. We have to write down our names and passport numbers again. The park’s entrance fee is $16 per person per day, $1 for Maya, as she is 12. We need two days minimum to hike the 40-kilometer trek up and down the mountain, so for the entrance fee we spend $65 plus 21$ for the bank transfer.. So far $86 for the three of us, just to enter in the park. Now, with the proof of the bank transaction, we walk back to the park’s office. We have to fill forms once again, and write our names and passport numbers again, and with this done, we have to walk all the way to another office on the other side of town- about 15-minute walk- to pay for the sleeping accommodations and reserve meals inside the park, which is not done by the park’s services, but by a private local organization. There, we have to fill forms, write down our names and passport numbers for a fourth time, and we have to pay $40 per person to sleep in a bunk bed up in the “Refugio” (ranger station) 5 km before the summit. The meals cost $20 for breakfast and $25 for lunch or dinner each! No thanks, we will be on canned ham and crackers diet for the next two days… Can we sleep in a tent instead of a shelter? No, there is no other option but the 40-dollar bunk bed. Tents are not allowed. Our total for a two-day trek to Cerro Chirripo is $206.00, food not included. We feel robbed. This is the most expensive mountain we ever climbed so far… We complain to every official in each of the offices we visit, and tell them that these prices are ridiculous and offending, and charging so much is not fair. We have climbed many other mountains in the Caribbean, Central and South America, many of them for free, including Pico Duarte in Dominican Republic, which is a very similar two-day one-night hike, and even with two mules and a guide, it is much less expensive. Costa Rica has by far the most expensive nature, and this unfortunately keeps many tourists away. But, as we found out, there is a cheaper way to experience Cerro Chirripo, as long as you have time and you plan it well in advance. You can sign up for the volunteer program and work in the park (office job or maintaining the trails) for a minimum of 6 days. Your accommodation will be covered. All you need to pay for is transportation to food. Kids under 18 can participate too, as long as they are accompanied by a parent. For more information you can download the PDF file of the park’s volunteer program (in Spanish) http://www.parquenacionalchirripo.com/pdf/voluntariado.pdf
Hostel Casa Chirripó
All the reservations and payments done, we are ready to find a hostel and relax for another night before the big hike tomorrow. San Gerardo is full of hostels, as many tourists from all over the world come to conquer Costa Rica’s highest peak. The one we choose is a small colorful house turned hostel at one end of town, next to a river. Hostel Casa Chirripó .
As soon as we enter, we feel like home and we don’t go looking further. This will be our “home” for the night. Our room is clean and tastefully decorated and Maya loves her cozy bed with cheerful colorful blankets. For the three of us it’s $40, breakfast and transportation to the trailhead in the morning included. Pretty awesome!
But the best thing about the place, are the people who run it. They are the friendliest guys, especially Jose Anderson. He is the one who has painted the walls and he promises: as soon as we return from the mountain, the Bulgarian flag will be added on the wall with the flags. We will be the first Bulgarians staying at this hostel who climbed Cerro Chirripo!
Hiking with Jose
Jose is one of those easy-going people, who have the talent of becoming your instant friends, and a few minutes after you meet them it feels as if you have known them forever. He is also very knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, and offers to bring us to a small cave full of bats, and to show us a local cow farm. It’s a wonderful little afternoon walk; the path is surrounded by flowers, wild orange and lemon trees.
– This little flower there is an orchid. It is small and it doesn’t look like and orchid, but it is, Jose laughs. And these lemons are supper sweet, try one. Oh! Look at this bird! This is a type of toucan!
We reach the cave. It is just a small opening between two big boulders at the end of a cow pasture, but it’s full of sleeping bats! I tell Jose about our friends back in El Golfito who study bats and cave systems in Costa Rica and who inspired us to learn and respect these animals. We are very happy we finally got to see bats! Thank you , Jose, you are brilliant!
Hiking Cerro Chirripo. Day 1
4:30 the next morning we are up and ready to go. This time, we leave our heavy stuff at the hostel and only take some food, water and jackets in the smallest backpack. It’s still dark when we start walking past pastures at first and then- in the wet mysterious evergreen jungle. At dawn, a family of capuchin monkeys are jumping overhead, going somewhere.
The trail is beautiful and well maintained, not too steep. As we move upwards, the lower montane forest gives way to the montane rainforest with giant oak trees home of epiphytic ecosystems, towering at 50 meters and more over the other trees that average 30 meters, and the understory of ferns and bamboo.
Every kilometer is marked and the countdown begins. There are 14 kilometers of uphill before us until we reach the shelter where we will sleep. Midway, kilometer 7 marks the end of the first part of the trail as we reach refugio Llano Bonito serving super expensive coffee, hot chocolate, and other treats. We drink some water and keep going. Here, we meet some sort of wild friendly partridges completely unafraid of us.
The forest beyond this point and altitude is dry, the trees are much shorter, surrounded by cactus and scrub. Conditions become harsher. It gets steeper and harder to walk. After kilometer 10, there is no more forest, but alpine grasses, flowers and some small very dry trees all around us. The montane forests lying above 1500 meters elevation up to approximately 3000 meters elevation, transition to the grasslands and shrublands of the Costa Rican Páramo.
These are the Talamancan montane forests very rich in biodiversity and they are Central America’s most intact ecoregions, with 40% of the ecoregion protected by national and international parks. Scientist estimate that between 3 and 4 percent of the biodiversity in the world is found here with 136 mammal species (jaguar, cougar, tapir, deer, anteater and several species of monkeys) and 450 species of birds among which the harpy eagle and the quetzal. The Costa Rican páramo, also known as the Talamanca páramo, is a natural region of montane grassland and shrubland found above 3000 meters elevation on the summits of the highest mountains. These are also called sky islands- home of many species of plants and animals. Here, we feel like we are in a different world. It is breathtakingly serene and beautiful.
We start seeing fat scaly lizards- some black other green-blue, sunning themselves on rocks and branches near the path. Later, we found out that these are the emerald swift or green spiny lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus)- a species of small lizard, native to Central America.
Emerald swifts are distinctly bright green in color, with males typically being more striking than females. They grow from 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) in length. Like other species in the genus Sceloporus, their scales tend to be fairly stiff and heavily keeled, giving them a spiny texture. Emerald swifts are arboreal lizards. In the early morning they forage for insects, and then spend much of the day basking in the sun. They will retreat to a burrow, or under a rock or log if the temperature becomes too high or to sleep. (from Wikipedia)
At Crestones Ranger Station
After 10 hours of walking, we reach kilometer 14 and the Ranger Station Los Crestones already full with other mountaineers who cheer for us as soon as we walk through the door. Maya is the youngest hiker this day and we are once again the proudest parents. It has been a beautiful sunny rainless day; we are tired and hungry and super happy to be here. For the fifth time, we have to write down our names and passport numbers in the big registry book. By now, I just invent random numbers. We are then awarded with two blankets each and a key to a room with two bunk beds- the coldest most expensive “hotel” we have ever slept in and there is not even a shower. At this altitude, it gets freezing at night. While the rest of the mountaineers eat hot meals prepared in the kitchen of the ranger station, we eat canned food and crackers. Most of the people are locals (they pay less) and Europeans: lots of German and French. In our room, we sleep with our clothes on wrapped in the blankets.
Climbing Cerro Chirripo. Day2
The next morning, we wake up at 3:00 a.m. and start walking in the dark with little headlights on. There are 5 more kilometers to the summit, and these are the toughest ones. At this altitude, I can barely breathe. It’s freezing cold. We can hear a river, but don’t see it. All we see are billions of stars hanging above us, and contours of black mountains. We are walking through the thick grasses of the Costa Rican paramo. The path is hard to find in the dark, especially when it goes over flat rocky areas. We lose it. We have to come back and find it again. We keep walking. We want to get to the summit just before sunrise and watch the daybreak from the top of Costa Rica, but I am struggling with the altitude and am way too slow. I don’t feel good at all. I want to quit. I want to go back in the shelter and wait there. But Ivo and Maya are urging me to keep going. They stop and wait for me while I rest every couple of minutes. I need to sit down, catch my breath, and wait for my heart to calm down. The terrain gets rougher and steeper, and on top of that the cold wind picks up. After one last turn, we finally see the last peak. Cerro Chirripo is beautiful and frightening- a vertical steep pyramid of grey rocks. I give up. I will not reach this summit. It’s way too hard for me. I tell Ivo and Maya to leave me behind and hurry up to catch the sunrise. I want to start walking back and will wait for them at the shelter. Reluctant, Ivo and Maya continue without me. As they start the final ascent, I hear Maya in the distance saying- “Mama, don’t come, this is way too difficult for you, you can’t make it!”
Alone, I sit and rest for a while but it gets too cold. I have to keep going or I will freeze to death. I get up and start walking again. Towards the summit. Slowly, I climb over the rocks on my fours. This reminds me of our ordeal going down from Volcan Baru in Panama... The sun is already out and I can see the dark crater lake and the sea of white clouds below. Ivo and Maya are already on top and when they see me struggling across the final vertical meters of the mountain like a wounded old turtle, they are super happy and surprised. In fact, I haven’t seen Ivo so happy and proud of me for a long time. This makes me feel happy too. I made it! We all made it to the top of Costa Rica, what a glorious unforgettable moment!
After a few freezing cold minutes on the summit and a well-deserved chocolate, we start the long downhill walk. It’s 5 km back to the shelter plus 14km back to the village for a total of 24 km for the day. The walk down is easier on the hearth and lungs, but proves harder on the knees and legs, and I struggle again. The weather is once again perfect. We don’t get a drop of rain the entire time both days, and only when we return to San Gerardo and finally sit on the bench in front of the small grocery shop in town eating some cheap spicy sausage and drinking local beer with a young coupe form Quebec, it starts poring. But we don’t care. We are back, we are dry, and we are resting. No more hiking for today.
Tips for climbing Cerro Chirripo
Make reservations in advance if possible. There are only 60 people per day allowed in the park, as there are only 60 beds in the ranger station. While we were in San Gerardo, we met a guy who had to wait one more day, as the park quota was reached and he couldn’t climb the summit the same day.
Bring good mountain boots, winter jackets and hats, and flashlights. The lights at Crestones are switched off at 8:00 p.m. and the hike in the morning begins in total darkness.
Bring a bottle of water. You can refill it at kilometer 7 and once again before Crestones.
Even though we didn’t get any rain, it is highly possible that you will, so bring rain ponchos.
If you feel, like we do, that the park fees are way too expensive, you can make a complaint. Hopefully, they will lower the prices if more people express their opinion. For more information, visit the park’s website Parque Nacional Chirripo
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