The number one attraction in Chirripó national park is climbing Cerro Chirripó Grande, the highest peak in Costa Rica. The views are spectacular, on a clear day, you can see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean sea simultaneously.
It is long (9 miles, 15 km), steep (nearly 10,000 feet, 3,000 meters) of elevation gain, and strenuous climb, but there are mountain huts (refugios) where you can spend the night so you don’t have to carry a tent (in fact tent camping is prohibited).
The first at Llano Bonito is less than half way to the peak, smaller and more rustic. Since 2007 it is prohibited to stay at Llano Bonito except in the case of an emergency and hikers must continue to the main shelter Centro Ambientalista El Paraíso below the summit.
The Centro was rebuilt in 2000 with river rock walls, a tin roof and bunks for 40 backpackers. It is nominally heated and supplied with solar generated electricity for an hour or so after dark and in 2014 a by reservation only meal service was offered during high season. Be sure to either get confirmed reservations for your meals or carry enough food. You will be hungry!
Hiking & Camping
Maps and visitors guides are available at the park headquarters a few hundred yards south of San Gerardo de Rivas in Canáan.
If you want to attempt the climb, be prepared. Carry lots of water, and a system for purifying more. You will need a sleeping bag (it snowed lightly on us one New Years Eve on the peak), food, and a cook stove for the night in the refugio.
You will also need to make a reservation through the park system and an official guide. If you call the ranger station, you may be told that there is a long waiting list. If you stop by the ranger station and ask for a permit it may be issued on the spot but cancellations have become uncommon.
While many visitors are attracted by the challenge of conquering Cerro Chirripó Grande, the journey can be as exhilarating as the accomplishment.
The diversity as you climb from the pastures at 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) elevation near San Gerardo de Rivas, to the paramo (tundra) ecosystem near the peak at 3,819 meters (12,530 feet) keeps small armies of biologists fascinated for their entire careers.
Above the pastures, you enter the park in tropical evergreen lower montane forest and move upwards into the montane rainforests where you will find giant oak trees 50 meters (165 feet) tall or more. These emergent giants tower over the other trees that average 30 meters (100 feet), and the understory of ferns and bamboo.
The trail follows such steep hillsides and valley walls, that often you can look out into the canopy of the trees rooted hundreds of feet downhill. You will have a chance to see the epiphytic ecosystem up close and personal. In some ways it is even better than a canopy tour, because your feet are planted firmly on the ground, you can spend as much time as you want, and it’s free.
As you climb higher, the vegetation hugs lower to the ground. If you look down into the crystal water of the streams, you will see trout. Above tree line, you see cactus and scrub. Conditions become harsher and by the time you reach the refugio, you wonder if you are somewhere on the Colorado plateau.
In order to protect the fragile ecosystems camping is not allowed except at the designated campground on the Herradura trail. You can overnight in the refugios inside the park (climbers huts, reservations required).
The first refugio is at Llano Bonito, not quite half way up. The second, and main refugio about two kilometers from the peak is the Centro Ambientalista El Paraíso. The third refugio is in the Valle de las Morenas a few km north of Chirripó. All require advance reservations.
Just outside the park there are many lodging options in and around San Gerardo de Rivas.
Best Time to Visit Chirripó
Driving – Take the Pan American Highway East out of San José, the road curves South and changes designation from Highway 1 to Highway 2, although it’s still the Pan American Highway. About 30 miles (50 km) past Cartago you climb over Cerro de la Muerte, which isn’t called the mountain of the dead because of all the head on bus collisions there, but it could be (the name actually originated from all of the people who died walking over the pass before the road was much more than a trail). It’s not advisable to drive in Costa Rica at night, but especially not here. You will reach San Isidro el General after a total of 92 miles (153 km, approx. 3 1/2 hours), pass through town and turn left 0.6 miles (1 km) south of town towards San Gerardo de Rivas (3.6 miles, 6 km).
Bus – Relatively current and typically correct bus schedule information is available atthebusschedule.com/cr/
Traveling by bus to San Gerardo de Rivas requires a stopover in San Isidro. For a rough idea the last time we checked we found the possibilities below
100 San Isidro (Chirripó National Park) Express departures daily from San José, outside Terminal Coca Cola, every hour from 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., 3 hours.
To get to the entrance of Chirripó National Park, take the bus to San Gerardo de Rivas from the San Isidro terminal at 5:00 a.m., or 2:00 p.m.
In the Region
Casa Mariposa is a humble albergue right across from the trail head that has simple rooms, shared bath and the most hospitable friendly and helpful hosts you could ever hope for. Birds flit in and out the windows that open onto the Rio Chirripó Pacífico behind the house and it feels a little like something out of Disney.
Talamanca Reserve is both a huge private forest reserve with dozens of km of trails and the most upscale lodging in the area. It also boast a very good restaurant and one of the best fruit smoothies I’ve ever tasted.
Cloudbridge Reserve like Talamanca reserve protects a large area of rain and cloud forest and also has numerous trails but no lodging. Beautiful waterfalls and couple of spots where you can swim.
Soda El Descanso – Even if you don’t stay or eat there, stop in and say hi to Francisco Elizondo at his cabinas in San Gerardo de Rivas. Check out his photo and trophy gallery commemorating his finishes in the annual race up Chirripó. You will be humbled when you see the times for the round trip race.
Natural Hot Springs: There is a beautiful thermal spring about a 15 minute walk north of the ranger station in San Gerardo de Rivas off the road to Herradura. Look for a hand painted sign pointing to the right. The pool is on private property and charges a couple of dollars entry.
The setting used to be a perfect little natural sand bottomed pond but has been replaced with a large concrete pool. There’s still no better way to soak and massage out the aches from hiking (the hot water gushes out of a fire hose size opening and will pound the pain out of your muscles).
Please go heavy on the sunscreen! This close to the equator, at this altitude, you can get so badly burned you end up in the hospital.
Acute Moutain Sickness (Altitude Sickness) is a distinct possibility on Chirripó. Please read up on how to prevent, recognize and treat it if you’re planning on visiting.