Introducing Parque Nacional Chirripó
Costa Rica’s mountainous spine runs the length of the country in four distinct cordilleras (mountain ranges), of which the Cordillera de Talamanca is the highest, longest and most remote. While most of the Talamanca highlands are difficult to access, Costa Rica’s highest peak, Cerro Chirripó, at 3820m above sea level, is the focus of popular Parque Nacional Chirripó. Of course, while Chirripó is the highest and most famous summit in Costa Rica, it is not unique: two other peaks inside the park top 3800m, and most of the park’s 502 sq km lies above 2000m.
Like a tiny chunk of the South American Andes, Parque Nacional Chirripó's rocky high-altitude features are an entirely unexpected respite from the heat and humidity of the rainforest (it's downright cold at night). Above 3400m, the landscape is páramo, which is mostly scrubby trees and grasslands, and supports a unique spectrum of highland wildlife. Rocky outposts punctuate the otherwise barren hills, and feed a series of glacial lakes that earned the park its iconic name: Chirripó means ‘eternal waters.’
The bare páramo contrasts vividly with the lushness of the cloud forest, which dominates the hillsides between 2500m and 3400m. Oak trees (some more than 50m high) tower over the canopy, which also consists of evergreens, laurels and lots of undergrowth. Epiphytes – the scraggy plants that grow up the trunks of larger trees – thrive in this climate. However, the low-altitude cloud forest is being encroached upon by agricultural fields and coffee plantations in the areas near San Gerardo de Rivas.
The only way up to Chirripó is by foot. Although the trekking routes are long and challenging, watching the sunrise from such lofty heights, literally above the clouds, is an undeniable highlight of Costa Rica. You will have to be prepared for the cold – and at times wet – slog to the top, though your efforts will be rewarded with some of the most sweeping vistas that Costa Rica can offer. The vast majority of travelers visit Chirripó over three days: one to get to San Gerardo de Rivas to secure permits, one to hike to the Crestones Base Lodge and one to summit the peak and return to San Gerardo. An extra day of day hiking at the top is advisable for those who really wish to soak up the amazing sights.