The varying altitude means an amazing diversity of fauna in Parque Nacional Chirripó. Particularly famous for its extensive birdlife, the national park is home to several endangered species, including the harpy eagle (the largest, most powerful raptor in the Americas) and the resplendent quetzal (especially visible between March and May). Even besides these highlights, you might see highland birds including the three-wattled bellbird, black guan and tinamou. The Andean-like páramo guarantees volcano junco, sooty robin, slaty finch, large-footed finch and the endemic volcano hummingbird, which is found only in Costa Rica’s highlands.
In addition to the prolific birdlife, the park is home to some unusual high-altitude reptiles, such as the green spiny lizard and the highland alligator lizard. Mammals include pumas, Baird’s tapirs, spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys, and – at higher elevations – Dice’s rabbits and the coyotes that feed on them.
Although spotting rarer animals is never a guaranteed proposition, here are a few tips to maximize your chances: pumas stick to the savanna areas and use the trails at dawn and dusk to move about; Baird’s tapirs gravitate to various highland lagoons, mainly in the rainy season, so stake out the muddy edges at dawn or dusk if you see recent tracks; and at nighttime, coyotes can be seen feeding at the rubbish bins near Crestones Base Lodge.
The park entrance is at San Gerardo de Rivas, which lies 1219m above sea level; the altitude at the summit is 3820m, which makes it 2.6km straight up! A well-marked 19.6km trail leads all the way to the top, with trail markers every kilometer, and no technical climbing is required. It would be nearly impossible to get lost.
Altitude sickness can be an issue as you get higher up. Watch out for nausea, shortness of breath, headaches and exhaustion. If you start feeling unwell, rest for a little while; if the symptoms persist, descend immediately.
The amount of time it takes to get up varies greatly – it can take as little as five and as many as 12 hours to cover the 14.5km from the start of the trail to the Crestones Base Lodge, depending on how fit you are; bank on at least seven hours. From the lodge it's another 5.1km to the summit, which takes around two hours one way.
Most hikers start the hike between 4am and 5am, though there's nothing to stop you from leaving earlier. The actual entrance to the park is 4km from the start of the trail in San Gerardo, which is 70m beyond Hotel Urán (and about 4km from the ranger station).
The first 6km or so are mostly uphill, over uneven, rocky ground, with some relatively flat stretches. You pass through dense cloud forest, so keep an eye out for quetzals.
Then there's a gentle descent toward the shelter at Llano Bonito (7.5km), which is a good place for a break. Here you can stock up on drinking water, use the flushing toilets and buy snacks and even aspirin. This place is intended for emergency use, not overnight stays, however.
Just beyond begins the Cuesta de los Arrepentidos ('Hill of the Repentants') and boy, will you repent! (At this point, try not to think about the long-distance runners who run from San Gerardo to Crestones and back again in around four hours.) It's a steep uphill slog until you reach the top of Monte Sin Fe (which translates as ‘Mountain Without Faith’), a preliminary crest that reaches 3200m at around Km 10. By then you're on exposed ground, flanked by stunted tree growth, with gorgeous mountain views around you. The trail then descends gently for around 1.5km, making you grind your teeth, since what goes down must come up! The last section is an interminable, steep ascent before you see the green roofs of the Crestones Base Lodge just downhill from you; breathe a sigh of relief before descending to 3400m.
Reaching the lodge is the hardest part. From here the hike to the summit is 5.1km on relatively flatter terrain (although the last 100m is very steep). Carry a warm jacket, rain gear, water, snacks and a flashlight just in case, but leave anything you don't need at the lodge. From the summit on a clear day, the vista stretches to both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The deep-blue lakes and the plush-green hills carpet the Valle de las Morenas in the foreground.
Most hikers reach the lodge around lunchtime and spend the rest of the day recuperating before leaving for the summit at around 3am to arrive in time to watch the sunrise – a spectacular experience.
For most people, a minimum of two days is needed to climb from the ranger station in San Gerardo to the summit and back, leaving no time for exploration. During peak season you're allowed to book a maximum of two nights at the lodge, and at all other times the max is three nights. This gives you extra time to explore the trails around the summit and/or the Base Lodge.
Planning your hike
Hiking up Chirripó requires a bit of planning, though the process became significantly easier in 2016 when Sistema Nacional de Areas de Conservación (Sinac) created an online booking system for park permits, which can be found at https://serviciosenlinea.sinac.go.cr. You'll need to set up an account to purchase your permits for each day you'll be in the park, which can be done up to six months in advance and must be secured with a credit card. You'll also be able to reserve a bed at Crestones Base Lodge, and at the time of research it was Consorcio Aguas Eternas that had the concession to handle lodgings within the park (this is subject to change, and you can get the most current information on the Sinac website). Payment must be carried out with Consorcio Aguas Eternas via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), over the phone (2742-5097) or possibly in person. You must arrange your payment within 10 days of making the reservation then send a receipt with your reservation number to email@example.com. Otherwise, your reservation for the lodge will be cancelled.
The dry season (from late December to April) is the most popular time to visit Chirripó. February and March are the driest months with the clearest skies, though it may still rain. On weekends, and especially during holidays, the trails can get a bit crowded with Tico hiking groups. The park is now open year-round, and the early months of the rainy season are good for climbing as it usually doesn’t rain in the morning.
In any season, temperatures can drop below freezing at night, so warm clothes (including hat and gloves) and rainwear are necessary. Wear sturdy boots and bring good second-skin blister plasters. In exposed areas, high winds seem even colder. The ranger station in San Gerardo de Rivas is a good place to check on the weather conditions.
Chirripó's trails are well marked and do not require maps.
Hiking Other Trails
There are several attractive destinations that are accessible by trails from the Crestones Base Lodge. These will require at least another day and real topographical maps. An alternative, longer route between the Base Lodge and the summit goes via Cerro Terbi (3760m), as well as Los Crestones, the moonlike rock formations that adorn many postcards. If you are hanging around for a few days, the glorious, grassy Sabana de los Leones is a popular destination that offers a stark contrast to the otherwise alpine scenery. Peak-baggers will want to visit Cerro Ventisqueros (3812m), which is also within a day’s walk of Crestones. These trails are fairly well maintained, but it’s worth inquiring about conditions before setting out.
For hard-core adventurers, an alternative route is to take a guided three- or five-day loop trek that begins in the nearby village of Herradura and spends a day or two traversing cloud forest and páramo on the slopes of Fila Urán. Hikers ascend Cerro Urán (3600m) before the final ascent of Chirripó and then descend through San Gerardo. This trip requires bush camping and carrying a tent. Costa Rica Trekking Adventures can make arrangements for this tour, although Cerro Urán was temporarily closed to hikers at the time of research.
Practical Tip: Day Hiking Chirripó
The masochistically inclined and the superfit may be thrilled to know that it's feasible to summit Chirripó and return to town in a single day. But whatever you do, don't underestimate the mountain.
It's a 39.2km round trip that involves a climb of 2000m into high-altitude territory and is an exhausting uphill slog most of the way. The summit is more likely to be cloudy in the afternoons than early in the morning, meaning you probably won't get much of a view, and summiting and returning on the same day almost invariably means descending at least part of the way in the dark.
But if you're determined to do it, make sure you take food, water, a flashlight with spare batteries and warm clothes. And start early – around 1am or 2am. That way you can get to Crestones Base Lodge midmorning, have time to rest, summit, and then head back down again in the afternoon. Walking part of the way in the dark is not a problem, since the trail is clearly marked and it's almost impossible to get lost. But if you have any doubts about your fitness, consider a long day hike in the Cloudbridge Nature Reserve instead.