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Chirripó National Park
Chirripó National Park is all about hiking. The ascent up Mt. Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, is the most popular and challenging hike in the country. It's also the most exclusive, limited to 40 hikers per day.
From the trailhead to the peak, you gain more than 2,438 meters (8,000 feet) of elevation, climbing through shaded highland forest, then out into the wide-open, windswept wilds of the páramo, scrubby moorland similar to the high Andes. It's a 48-km (30-mile) round-trip, and you need at least three days to climb to the hostel base, explore the summits, and descend. The modern but chilly stone hostel is the only available accommodation, with small rooms of four bunks each, shared cold-water bathrooms, and a cooking area. A new generator and solar panels provide some electricity, but the hostel is still bare-bones rustic, although improvements are afoot at this writing. Trails from the hostel lead to the top of Chirripó—the highest point in Costa Rica—and the nearby peak of Terbi, as well as half a dozen other peaks and glacier lakes. Pack plenty of warm clothes.
Best Time to Go
Between sometimes freezing temperatures and more than 381 centimeters (150 inches) of rain a year, timing is of the essence here. The best months are in the dry season, January to May. The park is closed the last two weeks in May, all of October and often in November and December as well, if the trails are too wet and slippery for safety.
A climb up Chirripó is a rite of passage for many young Costa Ricans, who celebrate their graduation from high school or college with a group expedition.
Best Ways to Explore
There's no getting around it: the only way to explore this park is on foot. And the only way is up. It's a tough climb to Mt. Chirripó's base camp—6 to 10 hours from the official park entrance, depending on your physical condition—so most hikers head out of San Gerardo de Rivas before the first light of day. You can hire porters to lug your gear up and down for you, so at least you can travel relatively light.
People who live in Costa Rica train seriously for this hike, so be sure you are in good enough shape to make the climb. Smart hikers also factor in a couple of days in the San Gerardo de Rivas area to acclimate to the high altitude before setting out. The hike down is no picnic, either: your knees and ankles will be stretched to their limits. But it's an adventure every step of the way—and the bragging rights are worth it.
The base-camp hostel at Los Crestones is at 11,152 feet above sea level, so you still have some hiking ahead of you if you want to summit the surrounding peaks. Take your pick: Chirripó at 12,532 feet; Ventisqueros at 12,467 feet; Cerro Terbi at 12,336; and, for the fainter of heart, Mt. Uran at a measly 11,811 feet. Mountain hikers who collect "peaks" can add all four mountaintops to their list.
Although your eyes will mostly be on the scenery, there are some highland species of birds that thrive in this chilly mountain air. Watch for the volcano junco, a sparrowlike bird with a pink beak and a yellow eye ring. Only two hummingbirds venture up this high—the fiery-throated, which lives up to its name; and the volcano hummingbird, which is the country's smallest bird. If you see a raptor soaring above, chances are it's a red-tailed hawk.
Top Reasons to Go
The sheer sense of accomplishing this tough hike is the number one reason hikers take on this challenge. You don't have to be a mountain climber but you do need to be in very good shape.
On rare, perfectly clear days, the top of Chirripó is one of the few places in the country where you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Top of the World
The exhilaration of sitting on top of the world, with only sky, mountain peaks, and heath as far as the eye can see, motivates most visitors to withstand the physical challenges and the spartan conditions in the hostel.
A climb up Chirripó gives visitors a unique chance to experience extreme changes in habitat, from pastureland through rain forest and oak forest to bleak, scrubby páramo (a high-elevation ecosystem). As the habitat changes, so does the endemic wildlife, which thins out near the top, along with the air.
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