Climbing Chirripo Mountain…The Good, the Bad and the Ugly!
Chirripo Mountain is the highest mountain in Costa Rica towering over the landscape at 12, 530 ft. The Mountain is in the Chirripo National Park which covers 125,650 acres and is part of 3 provinces (San Jose, Limon & Cartago). One a clear day, both the Pacific Ocean to the West and the Caribbean Sea to the East can be seen from the Summit. Hiking the mountain is available to both locals and foreigners with reservations.
Most people decide to hike the mountain in 2 days. The first day is a 14 km (8.4 miles) hike to goes from 5500 ft to Over 11,500 ft. Crestones Lodge is located at the 14.5 km mark and within 5 kms of the summit. Most people stop at Crestones for the night and tackle the summit the following day which is an additional 3 hour hike. Many get up at 3 am and hike in the dark to reach the summit for sunrise and the best chance for a clear day. After summiting, most hikers will begin the 5-6 hour trek back to the bottom of the trail and back to civilization.
My group embarked on our hike to the top on December 12th. There was intense rain the night before and a cold front made it one of the coldest days of the year in Costa Rica. The rain and the use of horses to transport gear and food up and down the mountain made for a slow and muddy hike.
Planning the hike started months before with making reservation to the park and then making a deposit to stay at Crestones Lodge at the top of the mountain. The busiest months (Jan-April) reservations are sold out months in advance so its best make reservation with plenty of time to spare. To make reservation to enter the park, you must first go to the SINAC website and request a username and password. You can then go onto the site and request passes for each day you will be within the park. https://serviciosenlinea.sinac.go.cr/Login/registrarUsuario
Once you have registered you will be able to book your reservation. Most people depart from the town of San Genaro de Rivas when embarking on their hike. Once you have received a confirmation email about your passes into the park, you will be allowed to book your reservations at Crestones Lodge at the top of the mountain at email@example.com. You will need to make a bank deposit into a Costa Rica Bank account within 10 days of making your reservation to reserve your spot at the lodge. If you are a foreigner and are unable to deposit into their CR bank account, they will allow you to make the deposit into the bank account upon your arrival into CR or even allow you to pay at their office at the base of the mountain prior to the hike. You simply have to email them and inform them that you are not in CR and wish to pay upon your arrival.
You must check in to both the Rangers Station (By 4pm) and the Crestone Lodge Office (By 5pm) the day prior to your hike to get your passes and a wristband. Both offices are located in San Gerardo de Rivas so the small mountain town is an ideal place to stay the night before your hike. There are a number of restaurants, hotels and hostels at all price ranges. We chose Hotel El Pelicano (www.hotelelpelicano.net) because it seemed nice, was only a couple of kilometers from the park entrance and had an onsite restaurant. At about $70 a night per room, I felt it was a bargain. Clean and well-maintained rooms, a fire burning in the fire place and friendly staff. Breakfast was about $5 but with only basic choices which was fine with us. There is a pool, jacuzzi and rancho. Because of the cool climate we would have liked to see the pool and jacuzzi heated but they were not.
The trail itself starts 2 km outside of town. We decided to park at Hotel Uran as it was located right next to the Trailhead and seemed to have secure parking. We departed at 8am after having a solid breakfast and stopping at a convenience store for some last-minute bottles of water and snacks for the trip.
We then started hiking and quickly learned that this hike is no joke. Our weekly 2-hour hikes with no backpack at sea level or the 30 minutes on the stairmaster a few times a week at the gym will not prepare you for covering 14 kilometers and going from 5500 ft to over 11000 ft in one day. The trail itself is well marked and easy to follow. It is however steep and when covered in mud like the day we hiked can be very challenging. There is a marker every kilometer which keeps you motivated mentally. There is also a small store at the 7km mark that has picnic tables bathrooms, a water station and light snacks and beverages. This is a great place to stop and have lunch. The vegetation and climate reminded me a lot of British Columbia…lush, green, damp and cool. As the day wore on and we got higher and higher, I expected the trail to flatten out and get easier. That never happened. Except for a few small sections of flat parts or only slight inclines, this trail is steep all day. As you get higher and higher, the air becomes thinner and the steep sections become harder and harder as your energy levels plummet from walking all day. There is a sign at approximately the 13 km mark that says you are only 1.5 kms away from Crestone Lodge. You feel so close but this sign is just teasing you because the last 1.5 km is some of the hardest and steepest terrain of the entire hike. I had to pick short goals like a rock or a tree 15 ft away. I would get to that tree and need to stop for 30 seconds and slow my breathing and heart rate. Then pick another goal 15 feet away. After struggling for over 8 hours to get to the basecamp, you finally see the green roof of the Crestone Base Camp and the Summit of Chirripo sitting on the other side of the valley.
Crestones Lodge is very basic. There is a dining area with 3-4 large tables, a small shop with snacks, drinks and essentials like the toothbrush you forgot. There is also a small kitchen that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The kitchen has a huge rice cooker so all the means revolve around rice. The food isn’t great but after hiking for 8 hours, you will eat just about anything they put in front of you. There are 13 shared rooms with 2 bunch beds…so 4 people per room and a total capacity of 52 hikers. The bathrooms are shared. The lodge uses solar electricity for power and the lights are shut off at night in the lodge. So, a flashlight or headlamp are advisable. There is also no heat and you are only give a light blanket or sleeping bag so warm clothing is essential not only for your hike but for sleeping.
Most people depart at about 3am from the lodge to reach the Summit for sunrise at about 5:30am. After a short stay at the summit, return to the lodge, eat some breakfast and get ready for the 6 hour descent back to San Gerardo de Rivas. The decent is obviously much easier than the climb up the mountain. For me, the first 5 kilometers flew by and we were within reach of half way point within a couple of hours. The last half of the decent is still much easier than the ascent up but the climb up and 3 hours of descending starts taking its toll. Your legs will be sore and your steps will have to be short and small as there is little power left to slow your body down. Your knees, ankles and calves will hurt and possible get swell up. And if you have a rainy day, the day before like we did, the slick mud and rocks will keep the pace slow. But you can keep moving and you won’t be struggling to keep your breathing and heart rate in check. Finally, after approximately 17 hours of hiking in 2 days, you will be back in town and ready for a snack and a cold beer to celebrate!
Some Tips to get you through the hike…
Pack light! When you are hiking straight up for 8 hours in one day, every once counts! There is an optional porter service where they bring your gear up the mountain for c2000 per Kilo.
Bring the right gear. You will want good hiking shoes, breathable comfortable clothing and warm gear to sleep in. A good backpack and a headlamp are advisable.
Prepare Months in Advance. You will need to book your reservations months in advance. And if youre not a serious hiker, you will want to get yourself physically ready and that wont happen overnight! And remember, you need to check in the afternoon before by 4pm so plan on staying close by the night before your hike
Food and Beverages. I found that most of the heavier foods like sandwiches that we packed were barely touched while we were on the hike. We instead were going after quick and easy snacks…like chocolate bars, nuts and cookies. Although water is always king, I opted for some Powerade which can be bought at the 7km watering station and at Crestones Lodge. Anything that gives you quick and easy energy is ideal.
Take your time and enjoy the hike! For most, this hike is a once in a lifetime adventure. Take the time to appreciate the flora and fauna and the spectacular views.
Although Costa Rica Gurus does not offer tours to Chirripo, we are happy to answer any questions you may have about hiking the mountain based on our recent experience. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy Hiking!