Located in Chirripo National Park, Costa Rica’s Mount Chirripo is the tallest peak in the country, and a extremely worthwhile (though somewhat challenging) destination. The six-hour climb to the top of Mount Chirripo is not for inexperienced hikers or people with health problems, but eco-tourists and experienced backpackers will be richly rewarded at the end of the hike with a spectacular view that includes both the Caribbean Ocean to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and amazing green vistas that stretch for miles.
Chirripo National Park is also home to the most beautiful bird in Costa Rica: the elusive and exotic quetzal. Quetzals are hard to see in the wild, but the many bed band breakfasts on the way back to San Juan from Chirropo boast easy and frequent quetzal sightings, so seeing a quetzal up close can still be on the agenda.
San Isidro de El General is a small Costa Rican town that makes an ideal base camp for exploring Chirripo National Park. The drive to San Isidro from San Juan takes about three hours by car, but the bad news is that to get to San Isidro tourists must negotiate the most treacherous stretch of the Interamerican Highway in all of Costa Rica.
The drive to San Isidro includes a white-knuckle excursion over the Cerro de la Muerte (or, in English, the Mountain of Death); so named because the mountain roads are muddy, unpredictable and marked by unexpected sheer drop offs. On the ‘up’ side, the views are spectacular. Buses leave for San Isidro from San Juan several times each day and are inexpensive (less than $5 for the trip), so leaving the driving to a local pro is an affordable option.
The Hotel Diamante is the priciest, newest hotel in downtown San Isidro, but the Hotel Iguazu or the Hotel Los Crestones are affordable, clean options at a fraction of the cost. Travelers can also stay at any of a number of small bed and breakfasts closer to the beginning of the mountain trail, which is about 12 miles from San Isidro and can be reached by car, taxi, or bus.
The Summit Lodge, located atop Mount Chirripo inside the park, is a convenient place to stay but is booked up months in advance, so plan ahead. The trek to the top of the mountain and back takes about two days, although some hardcore hikers sometimes finish it in a single day.
While no tricky moves or exceptional equipment is required, the hike to the summit of Mount Chirripo is strenuous in places, and is not suitable for persons who are not used to hiking or who have health issues. Many guided day hikes can be arranged out of San Isidro or San Gerardo de Rivas (where most people begin the trek), so if you aren’t certain of your hiking stamina, start with one of these instead. Inexperienced hikers should not set out alone for the summit.
Camping is not allowed inside Chirripo National Park, so planning ahead (with reservations for the Summit Lodge) is a good idea. Selva Mar (www.exploringcostarica.com) and Costa Rica Trekking Adventures (www.chirripo.com) also arrange three and four day guided expeditions into Chirripo National Park for between $325 an $500 per person.
However you decide to explore Mount Chirripo, expect to take at least several days doing it. Chirripo National Park is cloud forest territory and is packed with many breathtaking landmarks and natural wonders, such as Los Crestones (The Crests, an unusual rock formation), the Valle de los Conejos (the Rabbit Valley), the Valle de los Lagos (Valle of the Lakes), and of course, the breathtaking view from the summit itself.
Note: The weather is changeable: Down to freezing at night, but quite hot on sunny afternoons, so plan to dress in layers and make sure some of them are woolen or very warm.