Chirripo National Park
At the highest point in Costa Rica (3,820 meters above sea level), you can look down at the clouds. This is Chirripo Mountain; a national park with a climate reminiscent of a far northern October even though the latitude is 9 degrees north of the equator. The hike up is a steep ascent through forest that resembles something out of the Lord of the Rings. This montane rain forest is filled with beautiful old growth oaks; their mossy crowns hiding Resplendent Quetzals, their roots shrouded by bamboo undergrowth echoing with the songs of Gray-breasted Wood Wrens and Nightingale-Thrushes.
Location and how to get there
Chirripo national park is found near San Gerardo de Rivas in south-central Costa Rica. From San Jose, take the highway towards Cartago, then the turn-off for San Isidro del General. Drive up and over the mountains on curvy roads until you reach San Isidro then follow the signs to Rivas and Chirripo National park. The long walk up the mountain starts at San Gerardo de Rivas. The trail is signed and passes through beautiful cloud forests until the scrubby paramo vegetation is reached. There is a basic shelter in the forest and a more equipped one in the paramo. This latter shelter is a few kilometers from the peak.
Chirripo National Park protects a large area of old growth montane rain forest and scrubby vegetation more typical of the high Andes known as paramo. The paramo here has many plants and at least one frog and bird species found nowhere else. The montane rain forests are also rich with endemics; at least 40% of the bird species found at Chirripo are restricted to the high mountains of Costa Rica and Panama. This is an especially good area to see the Resplendent Quetzal; a bird so spectacular that the Mayans took it to be a messenger from the Gods. New species of plants and even amphibians were still being described from these biodiverse forests as of 2008.
The main attraction of Chirripo National Park is conquering the mountain. The two main requirements are being fit enough to do it and getting a permit from the National Park Office (in advance or upon arrival). Make sure you carry lots of water, high energy food and equipment for camping at near freezing temperatures. Start your ascent early because overnighting is only allowed at the shelters. The one above treeline is equipped with a kitchen.
San Gerardo de Rivas
If you don’t meet the requirements for ascending Chirripo, San Gerardo de Rivas is a beautiful village all on its own. Many fancy bird species such as tanagers and Emerald Toucanets are present around town and there are beautiful trails through cloud forest at the Las Nubes Reserve. Hot springs and trout ponds are also a short drive from town and easily found by following the signs.
In and around San Gerardo de Rivas are a variety of small hotels. One of these, El Pelicano is filled with amazing wood sculptures. Make reservations before arriving as the hotels near Chirripo regularly fill up with hikers heading up or coming down from the mountain.