5 Ecosystems in 1 Day: Chirripó National Park

By Gabby Salazar

Waking up before dawn to hike uphill for miles isn’t usually my idea of a relaxing vacation. But on a recent trip to Costa Rica, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to scale the country’s highest peak, Cerro Chirripó. That meant traveling to Chirripó National ParkChirripó National ParkChirripó National Park — and getting the chance to experience five distinct ecosystems, from misty cloud forest to tundra-like páramo, in one day.

On the morning of our ascent, we hit the trail at 5:30 with bellies full of gallo pinto, a traditional Costa Rican dish of rice and beans. Having sent our luggage up with porters for a well-spent $40 (the porters are part of a cooperative in San Gerardo de Rivas, so the money supports the local economy), we only needed daypacks, which left our hands free to snap plenty of photos on the way up.

The Crestones base camp came into view around 3:00 p.m., and when we arrived at the lodge we found our luggage, along with comfy bunk beds, clean bathrooms, and a communal dining area, waiting for us.

If you’re trying to keep to a shoestring budget, this trip is very doable. In addition to lodging fees, all you need is a $40 park pass, a sleeping bag, food, rain gear, and very warm clothes. (The lodge is known as the “refrigerator” owing to its icy nighttime temperatures.) I would advise adding another night to give yourself time to get acclimated before the hike and to rest your tired feet afterward.

Because we booked just one night at the lodge, we had to hike up to the summit and all the way down to the base of the trail the next day. That was a very long day.

It started at 4:00 a.m.

We awoke to find the base camp shrouded in clouds (on a clear day you can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific), and started hoofing it the last three miles to the top.

While the view from that height is impressive, it was the way up the mountain that was the real stunner.

Over the course of our 11-mile hike, we had passed through fern groves, premontane tropical wet forest, cloud forest, and páramo (an alpine tundra ecosystem full of shrubs and grasses), though seeing the oak forest’s thick mists swallow up the towering, moss-covered trees was without peer.

The wildlife we encountered along the way was equally stunning. The Talamanca mountains are home to an estimated 40 species of birds that are found only in Costa Rica and western Panama. About six miles into the hike, we heard the squawking of the Silvery-throated jay; a few miles later, we glimpsed a resplendent quetzal gliding through the haze.

If you are hesitant to tackle the 22-mile round trip from the town of San Gerardo de Rivas to the Crestones base camp and back again, just think about the 70-year-old man who participates in the International Chirripó Marathon each year. Yes, you heard it right: that same trip, but running.

I’m not quite ready for the marathon, but I would do the hike again. On foot, I could fully appreciate the spectacular diversity of the region and really experience the transitions between ecosystems — something I would have easily missed behind the window of a car or bus.

How to plan your own Chirripó adventure:

  • To get to the park from San José (a five-hour trip), take a bus to the city of San Isidro and another to the village of San Gerardo de Rivas.
  • Once you’re in San Gerardo, stop by the park office to try to snag one of the first-come, first-served reservation slots for the Crestones base camp. You can also make reservations ahead of time, which is recommended if you are traveling in the high season (December-April).
  • Hotel Urán and Casa Mariposa are the best bets for lodging at the base of the trail (in San Gerardo), though the nearby Cloudbridge Nature Reserve offers a few beds for weary travelers and well-maintained trails that lead to four different waterfalls.
  • In San Gerardo, you can also hire porters for your luggage (the key to my success). They run about $35 for the ascent and $3 per kilogram for the descent.

Gabby Salazar is a conservation photographer and one of National Geographic’s Young Explorer grantees.