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Chirripó

As an inexperienced hiker, I didn’t think I would survive the two-day trek up Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak. I puffed and panted behind my friends, focusing my eyes on the myriad of toggles and straps on their packs and cursing myself for agreeing to come along.

We hiked the first 14 kilometers (8.6 miles) by day, marveling at the mystical foliage, swirling fog, and grand vistas. The second morning, we left the rangers’ base camp at three a.m., hoping to reach the top before dawn. I followed the intrepid, bobbing headlamps above me, pausing periodically to catch my breath and look back at the tumbled landscape of scrubby trees and jutting peaks spread below. As the black sky melted into rosy oranges and pinks, I clambered up the final rocks and huddled with my friends, 12,529 feet (3,818 meters) above sea level, watching the sun rise over bands of soft clouds.

Chirripó crowns the Talamanca range, southern Costa Rica’s geological backbone. The indigenous tribe that named the peak was surely inspired by the crystal lakes nestled below it—Chirripó means “Land of the Eternal Waters.” However, modern-day hikers will be just as impressed by the stunning range of ecosystems that blanket the mountainside. In some areas, towering bamboo stands flank the trail, and in others, branches heavy with moss hang overhead. Jewel-like blue ants crisscross the path, and beady-eyed lizards dart among the damp leaves.

Higher up, the forest opens onto an eerie landscape scarred by fires, where charred trunks twist about like hands reaching out from graves. It is reassuring to find the base camp hostel, Los Crestones, tucked in a pretty valley, several kilometers below the satisfyingly windswept summit.

Because Chirripó is such a popular destination, the steep trail is well maintained, though slippery and muddy during the rainy season.  You must register ahead of time, in San Isidro or at the ranger station in the village of San Gerardo de Rivas because you can not hike Chirripó if you don’t, plus beds are limited at the camp. Most people cover 14 km (8.6 miles) on the first day, as we did, leaving before eight a.m. and arriving at the hostel mid-afternoon. The facility is spare, but clean, and the young staff is friendly. The cheerful communal kitchen is well stocked, and there are blankets, sleeping bags, and gas stoves available to rent. Temperatures approach freezing and electricity is unreliable, so warm clothes and flashlights are essential (only one person in our group braved the cold water showers).

On day two, many groups rise early for the final five km (three mile) stretch to the summit.  Sunrise at the top is worth the dark climb. Some people spend two nights at the hostel, resting their muscles and exploring the lakes, but others head back to San Gerardo after reaching the peak, as I did. San Gerardo offers several food and lodging options, all catering to the Chirripó crowd.

On our last night, warm and clean, we clinked glasses over steaming banana pancakes and regaled new arrivals with the tales of our climb.



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