Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Parque Nacional Chirripó is named after Cerro Chirripó, which looms at its centre. At 3820m (12,533ft), it's the highest peak in Costa Rica, and indeed all of Central America, south of Guatemala. Ever since the conquest of the peak in 1904 by a missionary priest, Father Agustín Blessing (local indigenous peoples may of course have climbed it before), visitors have been flocking to Chirripó to do the same. Plan your trip to Cerro Chirripó with our guide to Cerro Chirripó — based on the The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.
The park’s terrain varies widely, according to altitude, from cloudforest to rocky mountaintops. Between the two lies the interesting alpine paramo — high moorland, punctuated by rocks, shrubs and hardy clump grasses more usually associated with Andean heights.
The colours here are muted yellows and browns, with the occasional deep purple. Below the paramo lie areas of oak forest, now much depleted through charcoal-burning.
Chirripó is also the only place in Costa Rica where you can observe vestiges of the glaciers that scraped across here about thirty thousand years ago. Expect narrow U-shaped valleys, moraines (heaps of rock and soil left behind by retreating glaciers) and glacial lakes. You'll also see distinctive crestones — heavily weathered fingers of rock that are more reminiscent of Montana than Costa Rica.
The land is generally waterlogged, with a few bogs. Take care where you step — it's sometimes so chilly you won’t want to get your feet wet.
Note that it’s not really feasible to climb Chirripó in one day. Almost everyone goes up to the Albergue El Páramo first, rests there overnight, and then takes another day or two to explore the summit and surrounding peaks.
The main thing to keep in mind is not to go off the trail or exploring on your own without telling anyone, especially in the higher areas of the park. Off the trail, definite landmarks are few, and it’s easy to get confused.
To ensure you have a spot on the trail, make an advance reservation for your hike. It’s also worth considering hiring a porter as well as a guide — both of which will make your experience more enjoyable.
The hike begins at 1520m and ends at 3820m, the summit. On the first day most hikers make the extremely strenuous 14.5km trek to the Albergue El Páramo at 3350m. Reckon on a minimum of six hours if you’re very fit (and the weather is good), twelve hours or more if you’re not.
On the second day you can make the albergue your base while you hike to the summit and back, which is easily done in a day, perhaps taking in some of the nearby lagoons.
The trailhead is well marked about 100m uphill from Hotel y Restaurante Urán, a little over a kilometre northeast and on the opposite side of the river from the centre of San Gerardo de Rivas. The walk begins in a cow pasture, before passing through thick, dark cloudforest, a good place to spot quetzals (March–May are the best months).
You pass into the Parque Nacional Chirripó proper after 4km. After a relatively flat stretch of several kilometres, where you’re likely to be plagued by various biting insects, you’ll arrive at a ranger station halfway to the accommodation huts.
The Cuesta de los Arrepentidos (“Hill of the Repentants”, meaning you’re sorry at this point that you came) is the real push, all uphill for 1km to the Albergue El Páramo, at 3350m.
At the albergue, the land looks like a greener version of Scotland — bare moss cover, grasslands and a waterlogged area where the lagoons congregate.
The rangers based at the summit of Cerro Chirripó are friendly, and in the high season (Jan–April) you can ask to accompany them on walks near the summit to avoid getting lost. Do not expect this, however, as it is not their job to lead guided walks.
It’s just two hours’ hike (5.1km) from the lodge along a well-marked trail to the summit. There’s a bit of scrambling involved, but no real climbing. You’ll need to set off by dawn, as clear weather at the peak is really only guaranteed until 9 or 10am.
From the top, if it’s clear, you can see right across to the Pacific. However, you’re above the cloud line up here, and the surrounding mountains are often obscured by drifting, milky clouds.
While Chirripó is hot at midday, it frequently drops to freezing at the higher altitudes at night. You should bring warm clothing (temperatures can fall to -7°C at night) and a proper sleeping bag (though these can be rented on site), a blanket, water, food and a propane gas stove.
A short list of clothing and other essentials might include a good pair of boots, socks, long trousers, T-shirt, shirt, jumper, woolly hat and jacket, lots of insect repellent, sunglasses, first aid (for cuts and scratches), gloves (for rocks and the cold), binoculars and a torch. Note that the albergue only has electricity between 6pm and 8pm.
Watch out for altitude sickness. If you’ve made a quick ascent from the lowland beach areas, you could find yourself becoming short of breath, experiencing pins and needles, nausea and exhaustion. If this happens, stop and rest; if symptoms persist, descend immediately.
Into epic walks? Read up on the best hikes in Costa Rica. Unsurprisingly, climbing Cerro Chirripó is one of them.
Many mammals live in Cerro Chirripó National Park, and you may see spider monkeys as you climb from the lower mountain to the montane rainforest.
Your best bet for bird-spotting is in the lower elevations. Along the oak and cloudforest sections of the trail you may spot hawks, trogons, woodpeckers and even quetzals. In the cold and inhospitable terrain higher up, you’ll only see robins and hawks.
20km southwest of Cerro Chirripó, San Isidro is regarded by foreign residents and Ticos alike as an attractive place to live. This is due to its country-town atmosphere and bustling commercial centre.
The twice-weekly indoor Farmers’ Market (known simply as the feria) is one of the region’s biggest, with over two hundred vendors. It's held at Feria del Agricultor on Thursdays (6am–4pm) and Fridays (7am–noon).
San Isidro also boasts several festivals connected to local agriculture with pineapples growing especially well here. During the first week of February, San Isidro hosts an agricultural fair on the Parque Central. This sees farmers don their finery, enter their produce in competitions, and sell fresh food in the streets.
Meanwhile, May is the month of San Isidro, patron saint of farmers and animals. Fiestas, ox-cart parades, dog shows celebrate the saint, with fairground Ferris wheels adding to the fun vibe.
Adjoining the Parque Nacional Chirripó, the private Cloudbridge Nature Reserve protects two square kilometres of lush cloudforest on the lower flanks of Cerro Chirripó, 2.5 km northeast of San Gerardo de Rivas.
Focused on studying reforestation and habitat recovery as well as the numerous mammals that live in the reserve, Cloudbridge offers an excellent primer to the flora and fauna that lies just beyond in the national park.
It also holds a few short trails, waterfalls that cascade into the Río Chirripó Pacífico, and a thriving botanical garden.
You essentially have two options — book your stay in the park itself, or in the neighbouring communities of San Gerardo de Rivas and Rivas.
Once you’ve confirmed and paid for your park admission online, you have ten days to book your accommodation in the park. To do this, contact Consorcio Aguas Eternas (Mon–Fri 8am–noon & 1–4pm; T2742 50975200). Next, send your SINAC deposit receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org with your reservation number. The Consorcio will then confirm your spot at the albergue.
The only accommodation in the park itself is a basic lodge called Albergue El Páramo (also known as Albergue Base Crestones, T2770 8040 or T2206 5021) at the Valle de Los Crestones. This has fifteen rooms, each sleeping four people, and you’ll be provided with a sheet, pillow, blanket and sleeping bag.
There’s intermittent free wi-fi, potable water, eight shared bathrooms with cold showers, a cooking area, a big sink where you can wash clothes and electricity (and lighting) 6–8pm only.
Note that the price tends to increase year on year, and payment must be made via bank transfer, or on site if within three days of reserving your park entrance fee.
Many travellers opt to stay in the small community of San Gerardo de Rivas and, to a lesser extent the village of Rivas, eight kilometres to the south.
At the doorstep of the Parque Nacional Chirripó, San Gerardo de Rivas is home to several very reasonably priced, friendly places to stay. Try to get somewhere with hot water, though, as it can get very cold at night.
There are also a couple of attractive family-run hotels a few kilometres further back down the road towards San Isidro in the village of Rivas.
Browse places to stay in San Gerardo de Rivas and Rivas, near Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica.
If you’re staying at Albergue El Páramo in Chirripó National Park, buffet-style meals are served 5.30–8am, noon–2.30pm, and 6–7pm ($$₡6250). You pay in cash on-site.
Otherwise, most of the hotels in San Gerardo de rivas and Rivas have restaurants serving food well suited to loading up on before starting a hike to the summit.
We’re talking Costa Rican comfort food — classic comida típica like gallo pinto, food for people who are going out to work it off.
Find out more about eating and drinking in Costa Rica.
Though it’s a short 1.25km walk from San Gerardo de Rivas along the dirt road that leads east from the centre and over the river, it’s also possible to reach the park trailhead by car via the same route.
As for parking, your best bet is Hotel Urán, or in front of a local’s house for a varying fee.
For more transportation tips, read our guide to getting around Costa Rica.
The services of a guide can be helpful and illuminating in helping to identify local species and interpreting the landscapes you pass through. Ask at the ranger station at the entrance for recommendations.
The staff at the ranger station can supply you with an adequate map of the park, showing some altitude markings.
The ranger station is located by the bus stop in San Gerardo de Rivas, 2km from the trailhead. It's open daily, 6.30am–noon and 1–4.30pm.
Visiting the Parque Nacional Chirripó requires advance planning. At the time of research, this was a little time-consuming. Hotels in San Gerardo de Rivas offer packages that will take care of the paperwork for you — not a bad idea if your Spanish is poor.
First you have to reserve admission to the park. No more than 52 hikers are allowed to make the climb to the summit per day, and demand far outstrips capacity in the popular travel seasons, around March and April, especially Easter, and Christmas.
Reservations can be made online only at SINAC Reservations. You will need to create an account first. The website is in English and fairly easy to navigate. Choose “Sector San Gerardo” when booking your Chirripó reservation.
Tickets are sold on a quarterly basis, so from the first week of July bookings are open for visits between September and November. From the first week of October, bookings are open for visits from December to February, and so on.
All hikers must report to the Ranger Station in San Gerardo to acquire their actual entry permit before entering the park. You can do this up to one day prior to hiking.
The park is now open all year round, but note that it can be hot, humid and rainy between May and December.
Conditions are clearer and drier between January and April — the peak season for climbing the mountain. Even then, though, clouds may roll in at the top and obscure the view, and rainstorms move in very fast.
The only months you can be sure of a dry spell are March and April. Temperatures may drop to below freezing at night and rise to 20°C during the day, though at the summit, it’s so cold that it’s hard to believe you’re just 9° north of the equator.
All that considered, the best time to visit Cerro Chirripó is in March and April. Though be aware that the weather in Chirripó is extremely variable and unpredictable.
For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide to when to go to Costa Rica.
Not keen on planning? You'll love our customisable Costa Rica itineraries.
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Header image: Cerro Chirripo in Costa Rica © world_xplorer/Shutterstock