Hiking Alone Up Cerro Chirripó in Costa Rica
By Szidonia Lorincz
Cerro Chirripó (Chirripó Peak) is definitely one of the more advanced and challenging hikes that one can do in Costa Rica, but if you are interested in hiking and mountaineering, it is an experience that you shouldn’t miss.
After completing the hike, there is a great sense of achievement, and you meet all kinds of interesting people along the way. It is a unique and special way to experience Costa Rica and is definitely a bucket list-worthy trip.
Solo Woman Hike Up
Although many people were surprised that I took up the hike solo and as a woman, there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t feel safe. The hikers care for each other, and the path is well-marked and maintained throughout.
I met official guides and park rangers along the way who stopped and checked in with me to see if everything was okay.
It was a great experience for me, and I can definitely recommend it. I personally believe that on any hike, you are only alone until you step on the path. Once you are there, you are part of the family of hikers, so don’t let that hold you back from experiencing this amazing adventure.
About Cerro Chirripó
Cerro Chirripó is the tallest mountain in Costa Rica at 3,820 meters, famous for its incredible views on the hike up and on the top. On a clear day, one can see the peaks of surrounding mountains and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The hike up to the peak is challenging but definitely worth the effort.
That said, a certain level of fitness is necessary. You can book tickets to the park through the government website, SINAC. It is recommended to book your entry between 3 to 6 months before the planned hike since the interest is very high and the number of daily entries to the National Park is limited.
There are two options to do the hike: in one day or two, and the ones who book for two are going to spend a night at basecamp at 3,400 meters.
Booking and arriving at San Gerardo de Rivas
I was lucky enough to find tickets only a month before my arrival in Costa Rica. It is worth checking the government website regularly, even if tickets seem to be gone, as there are occasional cancellations, and you might just get lucky!
I recommend checking the Internet for up-to-date information about the booking process as it tends to vary from year to year.
In my case, I booked the two-day entry to the park, after which I received an email that I would be able to pay for food and accommodation in San Gerardo de Rivas the day before the hike.
Three weeks after I booked my entry, I arrived in Costa Rica, ready to embark on this amazing adventure. I caught a bus leaving the capital, San José, at 4:45 in the morning to go to Perez Zeledon (also known as San Isidro) using the bus company MUSOC.
In San Isidro, I changed buses to go up to the little mountain hamlet of San Gerardo de Rivas. The bus ride up to San Gerardo is magical, with amazing views all around, passing towns such as Canaan, which really deserves the name.
Arriving in San Gerardo, I realized the climate was way hotter and dryer than I had experienced in San Jose the week before. It’s best to be prepared with layered clothes to be comfortable with the valley’s heat and the cold on the top of the mountain. I recommend arriving in San Gerardo early the day before your hike so that you have time to pay for your accommodation, food, rest, and mentally prepare for the day ahead.
Hostel Casa Colibri
It is best to book a place as close to the entrance of the trail as possible, as the hike starts with a steep uphill and you might have to walk a while before reaching the entrance depending on where you book your stay. I stayed at a hostel called Casa Colibri and was completely satisfied with it. It has dormitories of 4 beds, a nice cozy atmosphere, a huge terrace overlooking the valley, and the river going by right under it.
It’s a truly magical location. There are some places even closer to the trail entrance that you might want to consider, such as Hotel Uran, which is directly across from the entrance. You can also pay to have your luggage carried up the mountain, which costs around 4 dollars/kilo. I didn’t go for this option as I only took a small backpack with equipment that I could comfortably carry.
The Cerro Chirripó hike
On the day of the hike, I woke up at 4 AM and was out the door by 4:45. The earlier you start, the better because the sun quickly becomes very hot once the sun is up. Also, as I mentioned before, the trail starts with a steep inclination that is better for walking in the relative coolness of the morning.
Once you get through the first couple of kilometers, it becomes a little less steep and more like a forest path. Eventually, you arrive at the official entrance to the Chirripo National Park at km 4.
Anyone can walk up to that point and back without a ticket, but still, when I was there, no one stopped me to check my booking.
The views throughout the hike are spectacular, and you are constantly surrounded by birdsong, lush vegetation, and the occasional grazing cows. At every kilometer or so along the path, there are boards announcing the name of the sector you are entering. These names are usually descriptive of what you will encounter on the trail ahead of you, such as The Resplendent Quetzal, The Oaks, The Water’s Climb or the Nice Plain.
They are a great motivator to break the 14km hike down into smaller, more manageable chunks. At exactly halfway to the top, at km 7, there is a little café where hikers can rest, get a snack or a coffee, and use the restroom.
There is also free water to refill your bottle. It is a great little meeting place to catch up with other hikers and listen to stories of those coming down from the mountain. I even met someone on his 9th hike up the mountain! For many locals hiking the Cirripo is a spiritual pilgrimage that takes them into the heart of their beautiful country.
Trees Get Shorter
After passing the café, the trees get gradually shorter and sparser until you find yourself out in the open at around km 10. It is essential to have very strong sunscreen that you can apply regularly and keep yourself well-covered from the sun. At this point, the trail is nearing 3000 meters of altitude, and the ultraviolet rays are very strong.
A good pair of sunglasses is also necessary, along with a hat. The last kilometer of the hike is possibly the toughest, with a constant steep elevation on rocks and no shade. It is called The Repentants for a reason!
The basecamp sits snugly nestled into the side of the mountain, and it is a great relief to arrive there finally. You can rest and look at the clouds rolling up through the valley sitting on one of the lounge chairs outside the building.
Once you check in with the receptionists and take a notoriously cold shower, soon it is time for dinner and an early night’s sleep. I recommend sticking around a bit after dark to look at the sky; hundreds of thousands of stars are visible on a clear night.
Day 2 of the Cerro Chirripó hike
I woke up at 2 AM on the morning of my summit push, as getting a glimpse of the rising sun from the top of Costa Rica is a sight you won’t soon forget. It is also an interesting experience to get walking in the pitch dark. It is cold outside at that hour, nearing 0 degrees Celsius, and you will be glad to have brought those extra layers with you. A headlamp at this point is indispensable since you will be navigating the narrow path going to the top in complete darkness.
Still, it was one of the most incredible parts of my journey up there. I felt refreshed and alive from the chilly air, and the ground was sparkling with frost in the light of my headlamp. Every now and then, I saw a little mouse scoot by on the ground, but apart from that, everything was still and quiet. I got a spectacular view of the Milky Way along the way, and I was lucky enough to witness the new moon rising from behind the mountains while approaching my destination.
The trail is very well-signaled and easy to follow. That said, you really have to pay attention as there are forks in the road and turns you need to make if you want to get to Cerro Chirripo and not one of the other peaks surrounding it. There, elevation gain is much more gradual on this part of the trail, perfect for an early morning trek.
However, the last 100 ms will take you up on an almost vertical climb. It is still not technical enough that you would need ropes for it, but you really need to watch your step and use your arms and legs to balance and pull yourself up. I was unsure at certain moments if I was still on the path at this point, as I couldn’t see any points of reference or signals in the darkness.
But just as I was about to take a break and take a look around, I noticed the last post signaling the top of Cerro Chirripo. What a feeling that was! I immediately climbed up and let out a victorious yell. There is a trail book there; you can write your name, arrival time, and any other message you might want to leave the others following you. Once people arrived, the atmosphere was filled with anticipation for the sunrise and a sense of camaraderie for achieving such a mighty goal.
At this point, I started feeling extremely chilly, as the last bit of the climb made me sweat, and up on the top, the air was even colder than before with a chilling wind. I had some time left before sunrise, so I could really take in the experience. All the hikers were sitting in silent awe and gratitude, just admiring the beauty of the surroundings.
As soon as the sun rose, it illuminated and warmed our faces, and we could look around and see the beautiful valleys and lakes surrounding the mountain. Soon enough, scores of people started arriving, and it was time for me to head back down to basecamp and the valley. At 7 in the morning, the sun was so strong that even with applying sunscreen every 10 to 15 minutes, I still got a sunburn.
It took about 90 minutes to get back to Basecamp, where I had breakfast and got ready to check out. At the time of my trip, check-out was at 10 AM. Again, this is a piece of information that is best to verify with the front desk when you arrive so as to have the most up-to-date information.
The Way Down
Many people warned me that the way down would be much more challenging than the way up. I personally didn’t find that to be the case in the end. It is true that I was tired, having started at 2 AM and hiked all day the previous day, but I felt energized by the excitement of reaching the top, and I found going down much easier.
Since it was during the dry season, I could maintain a rather fast pace, almost jogging down the hill. Still, I had to stop occasionally to apply some tiger balm on my knees, which were swollen and hurting with the exertion. I also took a short break at the cafe and met some of my new friends.
Same as at the beginning of the hike, the last bit was the most challenging. I had to slow way down and be very careful on the steep, rocky terrain. I felt my tiredness and pain in various parts of my body acutely at this point, but I tried to enjoy the experience and take pleasure in the beauty of nature surrounding me.
I also started feeling exhilarated from nearing the completion of this amazing challenge and having witnessed the incredible beauties of Costa Rican nature on such varying altitudes.
Arriving at the entrance of the trail, I was once again really glad to have chosen a hostel so near. On my way there, many people stopped by cars and offered to drop me at my destination. As much as I was grateful for their offers, I felt it was part of the experience to finish the hike walking.
And as soon as I arrived at Casa Colibri, I went straight down to the river to submerge my tired body in it, which energized me once again and soothed the pain in my feet and knees.
Szidonia Lorincz is a professional travel and adventure photographer born in Transylvania. She is currently traveling the world full-time, looking for adventures and stories to be told through her images and words. website