NOTE: As of February 15, 2020 the Crestones Refugio will be closed due to contractual disputes. Hopefully they will be resolved by the time the Cornavirus shutdown is lifted.
This is one of Costa Rica’s wilder national parks, but relatively accessible by foot. Much of the rugged terrain has been protected from development and exploitation by its inaccessibility. Besides the challenge of climbing Costa Rica’s highest peak (Cerro Chirripó) there are miles of trails that wind through more ecological zones than you will find in most entire countries.
The number one attraction in Chirripó national park is climbing Cerro Chirripó Grande, the highest peak in Costa Rica. The views are spectacular, on a clear day, you can see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean sea simultaneously.
It is long (9 miles, 15 km), steep (nearly 10,000 feet, 3,000 meters) of elevation gain, and strenuous climb, but there are mountain huts (refugios) where you can spend the night so you don’t have to carry a tent (in fact tent camping is prohibited).
The first at Llano Bonito is less than half way to the peak, smaller and more rustic. Since 2007 it is prohibited to stay at Llano Bonito except in the case of an emergency and hikers must continue to the main shelter Centro Ambientalista El Paraíso below the summit.
The Centro was rebuilt in 2000 with river rock walls, a tin roof and bunks for 40 backpackers. It is nominally heated and supplied with solar generated electricity for an hour or so after dark and in 2014 a by reservation only meal service was offered during high season. Be sure to either get confirmed reservations for your meals or carry enough food. You will be hungry!
Hiking & Camping
Maps and visitors guides are available at the park headquarters a few hundred yards south of San Gerardo de Rivas in Canáan.
If you want to attempt the climb, be prepared. Carry lots of water, and a system for purifying more. You will need a sleeping bag (it snowed lightly on us one New Years Eve on the peak), food, and a cook stove for the night in the refugio.
You will also need to make a reservation through the park system and an official guide. If you call the ranger station, you may be told that there is a long waiting list. Permits are no longer available at the ranger station and must be reserved online.
The diversity as you climb from the pastures at 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) elevation near San Gerardo de Rivas, to the paramo (tundra) ecosystem near the peak at 3,819 meters (12,530 feet) keeps small armies of biologists fascinated for their entire careers.
Above the pastures, you enter the park in tropical evergreen lower montane forest and move upwards into the montane rainforests where you will find giant oak trees 50 meters (165 feet) tall or more. These emergent giants tower over the other trees that average 30 meters (100 feet), and the understory of ferns and bamboo.
The trail follows such steep hillsides and valley walls, that often you can look out into the canopy of the trees rooted hundreds of feet downhill. You will have a chance to see the epiphytic ecosystem up close and personal. In some ways it is even better than a canopy tour, because your feet are planted firmly on the ground, you can spend as much time as you want, and it’s free.
As you climb higher, the vegetation hugs lower to the ground. If you look down into the crystal water of the streams, you will see trout. Above tree line, you see cactus and scrub. Conditions become harsher and by the time you reach the refugio, you wonder if you are somewhere on the Colorado plateau.
In order to protect the fragile ecosystems camping is not allowed except at the designated campground on the Herradura trail. You can overnight in the refugios inside the park (climbers huts, reservations required).
The first refugio is at Llano Bonito, not quite half way up. The second, and main refugio about two kilometers from the peak is the Centro Ambientalista El Paraíso. The third refugio is in the Valle de las Morenas a few km north of Chirripó. All require advance reservations.
Just outside the park there are many lodging options in and around San Gerardo de Rivas.
Best Time to Visit Chirripó
Use the drop down menu to select any month of the year for a summary of the typical rainfall and weather patterns.
Chirripó National Park is popular with Tico hikers as well as foreign visitors, and the refugio is always sold out months in advance during dry season. Weekends, and especially Easter weekend get crowded.
Otherwise whenever you are in Costa Rica is a good time to go. Even in the rainy season, it rarely rains before early afternoon, so if you are up with the sun you can be pretty exhausted before you have to duck for cover.
Driving – Take the Pan American Highway East out of San José, the road curves South and changes designation from Highway 1 to Highway 2, although it’s still the Pan American Highway. About 30 miles (50 km) past Cartago you climb over Cerro de la Muerte, which isn’t called the mountain of the dead because of all the head on bus collisions there, but it could be (the name actually originated from all of the people who died walking over the pass before the road was much more than a trail). It’s not advisable to drive in Costa Rica at night, but especially not here. You will reach San Isidro el General after a total of 92 miles (153 km, approx. 3 1/2 hours), pass through town and turn left 0.6 miles (1 km) south of town towards San Gerardo de Rivas (3.6 miles, 6 km).
Bus – Traveling by bus to San Gerardo de Rivas requires a stopover in San Isidro de El General (aka Perez Zeledon).
San Isidro express departures daily from San José, outside Terminal Coca Cola, every hour from 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., 3 hours.
To get to the entrance of Chirripó National Park, take the bus to San Gerardo de Rivas from the San Isidro terminal at 5:00 a.m., or 2:00 p.m.
The best public bus information website (and app) we know of is at Rome to Rio
In the Region
There are exceptional places to stay near the park entrance.
Casa Mariposa is a humble albergue right across from the trail head that has simple rooms, shared bath and the most hospitable friendly and helpful hosts you could ever hope for. Birds flit in and out the windows that open onto the Rio Chirripó Pacífico behind the house and it feels a little like something out of Disney.
Talamanca Reserve is both a huge private forest reserve with dozens of km of trails and the most upscale lodging in the area. It also boast a very good restaurant and one of the best fruit smoothies I’ve ever tasted.
Cloudbridge Reserve like Talamanca reserve protects a large area of rain and cloud forest and also has numerous trails to beautiful waterfalls and couple of spots where you can swim. Basic cabins are available near the entrance.
Rio Chirripó Retreat is an idyllic refuge along the banks of the river with half a dozen unique rooms and apartments, beautiful grounds and the best food in the valley (lodge guests only, restaurant not open to the public). Definitely the right choice for upscale ecological relaxation – recommended.
Soda El Descanso – Even if you don’t stay or eat there, stop in and say hi to Francisco Elizondo at his cabinas in San Gerardo de Rivas. Check out his photo and trophy gallery commemorating his finishes in the annual race up Chirripó. You will be humbled when you see the times for the round trip race.
Natural Hot Springs: There is a beautiful thermal spring about a 15 minute walk north of the ranger station in San Gerardo de Rivas off the road to Herradura. Look for a hand painted sign pointing to the right. The pool is on private property and charges a couple of dollars entry.
The setting used to be a perfect little natural sand bottomed pond but has been replaced with a large concrete pool. There’s still no better way to soak and massage out the aches from hiking (the hot water gushes out of a fire hose size opening and will pound the pain out of your muscles).
Please go heavy on the sunscreen! This close to the equator, at this altitude, you can get so badly burned you end up in the hospital.
Acute Mountain Sickness (Altitude Sickness) is a distinct possibility on Chirripó. Please read up on how to prevent, recognize and treat it if you’re planning on visiting.
NOTE: As of February 15, 2020 the Crestones Refugio will be closed due to contractual disputes. The administration is hopeful of reopening before the end of March 2020. Day trips are permitted in the interim. There is no camping allowed in the park. La Nacion news article.
The food, lodging and other tourism services inside the park are supplied by contract with the for profit concessionaire Consorcio Aguas Eternas. Entry to the park is regulated by SINAC.
The reservation system has been in nearly constant flux for the last 20 years but the best information we have for 2019/2020 is below.
There are five (yes, 5) parts to making a reservation
- Visit “Check In” at the National Parks service website and create an account
- Log In to the reservations system and select Buy >> Online Reservation from the menu**. Purchase 2 permits per person for an overnight trip and 3 permits for two nights.
- Crestone Basecamp Reservation – After purchasing your entry permits you MUST e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and provide your permit number (from step 2.) and the date you plan to pay for the basecamp (see step 4.)
- In person, in Costa Rica go to a Banco Nacional and make the payment. Make sure your permit number is recorded and retain your receipt
Asociacion Camara de Desarrolladores de Turismo Rural Comunitario Chirripo
Cedula juridica: 3-002-566224.
Banco Nacional de Costa Rica 100-01-010-007326-1
Cuenta cliente: 15101010010073263
It may be possible to make this payment by credit card if you contact the association (506) 2742-5097 or (506) 2742-5200
- Checkins – You must check in the day BEFORE you plan to hike and you must check in at TWO different places. First, prior to 4 p.m. check in at the Park office on the left just as you enter San Gerardo. Second check in at Crestones Basecamp lodging office at the soccer field.
**The instructions and messages on the reservation form are a bit cryptic.
- Choose entry sector San Gerardo
- If you are foreign, your passport is your IDS number. If you are Costa Rican use your cedula.
- In simpler terms “The purchase can not be processed because the number of admissions generates aggregate sector overload” means “SOLD OUT”.
- “Visita Diaria” permits are only day passes not overnight trekking permits.
As far as I know there is no longer any other way to make a reservation. According to friends of ours who live in San Gerardo “in person” permit sales have been discontinued.
Enjoy your hike!