Playa Hermosa to San Gerardo de Rivas
The reggae-themed cafe at the Playa Hermosa Cabinas wasn't open when I rolled out of bed, nor had anybody paddled out for an early-morning surf session. I was alone in my awakened state. I gobbled down a couple of the Nutri-Grain bars I packed for such an occasion and quietly tiptoed past the collection of Bob Marley t-shirts and album covers to my trusty Tucson out front. According to Ben #2, I would soon be negotiating the country's worst road and I wanted to get an early start.
I flicked the morning dew off the windshield and pointed the Hyundai south towards Quepos. I was alone with my thoughts on the highway and headed towards the gateway to Cerro Chirripo National Park. In the days leading up to my trip I became engrossed with the prospect of summiting Central America's second tallest mountain. Cerro Chirripo, rising 12,530 feet above the level of the sea, is the nation's tallest peak and I desperately wanted to plant my feet atop it and peer out across this beautiful land and cross my eyes to see the Atlantic and Pacific oceans simultaneously. And although I knew the backcountry permits were hard to come by -- and this was Easter week after all -- I was optimistic. I was down the previous night, but it was a new day and full of hope. Highway 34 curved away from the coast and several distant mountains came into view. I pulled the car to the side of the road and peered at the verdant giants rising from the lowland farms. With any luck, come tomorrow, I would be humping my belongings ever upwards into their midst.
The road from Quepos to Dominical certainly lived up to the latter Ben's billing as the worst road in the country. Despite being just forty kilometers in length, it takes over ninety minutes to navigate. The potholes are so plentiful and so deep (one was filled in with spare tires) that vehicles roll along like leaves on a braided river, helplessly piloting their way through diverging routes and hoping to not run aground. The road also has numeous one-lane bridges that can best be described as train trestles with sheet metal laid across the railroad ties. And just when you get the hang of the bumpity-bump of the road and the vertigo-inducing bridges, you're forced to drive through a river. Despite being the final days of the Dry Season, the river was still about sixty feet wide and a good two feet deep in spots. A seemingly American couple in a rented Mitsubishi SUV followed my line for much of the drive, but they balked at the river crossing. It wasn't until I powered up the far bank and flashed them a thumb's up sign that they began to gingerly dip their front wheels into the water. I couldn't help but remember Kristin's reaction the first time we drove through a river on our previous trip to Costa Rica, "You are so lucky this surfboard is between us and you can't see my face right now!" I wished she was there for that ride to Dominical -- her reactions would have been priceless.
I was making good time so before turning my back to the coast and heading into the mountains, I continued south along Highway 34 (it's in very good condition past Dominical) for a few miles toward Marino Ballena National Park. The coastline in this southern portion of the country is an example of unspoiled magnificince with an abundance of places to pull over and have an exquisite section of coastline all to yourself for the day. It's one of the secrets that must be kept... too late. After several miles of undisturbed natural splendor with endless miles of surfing opportunies, I crested a small hill and a large condomimium complex came into view -- Prices From the Low $200's! The secret was already out. I would pass two more such monstrosities before reversing my direction to continue on my way.
From Highway 34, I turned north onto Route 22 and climbed the tortuously twisty and well-worn road to the city of San Isidro. From there, it's just another 40 minutes on a pretty rugged gravel road to the small vilage of San Gerardo de Rivas, where the headquarters for Cerro Chirripo National Park is located. I missed the office on my first pass and accidentally drove through town to the trailhead. "Have fun turning around!" a hiker bellowed. I ended up having to back down an impossibly steep, off-camber road and nearly flipped my car trying to make a K-turn. By the time I found the office, the rain was coming down like a monsoon and my nerves were frayed. I couldn't help but recall the stories I heard about people waiting for several days in San Gerardo for a permit to come through. I sprinted into the office and, as luck should have it, not only did I score a permit for the next day, but there was still room at the lodge just below the summit. It was all coming together.
To call San Gerardo de Rivas a small town would be to overstate its size by a large degree. The village has but one gravel road and maybe as many as four or five dozen homes lined up alongside the Rio Chirripo that splashes out of the mountains and through the valley. Many of the structures have been converted into cabinas and hotels for backpackers awaiting a crack at climbing Chirripo, but there are also numerous banana and papaya groves, as well as an obligatory church, bar, school, and soccer field. Several small general stores with attached family-owned restaurants round out the town, but all but one of them were closed on account of Holy Thursday. Having not eaten all day and already spent far too long in the car -- the last two hours in torrential rain -- I was thankful for any place that offered me a place to sit down and have a warm meal. After eating, the generous Tico family that owned the restaurant graciously allowed me the use of their cellphone (there was only one land-phone in town, and it was in the market that was closed) to call Kristin and let her know of my plans. She would be arriving a day early, which meant I had to make the 8-hour drive to Liberia to pick her up by noon on Sunday. I'd worry about it later, it was time to find a place to stay the night.
Many of the places renting rooms in San Gerardo were either closed, filled, or simply appeared a tad on the unwelcoming side. As I plodded along the road through town, getting further from the trailhead by the minute, I spotted the Hotel Rio Chirripo and pulled in. The property was well landscaped and the hacienda-style buildings were beautifully modern and traditional at once. The main hotel structure consisted of a large open-air gathering room dominated by an enormous fireplace and inverted funnel-shaped wooden roof. Adjacent this sitting area was a wonderfully modern (yet traditional looking) kitchen and a very cozy dining area, complete with an unenclosed view into the lush river valley. In the kitchen was the hotel's innkeeper family who reside on the premises, busily making dinner. Jose spoke impressively good English and within minutes of speaking to him and eyeing the wonderful woodwork, I knew I had stumbled on the place that the Bens had recommended. He introduced me to his wife, daughters, and baby boy Alejandro. At $45 a night, the Hotel Rio Chirripo wasn't cheap but it simply felt right.
Remarkably, I was the only one staying at the hotel and after a brief tour of the property (including the trail leading to the immaculate swimming pool and jacuzi), Jose showed me to my room. The rooms are a short walk outside from the main gathering area and each include their own hot-water shower (my first this week) and a balcony with a memorable view of the valley. In addition to being a place to spend the night, the Hotel Rio Chirripo is also a yoga retreat and Jose and his sons were busy building a separate yoga studio away from the dining area. Not only that, but I was told to make myself at home and to help myself to the kitchen. Jose kept the fire stoked for me while I spent the night reading fireside and sipping a bevy of different hot teas they had. But it would not be a late night; Jose agreed to drive me the 3 kilometers to the trailhead at 5:30 in the morning. I slept wonderfully.
The sun was just beginning to light the cloud-free sky as I rolled out of bed. As anxious as I've been in a long time, I quickly strapped on my hiking boots, shouldered my pack (camera on the ready) and stepped outside. Jose was standing a short distance from my room, waiting to lead me to the eating area. In yet another showing of unsurpassed kindness, his wife woke before five o'clock to make sure I had a hearty breakfast for my hike. There, on the table in the dining area, was a single place setting, several plates of fresh-cut fruit, a carafe of coffee, another of orange juice, and a third of papaya juice. Before I could even express my thanks, a plate of eggs, toast, and gallo pinto was placed before me. Sometimes muchas gracias just doesn't seem adequate.
The signpost at the trailhead read "El Termometro" and serves to inform all would-be climbers that they are standing at an elevation of 4,987 feet. It is here where you take stock of the situation and measure your preparation. It was six o'clock in the morning and I was 14.5 kilometers and over 6,000 feet of elevation gain from the dormitory-style lodge I would be bedding down at for the night. Everyone I spoke with said it takes nearly eight hours to reach the lodge. For fear of being caught in an afternoon storm above treeline, I had to get moving.
The trail to the summit of Cerro Chirripo affords no opportunity to ease into the hike. The path rises up at an unrelenting angle and climbs without reprieve for much of the first six kilometers. The hiker's one salvation is that the elevation helps to control the morning temperature; when I began my hike the temperature was a comfortable 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, this says nothing of the suffocating humidity and despite these relatively low temperatures I had to forego using my main camera due to the shower of sweat I was bathing it in every time I touched it. Fortunately, I had a less expensive compact camera with me as backup.
The trail on the lower half of the mountain is quite wide and well shaded by the massive rainforest trees that grow at this latitude. With each step I gained elevation, dripped sweat, and enjoyed my solitude. It didn't take long before the scurrying about of the geckos and iguanas around me seemed as commonplace as the ubiquitous gray squirrel in the woods of North America. That's not to say all of the wildlife faded into the background. At no point did the songs (and sometimes shrieks) of the vibrant birds outstay their welcome or become something not worth cherishing. Similarly, spotting an ocelot in the wild, just feet off the trail, was certainly a moment to remember.
I kept a good pace throughout much of the hike, despite the steep terrain, and passed two couples who had set out before me. Each kilometer marker on Cerro Chirripo is marked with a signpost stating the elevation, distance from the trailhead, and is also given a name. I stood and stared in mild disbelief at the sign marking the completion of the fifth kilometer. It was called "Los Robles" (The Oaks) and reported an elevation of 7,851 feet. Had I really climbed nearly 3,000 feet in a mere 3.1 miles? I toggled through the functions of my altimeter watch and, sure enough, the sign done speak the truth. My legs weren't nearly as surprised to hear this news as my mind was.
The next four kilometers of the trail climb at a much gentler gradient, but offer their own unique troubles. This middle section of the climb is much muddier than the rest and also prone to collect standing water. And where there is standing water, mosquitoes are soon to follow. The malaria medicine had been upsetting my stomach for much of the week, but I couldn't help but be glad I was taking it as I swatted haplessly at the swarm of disease carriers buzzing in front of my face. But as annoying as the bugs were, nothing tops Mr. Ex-Officio. Located at approximately 7.5 kilometers from the trailhead is a large two-story shelter near Llano Bonito (Beautiful Plain). Here, there is a Park Service ranger checking permits, a picnic table, two outhouses (bring your own TP), and in the case of my visit, a very annoying Nicaraguan couple.
There was a large group of spanish-speaking hikers descending the mountain and although I kept my communications to a friendly buenos diaz and a smile, these two felt the need to, essentially, tell me I was doing everything wrong. Everybody I had seen on the trail up to that point was hiking in jeans shorts, high top sneakers, cotton t-shirts, and carrying a small knapsack while toting a 20oz bottle of water or Powerade in their hand. Except Mr. Ex-Officio. Outfitted with glacier glasses, wide-brim hat, shiny Salomon boots, and impossibly clean and unwrinkled Ex-Officio pants and shirt (tucked in), he was a sight to behold. And as I started back on my way, he seemingly jumped straight out of the REI catalog from whence he came, down onto the trail, and chased after me. Within moments he was tugging on my pack's sternum belt and jostling my shoulder straps and, in not so many words, telling me I didn't know how to wear my backpack. Meanwhile, his equally well-outfitted misses was yelling from the distance that I was carrying too much. Over and over, "You're carrying too much!" and then she'd laugh.
It was surreal. Who were these people, and why were they in my face? It took a few seconds to register what was exactly going on, but just as my anger started to build -- Where do these people get off telling me how to wear my pack and how much to bring, I'll hike circles around them! -- I smiled, told them everything was as I liked it, and walked away. It took a half mile or so before I unclenched my fists and relaxed my jaw, but I wasn't going to let their rudeness ruin my hike. Maybe I was carrying a larger pack than everyone else? Maybe I didn't want to get to the shelter and rent some bug-infested sleeping bag, so I brought my own? Maybe I had a camera and several lenses in my pack? Maybe I was toting a 750-page novel to ward off boredom at night? And so what if I was carrying all of these things and a change of clothes and a first-aid kit? I'll still whoop their ass up and down this mountain! Exhale, Doug... take a deep breath and forget about them. Done.
Ever onward I climbed out of the mud and the shade of the rainforest and onto the paramo. The effects of the elevation started to very subtly make themselves known at 8,000 feet, but it wasn't until I was at 10,000 feet and on the paramo that I really started to get winded. Fortunately, the landscape shifts so dramatically and the lure of the lodge just a handful of kilometers away combines to draw you forward. Ten kilometers into the hike, the trail breaks from the forest and spills onto a wholly different ecosystem. The paramo is a grassland landscape above treeline and below what, in the Andes at least, would be the snowline higher up. There is no snowline in Costa Rica, just the remnants of glaciers long ago. Much of the paramo on Cerro Chirripo burned in a forest fire not long ago and although the grasses have reclaimed the land the few stunted trees that do exist in this harsh environment stand stripped of their bark and of their color.
The sun was shining bright on the paramo when I emerged from the greenery of the lower section of trail, but it wasn't long before the clouds rolled in. The trail was once again getting quite steep and I was approaching 11,000 feet and feeling it in my lungs. I would stride forward for no more than fifty yards at a time before pausing to rest momentarily on a rock or to snap a photo. But like the geckos that were taking cover from my camera flash under the bleached ruins of a tree long dead, I too had to get to the lodge and take cover from the impending storm. I downed the last two cran-razz Cliff Bloks in my pocket, washed them down with some water, and pushed on for the final 1.5 kilometers, past sections of trail named "Los Arrepentidos" (The Repentants) and "El Ultimo Paso" (The Last Step). And before long, the teal-covered roof of the Los Crestones Lodge at 11,132 feet came into view.
The first drop of rain to fall splashed against my cheek at high noon, just as I reached the entrance to the lodge. I hiked steadily, but at a comfortable pace with plenty of pauses to photograph my journey along the way and made the 9-mile, 6,145 foot climb in an even 6 hours. And not a moment too soon -- by the time I was shown to my room the sky had opened and the rain began to pour onto the thirsty terrain. I would worry about the final push to the summit later. The Dry Season was officially over, but not for me. I briefly rinsed off via the frigid cistern-fed shower and climbed into my sleeping bag. I deserved this siesta.