In Search of the Pure Life (Part 3)

"You have to slow down." I found the lone bilingual hiker at the Los Crestones Lodge and he was helping to get me fed after my nap. The problem was that I was speaking too fast for him to interpret. I always thought native Spanish speakers spoke at an incredible tempo, but was assured they felt the same way about English speakers. Here was proof positive, for as slow and deliberate as I thought I was being with my words, it wasn't slow enough. "Can you please tell her I'll be happy to eat anything she cooks?" Smiles and nods of the head all around, I connected.

Unbeknownst to me, the Los Crestones Lodge located 5 kilometers shy of the summit of Cerro Chirripo (and built with helicopter support from the US military) has everything minimalist hikers would need to make themselves comfortable for the night. You can rent everything from wool blankets to sleeping bags to campstoves for a nominal fee, and there's also a decent selection of bottled beverages for sale as well. The lodge contains a large mess area with numerous picnic tables and a kitchen area. Further down the hall is a series of rooms, each containing four beds with two-inch thick foam mattresses encased in vinyl. Standard government issue accommodations for sure, but for ten bucks a night at eleven thousand feet, one can't be too picky. There are several bathrooms (cold water only) and electric lighting from 6pm to 8pm, but for the most part this is a rather chilly and arguably quite dreary of a place to spend the night.

Nevertheless, the lodge had one shining beacon of warmth and joy that made my stay, and that of many others, significantly better. She was a petite woman with an infectious smile who was likely in her fifties and she loved to cook for strangers. Again, for a nominal fee. She lived in one of the small villages at the base of Chirripo and spent her time (and made her money) by leading a horse loaded with groceries up to the lodge where she would then cook for hikers. For the equivalent of $4 American, I was treated to a robust casada. It was essentially a mixed-plate meal, complete with a green salad, gallo pinto (of course), Costa Rican sausages, and a large helping of roasted zucchini and other vegetables. And as good as the meal was, it couldn't compare to the coffee. Armed with several pounds of ground Costa Rican coffee and a reusable cloth filter, she poured individual servings of boiling water through the grounds and served up cup after cup of the most delicious joe I've ever tasted. And this is coming from a true coffee snob.

I whiled away the early evening chatting with a Dutch couple who was in Costa Rica hiking with their niece and her Latin husband. They were climbing Chirripo as part of their training for taking on Africa's tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. Also at our table (and assigned to the same room as me) was a 25-year old Frenchman from Nice who was on a three month long solo tour around Costa Rica. Pascal spoke a fair bit of English and Spanish in addition to his native French and we became friends almost immediately. I can only imagine how funny it must have been to watch us converse, as our dialogue was forever accompanied with a healthy dose of Charades and the occasional splash of Pictionary. At some point while downing one of my four cups of coffee we decided that we should wake up at two o'clock in the morning and push to reach the summit before daybreak. There was no snow and the summit was only at 12,530 feet but it wouldn't keep us from having a true alpine-style ascent -- at least in spirit.

On Top of a Nation

Between the damp and chilly interior of the lodge (inside temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit), the four cups of coffee, and my tremendous excitement, I couldn't sleep at all. I was in bed by 7:30 but spent the entire night reading the giant tome I lugged up the mountain. Unfortunately, the turning of my pages and the snores of one of my three roomies were not the only sounds that night. There was also the constant drum of the rain coming down atop the roof of the lodge.

Two o'clock finally came and I put on the only warm clothes I had brought -- two long-sleeve hiking shirts, a rain jacket, shorts, and the same pair of nylon track pants that I have been wearing since my college days. I would be leaving my pack behind at the lodge and only bringing my camera and a bottle of water for the summit hike. As I made my way down the hall towards the mess area, I noticed the flickering of several small candles. Unbelievable. The woman who so happily prepared dinner for us the previous evening had apparently heard of our plans and woke to cook us breakfast. It was the dead of night and the kindness of these Tico strangers was overwhelming me once again. Fresh coffee, eggs, toast, and fruit all for the equivalent of $2 American. Could a day start any better?

In a word, yes! Pascal and I slipped out of the lodge and onto the trail before the others and there it was -- a full moon and not a cloud to be seen for miles! I had two Petzl LED headlamps with me and didn't need either of them for the first several kilometers. We were hiking above treeline, on the paramo, and a full moon was lighting our way to the summit of this beautiful nation's tallest peak. It was like a dream, only I never dared to think for one second that it could possibly be this good. This is the stuff of fiction or, at the very least, highly embellished travel writing. But it's neither. It's real. I still don't believe my good fortune.

My enthusiasm and fitness combined with Pascal's chain-smoking ways led to us getting separated during the hike. Normally I'm not all that comfortable being in the wilderness alone, and especially at night, but here I felt at home. Maybe it was the knowledge that there were no jaguars or pumas where I was, nor where there any poisonous lizards or snakes at this elevation, but I don't think so. I think it was something deeper. The landscape, the people I met, and maybe even the fact that I hadn't seen an American for three days, all combined to make me feel utterly safe and in control.

There are multiple trails branching off the main track to Chirripo, each leading to other nearby peaks and lakes, but the main path is a short 5 kilometer walk from the lodge. The first three kilometers climb gradually and give your legs plenty of time to wake up. The final two kilometers are a different story altogether. Here the trail kicks up at an angle much like that at the mountain's base and if you hadn't been feeling the elevation's lack of oxygen so far, you will now. The final few hundred meters require a bit of hand-over-hand scrambling up a very steep bit of trail. Although climbing Cerro Chirripo does not require the use of any ropes or special equipment, you certainly don't want to slip and fall.

I reached the summit at 4am and, based on the location of Pascal's headlamp down below, figured I had about 15 minutes alone. I quickly set my camera on the small tripod I brought and photographed myself sitting in front of the summit's signpost and Costa Rican flag. And then it hit me. I made it. I climbed my first semi-major mountain and had ascended to the highest point I've ever been. I was alone, in the night, on top of an entire country, and so long as nobody at the moment was standing atop Guatemala's Volcan Tajumulco (13,816 feet), I was on top of all of Central America.

The full moon was still high in the sky and providing just enough light to make out the silhouettes of the nearby mountains against the blackness of the sky when Pascal arrived. The temperature was still in the low 50's, and my hands were starting to get rather cold, but I was intent on watching the sun rise. A small group of hikers arrived twenty minutes after Pascal, just as the sky started to shift from pure black to a dark midnight blue. To the southeast, a string of mountains rose above a thick blanket of clouds and gave the impression of an fantastical archipelago of sky islands. I stared at them and imagined a distant world with such features, reachable only by personal blimps or hot air balloons. The first ray of the sun over the Atlantic broke the horizon and shined bright in my eye from hundreds of miles away. Thousands, perhaps?

"This is Pura Vida!" I exclaimed. I couldn't help myself and the Costa Rican nephew of the Dutch couple patted me on the back in agreement. "Yes, this is definitely Pura Vida" he said. For the next thirty minutes I worked the summit of Cerro Chirripo taking as many photos as I could from as many different angles and with as many different exposure settings as I could muster. It was a tough shot. The many ridges and peaks of the mountains cast long and hard shadows on the foreground and the sky was ablaze with light. I never had a more challenging scene to photograph. I could have stayed there all day, but reality finally set in. And the reality was this: I was a 20-kilometer hike and an 8-hour drive from where I needed to be by noon the next day. I certainly don't leave much margin for error in my planning. I laughed to myself over this, took one more self photo in front of the signpost for posterity, and headed down.

I was back at the lodge by 7am and after another cup of coffee I packed up my belongings, and bid adios to those who I shared the night with. Most importantly, I found the lady who kept me from dining on Cliff Bars the past 12 hours and thanked her with a tip of 5,000 colones (ten bucks). With any luck, she'll be there cooking for others well into the future and will help to make their time on Cerro Chirripo as comfortable as she did mine.

My descent was pure business. I bundled away the camera, cinched my pack good and tight, and literally ran down the mountain. What took six hours to climb, I descended in less than three. The previous day's rain served to make the middle section of the trail far muckier than it had been on the way up and the number of mosquitoes and other insects had quadrupled. Despite wearing an unhealthy amount of 100% DEET bug-spray, I was bitten several times by the mosquitoes and stung once by what I imagine was a tropical relative of the wasp. This only served to make me quicken my pace and, as my knees can testify, I can assure you that running down a 7,500 feet descent with a thirty-pound pack on your back is not at all good for your joints.

I stepped off the trail and into San Gerardo de Rivas by late morning on Saturday and began the dusty walk back to the Hotel Rio Chirripo where I left my car and some of my travelwear. I stopped at the market with the village's singular phone, but found it in use. There was a teenage girl talking on it and another two of similar age waiting in line. Some things cross all borders and cultures -- I certainly didn't need an interpreter to know that I was not going to be using that phone any time soon, so I continued on. The mercury was soaring by the time I reached the hotel. I let Jose know I was back, took a quick shower, and then went and soaked in the jacuzi before hitting the road.

Time For the Vacation

I was sad to see my time as an independent traveler come to an end, but at the same time I was ready to see Kristin and to spend a week surfing with my friends. I split the drive back to Liberia in two and drove from San Gerardo de Rivas to San Jose, Costa Rica's capital city, on Saturday night. The four hour drive up and over Cerro de Muerto (Mountain of Death) was as nerve-racking as the guidebook lead me to believe, but not as much as getting temporarily lost in the barrios of San Jose while trying to find a hotel. Nevertheless, I knew the airport was northwest of the city and, based on the setting sun's position in the sky, I was able to quickly find my way back in the right direction (although I must confess to running three red lights for fear of stopping in a neighborhood where no gringo should stop).

And although I'm a bit ashamed to admit it, I happily thrust myself back into the comforts of life by pulling into the first hotel I found -- a Ramada Inn. I ate surprisingly good sushi in the hotel restaurant, got an excellent hour-long massage, took a lengthy hot shower, and ordered room service at midnight. I hated myself for going soft and for becoming such a tourist, but damn if it didn't all feel great.

The following week was great. I got to kick it off with some alone time with Kristin and then spent four of the following seven days surfing with friends I've known since high school. When we first started surfing as teenagers we used to look at the photos of the Costa Rican surf in the magazines and talk big about the trips we'd make to ride them. It took 15 years, but it finally happened: we were there. And although we surfed some of the same spots and did many of the same activities Kristin and I did on a previous trip, it was more fun doing it with friends. That's undeniable.

But no trip is complete without expanding one's horizons and scratching something else off that to-do list we all keep tucked away inside our brain. On Wednesday, Dan's wedding day, the five guys in the group chartered a small boat and headed up the coast to surf famed surf breaks Witch's Rock and Ollie's Point. Jumping overboard with a surfboard in hand and paddling into an empty break at Witch's Rock was incredible. There were a few other surfers at different peaks (Witch's Rock is a beach break) but we had our peak right in front of the break's namesake monolith island all to ourselves. And after ninety minutes or so at Witch's Rock, we headed further north to Ollie's Point, one of the world's great point-breaks. Named after disgraced military Colonel, Oliver North, it sits just south of the Nicaraguan border and is believed to be the spot where arms were being smuggled into Central America to aid the Nicaraguan Contras. Regardless of its name and background, the waves were breaking chest to head high with tremendous consistency and we were the only ones there.

We couldn't have asked for a better surf experience: five long-time friends surfing one of the world's great surf breaks completely alone. It was absolutely, one-hundred percent, Pura Vida.

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