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Chirripo National Park
Chirripó Parque Nacional protects 50,150 hectares of high-elevation terrain surrounding Cerro Chirripó (3,819 meters), Central America's highest peak. The park is contiguous with La Amistad International Peace Park to the south; together they form the Amistad-Talamanca Regional Conservation Unit. Much of the area remains terra incognito--a boon for flora and fauna, which thrive here relatively unmolested by humans. One remote section of the park is called Savannah of the Lions, after its large population of pumas. Tapirs and jaguars are both common, though rarely seen. And the mountain forests protect several hundred bird species.
Cloud forest, above 2,500 meters, covers almost half the park, which features three distinct life zones; the park is topped off by subalpine rainy páramo, marked by contorted dwarf trees and marshy grasses that dry out on the Pacific slopes January-May (presenting perfect conditions for raging fires fanned by high winds). Much of this area still bears the scars of a huge fire that raged across 2,000 hectares in April 1992, causing such devastation that the park was closed for four months. The region is still trying to recover from this and even worse fires in 1976 and 1985.

Cerro Chirripó was held sacred by pre-Columbian peoples. Tribal leaders and shamans performed rituals atop the lofty shrine; lesser mortals who ventured up Chirripó were killed. Magnetic fields are said to swing wildly at the top, particularly near Los Crestones, huge boulders thought to have been the most sacred of indigenous sites.

Just as Hillary climbed Everest "because it was there," so Chirripó lures the intrepid who seek the satisfaction of reaching the summit (the first recorded climb was made by a priest, Father Agustín Blessing, in 1904). Many Ticos choose to hike the mountain during the week preceding Easter, when the weather is usually dry. Avoid holidays, when the huts may be full. The hike is no Sunday picnic but requires no technical expertise. The trails are well marked, and basic mountain huts are close to the summit. You must stay overnight in San Gerardo de Rivas, where you begin your hike early the next day.

Excessive wear and tear on the trails led the National Parks Service to begin phasing in new regulations in 1993. Only 60 visitors are allowed within the park at any one time (you may be told there's a waiting list; experienced hikers recommend showing up anyway as there are usually lots of no-shows). And nobody is allowed to hike without a guide. The park service is pushing the lesser-known Herradura Trail (minimum three days/two nights), via Paso de los Indios, with the first night atop Cerro Urán.

The weather is unpredictable and potentially dangerous--dress accordingly. The hike to the summit from San Gerardo ascends 2,500 meters. When the bitterly cold wind kicks in, watch out. Winds can approach 160 kph: the humidity and wind-chill factor can drop temperatures to -5° C. Rain is always a possibility, even in "dry season," and a short downpour usually occurs midafternoon. Fog is almost a daily occurrence at higher elevations, often forming in midmorning. And temperatures can fall below freezing at night (some of the lakes near the summit are a legacy of the glacial ages). Time your hiking right, however, and you should be close to shelter when needed. Who knows, you may have good weather the whole way; February and March are the driest months.