The sun set on just our second night in Costa Rica. The air was cool and peaceful, but something dramatic was happening to the treeline. A fiery crimson sunset had set the sky ablaze, darkening the surrounding clouds and turning them to plumes of purple smoke. The highest peak on Costa Rica, Cerro Chirripo, cast it’s intimidating shadow upon the base camp town. Tomorrow, we would attack it head-on.
We were three; Cindy, myself, and Rachel, a solo-travelling Canadian from Montreal who we met at the bus stop the previous day. She spoke Spanish and helped us find the right bus. From San Isidro de el General, the local bus painstakingly crawled uphill to tiny, dusty San Gerardo de Rivas at the mountain’s base, barely a town, more a loose straggle of houses along a stretch of dirt road. Here we bought permits and reserved our base lodge accomodation.
We began at 5am. Our torchlight played tricks in the trees and shadows danced and stretched on the hard clay ground, whilst tropical birds performed their morning songs from unseen stages. The world was pitch black. The way was steep but I was so full of energy I barely noticed. Crestones base lodge was where we were headed, a 15km hike away, 1350m to 3400m in elevation. As the sun rose and the mountain ranges revealed themselves in dark shades of blue, we saw just how brutal the incline actually was. The first few kilometers ribboned upwards through hillside farmland, cow pastures and past barbed wire fences, eventually giving way to gigantic jungle trees, blotting out the mountain views and sunlight.
We had a backpack for the two of us with our food and clothes, two water bottles, and a sleeping bag. Cindy slammed the sleeping bag against my arm, killing a bee which had been following me. The flies were numerous and tormenting in the darker sections of jungle. In this part, the trees were giants, and the lush foliage was strangely quiet. The route was posted with kilometer markers, each one nicknamed. When we entered the official park gate at 4km, the nickname was ‘the resplendant quetzal’, and i hoped to catch a glimpse of this rare and beautiful bird. No such luck. The climb 4km in had been unrelentingly steep, with no end in sight. Cindy was flagging, and my own legs were tiring, so we slowed our pace whilst Rachel carried on.
A flock of curious brown hens greeted us as we arrived at the halfway point, a ramshackle shelter with a verandah and picnic tables. We met a handful of Ticos (Costa Ricans), and they explained that they were trekking up the mountain for their weekend away from San Jose. They were friendly, well-prepared and fit. We refilled our water with clean mountain water and started up again.
For the next 3 or 4 kilometers the trail speared upward yet again, into oblivion, a mountain climb which felt like a 45 degree angle, and every time we turned a corner the path ahead cruelly regenerated.
Buckets of sweat and many rest stops later we arrived at a plateau, and a significant landscape change. The ground was rocky and dusty with orange sand, and the ferocious Costa Rican midday sun beat down over hardy arid plant life. Distant mountain ranges sizzled before our eyes.
Hummingbirds zig zagged from flower to flower with the precision and urgency of a cardiac surgeon, thrumming overhead like small helicopters, shocks of blue, whilst spiny green lizards dozed and sunned. We found Rachel here, resting, and carried on as a group, spotting birds and enjoying the level ground.
The last two kilometers threw draining heat and steep climbing, a hell of an ending for a long trek. After many stops, and water breaks, we got to the top after 9 hours of trekking, hungry, thirsty and tired. This was just the base lodge though, and the peak proper (as well as several other trails) was still a few more hours up, but we were happy with our accomplishment within our fitness level, and headed back the next day.
Back at the hotel in San Gerardo, after 6 hours of fierce downhill, with tired, broken legs that could barely handle a staircase in the hotel, we enjoyed a cold victory beer and coke.