Jaco Beach, Costa Rica - As I write this I am soaking up the sun on a beautiful black-sand beach in Costa Rica. The sky is blue, a coconut tree sways gently overhead, and a beautiful señorita sits at my side. OK, I made up the part about the señorita, but everything else is true. I'm spending three days in Costa Rica's Jaco Beach for one simple reason: my brother and I just spent two gruelling days climbing Mount Chirripó, the nation's highest peak. Every muscle in my body aches, every joint is stiff and sore, but I have no regrets.
Cerro Chirripó lies in the south of the country within the boundaries of the expansive Parque Nacional Chirripó. Not only the highest peak in Costa Rica, at 3,820 metres Chirripó's one of the highest in Central America.
It's big, offering spectacular vistas of the Pacific on one side and the Caribbean on the other.
But as we discovered, getting to such a vantage point is no easy task. Locals told us some daunting stories before we set out, and we learned that Chirripó is known ominously as the Peak of Death and the Land of Eternal Waters. Hmmm.
We travelled by bus from San José to San Isidra, where we spent the night in a cheap hotel, then caught the 5 am bus to San Gerardo de Rivas, the village at the park entrance. We checked in at the ranger station, paid $20 U.S. each for entrance into the park and accommodation at the mountaintop hostel, and set out. (In the dry season, which, as it soon became obvious, this wasn't, hostel reservations are necessary.)
The climb begins with a viciously steep incline that sets the pace for much of the journey. The trail initially passes through rolling farmland but soon meanders into evergreen rain forests with thick stands of bamboo and towering 50-metre oak trees. Wildlife is abundant, including the resplendent quetzal, reportedly the rarest bird in the country.
For the next several hours we hiked for miles through ghostly rain forest shrouded in mist and clouds. The Land of Eternal Waters warning hit home. It rained hard for about half the ascent.
Eventually, we climbed through the clouds and entered the fire-scorched forests that mark the final stages of the journey. Those last few kilometres stumbling through forests of burnt tree trunks were pretty miserable. It was sweet relief when we finally spotted the monastery-like stone hostel that sits in a cleft at the base of Chirripó.
The hostel was comfortable but cold. We bundled up, drank gallons of hot coffee and still felt frigid.
A Costa Rican shivering in his sleeping bag told us he'd never in his life been colder. We also met a charming Costa Rican volunteer who told us ancient legends about the region.
We slept well and the next morning were on the trail at 5 am. After climbing for two hours, we reached the summit and were greeted by an amazing view of neighbouring peaks and two oceans. All alone, high above the tree line, we could see for miles and miles. It was peaceful and lonely and spectacular. I recommend it to anyone with sturdy boots, rain gear and an itch to experience another culture and country.
The climb down was rough. It rained the entire way, and we were absolutely dejected by the time we reached the bottom.
Now, as I soak up the sun on this warm Pacific beach, my weary bones are aching, but the memory of Chirripó is sweet.