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Seldom seen except by dedicated high-altitude hikers, the Lagos Chirripo or Chirripo Lakes are the highest in Central America. Located just below the summit of Cerro Chirripo, the series of lakes occupy a small valley high above the well-known cloud forest in Costa Rica. From the summit, hikers are rewarded with a view of both the Caribbean and Pacific oceans, over 30 small high-altitude lakes, and the shining Chirripo chain of small lakes forming the headwaters of the Chirripo Pacific River. This small river gathers water from numerous streams on its way down from the heights, becoming in succession Rio Chibugra, Rio General, Diquis River and Rio Grande de Terraba before it finally reaches the Pacific.
The Lagos Chirripo were created when the last glacier retreated from this area of the Talamanca Mountains. Only the largest is actually named in literature, usually called Laguna Grande de Chirripo or Lago San Juan. Three small lakes are connected by streams during the rainy season and are usually isolated behind rocky moraine natural dams during the dry season. Laguna Grande has no major in-flowing streams, although it gains water from short temporary run-off brooks in the rainy season. Due to its location near the summit, the watershed feeding these lakes is less than a square mile. Overflow from the first lake then tumbles across the now-submerged gravel barrier and enters the second, then the third lake. From the third little lake, the Chirripo Pacific River gains its start.
Although there are rough paths down to the lakes from near the summit of Cerro Chirripo, few visitors attempt to access them. It is belieed that in centuries past native climbers did access the lakes. Pre-Columbian Costa Ricans used to climb the challenging trail to the summit for ceremonies carrying a special charm to protect them from the reputed mountain spirit. Laguna Grande de Chirripo is only 13 acres in size with a shoreline less than a mile around. Considering its small size, the lake is exceedingly deep, reaching 72 feet in the center. There are no fish in the waters of these high-altitude lakes and likewise almost no invertebrates. Aquatic squillwort grows in the shallows. The near-shore area is covered in dwarf bamboo, a few small bushes, tussock grass and club mosses. At over 11,500 feet, the area is above the treeline and has been further altered over past centuries by occasional brush fires. Although most sources blame careless modern campers for the fires, sediment core samples from Laguna Grande de Chirripo show that charcoal from fires has been deposited in the lake at random intervals for possibly thousands of years. The source of these early fires is a mystery.
The Lagos Chirripo as well as Cerro Chirripo are within the 125,600-acre Chirripo National Park, stretching into three of Costa Rica's seven provinces (San Jose, Limon, Cartago). Formed in 1975, the national park serves to protect the sensitive ecology of the region surrounding Cerro Chirripo, Costa Rica's highest mountain. From the lowland entrances to the park to the summit is a gain of over 8000 feet with five different eco-zones supporting a wide variety of plants and animals. Within the park live jaguars, tapirs, quetzals (colorful birds in the trogon family), and a variety of birdlife including the goldfinch. Certain areas of the park are noted bird-watching sites. Visitors to Cerro Chirripo come to test their endurance against the steep trail and windswept mountain.
Climbing the Chirripo Trail can be done in one day. Most visitors make the trip a three-day affair, starting out from the little village of San Gerardo de Rivas. Several hotels in this tiny town offer overnight lodgings for park visitors. Food supplies suitable for backpacking can be purchased here. Those spending a couple of days will find several local attractions worth a visit, such as a cheese factory and a coffee plantation tour. Trekkers wishing to arrange for transport for their gear can engage porters and/or horses in the town. From here, the trail climbs over 7,200 feet to the summit, through cloud forest and paramos (alpine tundra ecosystem). Special permits must be obtained to climb the massif, and access is strictly limited to protect the delicate environment. Because the hike is so popular, prospective permit holders must be quick when the permit window opens before they are all committed. The usual trek is a three-day adventure involving overnight lodgings at Crestones Base Camp, three-and-a-half miles short of the summit.
Although the trail starts off rugged and off-times steep, one doesn't reach the Park entrance until the 4 km marker. Even here, one is not totally away from civilization. A small facility at Llano Bonito Refuge offers water and bathrooms. First-day target, Crestones Base Camp offers dormitory-style accommodations, cold showers and a restaurant. Because nights get quite cold, hikers may wish to bring their own heavy sleeping bag to augment the rather light bedding of the dormitory. The general desire of most hikers is to see the sun rise from the summit of Cerro Chirripo, so an early start is required. If trekkers make it to the top before dawn, on clear days they can see both the Pacific and the Caribbean, and the many small shimmering lakes below the mountain summit. After a few short hours atop Costa Rica's highest mountain, hikers must retrace their steps and head back down into the valley, taking away nothing but photographs and beautiful memories.
Those who hike Costa Rica will likely be back to experience some of the other trails in the region. Crestones Base Camp serves as the gateway to Cerro Ventisqueros, the country's second-highest peak and to the unusual rock spires of Los Crestones, namesake of the facility. The Lagos Chirripo are little-studied. Until the US military, who happened to be performing helicopter training in the area, agreed to transport a team of scientists and their equipment to the lake and retrieve them later, there was no way to bring the needed instruments to the lakes to take measurements. Their surveys included only Laguna Grande de Chlrripo, so we have no specifics on the other two, smaller lakes in the chain.
This is one of Costa Rica's great hikes. Only those willing to put forth the effort to reach Cerro Chirripo's summit will ever see these pristine lakes. So, come where so few have gone before. The views from the summit are a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
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