COSTA RICA - Central American Paradise
© February 2002 Adam Helman


Costa Rica is a natural destination for travelers to Central America. As the most economically developed and politically stable of the small Central American nations, it is inviting to foreigners in several respects. Costa Rica boasts a large fraction of its land as preserved space that is immune from the ravages of economic development. Costa Ricans should be proud of their National Park system. In part the relative peace and stability stems from the absence of a national military system, i.e. there is no army, navy or air force.

For the nature enthusiast Costa Rica is an ideal venue. The lowlands have pristine rainforest while the highlands contain awesome volcanoes and mountains that rise to over 12,000 feet.

Most lofty is Cerro Chirripó at 12,533 feet above sea level. Chirripó lies within a National Park of its namesake and was the principal aim of this trip.

Numerous volcanoes, some quite active, dot the landscape. Volcan Irazú (11,260 feet) is the highest highest active volcano in the country. Volcan Arenal is so active that it poses a mortal threat to any would-be ascent. Volcan Póas (8,885 ft) sports beautiful colored calderas with an overlook accessible by paved trail. All of these volcanoes are protected by National Parks.

It was clear from the planning stages that a trip to Costa Rica would be punctuated by ascents of the highest peaks in Parque Nacional Chirripó; ascents of the most famous volcanoes; and a visit to Parque Nacional Arenal for a display of glowing orange lava.

We had initially believed that Cerro Chirripó is the most prominent mountain in Central America - so providing the motivation for making this journey. Indeed, Chirripó has the substantial prominence of 12,366 ft with its "prominence saddle" located in Nicaragua. Subsequently we learned that Volcan Tajumulco of Guatemala is both higher (4,220 m = 13,845 ft) and has a greater prominence than Chirripó.

Upon learning this we elected to not alter our plans because Guatemala is politically unstable and because with all of its volcanoes, Costa Rica is somewhere we would eventually want to visit anyways.


Bob Packard of Flagstaff, Arizona met Edward Earl and myself at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday night the 22nd of February 2002. We arrived in San José, the capital, at roughly 8 AM Saturday morning after a United Airlines flight that stopped in Guatemala City.

From San José we took a public bus to the entrance of Parque Nacional Chirripó, sleeping in a rudimentary motel about a mile from the trailhead leading into the park.

On Sunday we ascend by trail a full 7,000 vertical feet to a high hut (ca 11,000 ft) with beds and cooking hardware. As we began at dawn, we arrived by mid-afternoon, having enjoyed the changes in ecology as we pass through various life zones. This was the most vertical gain I had ever done in a single day with a full pack (although at an estimated 36-40 pounds it was lighter than usual for an overnight affair). *1

View northeast from the summit of Cerro Ventisqueros

Monday is summit day. We first climb the second highest summit in Costa Rica - Cerro Ventisqueros (12,510 ft) from the high altitude hut. Descending to a trail junction we then reascend a different trail to a saddle in-between Cerro Chirripó and the nation's third highest. The final 400 vertical feet above the saddle is class 2 with handholds required. We spend an hour on top.

At the summit of Cerro Chirripó

View northeast from top summit of Cerro Chirripó
of Cerro Ventisqueros

Bob alone had sufficient water and tenacity to ascend the third highest from the saddle, while Edward and myself simply return to the distant high altitude hut.

Looking back at Cerro Chirripó from the trail

Tuesday saw a tedious descent the full seven thousand vertical feet to the town of San Gerardo de Rivas where we had slept Saturday night. I fill up on a liter of ice cream at the only restaurant. We took a public bus to sleep in the city of San Isidro de el General. Again, this was nearly the most vertical feet I have descended in one day - and this regardless of how much was carried. *1

Looking back at Cerro
Chirripó from the trail

The remainder of our vacation was consumed with visiting different national parks to both admire and climb their volcanic showpieces.

The toxic green lake of Volcan Irazú

On Wednesday morning we again traveled by bus to Cartago at the base of Volcan Irazú. A taxi ride to within one thousand vertical feet of the summit was mandatory so that we could Earlize Irazú (the driver though this most strange behavior!). Views of the caldera were spectacular. Some of the foliage had leaves that were individually as broad as writing desks and kitchen tables!

Huge foliage on Volcan Irazú

toxic green lake huge foliage on Irazú
of Volcan Irazú

On Thursday yet another bus ride (this time of five hours duration) brought us to Fortuna near Parque Nacional Arenal. Very touristy. I temporarily lost my passport and yet found it at the local police station. That evening we went on private tour to the base of Arenal - and waited in vain a full hour for the clouds to clear and reveal glowing lava as it flows down the slope.

Volcan Arenal from Fortuna

Volcan Arenal from Fortuna

As climbing Arenal is currently too dangerous, on Friday we chose a nearby summit - El Chato ("pug nose" - 3,554 ft) with a lake in the summit crater. Although we gained the highest area on the summit rim, we never reached the lake owing to a poorly maintained trail with a seven foot drop composed of mud with only roots as handholds.

We traveled back in the direction of San José to Alajuela for the night.

Caldera and lake of Volcan Póas

On Saturday we taxied to Parque Nacional Póas. A short walk brought us to a lookout over a spectacular pair of calderas. The summit was ill-defined as we had no good topographic maps of the park. Nevertheless we all made a "good faith" effort and, in a most ludicrous display of highpointing madness, ended up spending perhaps 30 minutes trudging, crawling and climbing some 100 horizontal feet off-trail to what appeared as the local highpoint. The foliage was so thick that we had to wave at each other from just thirty feet to assess who was the higher!

Caldera and lake near
summit of Volcan Póas

That evening I wanted to eat at a Columbian restaurant while both Bob and Edward desired Pizza Hut. Outvoted I joined them and decided, simply because I was not hungry and because I knew it would be documented here, that I would eat absolutely nothing. In this effort I succeeded despite Bob's concerted efforts to ply me with chocolate cake with ice cream.

Popocatépetl from our jet

On Sunday March 3 we returned home on United Airlines. One highlight was passing directly over the giant Mexico volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Ixtacchíhuatl. I jumped out of my seat and searched in vain through the east windows for Orizaba. The peaks were disappointingly short on snowcover - with Popocatépetl nearly devoid of snow owing to its recent volcanic activity, and Ixtacchíhuatl displaying little snow compared to my experience there several years previously around Thanksgiving. Perhaps the snow amount was lower than my expectation simply because of the season ... or was it an ominous result of global warming?

Ixtacchíhuatl from our jet

Popocatépetl (17,887 feet) Ixtacchíhuatl (17,343 feet)
from our jet over Mexico from our jet over Mexico

*1 After summiting on Kilimanjaro my brother, his fiancee Dana and myself descended past Kibo Hut (15,400 ft) to the Horombo Hut (12,000 ft) - an elevation loss of 7,340 ft (the error is uncertain owing to the uncertainty in the altitude of Horombo Hut).

On Cerro Chirripó the high altitude hut is best estimated at 11,155 ft [3,400 m] while the bus stop after descent is best estimated as 4,200 ft (as the trailhead elevation of 4,600 ft [1,400 m] less 400 ft as one walks the road downhill, through town, and ultimately to the bus stop in-between the town school and park). The difference of 6,955 ft is the net elevation gain and loss for both the ascent and the descent to the high altitude hut.

There is a roughly 200-250 ft drop in the trail just below the middle level hut (no longer used). There is a similar drop in the trail on the hut-side of a 3,200 m saddle. Assuming an additional 450 ft of gain from these sources, the total elevation gain on ascent to the hut is 7,405 ft. The total elevation drop on descent to the bus stop is the same. These figures are to be compared against the estimated drop on descent of 7,340 ft from Uhuru Pk of Kilimanjaro.