Río Chirripó Valley
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The Río Chirripó Valley cuts deeply into the Talamancas northeast of San Isidro fed by waters cascading down from Cerro Chirripó (3,819 m), Costa Rica’s highest mountain. (The hard-to-find, unmarked turnoff from the highway is 200 meters south of the bridge on the south side of San Isidro.)
The river is favored for trout fishing, and for kayaking and rafting, with enormous volumes of water. Contact Costa Rica Expeditions (tel. 506/2257-0766, www.costaricaexpeditions.com) for rafting tours and trips. The drive offers spectacular scenery.
Rivas, a little village six kilometers east of San Isidro, is famous for the roadside Rock of the Indian (Piedra de los Indios), carved with pre-Columbian motifs. It’s 100 meters north of Rancho La Botija (tel./fax 506/2770-2146, www.rancholabotija.com, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., $5 adults, $3 children), where trails lead to even more impressive giant rocks carved with petroglyphs. This coffee and fruit finca also has a 150-year-old trapiche (sugar mill) and an atmospheric café. Trail tours are offered (9 a.m. Tues.–Sun., $5).
Passing through the hamlet of Canaan, 18 kilometers northeast of San Isidro, you arrive at San Gerardo de Rivas. This quaint village, on the southwest flank of Chirripó at 1,300 meters, is the gateway to Chirripó National Park. The setting is alpine, the air crisp. The scent of pines and the burbling of rushing streams fill the air. The locale is perfect for hiking and bird-watching. Quesos Canaan (tel. 506/2742-5125, origith [at] hotmail [dot] com, 8 A.M.–4 P.M. daily), in Canaan village, is a small family-run farm where you can milk the cows and learn about cheesemaking.
A side road in San Gerardo follows the Río Blanco upstream west three kilometers to the hamlet of Herradura, from where begins a more arduous trail to Cerro Chirripó and Cerro Urán. . In late 2008, floods wiped out the bridge, and the hamlet is accessible solely by a makeshift footbridge.
En route you’ll pass the Aguas Termales (tel. 506/2742-5210, 7 A.M.–6 P.M. daily, $5), a peaceful spot with landscaped hot spring pools, hugely popular with locals on weekends. Horticulturalists on a busman’s holiday will appreciate Jardín Secreto (8 A.M.–5 P.M. daily, $3), a lovely little garden with orchids, heliconias, and bromeliads on display.
The Cámara de Turismo (Chamber of Tourism, tel. 506/2742-5050, www.sangerardocostarica.com) is a good information resource.
Museo el Pelicano
This small “museum” (tel. 506/2742-5050, 8 A.M.–8 P.M. daily, free) on a coffee finca between Canaan and San Gerardo displays the eclectic and unique works of local artist Rafael Elizondo Basulta. Crafted from stones and natural timbers, the exhibits include a five-meter snake hewn from a branch. My favorite is a half-scale motorbike made from 1,000 twigs and other pieces of wood. Rafael’s stone sculptures are displayed in the beautifully landscaped garden. With luck you may be invited into his charming house to see the tree trunks hewn magically into a storage cupboard and even a wooden fridge.
About 800 kilometers above the soccer field in San Gerardo, the dirt road divides: To the right, it clambers steeply for about one kilometer to the trailhead to Chirripó National Park.
En route, you’ll pass Talamanca Reserve (tel. 506/2742-5080, www.talamancareserve.com), a 2,000-hectare reserve that has miles of trails—some for hikers (but steep), others for ATVs ($50 two hours, with guide). One follows a river to a cascade and swimming holes. Horseback rides and guided walks ($15–45) from two to six hours are offered. Overnight guests here use the facility for free. Trails here offer the best views of Chirripó, with Los Crestones clearly visible on a fine day.
The dirt road continues in deteriorating condition past the Chirripó National Park trailhead, 1.5 kilometers to Chirripó Cloudbridge Reserve (www.cloudbridge.org), a private reserve and reforestation project with 12 kilometers of trails and more than a dozen waterfalls, plus a meditation garden. Entry is by donation; simply sign in and set off.
Many lodgings offer meals; some shutter up in low season. The calming Talari Mountain Lodge (tel./fax 506/2771-0341, www.talari.co.cr, $42 s or $62 d low season, $49 s or $72 d high season), near Rivas, is a small resort nestled over the Río Chirripó on an eight-hectare property good for bird-watching. Much of the balance is made up of orchards. A refurbishing spruced this property up to no end, with livelier fabrics and color schemes. All rooms offer great mountain views from terrace. There’s a swimming pool and a little restaurant where Jan, the Dutch owner, plays jazz on the piano. Guided hiking and bird-watching are offered, or set out alone on forest, river, and/or orchard trails.
Midway between San Isidro and Rivas, Rancho la Botija (tel. 506/2770-2147, www.rancholabotija.com, $28 s or $32 d) is bargain priced. The four simple cabins with wooden walls and bamboo ceilings offer a rustic, romantic charm. Eight newer cabins are more spacious and have WiFi; four have TV and two cater to travelers with disabilities. It has a swimming pool and trails.
Nearby, Casa de los Celtas (tel. 506/2770-3524, www.casaceltas.com, $40 s or $60 d room, $250 s/d weekly cottage) is a small hillside bed-and-breakfast run by two inveterate Brits. Set in seven acres of lush gardens abounding in birds, it rents out one room and a self-catering cottage, both pleasantly furnished. Meals are offered by reservation.
Further up the valley and set amid coffee fields above Canaan, the Hotel Montaña El Pelícano (tel./fax 506/2742-5050, www.hotelpelicano.net, $20 pp dorm, $48–80 s/d cabin) is a splendid option for budget hounds. The focal point is a large alpine-style wooden lodge with 10 skylit and bare-bones hostel-type upstairs rooms sharing four spic-and-span toilets and tiled showers with hot water. Walls do not reach the ceiling, so no romantic antics, please. It also has four charming cabins, including a large unit sleeping four people. It has a restaurant, swimming pool, and trails.
In San Gerardo, the Cabinas y Soda Marín (tel. 506/2742-5091, $14 pp shared bath, $20 pp private bath), next to the ranger station, has eight simple but clean cabins with hot water. You can camp here for $10 per person, with tent and sleeping bag provided. A budget alternative is Bar/Restaurant El Bosque (c/o tel. 506/2771-4129); it permits camping ($5 pp).
In this price bracket, I prefer Cabinas del Descanso (tel. 506/2742-5099, http://bit.ly/ew0uuP, $4 per tent, $14 pp in dorms, $24 pp in cabinas), 200 meters uphill from the ranger station. It has a tiny dorm with bunks and shared baths, plus nine cabinas with double beds and hot water (two rooms have private baths). It also permits camping (there are cold-water showers) and has Internet and laundry. A rustic restaurant serves filling típico meals. The Elizondo family leads treks (including bird-watching), offers trout fishing, and will drive you to the park entrance.
To live like a hermit, check out Café Roca Dura (tel. 506/2742-5071, $6 camping, $12 pp with shared bath, $25 s or $30 d private bath), with eight rooms (four with private bath) built into the rock face, like little caves, below a rustic restaurant. It gives an entirely new meaning to its name, which is Spanish for “Hard Rock Café”! It has an advantageous position beside the soccer field in the heart of the village and a hot tub cemented into the rocks.
Above the village, Casa Mariposa (tel. 506/2742-5037, www.hotelcasamariposa.net, $13 pp dorm) also has rock-face rooms and offers tremendous ambience for budget digs. This wooden backpackers’ hostel is built into the boulders, 100 meters below the Chirripó trailhead. It has five dorms, plus laundry, Internet, storage, and a fabulous soaking tub built into the rocks (as is the dorm’s outdoor communal toilet and shower). The owners, Californian transplants John and Jill, have added a larger, cross-ventilated cabin ($30–45 s, $36–52 d) with a screened wall offering views over the river valley.
Next door, Hotel Urán (tel. 506/2742-5004, www.hoteluran.com, $16.50 pp) enjoys a pleasant hillside setting gaily planted with ornamentals. It offers 10 simple but well-kept rooms, barracks-style, in a modern wooden two-story structure with tin roof and shared bathrooms with hot water. It has a pulpería (grocery), and clean, airy restaurant (4:30 A.M.–8 P.M. daily). A larger room has four beds and a private bathroom.
Set in lush landscaped gardens, Talamanca Reserve (tel. 506/2742-5080, www.talamancareserve.com, $69 s/d standard, $79 s/d junior suite, $150 cabin suite) causes a double-take. Built in dramatic contemporary style, it has modestly furnished rooms with firm mattresses and lovely sunlit bathrooms; junior suites are preferable, again highlighted by tasteful bathrooms. It has a great restaurant serving the best gourmet food around, an Internet café, and miles of ATV and hiking trails.
Río Chirripó B&B and Retreat (tel. 506/2742-5333, www.riochirripo.com, $120 s or $190 d includes all meals and tax), one kilometer above Canaan, enjoys an exquisite setting in a ravine beneath huge granite boulders. Run by American expat Frank Faiella and his Costa Rican girlfriend, Oriana, this is one of the most appealing mountain lodges in Costa Rica—not least thanks to its Santa Fe aesthetic. Its heart is a huge lounge (with WiFi) in a circular ranchito with soaring palenque roof, Aztec motifs, New Mexican throw rugs, Guatemalan wall hangings, sofa seats with batik cushions arcing around a raised brick fireplace, and open walls with mountain vistas. Oriana makes fabulous meals and the dining area is swarmed by bougainvillea. Eight small, rustic wooden cabins hang over the river boasting soothing earth-tone color schemes, wooden beds with Guatemalan bedspreads, cross-ventilation, balconies, and walk-in showers with hot water. You can also rent a more spacious casita ($140 s, $190 d). Trails lead down to a swimming pool, sundeck, and a heated riverside whirlpool tub, and there’s a yoga dojo.
Every year witnesses the opening of half a dozen new boutique hotels in Costa Rica. And every year I think I’ve seen it all. But Monte Azul: Boutique Hotel + Center for Art & Design (tel. 506/2742-5222, www.monteazulcr.com, $190 s/d casitas, from $310 s/d suites) raises the bar. Set on its own 125-hectare reserve at Chimirol de Rivas, this art-themed modernist hotel is the brainchild of Carlos Rojas, a Costa Rica–born artist-turned–art dealer, and his partner Randy Langendorfer, an Indiana-born contractor. Contemporary art festoons the walls; many pieces were created on-site through Monte Azul’s artist-in-residence program. Four luxury riverfront suites have glass wall frontages with patios overlooking gorgeous tropical gardens. Within, the hip aesthetic includes two-tone checkered tile floors, Kohler bath fixtures, Ikea-style kitchens, top-of-the-line imported mattresses and linens, and custom-designed furniture. I like the welcome touch of a platter of homemade goat cheese, bread, and fresh fruit for each arriving guest. A dirt road snakes uphill to a 4,000-square-foot, two-suite villa—Casa Palo Alto—with a state-of-the-art kitchen, a swimming pool, and sweeping vistas. A chic open-air restaurant serves gourmet American-Asian fusion dishes using organic produce from the hotel’s garden. Dinner is always a three-course daily menu, such as chayote soup, beet and goat cheese salad, and pork loin with green curry. Do try the agua de sapo (frog water) with ginger and lemonade. Wildlife abounds. The hotel is entirely smoke free, but smokers can hop across the street for a stogie at Tío Pepe’s Smoking Lounge.
Cabinas y Soda Marín (tel. 506/2742-50915, A.M.–7:30 P.M. daily) and Bar/Restaurant El Bosque (c/o tel. 506/2771-4129) each have a basic restaurant; the latter also has a pulpería (general store) where you can buy food for the hike up Chirripó.
For rustic charm, try the restaurant at Cabinas Roca Dura (7 A.M.–10 P.M. daily), built atop boulders; it serves typical Costa Rican dishes, plus burgers and sandwiches. Close to the Chirripó trailhead, the restaurant at Hotel Urán (tel. 506/2742-5004) opens at 4:30 A.M. to serve early-bird hikers.
The Talamanca Reserve café-restaurant (8 A.M.–10 P.M. daily) is the place for everything from pancakes, omelettes, and eggs and smoked ham for breakfast to bowls of chili, chicken fingers, and triple-decker sandwiches. Dinner leans toward gourmet. I enjoyed a steaming bowl of garbanzos and a superb dish of sautéed liver with onion and green peppers with mashed potato. It also sells ice creams and cappuccinos.
Getting to the Río Chirripó Valley
Buses (tel. 506/2742-5083) depart San Isidro daily for San Gerardo de Rivas at 5 A.M. and 2 P.M., returning at 7 A.M. and 4:30 P.M. Be sure to specify San Gerardo de Rivas, not San Gerardo de Dota.
If driving, the unsigned turnoff for Rivas and San Gerardo is one kilometer south of San Isidro. A 4WD taxi from San Isidro will cost about $20.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition