One of the prime reasons for visiting the Arenal Volcano National Park area of Costa Rica is to participate in the many outdoor activities offered. If you’re looking for a challenging yet rewarding hike, consider heading to the summit of Cerro Chato, Arenal’s dormant next door neighbor.
Sitting at 1,140m (3740 ft) tall, you won’t feel the affects of altitude when you climb Cerro Chato, but the rough trail and steep ascent makes for a challenging hike that rewards you with a dip in the blue-green lagoon in its crater.
The hike to the top of Cerro Chato begins at the Arenal Observatory, a short distance from La Fortuna on the southern side of Arenal. If you rented a car, it’s a quick 15 minute drive down the main road until you turn off toward the observatory, at which point the road is unpaved and uneven, which wasn’t too bad in our rental SUV. You’ll actually drive around the north side of Arenal, looping around its western side and arriving at the observatory on the southern side.
If you’re counting on public transportation to get you there, note that the bus will drop you off at the start of the unpaved road, but it’s still an 8km trek from here to the entrance of the Observatory! We were flagged down by a couple of German hitchhikers who had taken the bus to that point and were very grateful for the lift when they found out how far they still had to go. Taxis are also an option, but could be a little pricey given the distance and road condition.
Once you arrive at Arenal Observatory you’ll pay the entrance fee ($10 USD per person) which includes parking. The grounds are actually a resort with many lodges, and you’re paying to access the trailhead through their property. While you’re here stop by the Arenal Observatory Lounge for drinks and breathtaking views of the volcano, or better yet, reward yourself after your hike.
Alternatively, you can also begin the trek at the La Fortuna waterfall, which is shorter, but also more challenging.
You’ll want to be well-equipped for this hike, as it is rather strenuous. Be sure to take a daypack with plenty of water. Some snacks are a good idea, too, as the hike can take more than 5 hours. Also be sure to pack insect repellant, a rain jacket, and your camera!
Once you’re ready to start your ascent, head across the resort property, following the signs toward Cerro Chato. You’ll receive a map at the entrance that will show you all the side paths you can take, should you wish. From the car park you’ll follow a road about 1-2km past farms and through the forest until you reach the base of Cerro Chato. Now’s when the adventure really begins!
Getting to the top
To put it bluntly, this is a difficult trek, even for seasoned hikers. We had read plenty of reports of experienced trekkers finding this to be harder than they expected. And as I was gasping for breath pulling myself up by wet tree roots, I could see why.
The trail up Cerro Chato is 1500m long with an elevation gain of 500m, which translates to a pretty steep climb. And really, it’s not so much a trail as it is a watershed. That means there are lots of natural steps formed by the roots of trees retaining in the soil. You can use the footprint-formed divots of previous trekkers to help plot your way up the tricky path. Be ready to use all four limbs to pull yourself up when your footing isn’t sure. And if it’s rained recently (almost a given) the trail will be muddy and slippery, so be sure to wear shoes or boots with good traction!
As we made our ascent we could see thick clouds rolling in through the occasional clearing in the trees. Worried that rain would make the treacherous trek even more so, our German companions turned back about three-fourths of the way up. We were tempted to join them, but knowing we were close we deployed our rain gear and pushed on. Soon after a light rain started falling, making the already slippery path that much more difficult to navigate. But it was all worth it, because when we got to the top we were rewarded with the most amazing view of the blue-green lagoon:
Just kidding. It was totally overcast with barely any visibility. All that effort to get to the top and there was nothing to see. Oh well. The climb was still fun and rewarding. But if you’re interested in the hike and want to know what you could see, hit this link for a view of the lagoon on a clear day.
From here it’s about a 30 minute jaunt down to the lagoon, where you can take a quick dip if you want, although it’s not recommended due to mineral concentrations in the water. This part of the hike can be the most difficult, especially if the trail is muddy, so be sure you really want to go to lagoon before heading down. We decided to turn back since it was raining. We’ll have to save a dip in the lagoon for next time!
Coming down can be almost as challenging as going up. All those large steps you pulled yourself up now require you to figure out how to get down, using your hands to stabilize yourself or testing out multiple options for the best way down. And since it was raining it was doubly tricky for us. As we were on the way down other hapless trekkers desperately asked us how much farther, and we did our best to encourage them onward.
Upon reaching the bottom we were glad to be off the Cerro Chato trail, but winced a little when we remembered we still had a few kilometers to get back to our car. Fortunately it’s easy, but the rain didn’t make it very enjoyable. In the end, it took us about 3 hours and 45 minutes to roundtrip to the top and back, and if we had gone to the lagoon that would have been around 5 hours or so.
While we were disappointed we didn’t get to see the lagoon at the top of Cerro Chato, we still had a blast navigating the tricky trail to the top, and count it as one of our best experiences in Costa Rica. Add it to your list if you enjoy a challenge, and be mentally prepared for a tough trek. Questions? Post them below and we’ll be happy to answer!
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