It seemed as if we’d been climbing for hours, though the clock on my camera told us otherwise — less than an hour into our hike up Cerro Chato and we were already muddy, covered in sweat, and ready for a break. My girlfriend Ashley and I had entered the trail from the Green Lagoon Lodge, located about a 5.6km taxi ride away from La Fortuna. The trail begins next to the lodge and a gentle downward slope lulls hikers into a false belief that this hike is going to be an easy one. The first one and a half kilometers wind through the Cerro Chato ANC Park & Gardens, filled with 400 acres of tropical plants and green rolling hills, before reaching the boundary with Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, marked by a dense wall of rainforest.
To set the scene, at 1,140 m (3,740 ft), Cerro Chato lies in the shadow of its neighboring volcanic cousin, the 1,670m (5,479 ft) active volcano Arenal which looms over the town of La Fortuna in northwestern Costa Rica. While Arenal is still active, Cerro Chato last erupted about 3,500 years ago and its crater has formed a large, 500m wide lagoon at the summit that hikers can swim in after a long trek.
Like most adventure destinations, Costa Rica offers something for everyone — pricy luxury resorts and guided tours along paved trails fit the needs of affluent vacationers accustomed to air conditioning, while rustic hostels and self guided tours through the rainforest are more in-line with what most adventure-travelers seek. Everything in Costa Rica seems to be perpetually damp, thanks to the rainstorms that seem to be only a dance away at any time, and this trail was about as far from the paved variety as a trail can get. In the winter, when rainstorms are less frequent the hike may be easier, but at the very end of April at the start of the Green Season, what may have once been hard packed clay had been transformed into soupy, slippery mud up a treacherously steep slope.
Once in the national park the daylight is cut in half, as the dense rainforest canopy forms a dark filter that light struggles to breach. Though the air is cool, the humidity is like a thick cloak and even before the rain began to fall, I found my skin and clothing drenched. Every tree is like a miniature jungle and each piece of natural real-estate, no matter how small, is filled with something alive. Bromeliads, orchids, ferns, moss, and vines lay claim to everything in sight, and the trail cuts through a landscape that is overwhelmingly green. Logs and tree roots form rustic stairs up the steep incline and my camera made for the perfect excuse to pause every 50 meters to capture the natural beauty and bring my heart rate back to normal.
As the trail wound up the mountain, raindrops began to trickle through the leaves and the sound of thunder echoed through the mountains. Even covered in mud, drenched with sweat and rain, and sore from dragging myself and a backpack of camera gear uphill, no temporary discomfort could take away from the sheer magic of the experience. Travel experiences sometimes fail to live up to expectations…but this was precisely as I’d imagined it. While we paused beneath a monumental tree growing from the middle of the trail, we watched as low hanging clouds blew through the trees, rustling the leaves and carrying the intoxicatingly rich scents of distant flowers and decaying leaves.
The higher we climbed, the more it rained. What began as a light mist was soon a torrential downpour, and as the rain increased our pace decreased. Finally, after what seemed like hours, we reached the summit of Cerro Chato. Instead of the picturesque turquoise waters of the lagoon, we found an impenetrable wall of mist that thwarted what is apparently a spectacular view on a clear day. With nothing to see, we decided to head back down the mountain — an easy task when compared to the ascent, even with a trail that was quickly becoming a cascading stream as the rainfall continued.
In the days that followed our hike up Cerro Chato, we found ourselves in many beautiful areas of Costa Rica. Though rainforest abounds in this country, our adventure on Cerro Chato easily remains the highlight of our trip.
Things to Know
There are two ways to reach the summit of Cerro Chato: From the east near the entrance to La Fortuna Waterfall is the Green Lagoon Lodge. Entrance to the Cerro Chato ANC Park & Gardens trail which connects with the trail to the summit of Cerro Chato is $10. Plan for 2-4 hours for a round-trip journey to the summit.
From the west is the Arenal Observatory Lodge; this route takes longer to reach the summit and the entrance fee is also $10. Plan for 4-5 hours for a round trip hike to the summit.
Trails open at 7am and close to new arrivals at 1pm since the sun sets quite early in Costa Rica. Rainstorms tend to arrive in the afternoon, so an early start is important. Bring plenty of water and snacks; you’ll find a few benches along the trail to stop and rest periodically. Bring sunscreen for the open-air portion of the hike; a poncho and bug repellent will likely come in handy on most treks.