Cerro Chato: Conquering the Costa Rica Volcano

Parque Nacional Volcรกn Arenal & Observatory Lodge

A photo of the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica from across the lake.

After being locked up on night shift for the past month, there’s only one thing I want -to bask outside in the sun near some water. While Chattanooga is an optimal location to satisfy this urge, wanderlust has me dreaming of different times.

About three years ago, I was exploring Costa Rica with my girlfriends. Ever the intrepid outdoorsy travelers, one of the places we decided to stay was in the La Fortuna region at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The Lodge is the only hotel within the Arenal National Park and was originally founded to serve as a observatory for the Universidad de Costa Rica. It’s been an ideal location for volcanologists to study the still active Arenal Volcano, but serves a more lighthearted crowd as a spa and tourist destination now.

Many tourists who visit the La Fortuna area opt to stay closer to town at the hot spring resorts. We went to explore those too and, of course, they were fabulous. But we came to Costa Rica to hike, so Arenal it was. One of the most popular ways to arrive at Arenal from Monteverde, our first Costa Rica stop, is via boat across the Arenal Lake, Laguna de Arenal. Taking near the same amount of time as driving would, why not take the scenic option? We were rewarded for our choice and on a beautiful May day, we sped across the Laguna admiring the open views of the volcano in the distance.

While the Observatory lodge is far from town, the location more than makes up for the limited food and drink options. The restaurant features decks overlooking the lake and the Arenal volcano. On some days, you might see smoke and lava smoldering from the volcano top, but it was quiet during our visit. From the minute we threw down our bags in the glass paneled room facing the mountains, we relaxed into the jungle paradise. But sitting next to the still active volcano was the real focus -the dormant Cerro Chato volcano.

The Cerro Chato “Trail”A sign featuring the Cerro Chato Trail.

I’m a Lonely Planet devotee, and while reading about the Arenal Park, I found a feature on the Cerro Chato Hiking Trail. The trail is accessed from the lodge and while the feature stated it was challenging, it was only 8km! By God, you can put up with anything for that long, especially for a swim in the crater lake at the summit! Fancying ourselves more than moderate hikers, we tackled the task on our second day at the Observatory.

We set out after breakfast with snacks in hand for a picnic at the top. The official trail counts the length of road winding through the lodge’s farmland, so you begin the journey with deceptive ease. After a 2km stroll, you reach the base of the Cerro Chato volcano. Congratulations! It’s only 1.5km from here! But wait, that’s a 1.5km distance with 1.2km of rise and…..holy shenanigans, that’s a nearly vertical trail. For the first hundred feet, it’s not too steep and you think, “Oh, this will be okay.” Then you hit the real trail which is more a rock climbing venture than a “hike”.

The Cerro Chato

We were less than thrilled, but we’re stubborn people. We’ll make it right? After a while of monkey climbing around roots, rocks, mudslides, and the occasional snake, it certainly seemed like we wouldn’t. An hour and a half later of doggedly putting one step above the other, climbing, climbing and climbing, we made it. And they only cursed my name and called me a slave driver about 50,000 times. But wait! There’s more. You summit the main trail to overlook the laguna discovering you’re in for another climb down before you can take your well deserved swim.

Laze in the Laguna

Around 10 hikers braved the trail prior to us that day and were enjoying their afternoon on the shore when we toppled down the hill. Could there be fish or crocodiles in a crater lake? How and why would they get there? I didn’t have too much time to consider if there was a beastly wanting to eat me lurking in the lake before I stripped off my clothes and dove into the blue-green depths. Few experiences solidify themselves in your memory with the full range of senses -sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. Spending an afternoon swimming in a volcano lagoon is one for the record book. My friend still insisted she hated me, and that she would never hike again, but with the view we had, it’s hard to say it wasn’t worth it.

A view of the Cerro Chato laguna.

After sun bathing for a considerable time, we figured we’d better head back before our muscles realized they needed to shut down entirely. Going down the mountain was considerably easier than going up it, The hard part was when we hit the even bottom and had to drag ourselves across the pavement back home rather than rely on gravity to safely guide you down (as long as you strategically caught some tree branches along the way).

Finding strength enough to make it to happy hour, we celebrated with beers on the back porch in full view of the volcano we had just conquered and lamenting that we hadn’t saved spa day for the day after our hike.

***IMPORTANT INFO***: Unfortunately my persistence of memory doesn’t come at a time that’s helpful to you. As of now, the Cerro Chato trail remains officially closed due to damage from heavy rains. (Like I said, the trail is basically a mudslide that happened to be dry when we hiked it). If you’re traveling to Costa Rica soon, check with the locals and lodge members for updates on the trail. I know I personally would be very interested to find out when it opens to go back.

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