The La Fortuna area offers countless hiking adventures, and beautiful scenery to go with them. Be it the dazzling La Fortuna waterfall, the mysterious changing colors of Río Celeste, the heights of the Hanging Bridges, or the breathtaking views of Arenal and the gardens at the Observatory Lodge, there are countless hikes for all ability levels. The most challenging of these hikes, however, is Cerro Chato.
Cerro Chato is–or rather was–a volcano long before Arenal. Arenal is a young volcano, only a few thousand years old. Cerro Chato on the other hand is tens of thousands of years old and has long been extinct. What once was a pit of fire and sulfur is now a chilly pool of water teeming with life. To get there you climb through pasture land, then up through forest and into a cloud forest before finally making a very steep descent to the lagoon.
Update June 2017: As of this writing Cerro Chato is now closed to access on both faces. It is unclear if it will re-open in the future as part of the National Parks system. Cerro Chato falls within Arenal Volcano National Park and the previous trails were cut and operated without the approval of the National Park Service. As a result they decided to close the trails that were being operated illegally. The Parks Service has warned against following tour operators that advertise Cerro Chato hikes who have now been accessing the trails illegally. This will be further updated as more information is available. Below is a description of the old hike for archival purposes.
As an alternative Red Lava Tours offers an all day hike along the edges of the national park that is a good replacement if you wanted to do Cerro Chato.
The hike itself is strenuous. The weather will dictate the challenges you face. On a rainy day the mud makes the lower mountain slippery and difficult. The first time I went I was wearing a cheap pair of sandals; I ended up hiking barefoot most of the lower mountain, and remember stepping in knee deep mud after a particularly rainy week preceding a hike. The first half of the hike is entirely exposed, so on a sunny day the sun will beat down on you until you get to the relief of the shade where the jungle begins.
All that said, Cerro Chato is a fantastic hike. When you arrive to the tree line, you will have a view of Arenal, the entire La Fortuna area, and on a particularly clear day all the way to Lake Nicaragua. In the forest you will see all kinds of wildlife, including a type of frog that you will only find no where else in the area except in that lagoon. When you arrive to the top, on a clear day you’ll get a unique up close view of Arenal.
The time it takes to hike will vary on your ability level; when I did it with a group of young guys we managed it (albeit nearly running half the time) in about an hour and ten minutes, but if you want to take your time to see the sites and not kill yourself racing up it will take two to three hours up and one to two hours down. Plus however much time you decide to spend in Cerro Chato Lagoon.
I’d highly recommend packing some snacks to enjoy at the lagoon. Also bring plenty of water with you. There is a spot about 1/3rd of the way up where you can fill your water bottle from a hose tap (and the water here is safe!), so keep that in mind as well. The trail up is very well marked. The further you go up however, the worse the trail becomes. Especially descending into the lagoon the trail is very rough. In some spots they’ve now had to install ropes so you can pull yourself up (because some of the steps are now 4-5 feet high).
When you get to the top you will want to go to the right where the trail splits. To the left descends the other side of the mountain to the Observatory Lodge which will leave you 45 minutes in car from La Fortuna. To the right there are some benches to rest on while taking in the view of Arenal, and from there is the trail down into the crater.
The hike itself is $10 to enter Cerro Chato reserve, and it will probably be another $10 round trip in a taxi to get to the entrance (or you could walk there from the center of town, it’s about a 1.5 hour walk).