Costa Rica is a country with lush jungles, pristine rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, and stunning coastlines. It is also a land with tall, cloud capped mountains. One of the most well-known mountainous regions of Costa Rica is the Arenal region. The primary peak in this region is the Arenal Volcano (Elevation 5,358 feet) which, until 2010, was also Costa Rica’s most active volcano. While the volcano is currently dormant, and climbers are not allowed on the volcano, there is a fantastic climb directly next to it, which is the Cerro Chato hike. Like Arenal Volcano, Cerro Chato (or Chato Volcano), is a dormant volcano that is located in Arenal Volcano National Park. Unlike Arenal, Cerro Chato has been dormant for a long period of time, and is actually the older volcano of the two, first erupting some 38,000 years ago. Most importantly, the last eruption occurred on Cerro Chato some 3,500 years ago, and in the intervening time, the volcano has become covered with rainforest, and its crater has filled with water to become a lake (Laguna Lake Chato). While there is no danger from the volcano after this period of time, this is a strenuous hike, but one that offers great rewards to those visitors who are willing to take the challenge.
Directions: At the outset, it is worth noting that there are two routes to the summit (and lake) of Cerro Chato. The first leaves from the nearby town of La Fortuna, which is outside Arenal Volcano National Park, and is approximately four hours one way, or an eight hour roundtrip hike. The alternate route is to leave from the Arenal Observatory, which is located within the National Park, and this route is 2.5 kilometers one way (to the summit rim), and five kilometers round trip (3.3 miles). From the summit rim, it is another steep .3 kilometers down to the Laguna Lake Chato (.6 kilometers roundtrip to the summit rim, which makes the total distance to the lake and back 5.9 kilometers).
While this route sounds like the easier of the two, as I will discuss below, it is not something to underestimate. In this post, I will only be discussing the Arenal Observatory route, as this is the route I climbed. In terms of the route, the route leaves directly from the Observatory, which is in the National Park; having said that, the property that the Observatory is located on has specific operating hours, from 7am to 11pm daily. From the Observatory, the trail heads down a partially paved road for half kilometer (.5), before descending into a slight valley and onto a dirt road that passes near some nearby farms. At the one kilometer mark, there is a well-signed junction for the peak, and from this point, the dirt road becomes a narrow trail to barely marked path for the remaining 1.5 kilometers to the summit rim. From the dirt road junction, all of the elevation gain of the climb (500 meters, 1,500 feet) occurs during those 1.5 kilometers! From the summit rim, it is another steep .3 kilometers down to the Laguna Lake Chato (.6 kilometers roundtrip to the summit rim, which makes the total distance to the lake and back 5.9 kilometers). To return, one follows the same route back to the Observatory parking lot.
Route Description/Climb Report: On paper, this climb does not sound too strenuous. After all, Cerro Chato is a peak that is only 3,742 feet (1141 meters) high. Moreover, the distance – 5 to 5.9 kilometers roundtrip – and elevation gain – 1,500 feet (500 meters) to the rim appear minimal. However, as any experienced mountaineer, including myself will tell you, there is a big difference between items on paper and in real life. What makes this climb difficult and strenuous and worthy of respect in my opinion, are three things: the terrain, the conditions, and the weather. If you are considering attempting this hike, bear in mind that many of the locals will tell you that this is a five to six hour hike roundtrip, and is very strenuous. Like most things in life, times, and difficulty levels are subjective. Having said that, this is something that is not for everyone, and is something that should not be attempted by everyone as it does require scrambling and at times, actual climbing. Potential climbers should be aware that it is indeed difficult despite the short distance, and does require route finding and actual climbing under difficult conditions.
I decided to attempt this climb as I had two days in the Arenal region. As I went on a hike earlier in the morning with my family, I did not get an alpine start, and by the time I started around 10:00 am, it was already 90+ degrees with around 90% humidity. It was hot. On the plus side, it was a near perfect blue sky day (a rarity in the region) with some passing clouds. From the Observatory to the trailhead, I made excellent time, and doubted the difficulty of the hike. This portion of the route which passes farms is a great spot to gaze at the terrain, and on that day, was a great spot to see the entirety of Arenal Volcano, which is usually obscured by clouds.
As I had jogged part of the early route, I was feeling confident about the climb, a feeling that carried over onto to the early part of the trail. But, once the trail ended at approximately 1.2 kilometers into the route, I realized that I was going to have to put in some serious effort to reach the rim. I came to this conclusion because at that point, I found myself at the base of a very steep ascent that in short, lacked a trail. (If you doubt me, I would suggest that you check out my above gallery of photos. Many of the shots that feature jungle are actually looking directly at the path or trail. For fun at home, I suggest you look at the photos, and see if you can spot the route. If you cannot, I would suggest that you not attempt the climb). The route at this point was basically a rutted, muddy path that had been worn into the jungle by two things: previous hikers’ feet, and runoff from daily rain. It was slick. It was steep. And, it was challenging.
It was at this point that the hike became a legitimate climb, and as I climbed up the route, at times scrambling over roots and various other plants, I was very glad that I had a perfect weather window. I was glad that I had this perfect weather window because even without rain, the path was already seriously slippery from the existing moisture in the air and the existing water in the ground. While I did not experience rain on my climb, I can only imagine the difficulty such added water in and on the ground would provide both ascending and descending. Although I could describe the ascent all day, the short of it is that it is indeed a leg burning climb that is made even more difficult by the hot and humid conditions.
While it is not insurmountable, it is a climb that demands respect – and an appropriate amount of water. I would also be remiss if I did not mention that this portion of the climb is through old growth primary rainforest. While this adds an element of adventure, and an amount of primal beauty, it also adds challenges as it is an area with rainforest denizens – namely snakes. The path/track/trail is such that during most of the ascent, one is within inches – or feet of the jungle. On my ascent, I passed within feet of five snakes. While these snakes were copasetic about my presence when I passed them quickly, it is worth mentioning that there are many highly venomous snakes in the area that climbers should take appropriate precautions to avoid as much as possible. This is also to say nothing about the many large bugs that I was also fortunate to see. Having said that, if snakes and bugs aren’t something that you as the potential climber like, this is not the climb for you as the primary rainforest is their long term home and they are very common in the region.
Even though I had a good pace, and was traveling under near perfect conditions, the ascent from the end of the trail to the rim took me a little over an hour. At this point, I was treated to a great view of the Laguna Lake Chato in the crater of the volcano. If you’ve ever read my blog, or know me, you know at this point, even though I had ascended to the high point of the volcano, I was dead-set on also descending a bit to see the Laguna Lake Chato for myself. The descent, for the most part was similar to the climb I had just completed, but in other respects, was also more difficult, as there were a couple sections that involved full-on scrambling and climbing, as well as one to two sections of five to ten foot vertical drops. Despite that, it was worth it to be next to the lake and see the full expanse of the jungle, volcano and lake under a blue sky. Once I was done exploring, and taking photos I headed back the way I came. While the descent was faster for me than the ascent, given the slick terrain and lack of a trail, it was not something I could run down easily. Even with all of the “difficulties”, it was something that I was happy to have experienced.
Tips: According to a staffer at the Observatory, the record time for the climb of Cerro Chato is 3.5 hours. Had I not stopped to take photos, go down to the lake, and take a side trip to a nearby seasonal waterfall, I would have easily beat this time, because I would have been done in 3 hours (I spent 45 minutes taking breaks, and doing all those other things). With that in mind, I was going at a good pace (sometimes running), and I was operating under perfect conditions (no rain). For most people, I would say that the estimates of 5-6+ hours to complete the hike are actually fairly accurate despite the short distance. Finally, anyone attempting this hike should have ample water, the right footwear (boots or trail shoes), the right gear, and if traveling solo, be well aware of the risks (snakes) present in the jungle. Even with all of the warnings and disclaimers, I would highly recommend this hike/climb for people that are of moderate to good fitness levels as it is a great experience.