Less than 24 hours after touching down in Costa Rica, our restless legs were already carrying us up the sister peak of the Arenal Volcano, Cerro Chato or Chato Volcano. Like most of La Fortuna’s visitors, we all make the stop in there to experience the jungles of Costa Rica and everything they can offer, whether that’s hiking, nature walks, zip-lining, or waterfalls. Personally, I hate guided tour groups because they cater to the fat-Americans that come down, and that’s not the speed I like to go on. And hiking the Cerro Chato is the last remaining activity in the region that can be done at your own pace without having to deal with anyone trying to sell you some type of over-priced-adventure package. You can pretty much get up and go!
The Cerro Chato is a dormant volcano that sits on the shoulder of the Arenal Volcano about 5km from the town of La Fortuna. To the dismay of most hikers, Costa Rica doesn’t have a ton of free, sprawling trails to be explored due to the lack of infrastructure/government to create and maintain them. So the go-to hike from the town of La Fortuna is pretty much this one. The top of the Cerro Chato is actually a 500m wide crater, filled with water you can swim in, and on a clear day it boasts a stunning view of the Arenal Volcano.
To hike the peak, without a guide, we parked our rental cars at the La Fortuna waterfall. From there you have to head up the road 200m, following signs for the Green Lagoon. Here you have to stop in to the office to pay the park’s entrance fee of $8 to get a wrist band. Yes, you could walk around without paying, but there is a “ranger/bartender” half way up the trail to offer you water or beer and to also check if you paid your fee. From there, it’s just following a path through the highlands, access roads, and stairs until you reach this open shelter at the base of the jungle where the aforementioned ranger is there hanging out (beers to come later). From there, it’s a steep grade up the remnants of a path ravaged by flood water from the upper portion of the volcano.
After a quick break, and the last view of the lands below, into the jungle we went. An easy hike would not be the words to describe the trek through the jungle portion of the trail. It is quite steep the entire way, and most of the trail itself is formed during the rainy season’s runoff. This makes for interesting features where the dirt path changes back and forth between a muddy surface to a narrow, cement texture chute waist-high and a half-foot wide. The entre way up, we climbed over the roots of the large trees alongside the trail which were probably the only thing holding up the trail on the side of the hill. We were constantly wedging our feet between roots and branches to get a good foothold as we pushed upward.
Maybe it was the thick, humid air, or maybe the blood hadn’t return to my legs since the flight and long drive, but I was absolutely dogging it in the back of the group nearly the entire way up. I was questioning a lot of choices I had made before starting the hike, wondering what I had done wrong, considering the fact I thought I was in great shape. Luckily, closer to the top, I got back into gear and started enjoying the hike again. Just in time to see a medium sized snake cross our path on the trail.
Slowly but surely, the canopy begins to disappear above you, as you reach a clearing on the summit of the Cerro Chato. From there, you can see the emerald blue crater below and Arenal Volcano above you (assuming you’re there when it’s not socked in by clouds). But you’re not there yet, the best part of the hike is to follow when you need to descend down into the crater. This involves you hanging onto trees, branches, mud, maybe a friend, to drop your body down nearly half a body-length at a time. This is a 300m descent through a trail that’s a complete shit-show, mud bath, pseudo-mogul field. But it makes reaching the bottom of the crater completely worth it in the end.
We dropped our packs, along with our shorts, shoes, and shirts, and jumped right into that brisk, fresh water. After coming up for air, it hits you, you are swimming in the top of a dormant volcano that you just hiked 2,000+ feet to get into. It’s a moment I’ll remember forever, not because it was a once in a lifetime experience, but that it pretty much ruined a lot of future summits for me. No longer will I be able to cool off after an insane climb by jumping into a pool of water on the top of a mountain. The crater had a shocking amount of crowd (10+ people) seeing that it’s always a shock to find other on the top of a mountain the exact same time as you, but that was a non- issue for us.
The way down quickly became probably my highlight on the trip. My buddy, Yuta, and I jokingly began to run down the trail. We screamed out “hardcore parkour” as we jumped from drop to drop, then kept jogging. Immediately, I felt like I was one of those adventure runners on the RedBull Instagram feed who run on the ridge line and down trails of sketchy terrain. Thinking this would fade after a could hundred feet, we kept going further and faster. Weaving in and out of all the trees, swapping out the lead as if we were skiing through the glades back at our home mountain in Vermont. Groups we passed, looked at us with a strange bit of confusion, but we didn’t mind.
Through the last bit of jungle, we emerged and bounced off the mogul fields below until we reached the “ranger” station when we looked at our watches. We were covered in mud from hip to toe, but our watches read 16minutes later than when we started from the summit. We covered just over 1 mile down the mountain, the same distance that took us nearly two hours to go up, in an eighth of the time. We were exhausted, muscles twitching, and still quite dirty, the ranger offered us some water from his cooler. By the time the rest of the group emerged from the trees, they were thirsty as well. Then we found out the ranger also had beer in the cooler as well as the water. It was beers all around for everyone, and damn, a beer has never tasted as good as that one did.