Hiking Cerro Chato has been one of the toughest hikes to date yet one of the most rewarding. Located in the small town called La Fortuna, Costa Rica, people come here for the many outdoor activities offered. One of the main attractions is the Arenal Volcano National Park, where most people are mesmerized by views of the dormant Arenal Volcano.
Just next to Volcan Arenal, sits a slightly less popular dormant volcano. It’s called Cerro Chato, meaning Flat Hill. At 3,740 ft tall, it’s best to not underestimate the intensity of the climb.
The trail starts with a steep ascent and is made up of a rough trail. This trail leads to the crater that rewards you with a beautiful lagoon where you can take a dip and enjoy the most gorgeous scenery.
See that lagoon crater below next to Volcan Arenal? That’s Cerro Chato!
How to Get There
There are different options if you want to hike to the top of Cerro Chato. One way begins at Arenal Observatory which is a short 15 minute distance from La Fortuna by car. You can arrive by public transportation and get dropped off at the observatory or drive yourself there if you have a car rental.
At Arenal Observatory, you need to pay a $10 dollar entrance fee that includes parking. You can also start the hike at the resort near La Fortuna waterfall for a shorter but more challenging trek.
The hike can be done alone or by tour. We took the tour option and we’re glad we did since the path isn’t clearly marked. We’re also glad because the tour included more stops that made this trip memorable.
With the tour we got picked up and dropped off at our hotel, stopped at a waterfall, passed suspension bridges, explored Arenal Observatory, lounged in a hot spring, had lunch included, hiked to the crater of Cerro Chato, and the obvious-a tour guide with expertise on the trail.
Preparing for the Hike
This hike is quite strenuous. Like I mentioned earlier, it was a tough one. You’ll want to come prepared in every way possible. The hike and activities in the tour took all day. So, we recommend packing snacks and plenty of water. It can take about 5 hours round trip for Cerro Chato itself, and all day if you do the whole day tour with a guide.
Since you’ll be in the rain forest, expect mosquitos and possible rain. Bring your insect repellent and rain jacket. The terrain will be muddy and slippery so good hiking shoes are the best option. You’ll also want to bring your camera to take many pictures.
The ascend will start out strenuous, and this is when you have to decide if you’ll be able to do it. Our guide told us that people turn back often, realizing they won’t be able to hike it. I actually thought I’d be one of them since I wasn’t fit to climb, and the truth is, I have no idea how I finished! I feel more proud to have completed this hike than the half-marathon I once ran.
There are two options on where to start. One is at the Arenal Observatory resort property where you follow signs towards Cerro Chato. To get to the base of Cerro Chato, you’ll walk nearly 2km through the forest.
The other starting point is on the opposite side near La Fortuna Waterfall. This is where our trek began.
Hiking Cerro Chato
Now the fun begins! This hike isn’t your typical one where you simply follow a steep trail and run out of breath. It was way more than that! We found ourselves barely breathing, dripping sweat, and holding on to tree roots to pull ourselves up to continue the trail.
Let’s just say this trail isn’t for everyone. When we were looking at tour options, one seller took a look at me and told me he didn’t recommend it unless I was physically fit because it wasn’t easy. Another salesman didn’t quite warn us and said we’d be fine. I was confident it wouldn’t be too bad.
Little did I know, I was absolutely wrong! After purchasing our tour, we went to our hotel where I went online to check out the reviews. I know! I should have done this before but we had an incident that led us to last-minute flights to Costa Rica. We arrived with no plans or a clue on what to see and do!
Anyhow, the reviews mentioned that even seasoned hikers found this trek to be difficult. The more I read into it, the more worried I became I wouldn’t make it!
Hiking Cerro Chato is not easy! The climb is steep and the trail is not clearly marked. Much of it involves following a trail of roots rather than of soil. There’s a possibility of slipping and you will definitely come out muddy! Luckily, neither of us took a fall but many members of our tour group did.
At many points we had to pull ourselves up from branches while pushing with our feet against the side soil, much like rock climbing. I kind of wished I had been practicing pull-ups at the gym and working out prior to coming and I also wished I had longer legs. We always had to watch our step because it was muddy and slippery and we found wildlife. By wildlife I mean snake and centipedes. No lie!
Luckily for us, we also got to spot what looked like a Jaguar for what was possibly just one second. Chances of seeing one are slim in Costa Rica since it’s a threatened species due to illegal hunting and habitat loss.
Since they’re protected in National Parks, the chance is slightly better. Fortunate for us we were in a tour because we wouldn’t want to be seen alone by this species that likes to stalk and pounce on its prey!
Arrival to Cerro Chato’s Summit
It took quite some time to make it to the summit, nearly 3 hours with a few breaks in between. Though our day started off sunny, the clouds started to roll in and a light rain began as we approached the summit. This made everything a bit more slippery.
From the top of Cerro Chato we were rewarded with a view of the emerald lagoon at the bottom. We couldn’t believe we had just hiked a volcano and that we were seeing a lagoon inside it. We couldn’t wait to dip our toes in it!
The next part is about a half hour down to the lagoon, which was equally difficult, especially for those with short legs like me. I had a tough time on the steep ascents where my foot didn’t reach the next step down.
After a very rough and muddy trail down, you are rewarded with an incredible view. At this point, the tour guide will stop to let you eat the provided lunch which included water, fruit, sandwich, bar, and a small desert. We recommend taking more snacks to refuel because you’ll be hiking all day.
A few brave people took a dip in the cold water. I had read it wasn’t recommended due to high mineral concentration but I skipped out because the lagoon was too cold for my liking.
If you hike on your own, you can go back the same way which will be just as challenging when you go back up to the summit. Your other option is to finish on the other side towards the waterfall. Returning or completing toward the other side will take another 2-3 hours.
On our tour, we worked our way to the Arenal Volcano Observatory since we started near the waterfall. In total it took us nearly 5 hours to complete the Cerro Chato hike.
At the exact point we finished, the light rain turned into a storm. At the end of the trail (or entrance), there was a shed like covering where all of us in the tour took cover. We all ended up soaked anyway. After about 20 minutes it calmed a bit and we continued.
The Rest of the Tour
I’m not quite sure how we had the energy to continue after one of the hardest hikes in our lives, but we did. After completing Cerro Chato, our tour guide led us into what was the Arenal Volcano Observatory where we saw a waterfall, suspension bridges, and a lot more wildlife.
We first passed what looked like a farm area, where we saw zebu cows. The trail continued and led us towards a 20-foot waterfall (not La Fortuna Waterfall) after ascending some stairs. It was a glorious view surrounded by a beautiful lush green forest. This waterfall is only a 20 minute walk from the Observatory.
Our venture around the area also led us to the Danta Hanging Bridge and another one. We made a stop at a small pond where we got to see these bright frogs!
Once we toured the area, we finally made it to the Arenal Observatory where we spotted spider monkeys. This would mark the end of the hike. Sadly, the storm had brought a lot of fog and didn’t have the clearest view of Arenal Volcano.
Arenal Hot Springs
To finalize the trip, the tour includes ending the night at a hot spring where you get a chance to relax your muscles. Upon arrival to the springs across the Tabacon Resort, it started to drizzle again. The van parked on the side of the road which is where the springs are. It’s then the tour guide told us we had to change into our bathing suits right there. It was a crazy moment as girls stayed inside the tour van to change and the guys changed in the dark street.
The rain picked up and they had us hurry to the springs so we could enjoy them a few minutes. But after only 5 quick minutes, they rushed us back out because the storm got too strong. Those 5 minutes were probably the best 5 minutes of the whole tour because it felt so good to our tired bodies.
Back on the bus, the tour guide had drinks prepared and we all had a toast for a wonderful day of hiking. About half hour later we were dropped off at our hotel.
We recommend this whole day tour so much! Just be ready to work out a lot and to be exhausted!
Oh, and because we loved the 5 minutes in the hot spring so much, we returned the next day and spent about two hours sitting in the warm waters and took the pictures seen here.
Reminder Tips for Hiking:
Definitely take good hiking shoes and rain gear if you go in rainy season. Don’t forget protection for your electronics and a backpack with plenty of water and snacks. Be prepared mentally and physically and give yourself enough time to get back out of the forest before sunset if you hike independently. Know that if it rains, you will be walking and slipping in mud and end up very dirty.
*Currently this hike is closed to the public since July because of the intense rains. Before hiking, you will need to check if it has reopened before booking any tours or trying to hike it.
Overall this was an amazing experience and a hike we’ll never forget! Over to you. Have you hiked Cerro Chato or been to La Fortuna? What was your experience like? Or perhaps you want to go here! Would you hike it? Let us know in the comments.