Most people who visit La Fortuna, Costa Rica go to see Arenal Volcano, the famed cone-shaped giant that put this sleepy agricultural town on the map. But there’s another intriguing sight nearby that is worth a visit. Cerro Chato is a lesser-known volcano that sits unassumingly right next to Arenal. Although Cerro Chato is dormant, it has a stunning emerald green crater lake that looks almost out of this world. The trek up to the lagoon is one of the more challenging hikes in Costa Rica, so in this post, we’ll share our experience so that you know what to expect and give you some essential tips.
See the important update about Cerro Chato’s closure in the Access section, below.
Accessing Cerro Chato
Cerro Chato is located to the west of the town of La Fortuna. Though quite a few miles away, its green forested outline is visible from the downtown alongside Arenal Volcano. In the past, the most common access points for Cerro Chato were the Green Lagoon Lodge and Arenal Observatory. When we visited a few years ago, we opted for the Observatory because at the beginning of the hike there are fantastic views of Arenal Volcano. We also wanted to check out the Observatory’s many other trails, its hanging bridge, and small waterfall.
IMPORTANT UPDATE (November 10, 2018): In July 2017, the government closed the trails to Cerro Chato from the Green Lagoon Lodge and Arenal Observatory. Up until around September 2018, people had been still using the trail at the Observatory at their own risk, even though it was officially closed. In the past few months, however, the Observatory closed access and now has a guard stationed there, turning people away. (See recent comments below for more information.) There is another access point right before the Arenal Observatory Lodge – this is not the same as the Observatory and is run by different people. We do not know much about this trail, but have heard from a few people that the hike is more difficult and much longer. If you have done this hike, let us know how it was in the comments below. There is also still the trail from the Green Lagoon Lodge, which people still seem to be using.
From either entry point, the hike up to the top of Cerro Chato is about 1.5-2 hours each way, depending on your fitness level. It’s a strenuous trek that is rewarding if you’re into hiking (we loved it), but is definitely not for everyone. Much of the trail is narrow and steep, with bulging tree roots to avoid and some slippery spots due to clay. The scenery is gorgeous, however, beginning in the lowland rainforest typical of the area and ascending into sometimes misty, higher altitude cloud forest.
Tip: If you have very young children or suffer from knee or joint problems, you might have a hard time at Cerro Chato. Be sure to bring along trekking poles or a walking stick or opt for one of the many easier hikes in the area instead. Two great choices are Arenal Volcano National Park or the slightly more difficult Arenal 1968 trails, both of which explore the base of Arenal Volcano.
Once you reach the highest point of Cerro Chato (1,140 meters or 3,740 feet), you’ll have a bit more hiking to get to the crater lake. But this is the point where you’ll want to get out your camera as you’ll have the best views of the green lagoon (see cover photo above).
At this point, you’ll have seen the crater lake from above. To see it at ground level, it is only about 20 minutes more down, but this portion is very difficult. The extremely steep, haphazard path was more like a scramble than an ordinary hike. At times, it was difficult for us to get our footing as there was no place to step and no ropes to help guide us. This forced us to maneuver with our hands and cling onto roots and trees when necessary. We did make it down but saw lots of others turn around. If you don’t make it the whole way, don’t fret. Like we said before, the view from the top is really the best vantage point to see the whole crater anyway so you’re not missing out on a lot if you stop there.
Tip: Be sure to wear clothes and footwear that you don’t mind getting dirty. The entire trail is clay and the final portion can be very muddy, especially if it has rained recently.
If you do make it to the bottom, you’ll get to enjoy the lagoon from a new perspective. Along the shore of the small beach area, you can appreciate the breadth of the lake and see the moss-covered greenery along its edges close up. If you’re in need of a cool down, you can also swim in the emerald water, though it was a bit too green for our taste.
Best Times to Visit
The best time to hike Cerro Chato is during the dry season, December to April, because this is when rain is least likely. The trail shouldn’t be too muddy this time of year and the lagoon won’t be fogged in and invisible, as it sometimes is during the rainy season.
What to Wear/Bring
- Hiking boots or good gripping sandals like Keens
- Trekking poles or a walking stick
- Insect repellent
- Plenty of water as it can be extremely hot and humid
$12 from Green Lagoon Lodge
$8 from Arenal Observatory
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If you’re looking for a challenging hike in the La Fortuna area, you won’t want to miss Cerro Chato. We’ve done a ton of trekking in Costa Rica over the past several years and Cerro Chato still ranks among our favorites. Of course, it is not an easy one, but the most rewarding hikes seldom are.
What’s the most challenging hike you’ve ever done?
If you need more ideas for activities in the La Fortuna area or are still looking for that perfect hotel, be sure to check out our comprehensive Destination post, La Fortuna: What to Expect from Costa Rica’s Most Popular Destination.