There’s always something new to discover when traveling around Costa Rica. Usually, it is a hidden waterfall or amazing wildlife encounter. But on a recent visit to Nuevo Arenal, we were surprised to learn some out-of-this-world history about a nearby site called Lake Cote. In this post, we’ll share more about Costa Rica’s largest natural lake and how it was made famous by a 1971 UFO photograph.
Cote Lake or Lago Cote is located near the town of Nuevo Arenal. This quaint locals’ town is a popular expat community. It has smaller neighborhoods built along the shores of a much larger, manmade lake called Lake Arenal.
Cote Lake is only about 3 km (1.9 miles) off the main road (Route 142). And while it is Costa Rica’s largest natural lake, you would hardly know it is there. The area around the lake is mostly undeveloped, with beautiful tropical forest, pastureland, and distant mountains and volcanoes.
We first learned about Cote Lake and its strange history at a restaurant in Nuevo Arenal.
Los Platillos Voladores (the Flying Saucers) is an Italian restaurant that makes the false claim of being “the worst restaurant in the world.”
They are said to serve “alien food” but instead we enjoyed fresh pasta and tasty tiramisu. When we asked about the funky alien-themed décor, the owner happily told us that her husband is a UFO enthusiast.
She then explained about the famous photograph taken above Lake Cote, the stories of neighbors seeing mysterious lights there, and how explorer Jacques Cousteau once searched the lake for clues.
A Closer Look
With our older son’s eyes now lit up and no plans the next day, we began our research on Cote Lake and planned a visit.
The Famous UFO Photograph
A quick Internet search turned up the famous photo of what appears to be a flying saucer. The unidentified object, which looks like a bronze disc, appears to be hovering over the lake.
The photo was taken in 1971 by Costa Rica’s Geographic Institute (Instituto Geográfico Nacional de Costa Rica). They were doing an aerial land survey in the area to plan for a hydroelectric project. Years later, that project eventually became Lake Arenal and the Arenal dam.
During the survey, the plane flew at about 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and took photos of the land below at 13-second intervals. Only that single negative contained the strange object, suggesting it wasn’t a mechanical camera defect.
The Cote Lake UFO photo is considered one of the highest quality and most legitimate photographs in the world by many authorities.
Deeper digging brought us to an article and video by the Costa Rica news outlet, Teletica.
In the video, journalist Jose Miguel Cruz visits the lake to learn about its mysteries. He camps near the shores and speaks with neighbors and UFO enthusiasts.
Stories (in Spanish) and even one video clip of a strange light ring over the lake are discussed. A worker at a former eco-lodge near the lake said there have been many occurrences over the years.
We never did find any information about Jacques Cousteau visiting, aside from an old sign, but who knows.
Visiting the Lake
The next day we made a pilgrimage to Cote Lake ourselves.
From the main road, a secondary gravel road rises and then dips down to the lake.
From the hill above the lake, you can see its size.
Cote Lake is the largest, natural, freshwater body of water in Costa Rica but still relatively small at only 1.98 square kilometers (0.76 sq. miles). Its depth is said to be between 6-18 meters (19-59 feet). The lake also has a unique heart shape that you can see on maps. Here is a link to Google Maps to see it for yourself. Just change to satellite view.
Our two sons expected to see flying saucers darting around, but instead, we saw some relaxed cows chewing on grass and a nice landscape of trees and mountains. It was very quiet and all but deserted.
Accessing Cote Lake
As we drove to the lowest point on the road, we came closer to the lake. An abandoned set of lots with an old access road led us closer. The grassy road had deep muddy ruts, so we parked and walked the remaining five minutes down the steep hill to the lake’s edge.
There we found a beautiful tree hanging over the calm water. The restaurant owner in town had mentioned this place. She told us it was a nice spot to picnic and had a strong spiritual energy.
Our kids were more into searching for treasures and UFO clues than relaxing, but it was a very tranquil spot. We had briefly read during our research that one of Costa Rica’s indigenous tribes, the Maleku, considered the lake a sacred place.
During our visit to Cote Lake in June 2023, the road was gravel and in good condition. We would still recommend a four-wheel drive vehicle or something with higher clearance and good tires, just to be safe. Road conditions on back roads like this one can change throughout the year because of heavy rains and lack of maintenance.
Directions to Cote Lake
From the gas station in Nuevo Arenal, drive west on Route 142 for approximately 4.5 km (3 miles). As you come up a hill, there will be a neighborhood on your left called Residencial Las Flores (very small sign). Just after that, take a right onto a dirt road. There was an Eco Lodge sign at the time of our visit.
Climb the dirt/gravel road for about 2 km (1.2 miles). You will come to a small lodge called Red Sunset of Guanacaste. Continue for a minute more and go right (old entrance to Eco Lodge on your left).
Continue down the hill, you will start to see the lake. After about another 2 km, you will come to the old development called Cote Lake Villages on your left. The road/driveway was heavily rutted on our visit, so we parked and walked the remaining 5 minutes down to the water’s edge.
Do not leave any valuables in your car, just in case.
Cote Lake is a unique spot in Costa Rica and shrouded with mystery. Whether it is a place where alien spaceships congregate, a spiritual place of worship, or just a tranquil spot to enjoy nature, it is worth a visit if you are in the Nuevo Arenal area. Just be sure to have your camera ready— because who knows what you might see!
Have a question about visiting Cote Lake or want to share your story? Leave us a comment below.
Looking for more information to help you plan? Check out these posts:
Fishing on Lake Arenal: Nearby Lake Arenal has some hard fighting fish. Learn what species you can catch and read about our fishing experience.
El Jilguero Ecotourism Project: Hiking and Fumaroles – This off-the-beaten-path reserve near Lake Arenal has volcanic steam vents and lush cloud forest.
Hanging Bridges in Costa Rica: Where to Go for the Best Experience – Learn what destinations have the best hanging bridges.