Photo Source: Arenal Obervatory
Cerro Chato – Swim in a Costa Rican Volcano
Elevation: 3,740 ft
Distance: 4 miles (out and back)
Time: 4-5 hours (out and back)
Recommended Gear: Hiking boots, rain jacket, bathing suit
The highlight of your standard-issue mountain hike tends to be the views from the summit. In the case of Cerro Chato, there are no views to speak of, yet the summit is the highlight for an entirely different reason. Located in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, time has turned the crater of this now-dormant volcano into a bona fide swimming pool.
This particular region of Costa Rica draws hundreds of thousands of tourists annually thanks to the abundance of opportunities for outdoor activities and the presence of a much more iconic (and much more active) volcano: Arenal. Yet, despite the region’s popularity, Cerro Chato seems to be relatively overlooked. Perhaps it is because it will always play second fiddle to Arenal and tourists only have room for one volcano in their Costa Rica itinerary.
The biggest mistake anyone can make while visiting Costa Rica is missing out on hiking Cerro Chato. The second biggest mistake would be to hike Cerro Chato as part of a guided tour. Tours will run you at least $120 per person whereas a taxi, a park entrance fee, and your own two feet will allow you to complete the hike for closer to $20. Not to mention, tour groups prevent you from hiking at your own pace.
There are two routes to the summit. One from the Green Lagoon Lodge and the other from the Arenal Observatory. We hiked from the Green lagoon Lodge, which is close to the La Fortuna Waterfall; however, we have heard that the other trail offers some nice views of Arenal (not that it would have mattered for us on such a foggy day). The hike is approximately 4 miles round trip, and generally takes about 4-5 hours to complete given the steepness of the trail. If hiking Cerro Chato in the rainy season (May-November), there is a very high likelihood that you will be hiking through a deluge the entire time. Even with the ceiling of dense rain forest, there is no avoiding getting completely soaked before you even get a chance to dive into the crater.
Upon reaching the highest point of the 3,740 ft. mountain, the lagoon below briefly comes into view (on a clear day…if there is such a thing). This is where the hike becomes the most treacherous, but the juice is worth the squeeze, as they say. The descent into the lagoon is steep, muddy, and layered with a patchwork of tree roots that look as if they were strategically laid in place to trip unsuspecting hikers. Many of the other hikers with whom we crossed paths opted to forego the lagoon altogether due to the steep and muddy terrain in the crater. But if you climb a volcano and you don’t swim in the crater, did you really climb a volcano at all? (Answer: No). If you take your time and utilize some of the ropes that have been attached to the trees on the way down, you will almost certainly reach the lagoon in one piece. The sight at the bottom is eerie, particularly when the water is partially shrouded in a thick fog. The water filling the 1,600 foot-wide crater is a dark green color, and despite a commonly-held misconception regarding the liquid contents of volcanic craters, is actually quite cold. It is an altogether creepy atmosphere down there, but diving into the lagoon is a once in a lifetime experience.
The chance to swim in a volcano doesn’t present itself every day, and when there is only a 5 hour hike separating you from this unique opportunity, it’s difficult to justify not taking the plunge. As long as you are in reasonably good physical condition, Cerro Chato is not to be missed.