Hiking the Forbidden Volcano: Cerro Chato, Costa Rica
Updated: Jul 11, 2020
There is nothing sweeter than forbidden fruit, amiright? And Cerro Chatto was forbidden to us several times, the forbidders not realizing that the more they said no, the more tempting it was. Well, that's how I felt anyway, but I knew Alice was a little nervous about getting thrown in a Costa Rican jail.
Firstly, I will openly admit that I did not do enough research on this hike before setting out. I've become cocky, rusty, and complacent! A great way to get myself in trouble, injured, or even killed - best worst case scenario probably still costing thousands of dollars and turning my mom's grays to whites. So this is me, reminding myself for future hikes! Even a casual hike calls for real preparation.
After reading a few reviews and blog posts about the hike, I was reasonably assured that we would not get in any real trouble and the hike wasn't too technical. Unfortunately I didn't map out our approach to the entrance, so we ended up paying for a $33 taxi from our hostel, Howler Monkey (just outside the town of La Fortuna), all the way to the Arenal Observatory Lodge (AOL) park entrance. There we paid another $10 each to enter the park, and the taxi dropped us off near reception, where we were thankfully given a pretty clear map of all the trails in the park.
From there we walked to the Green Entrance and into the park, down a paved road that wound through alternating forest and pastureland, surrounded by mountains on all sides. It was really tranquil and beautiful, and we only saw a couple other souls on motorcycles pass by, no other hikers. Getting to the trail entrance was fairly simple - the map the park reception had given us showed the way (it was just crossed out with a big X).
As we approached the entrance, a little animal popped up in front of us and ambled around casually, checking us out and sniffing the ground in between sneaking glances at us - totally caught us off guard! He was a cute little guy with a strange snout, about the size of a small dog, and looked like a cross between a raccoon and a cat. We found out later this cute little guy is a Coati, member of the raccoon family, and very friendly. After a million photos on our part he wandered off. We looked up ahead then, saw a big sign saying "No Entry" and a few legal threats, and knew we were in the right place.
The trail started off with a little preamble of mildly steep hiking into the jungle, and then abruptly got really steep and stayed that way till we got to the top. After about half an hour, we came to another big No Entry sign, also replete with legal threats and this time a lot of barbed wire (there's a spot you can squeeze through on the far right). The trail can be summarized as a lot of sweating and some decent vertical cardio, in totally beautiful surroundings. At one point towards the end we were walking along a ridgeline in the jungle, on a volcano, and 'twas undeniably glorious - I'm a sucker for ridges, misty jungle AND volcanoes so my heart was full.
After about an hour and a half we reached the summit and were rewarded with a stunning view of the emerald green crater lake. After about 1.5 minutes of consultation we decided to skip the extra trail down to the water... it was a little chilly up high, plus we'd left a little later than we meant to (we started the actual ascent around 1:30pm), and it looked like some weather was moving in. We had just enough time to get some photos and smash some homemade tacos and burritos before the clouds swiftly covered any our view of the lake.
The descent was much faster and pretty uneventful, but my friend and I both really appreciated the walk on country roads to and from the trail entrance - it meant we could get a perspective of both the countryside and the mountain we'd be hiking, which is something you don't always get on a hike. AND, we saw our Coati friend again at the end of the trail... He seemed to be well-versed in mysteriously materializing out of the jungle and managed to startle us again! Well played, Sam (we dubbed him thus).
Forbidden hike success!**
**As of July 2017, the government has closed the trails to Cerro Chato from the Green Lagoon Lodge and Arenal Observatory. People are still using the trail at the Observatory at their own risk, even though it is officially closed. I don't really mean to advocate breaking the law... but sometimes laws are made only because people or businesses don't want to be responsible for your dumb ass. In this case, we did read blogs of other hikers who'd had no problems and were even told to go ahead at their own risk by the park reception. Just use your best judgement, know that you're taking a risk, and research the hell out of everything as always!