We hiked Cerro Chato starting from the trailhead accessible at Arenal Observatory Lodge. To get there, you'll need to pay $6 per person just to enter the lodge property. Once you're in, there are two parking lots near the lodge's restaurant. We parked there and did the Old Lava Trail hike first. That hike took about 30 minutes, straight downhill to the river, then straight back uphill. There are some wooden steps placed in some areas, but most of them were rotted through and unstable. When we got to the bottom of the trail where you cross the small stream, we hiked along the stream for about 15 minutes and turned around although I think you can walk for as long as you want. Aside from the river, there isn't all that much to see on the hike. It is steep and strenuous, but pretty quick.
Next, we headed to the Cerro Chato trailhead. We first had to walk about 30 minutes from the lodge restaurant. There is a great view of the volcano as you stroll through farmland (complete with cattle and horses) to get to the actual trailhead leading up to Cerro Chato. Once you get to the trailhead (easy signs to follow), there is a big warning sign just to the left. Read this carefully, it explains how you can get back to the lodge when you reach the top of the crater (Laguna Lake Chato). Basically, you can turn around and climb back down (which is what we did) or you can take one of two paths down to the crater, pay $10 to enter that private property, then pay another $10 for the waterfalls, then $20-40 for a cab back to the lodge.
Steep does not adequately describe this hike. You will literally climb uphill... the entire time... about 1500’ in elevation change over the course of about 1500m in distance. Fortunately, the root lace throughout the trail is so prominent that it forms steps, and there are plenty of trees you can grab to help climb. When you get to the top, if it's a clear day (like when we hiked), you'll be able to see Laguna Lake Chato below. We took some photos, watched a white-nosed coati sniff around, and then attempted to go down to the crater on the side path (splits two ways at the top). We chose what we believed to be the path of least resistance. . .went about 500m before realizing it was probably too slippery and muddy (~6” deep), so we turned around and climbed back down.
The hike, including the 30 minutes from the lodge restaurant to the trailhead, and 45 minutes back (stopped to take photos of the cloud-free peak of Arenal), took about three hours. The hike was worth the effort and quite a bit of fun. We were sore for about three days afterwards, but it was a great hike.
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