Posted by: davepidgeon | April 17, 2009

Green and serene (eventually)


Alison scrambles up the dirt trail to Cerro Chato's top.

Alison scrambles up the dirt trail to Cerro Chato's top.

“It will take you four hours roundtrip,” the concierge said, pointing to a simplistic paper map of trails leading out from the Arenal Observatory Lodge. His finger pointed to Cerro Chato on the map. “Two hours to here. If you want to go up,” he shrugged cautiously, “Who knows?”

I looked at my wife, Alison, with a blend of doubt and hope that she’d be up for hiking to Cerro Chato’s top. She game a blank look in return. The decision would have to be mine.

I pointed to a marking on the map that indicated a waterfall much closer to the lodge than Cerro Chato. “How far to the Fortuna Waterfall?”

“Is ’bout an hour roundtrip,” the concierge replied. “Very steep.”

I again looked at Alison. “Why don’t we at least do the loop up to Cerro Chato? We’ll see the waterfall, and if we feel up to it, get to the top of Cerro Chato.”

She agreed, and we left the lodge lobby, taking one more glance at the conical Volcán Arenal. The volcano has spewed lava, smoke and boulders for four decades, and it appears like the perfect primitive setting for an old-time jungle movie. On clear days, the perfectly sloped volcano belches white smoke out of its top, and every 10 minutes or so, massive boulders tumble down its flanks, bouncing like basketballs which leave brown dust trails. It’s tumultuous, exciting, violent and eye-catching.

Volcán Arenal spews white smoke into a clear sky.

Volcán Arenal spews white smoke into a clear sky.


But we had come to the Arenal Observatory Lodge for a different purpose than to gawk with the other tourists at Arenal. I was instead interested in Arenal’s sleepy neighbor, Cerro Chato, a dormant volcano about 1,600 feet shorter than the 5,400-foot Arenal. In comparison, Cerro Chato looks like a small hill next to Arenal’s kingly presence. I had read, however, that reaching Cerro Chato’s flat crown was not only challenging but rewarding because inside Chato’s volcanic crater rests a serene, kelly green lake. Volcán Irazú near San José has one, too, but it’s surrounded by farmland and camera-toting tourists, most of whom reach Irazú’s top by car. Cerro Chato’s lake, though, sounded au natural, near not a single parking lot. No “Turismo” van would get us there, just our grit and legs.

The Fortuna Waterfall cascades down in Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal.

The Fortuna Waterfall cascades down in Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal.

We set out from the lodge, and after a mere 10 minutes, we arrived at the misty pools of Fortuna Waterfall. That concierge had no idea what he was talking about. The trail was downhill, but it wasn’t like descending Everest. Even Alison smirked about the strain or lack thereof in reaching the waterfall, thinking how the concierge had made the hike sound like a killer.

We kept going onto a suspension bridge spanning a 45-foot high gorge and a low-flowing river, and then onto a gravel road running flat past pastures and gentle rolling hills green with rainforest foliage. This was easy. Laughably easy. And in a mere 40 minutes after leaving the Observatory Lodge, we arrived at a sign saying “LAGUNA” and the trailhead leading up to Cerro Chato’s lake.

Deciding to make for the summit, 3,800 feet above sea level, was easier than the flat hike we’d just completed to get there. The concierge had thus far overestimated the distance, the time requirement and the challenge this hike would be for us. He was probably wrong about the path to Cerro Chato’s lake. Probably.

*     *     *

The trail, the forest, the mountain … the trio played mental tricks on Alison and me.

We would stand on the steep pathway peering upward, and the rainforest foliage would allow us to see only about 30 yards ahead. No worries, though, because not a lot of land appeared above our noggins, which meant – or should have, anyway – that the summit wasn’t far off. But as we hiked the next 30 yards, the next portion of trail looked steeper, the climb higher, the summit more elusive than the section we had just finished, and that messes with your confidence.

img_1495That certainly troubled Alison, who had for more than an hour after reaching Cerro Chato’s foot had sweated out her confidence, left with a dehydrated fatigue coupled with doubt about whether she could get to Cerro Chato’s top. She would hiked up the hard-mud trail for about five minutes, then take a break. No wind would stir. She would tell me to go on by myself, that she would wait for me.

No way, I would say emphatically. I didn’t know this forest as well as the one back home in the eastern United States. I didn’t know its flora nor its fauna. Every root could actually be a snake whose bite could do some serious damage, or worse. If one of us was alone and got hurt, that would be disastrous. Better to stay together.

I promised Alison she would not fail; that every step uphill brought us closer to Cerro Chato’s lake. Besides, we’d been hiking up Cerro Chato’s flank for more than an hour. The summit couldn’t be far. Quietly, I hoped that was true. I didn’t know for sure.

So we pressed on over entangled tree roots and mud. We crouched and crawled under a falldown, as did a pair of yellow-dotted lizards the size of our hands. We stepped over a centipede nearly an inch thick, and once a famous blue morpho butterfly fluttered around our heads, flashing its bright indigo wings so quickly we didn’t have time to take a photo.

The summit, though, could not be found. We kept moving upwards. The trail, the woods, the mountain, they kept playing their mental tricks.

*     *     *

“Well, good news, mates,” a shirtless Australian man in muddy flip flops told us. “You’re only 10 minutes from the top.” 

Alison and I felt relieved. Finally, the ordeal would soon ease and we would conquer Cerro Chato. This was no longer a curiosity search. I just couldn’t let this mountain defeat us.

“Bad news is,” the Aussie continued, “there’s a steep climb down the crater to the lake, so once you’ve reached the top, you’re not quite there.”

We thanked him and his hiking buddy for the information, and as they walked downhill and disappeared into the rainforest, Alison and I marveled at how that man had gone up Cerro Chato with the support of only flip flops. My feet ached at just the mere thought of it.

Shortly afterwards, Alison and I emerged into a sunny and – more importantly – flat portion of trail. We made Cerro Chato’s summit. And from there we could partially see the lake through the trees, about a third of a mile down from the summit, tiny waves shimmering in shades of lime and emerald.


Shadows and light play on the lake of Cerro Chato.

Shadows and light play on the lake of Cerro Chato.

We didn’t quite make it down to the lakeshore. The trail into the crater proved steeper than the trail up Cerro Chato’s side. Part way down at a vista of the lake, I made a judgment call. Alison was triumphant but exhausted and dehydrated. We had little water left in a bottle. The hike off Cerro Chato would probably be as strenuous on the body as the hike up to its lake. This had already proved to be tough enough. And we had made it to the top and seen the green lake, even if we were dipping our feet into Cerro Chato’s cool waters.

So we stopped, ate lunch and marveled a few minutes at the green lake. Hard to comprehend how exploding lava, crashing rocks and grinding tectonic forces so violent and terrible had created something so green and so serene.

By the way, when we arrived back at the Observatory Lodge, the entire hike had taken about four hours.


Cerro Chato rises from the surrounding countryside in Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, Costa Rica.

Cerro Chato rises from the surrounding countryside in Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, Costa Rica.



  1. […] Dave Pidgeon is a news reporter, freelance travel writer, advid hiker, scratch golfer and excellent tipper.  He just also happens to be my best friend.  He and his bride Alison  just got back from honeymooning in Costa Rica, and the first in a series of highly entertaining hiking/adventure stories has been posted on his blog, Compass Points. […]

  2. […] Click here for my story about hiking Cerro Chato: Green and serene (eventually). […]

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