I should have anticipated rain, especially as we were hiking in a rainforest during the official rainy season in Costa Rica.
Still, the sheer volume of water falling from the sky and roiling down the trail was daunting.
“I think we should go back,” our younger son appealed, looking at me with worried eyes.
A child of the Colorado Plateau, he’s heard about flash floods his entire life and recognized the signs – we were hiking in a confined area and water was pouring down upon us in buckets. Our feet submerged with each step and the trail – really a staircase that goes straight up through dense Central American jungle — was a waterfall.
“It’s okay,” we assured him. “There are no flash floods in the rainforest.”
We kept going.
Hiking Cerro Chato
The trail up Cerro Chato, an ancient volcanic cinder cone near the town of La Fortuna, is only about 4 km – but it’s a hard. The track starts mildly enough, leaving the Green Lagoon Lodge along a manicured path, bordered with tropical flowers and fields freshly planted with medicinal herbs.
Soon, the path curves back upon itself and meanders steeply uphill through a grassy meadow, which we shared with legions of leaf-cutter ants.
At just about the half way point, the jungle begins, the meadow rapidly disappears into stands of trees, hung with mosses, vines and enormous leaves. It’s a quintessential rainforest complete with echoing bird calls and reverberating insects.
Once in the jungle, the path is nothing more than a muddy and irregular staircase. In some places, the steps are relatively regular, in others, the span is so broad that you find yourself grasping for purchase, grabbing at stumps and twigs and roots, hoping that they’ll hold, and that your hand won’t accidently grasp something alive and mobile.
Just when the burn in your legs gets intense, the trail tops out in a small clearing at the top of the cinder cone, where benches offer respite and the promise of views. Clouds swathed this area when we arrived, so we didn’t tarry, instead, we turned down a treacherous, slippery incline into the mountain’s crater.
The crater of Cerro Chato is filled with water, a border-to-border lake, ice blue and refreshing in the extreme.
When we arrived, we had the lake to ourselves and the rain had stopped. Drenched to the skin, we didn’t bother with niceties like removing our shoes and socks. We just jumped in.
Perhaps drawn by our shouts of glee, but more likely attracted by the offer of a cool, clean payoff after a long filthy slog, we were soon joined by other hikers.
Splashing together, we exchanged names and home countries. We chatted and shared the kind of information so valuable among fellow travelers – in this case, the location of the cheapest local hot springs.
Finally, as the sun broke high above our heads, our family emerged from the water and began scrambling up to the main trail.
Rain Beats Sun
We didn’t know it then, with the sun beckoning us back to the trail, but the rain was actually a blessing and we would miss it.
Sure, when it was raining, we were covered head to toe in muck and goo. We were dripping rainwater and slick with perspiration, but after ensuring that our camera was safely tucked away behind double layers of plastic, we gave in to the experience.
When the rain stopped, the temperature and steam began to rise. And with the steam, came biting insects, eager to feast on our water-softened skin.
Chased by bugs, we rushed down the trail, stopping only to remove the camera from it’s waterproof shroud, snapping photos on the fly, trying with one sense to record and remember an experience that was as much sound and touch, as sight.
When You Go…
La Fortuna and the area around Arenal Volcano are hot stops on the tourist track, popular with backpackers and luxury travelers alike.
Hiking abounds in this area, with many kilometers of trail in Arenal National Park, as well as additional well-kept trails in private reserves. While Cerro Chato is often promoted as a guided hike, you can easily do it alone, as we did, checking in and paying the $10 per person fee at the Green Lagoon Lodge, near the La Fortuna Waterfall.
Alternatively, you can start the hike from the other side of the cinder cone, at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. Either way, the lake is your destination, so plan on swimming.
And while you can pay upwards of $60 per person to enjoy the area’s abundant natural hot springs, the hot tip among our fellow hikers was the $6 per person fee to partake of the pools at Termalitas de Arenal, a local spot where you can bring your own beer and food, soak in the pools and relax under the shade of one of the many picnic shelters on the well-maintained property.