A Grueling Climb to the Top | Hiking Cerro Chato in Costa Rica

22 June 2015

In my second year following college graduation, I was slaving away over spreadsheets and flowcharts, hunched over in a little cubicle in some sterile office in downtown Chicago. The only thing foreign about my surroundings was the splotchy discoloration of the carpet below my desk -- presumably from coffee spilled by previous occupants. Meanwhile, my college roommate Brittany -- one of my closest friends -- was living in Liberia, Costa Rica, teaching English in a small school during the week and exploring Central America each weekend. So, when she asked me this year to accompany her on a trip back to visit her previous home, my answer was a resounding yes please.

Gearing up for our Great Adventure
We'd be going on a road trip of sorts, starting in San Jose for her friend's wedding -- the original purpose of her return -- and on to Liberia to stay with her host family, with a stop in La Fortuna on the way. La Fortuna is home to Arenal Volcano and is a popular destination among many travelers where opportunities to visit hot springs, go ziplining, canyoning and have other grandiose adventures abound. We wanted to save some money and go at our own pace, so she sent me a list of do-it-yourself activities that she'd found.

Her list included a link to some TripAdvisor reviews of a hike to the top of a dormant volcano called Cerro Chato. Sounds challenging and awesome! She added. Would love to see that view of Arenal, and the blue lagoon at the top sounds fun for swimming!

The reviews were mixed. Some said the trip was a breeze, while others complained of its difficulty. But everyone seemed to agree that the lagoon and lookout point at the top were well worth the journey. I was terribly out of shape but knew I'd soon need to start training for the Lares Trek, an alternative to the Inca Trail in Peru, that I'd be doing later that summer.  

I wrote her back: That view at the top looks awesome! (Spoiler alert: It was.) Fair warning. I'll probably be a little, whiny bitch (spoiler alert: An accurate prediction), but still game though! (Spoiler alert: I have no idea what I was thinking.)

Setting out for our Ascent
Despite a considerable amount of rain the day prior, we set out on our hike. For about $7, we took a cab from our hostel up to the Arenal Observatory lounge where we paid for our $12 entrance tickets. We were warned that the hike takes 1.5 hours each way, and that other hikers had reported that it was considerably muddy. Nevertheless, we set off, and at first I was really pleased with how easy the trek seemed. I figured all of those TripAdvisor reviewers were just being dramatic. The trail started off fairly well marked, and we walked leisurely over gravel and grass. 

Less than 10 minutes into our hike, I realized exactly what those reviewers had been talking about. Immediately upon us was a steep climb over what resembled moguls on a ski hill. Brittany sprinted to the top for me to take her picture. I was huffing and puffing already. How the heck was I going to make it through this?

The views around us really were stunning. We stopped to coo at a few fluffy cows just off the path at the first lookout point, crossed a rickety wooden bridge over a deep gorge -- one at a time, mind you -- and followed the windy path up and up and up some more. 

After hiking for around 25 minutes, we found ourselves fully engulfed by a rainforest. It was hot and humid, and I was drenched in sweat. The path was relentless; a vertical climb to the top with tree roots and thick mud acting as our stairway straight up into the heavens. Holy smokes! My heart was pounding out of my chest. I had no business on this trail. With each step, I struggled to find my footing, grappling for roots or tree trunks around me to balance myself. My quads, hamstrings and calves all burned, and my lungs were on fire. Every time I thought I was nearing a clearing and was closer to the top, I was dead wrong.

I am warning you right now. This hike is not for everyone. I passed two different girls around my age who didn't make it to the top. If I wasn't so stubborn, I might have decided to give up too. I had to stop and take a break once every 15 minutes or so and became acutely aware of how out of shape I was. To all of you people out there that can accomplish this in 3 hours roundtrip -- whew! You are my heroes.

Making it to the Top
My arrival at the top was really quite anticlimactic because it was so cloudy! I almost didn't realize that I had arrived. I took a short break to catch my breath and rehydrate. Then, we embarked on a treacherous trip down to the lagoon. Guys, this is no joke. We were literally sliding down muddy paths, using roots as anchors, and scaling down banks of mud while clinging to thick rope hung from tree branches. I kid you not, it was almost a straight drop down. I was freaking out inside, and at one point I nearly turned back. But by going at my own pace, I made it to the bottom, victoriously! And the lagoon was just gorgeous! We stayed and swam in the water with a pack of other travelers for about an hour. Some people had brought a cooler full of beer and a boombox. I couldn't even imagine how they carried that thing the whole way after what I went through!

When we were ready to depart, we embarked on our impending trip back down the volcano. We scrambled our way back up to the lookout point and paused at a fallen tree which acted as a makeshift bench. Straddling it, we sat and waited for the clouds to clear and marveled at the sight of Arenal, towering before us. It was just spectacular.

Real Talk
All in all, it took us about 5 hours roundtrip, which was mostly due to my pace. I have never been more muddy and sweaty in my life! The descent was almost as difficult as the climb, and it may have been made easier by trekking poles. I took a digger on the way down after missing my footing. Whoops! 

I wore my Kavu hiking shorts and a cotton tank top, though in retrospect I should have gone with something moisture wicking. I brought my Camelbak, which was enough for the whole trip, and two granola bars that I gobbled up since we trekked over the lunch hour. Bug repellent and sun screen was a must, and we wore our swim suits under our hiking gear to take a dip in the lagoon. Brittany got away with wearing her gym shoes, but I was thankful to have the ankle support of my Keen hiking boots (similar to these ones) since I'm not a regular hiker. My GoPro came in handy for taking photos, and Brittany had her iPhone in a Lifeproof case. We'd brought just enough cash for our entrance tickets and a cab each way.

For me, the views were totally worth it, and I was so proud of myself for doing this hike, but I don't think I would do it again. 

Think you can handle hiking to the top of Cerro Chato?

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