Destination Trail Run: Cerro Chato Volcano, Costa Rica
As a travel destination, many outdoor lovers will enthusiastically tell you that Costa Rica is #1. The territory itself is so small that it only comprises about .03% of the world’s surface, yet it accounts for over 5% of some of the richest biological diversity on earth. With its “Pura Vida” (literally translated as “pure life”) attitude, verdant jungles, stunning beaches, tropical rainforests, hundreds of endemic animal species and year-round temperate climate, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most visited countries internationally. There are many ways to see this lush and beautiful land, and one of the best is trail running.
In Spanish, “cerro” is literally translated as “hill”, but it’s also a word used to describe mountains and volcanoes. Costa Rica contains many active and inactive volcanoes. Cerro Chato is an inactive volcano that is often overlooked because of its famous neighbors, Volcano Arenal and La Fortuna. However as many trail runners will attest to, this makes it an even more desirable place to run. You will encounter very few if any, other people on the trail. And when you reach the 3,740ft summit with its scenic lookout onto Cerro Chato’s stunning emerald green crater lake, you probably won’t have to share the view with anyone.
What to Pack
Trail running shoes are different from road running shoes, as they can offer extra grip for uneven surfaces and rocky areas. As mentioned above, Costa Rica’s climate is tropical and temperate – which means you won’t need an excess of gear to enjoy a run here. What it does mean however is that you will be sweating a lot, and it’s crucial to choose running clothes that are flexible and wick away moisture.
Getting to Cerro Chato is easy. It’s located in the 30,000 acre Arenal Volcano National Park right next to the Arenal Observatory Lodge (AOL). AOL is only about 40 minutes from the well-known town of La Fortuna in the Alajuela province. A taxi from La Fortuna will cost you approximately $35 (there is also a cheaper local bus option), and the price of entrance to the park is 5,500 colones (about $10). The park is open from 8 am to 4 pm.
From the park entrance, head straight to the AOL reception where they will give you a map of the park clearly indicating the several trails leading to Cerro Chato. The map will lead you down a paved road that winds through alternating forest and pasture land, and then down several well-marked dirt trails leading to the Cerro Chato trail entrance. During this time you will be surrounded by lush green mountains on all sides with several views of the looming Arenal Volcano. It’s a short, tranquil and beautiful walk, and you will probably only see a couple other souls pass by. Keep an eye out for wildlife through. The park is home to over 131 different kinds of mammal species alone, including three different kinds of monkeys, sloths, raccoons, ocelots, and coatis (a small animal with a strange snout, about the size of a small dog. It looks like a cross between a raccoon and a cat).
The 4 mile (or 6.4km) Cerro Chato trail is an out-and-back track, which means you will return from the same direction you came. It is rated as difficult, and may not be suitable for those who have trouble with steep ascents. The track is too dangerous to hike when muddy and should not be attempted during the rainy season (from May to November) or when it’s raining or has rained recently. Even during the dry season, it’s important to keep in mind that as you near the almost 4,000ft summit the temperatures will drop a little and the weather can change at a moment’s notice. Be sure to pack a light, waterproof jacket just in case. And as always, do research on the area where you will be running, and be aware that trail running comes with a few risks that can be easily prevented in most cases.
The main trail starts off near a small shelter. As the trail begins, there is a short preamble of mildly steep hiking into the dense jungle. Then abruptly the path (packed dirt and sometimes a little bit of clay) gets very steep and will remain steep until you reach the summit. About a third of the way up, there is another big “No Entry” sign and a barbed wire fence, but there’s a spot you can squeeze through the fence on the far right. The track can be summarized as a lot of sweating and some very decent vertical cardio, in incredibly beautiful surroundings. You will pass through lush jungle, walk on the top of a sharp ridgeline with peeks of the surrounding mountains down below through the dense foliage, and be rewarded with a stunning view of Cerro Chato’s mysterious crater lake at the summit.
There is a path that leads down to the lake from the lookout point if you are keen for a swim. In the “winter” months, it can be quite chilly but refreshing after the grueling ascent! The path down to the lagoon is more of a path for mountain goats, so be prepared for some hand over foot climbing if you decide to take the plunge. And if there are clouds when you arrive at the crater lake lookout, be patient. The weather here changes quickly and if you take the time to rest and eat a snack, the clouds may part for a better view within minutes.
All in all, it’s a challenging trail run that’s hard to beat in terms of the diversity of flora and fauna and with the reward of a unique and mysterious lagoon at the summit.