La Fortuna Costa Rica: How to Hike a Volcano in Costa Rica

La Fortuna Costa Rica - Volcano Costa Rica

If you are looking to hike a volcano in Costa Rica, La Fortuna is the place to go. The small, quaint village sits in the shadow of Arenal and is world-famous for the hot springs and all-inclusive resorts that dot the winding road around it’s base.

But, if you were to look at an aerial photo or drone view of La Fortuna, Costa Rica, you’d see that there are actually two volcanoes there: Arenal Volcano and Chato Volcano.

Arenal is an active volcano that last erupted in 2010 and is the reason for so many hot springs in the area. There are a lot of tours and volcano hikes near its base, but, it would be way too dangerous to try to hike up to the top.

Chato – or Cerro Chato in Spanish – on the other hand is a dormant volcano that hasn’t erupted in years. In fact, all of the rain from the jungle climate in Costa Rica has formed a lake in the crater of Cerro Chato.

Known as the Green Lagoon, the lake can be bright blue or murky green, depending on the weather and skies.

While I was in Costa Rica, I got completely fixated on the idea that I needed to do a volcano hike. But not some canned group tour around the base of Arenal. While a great destination in itself, I was looking for a REAL jungle adventure. I had spent the last two months living and working in Tamarindo, a tourist town on the Pacific coast and hadn’t gotten the chance to do a single secluded hike, bike ride or camping trip in months.

When I got to La Fortuna, I was pleasantly surprised at the small-town vibe that was equally full of local Costa Ricans as it was tourists – and I got a warm welcome from both.

In the morning, I was able to grab a $3 breakfast of gallo pinto – this is the classic dish of beans, rice and other veggies – complete with fresh papaya and a strong local coffee. In the afternoon, I wandered into the bar across from a tour guide operator’s shop where I was able to get the low-down on La Fortana’s lesser known and more intriguing (at least to me) volcano.

A local told me that it was officially closed by the government but that there were still navigable routes and several locals who would take people on this volcano hike, if they wanted.

I immediately knew this was the adventure I was looking for.

I started looking at the maps of the area and didn’t feel confident in my own ability to do the hike without help, so I swapped numbers with the local, got a call from a guide later that day and was all set for a hike the next morning.

If, like me, you don’t consider yourself a follow-the-guidebook type traveler, here’s what you need to do to hike Chato Volcano in Costa Rica:

Getting to La Fortuna and Cerro Chato

La Fortuna Costa Rica - Volcano in Costa Rica

La Fortuna is one of the most popular attractions in Costa Rica because of all the hot springs and resorts in the area.

In terms of transportation, it’s on par with the rest of the country, being very accessible. Most options cost between $5 and $150.

The cheapest is public transportation, if you feel ready to take on the Central American bus itinerary. There are regular local buses that will get to you the small town from almost every part of the country, including back and forth from Tamarindo to La Fortuna and La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio (and vice versa), if those are stops along your route. These can take a long time and will require a bit more logistical planning, money exchanges, and some Spanish. But it can be done and will definitely be a part of the adventure of getting there.  

If that’s not for you and hey, I don’t blame you if it isn’t, there are regular tourist transports that will take you from the San Jose airport, Liberia airport, Tamarindo, Manuel Antonio and other popular tourist hubs to La Fortuna. You can opt for one of the regular busses for around $25, or you can get a private van with A/C for around $100.

The last and, in my opinion, best option for seeing all the sites and volcanoes in Costa Rica, is to just rent a car.

You can easily book one in advance at the car rental companies in Liberia or San Jose airport and have it waiting for you the moment your plane lands.

I went to La Fortuna twice while living and working at a surf camp in Tamarindo, which is a small tourist town sitting along the Pacific Ocean on the Guanacaste Peninsula. Since I had a backpack, all my work gear and a bicycle, I decided to rent a car both times. The first time I carpooled with people at the surf camp in Tamarindo to our hostel in La Fortuna. The second time, I threw my bike on top of one of the buses and road to the Liberia airport where I rented a car and drove to my Airbnb.

Trust me when I say that the transportation situation is exponentially harder with a bicycle. And it took some persuading to convince the bus driver that it was, in fact, possible to strap a bike to the top of the bus.

Once you are in La Fortuna, though, the town itself is small enough to explore by foot and there are regular local taxis that go back and forth between all of the resorts throughout the day. The base of Cerro Chato was a short, 10 minute drive from the center of town to the parking lot of the park.

A few things about Chato Volcano in Costa Rica

La Fortuna Costa Rica - Volcano in Costa Rica - Cerro Chato
Don’t let the accessibly of La Fortuna and it’s volcanoes dupe you into thinking it’s a simple thing you can do in an hour or two while on your drive through town.

Firstly, the Cerro Chato trail was officially closed by Costa Rican authorities a while back.

A few online reviews may indicate that it’s still closed, but the occasional tour company and many local tour guides will still take you there. If you have your heart set on swimming in the crater lake of a dormant volcano in Costa Rica (like I did), it’s still very possible.

Secondly, this Costa Rican hike is NOT an easy one.

I have over five years of experience backpacking, rock climbing and long distance cycling and had to stop and catch my breath way more often than I’d like to admit.

It’s a very steep incline that will take you through three jungle layers as you scramble over twisted tree roots, muddy washes and thick vegetation. As you keep gaining in elevation, you’ll also go through the clouds before you can eventually see over them at the top.

I was told this is possible on a clear day, but it was all rainy skies and eery clouds while I was hiking up to the Green Lagoon.

Being that the Cerro Chato hike is not officially open to tourists, there are no clearly marked trails, water stops, bathroom facilities or even a clear trailhead.

Like I said: this is a true jungle adventure!

I highly – HIGHLY – recommend against this hike if you don’t get an experienced local guide or don’t feel confident in your ability to trail find or use cairns to mark your route. The Costa Rican government has declared this hike as dangerous and have closed the official route because they want to keep tourists as safe as possible. They also do not want to use local money to fund a rescue search, if someone loses their way.

However, it is a largely unmonitored and unenforced rule.

The local who told me about the Cerro Chato hike said there is an unspoken “go at your own risk” mentality if you decide to follow the jungle trail up to the lake. This means that you likely won’t get in trouble (though during particularly dangerous times it is possible to get a fine), but no one is holding your hand telling you how to get there.

If you’re still with me here and are ready to have the ultimate hiking experience that gets you deep into the jungle and ends with a dip in a volcanic lake that is thousands of years old, then I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The Hike to the Green Lagoon

La Fortuna Costa Rica - Volcano in Costa Rica - Green Lagoon

The morning of my volcano hike, I was really disappointed to wake up to the sound of rain on the windows of my Airbnb. One, I really don’t like rain – even after living in Central America for several months and getting used to the afternoon rains that happen daily. Two, I was worried that the guide wouldn’t want to take me to the Green Lagoon if there was a risk of water on the trail, or worse, mudslides.

Just as I was lamenting my bad luck, I got a message from him that said:

“It’s raining – typical Costa Rica. Make sure you bring a change of clothes and have a way to keep your food dry. Unless you are not ready to get muddy?”

Challenge accepted.

I filled up two water bottles, packed a bunch of granola bars and lunch in my daypack, stuffed my camera in my dry sack and went to meet up with my tour guide. We took a paved winding road past all the five-star resorts and spas, and parked the car at the Arenal Observatory.

With it raining so hard, we had the parking lot, and the majority of the trail, to ourselves.

We set off through the well-kept trails near the Observatory for about ¾ of a mile. Being under the jungle canopy, we stayed mostly dry. I found the repetitive sound of rain hitting the giant leaves and a distant waterfall equal parts invigorating and relaxing. There were plenty of side trails to explore – some leading to waterfalls, others to thick jungle glades, but I wanted to save my energy for the 3,740′ elevation gain that was up ahead.

My guide was extremely knowledgeable about all the plants and animals in the jungle. We even stopped to inspect some bugs and test the strength of a leaf-cutter ant before dipping off the main trail onto what looked like a wash with a few footprints cut into the mud.

I honestly can’t speak to the exact location of the trailhead because I relied heavily on my guide to stay focused on the path-finding so that I could enjoy gawking at the scenery.

The Cerro Chato trail didn’t waste any time with the elevation gain.

Within a few minutes, I was using both hands, knees, and feet to scramble up ledges and steps while trying to pick which root or branch would support me as I pulled my weight up. With all of the mud, there were times when I felt like I was trying to climb backwards up a slide in the rain.

While I tested my lungs and leg strength, my guide shared his experience growing up near La Fortuna, Costa Rica, his passion for studying snakes and wildlife, jungle conservation, the sustainable energy practices of the country and his stance on whether tourism was tarnishing the country or helping it (he was in favor).

We tried to find a few snakes, spiders, and birds, but the rain had scared them into hiding for the day.

So, we just kept hiking – onward and upward for almost three hours. Resting where we needed to. Sharing jokes and practicing my Spanish in the safety of the jungle where only the trees could hear my terrible accent.

After a while, I could see the Green Lagoon peeking through a clearing at the top of Cerro Chato.

Taking a Dip in a Volcano

La Fortuna Costa Rica - Volcano in Costa Rica - Green Lagoon Swimming
There is a very fast and very steep decline to get from the top of the volcano to the lake itself.

But, once you start hiking down, you are officially inside a volcano in Costa Rica!

We set up a picnic to have the lunch and snacks I had packed before deciding whether or not we were actually going to swim. I was surprised by how creepy it was to see the green water, know that I was in a volcano, have no idea how deep the water was and not even be able to see across to the other side.

I was even more surprised when I heard someone swimming toward us through the fog!

Apparently, another backpacker had the same idea to do the Cerro Chato hike that morning. We all hung out for a bit and swung off a log that was jutting out into the water before the rain started again and it got entirely too cold to stand in one place.

As we were packing up our lunch to go back down the way we came up, we heard another tour group across the water that was just reaching the lake and wrestling with the same thoughts I had when deciding whether or not I was going to dip my toes in the Green Lagoon.

The hike back to our car took about a third of the amount of time that the hike up did. We made good enough time to stop at a waterfall, hunt for frogs at small pond and have a drink at the Arenal Observatory, one of the best views of Arenal Volcano that I got during my time in Costa Rica.

Overall, the Cerro Chato trail was the ultimate adventure that I was looking for.

To this day, I still enjoy telling people about standing on the log in the Green Lagoon, sitting in the middle of a dormant volcano.

Like any adventure off the beaten road, it took a bit more planning and effort, but that made it all the more worthwhile. And sinking my sore muscles into one of the hot springs at the end of the day was the ultimate reward.

I’m Averi Melcher, a former fashion student who ditched my designer bag for a backpack about 7 years ago. A week after learning about the art of slow travel and bicycle touring, I bought my first bike and haven’t looked back since. I’ve traveled (mostly solo) to 24 different countries, seeking out experiences that take me outside and off the well-trodden tourist trails whenever possible. Most of my camping, hiking, and cycling adventures have sprung from conversations with locals and are also shared on The Pedal Project and @thepedalproject.

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