Travel

Costa Rica: a Walk in the Clouds

Part of the thrill of coming to Monteverde, the site of this country's oldest and best-known nature reserve, is seeing the glorious views of the Gulf of Nicoya and the quick succession of ecosystems you encounter on the rough and rocky road that leads from the coastal lowlands into the Cordillera de Tilarán.

Alas, it was a pleasure my wife, Stacie, and I would not know during our whirlwind New Year's holiday--because we ended up making the drive at night, thanks to our tardiness, a fairly natural occurrence here, where there is so much to see. So we missed the spectacular views, but, given the darkness, the lack of guardrails and the condition of the road, we were lucky that's all we missed. Every bone-jarring pothole on the 11/2-lane dirt road brought us that much closer to bird-watchers' heaven, in the literal and spiritual senses.

The last 18 miles took nearly two hours, even in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. We had hitched a ride with our newfound Canadian friends, Hoi and Carolyn, and by the time we arrived, we felt like an overprocessed martini: shaken and stirred.

Monteverde (literally "green mountain") is one of the most fertile places in the world to watch for--but not necessarily see--birds. Lots of them, in fact: about half of Costa Rica's 850 species, as well as 100 species of mammals, 120 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, and 2,500 types of plants, including 420 identified species of orchids. In the modern world of biodiversity, Monteverde is a mega hot spot.

By the time we rumbled in, however, Monteverde was decidedly chilly. A wet wind had begun howling through copses of shadowy trees in a suspiciously untropical way. Much too late for dinner, we retreated to our room to see what morning would bring.

In dawn's misty gray light we could clearly see that Monteverde, the mountaintop community of 4,000 about 150 miles west of San José, was nothing like Tamarindo, the Pacific Coast surfers' beach where we had watched giant leatherback turtles nest two nights before. And except for the Wild West streetscape, thick with hotels and trail outfitters, we detected no traces of Monteverde's American roots.

Monteverde was founded in 1951 by Quakers from Alabama who preferred emigration to the threat of being drafted during the Korean War. They chose Costa Rica because progressive President José María Figueres, known as Don Pepe, had abolished the nation's standing army after winning a 40-day-long civil war. Once here, they selected isolated Monteverde to build their Quaker community. They took up dairy farming because it didn't involve killing the cows and because processed cheese was one of the few products that wouldn't spoil on the weeks-long trip down the mountain by oxcart.

To ensure the purity of their cows' water supply, the environmentally savvy Quakers set aside about 1,350 acres of regenerating mountaintop forest. And so things stood until American biologists George and Harriet Powell were drawn to the area by the 1964 discovery of the 1-inch-long neon orange sapo dorado, or golden toad. The Quakers gave 800 acres in perpetuity as a wildlife sanctuary to be managed by the Tropical Science Center, a nonprofit Costa Rican research organization. Three years later, an adjacent tract of 1,370 acres was acquired with assistance from the World Wildlife Fund, and Monteverde, the eco-destination, was born. (Unfortunately it was too late for the sapo dorado, last seen in 1989 and now presumed extinct.)

Today "greater" Monteverde consists of five separate but contiguous private reserves, the largest of which is the Children's Eternal Cloud Forest, a 22,000-acre reserve begun in 1988 when Swedish schoolchildren, concerned about the world's rain forests, pitched in to purchase about 15 acres for $1,500. Adding to the confusion, the community of Monteverde is really a strung-out amalgam of three settlements that abut the reserves to the south and west: Quaker-controlled Monteverde proper (where bars are still taboo); tico (what the Costa Ricans call themselves)/gringo (what they call Americans)-controlled Santa Elena; and Cerro Plano, where we had settled in at the chalet-style Hotel Heliconia.

The hotel, one of the area's first and most respected eco-lodges, is neat, clean and spacious and has its own 10-acre finca, or ranch. We were awakened by the sounds of horses whinnying for their breakfast.

Lingering over homemade granola and locally grown Monteverde coffee at the Paradise Bagel Café, we plotted our day as we listened to vintage Bob Marley, watched hummingbirds feed in the garden below and, most encouraging of all, saw the first shafts of sunshine cleave through the swift-moving clouds.

Afterward we walked down to collect Hoi and Carolyn at the Monteverde Inn. They had long finished their breakfast of banana pancakes but had become mesmerized by a family of cara blanca monkeys (white-faced capuchins) cavorting in the enormous ficus tree outside the dining-room window.

Across a clearing overhead, a pair of green, long-tailed parrots raced for cover. Things were definitely looking up. Perhaps we would glimpse the elusive green and red quetzal, Costa Rica's resplendent national bird.

While visiting my uncle, a recent retiree, in San José, we had been told repeatedly that the Santa Elena Reserve was where we should go--"what Monteverde was like 20 years ago" was the stock phrase. But it was the original Monteverde we had come to see, so we piled back into the faithful four-wheel-drive steed and negotiated the four miles to the end of the road.

Along the way we passed the Monteverde Coffee roaster and the new cheese factory, both of which offer tours, samplings and sales and are worth a more leisurely visit. But I did insist on a quick stop to see the "modern" Quaker compound. Out back a middle-aged bearded man, wearing a distinctly dated madras print shirt and pushing his children on a 1950s-era swing, directed me to the original meetinghouse, now incorporated into the classroom/adult education building.

Inside, plain wooden benches, arranged in an octagon, were passively presided over by a mildewed black-and-white engraving of 17th century founder George Fox. The tranquil simplicity here made it clear that Fox's mid-20th century adherents had not only successfully established but also maintained their way of life.

With a mile still to go, we had our first wildlife sighting: A Land Rover taxi had broken down in the middle of the road, disgorging six Germans who were steamed at their driver's insistence that they still pay full fare. Colorful but a fairly common species here, to be sure.

Our late start that day ended up costing us as well: The reserve, which allows only 120 people in at a time, was full. "Maybe a half-hour," we were politely told, and then we were promptly directed to the adjacent photo gallery/gift shop to observe the aerial antics of vibrantly colored hummingbirds as they descended on plastic feeders in quick-strike sorties.

Long before we tired of watching the hummers, our number was called, courtesy of a party of 20 early risers who had come, seen and departed. But the guided tours were still full, leaving us to our own devices on the popular but still not populated Bosque Nuboso (Cloud Forest) Trail.

No sooner had we passed through the mahogany ticket barrier than the practical difference between a rain forest (what Monteverde is commonly called) and a cloud forest (what it really is) became dramatically apparent: floor-to-canopy foliage. Monteverde gets as much as 13 feet of precipitation a year, some of it as rain, some of it as a mist from those moisture-laden clouds. Seemingly every exposed surface is covered with growth, the natural result of which is a continuous and aesthetically overwhelming living tapestry of greens and browns.

It also makes for challenging bird-watching. In nearly three hours we caught fleeting sight of only a handful of resident avians, and even then only when they flitted deeper into the forest. A guide would have been able to tell us only what we had missed.

But for us, the cloud forest itself was the primary attraction, and it wasn't going anywhere, except in and out of the periodic mist. During our leisurely three-mile walk we passed through six ecological zones, including a ridge-top dwarf forest where steady winds have stunted the growth of otherwise normal trees.

The sunlight rarely penetrated to the forest floor, but the remnants of the morning's rain could constantly be heard working their way down through the overlapping layers of foliage. It was everything a good cloud forest should be--and that even the best rain forests can't be.

Until about 10 years ago these simple but magnificent walks in the clouds constituted the "Monteverde experience." But realizing that even nature lovers love variety, eco-entrepreneurs began coming up with other things to do. Today the gamut of second-generation eco-attractions includes a snake garden, a butterfly garden, a frog garden, an orchid garden, an ecological farm and an aerial tram near the reserves. But nothing pulls in modern adventure travelers and leaves them gasping for more like a canopy tour.

I've been on canopy tours before--swaying metal bridges strung between towering trees. And Monteverde certainly has these, except that they call them "sky walks." A canopy tour, by contrast, is not a tour at all but a daredevil amusement park ride in which you zip across thin steel cables that are strung through and over (as much as 400 feet over) the cloud forest, suspended only by a small metal pulley and a body harness. It's fun, it's exhilarating, but it's definitely not EC (environmentally correct), despite the fact that you are seeing the cloud forest from the monkey's point of view.

I suppose we could have been traditionalists and gone with the "Original Canopy Tour," but Sky Trek's claims of being the biggest and tallest of Monteverde's canopy tours swayed us. And so, too, did Freddy, our tour guide/bilingual stand-up comedian whose job it was to see that our group of eight was properly equipped, physically and mentally, for the two-hour, 10-ride challenge.

I readily admit to having been a bit nervous (perhaps post-9/11 fear of flying), but after the first short ride it was obvious that the body harness was up to its job. On the second, I had time to look down--and I realized that if I did fall (and no one has yet), the outcome wasn't going to be materially affected by whether I dropped 50 or 250 feet. From there it was all downhill, so to speak.

Carolyn, Hoi and Stacie, daredevils all, enjoyed it even more than I. Hoi even zipped across on one trip without holding onto the pulley so he could take pictures.

By the time we had completed our thrilling final run, a 1,400-footer, the late afternoon mists had swirled back in, bringing the promise of another chilly night. We raced the tropical darkness back to the Hotel Heliconia for a warm shower and an early dinner, for with little to do (or see) after dark, there is no sense staying up late.

Not wanting to get back on those appetite-suppressing roads, we decided to walk to the nearby Sapo Dorado Hotel and Restaurant, run by the descendants of one of Monteverde's original Quaker families. Over local cheeses and a bottle of perfectly adequate Concha y Toro Chardonnay (Costa Rica's most popular brand), we relived our day in the cloud forest.

Dinner was very good--rosemary chicken for me, sea bass for Stacie--but dessert proved especially memorable: cubes of coffee-flavored gelatin under a dollop of fresh whipped cream. It's called the temblor, in honor of the earthquakes that are common here.

The next morning also broke misty and cold, but by midmorning the mist had burned off, and we started back toward San José and our flight home. We would never see a quetzal (or most of Monteverde's 399 other avian species, for that matter), so to remind us of what we had missed, we bought a life-size, hand-carved wooden quetzal for our wall.

But we didn't miss any of the glorious views as we jounced our way on a four-hour trip down Monteverde's eastern flank toward aquamarine Lake Arenal and the still-active Arenal Volcano. We emerged from the mists of our eco-adventure far more stirred than shaken.

___

Marshall S. Berdan is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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