Costa Rica: a Walk in the Clouds
Eco-Escapes to Central America
By MARSHALL S. BERDAN
Special To The Times
MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica -- Part of the thrill of coming to Monteverde,
the site of this country's oldest and best-known nature reserve, is seeing
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.