Monteverde and the Costa Rican Cloud Forest:
Two hours and fifteen minutes out from San Jose by car, as the road turns from asphalt to dirt and rock, and begins its at times harrowing ascent into the highlands, a question begins to echo in the back of my mind: “Why on earth did we want to go to Monteverde in the first place?”
My wife and daughters would scowl were they to read that first paragraph. The reason for our trip to Monteverde is actually quite clear. As I mentioned in my first post on Costa Rica, our older daughter is studying there for the first semester of her junior year in high school. She is at the Cloud Forest School — the Centro de Educacion Creativa — learning Spanish, taking courses in environmental education, and pursuing the usual high school studies in math, science, and English. We have not seen her since early August, and though she will be home in late December, we are eager to catch a glimpse of her life in Monteverde before she returns to the States. And we are equally excited about experiencing the mountains and forests of the highlands.
When we arrive in San Jose, the sun is shining. It remains clear all the way up into the mountains — three hours plus in the car, and we never see a drop of rain. Almost as soon as we reach Monteverde, that changes. Sort of. It doesn’t rain on us that first night, although the air is heavy with moisture. We awake the next morning to blue skies and an incongruous rainbow, perfect end to end, vivid against the deep green of the forests. My wife, younger daughter and I ooh and ahh; our older daughter tells us that rainbows are no big deal, that even on the sunniest days a faint, fine mist falls falls on the town.
And before long we know exactly what she means. The sun is shining for the first part of the morning, but it mists. And mists, and mists, and mists. By midday, when we are up at the school, meeting teachers and administrators and enjoying the simple, beautiful campus, the mist has turned to a steady warm rain. A freshening wind blows down off the mountain that looms over the towns Monteverde and Santa Elena, carrying with it the moisture of building clouds. We don’t know it yet, but we have seen the last of the sun for several days.
I would like to say that I didn’t complain about the rain, but that would be a stretch. Still, I have to admit that rain and mist feel like the natural state for the highlands. The moisture descends on the town in bands, pushed by the wind, visible to the naked eye (though frustratingly difficult to capture with a camera). The air is temperate, which is both good and bad. A simple rain jacket over a t-shirt will keep a person warm enough; as soon as the rain stops, though, even that simple jacket feels like too much.
Even with clouds hanging overhead, and mist blowing through the town, we enjoy remarkable views of the Golfo de Nicoya, an island strewn body of water that lies some thirty to forty miles west as the crow flies. Clouds hang down from a gray sky, ghostly hands reaching for the living green of the forests and pastures, partially obscuring our views, but adding to the sense that we are somewhere wondrous and alien. And as the setting sun reflects off those distant waters, I try to capture an image that will do justice to that sense of wonder and awe.
On Thanksgiving day, my wife and I go for a hike through a small private reserve just to the south of Monteverde. I am a birdwatcher — an avid birdwatcher. Nancy is the the wife of an avid birdwatcher: tolerant, but blissfully immune to my obsession. Usually. On this morning, though, we are introduced to Costa Rican hummingbirds. We have hummingbird feeders in our yard all summer long — and actually Nancy is the devoted, industrious one who keeps them full. We delight in the acrobatics and aerial dogfights of the Ruby-throated Hummers that spend the warm months in this part of Appalachia. But nothing we have seen at home prepares us for what we find here. In a matter of moments, the docent at the reserve has identified nine species for us, each one dazzling, with resplendent color and dramatic markings. Violet Sabrewings, the males brilliant purple with bright white patches on their tails, look like something out of Wonderland. Yes, they’re hummingbirds, but they’re huge — bigger than a goldfinch — with fearsome sickle-shaped bills. Coppery-headed Emeralds have white patches on their tales as well, and slightly curved bills. But they are smaller even than our Ruby-throats; a flashy, glittering green with a slight sheen of copper on the head and rump, they look like winged gems. Steely-vented Hummingbirds, Magenta-throated Woodstars, Green Violet-ears, Purple-throated Mountain-gems, Green-crowned Brilliants — they sound like creatures out of some Tolkienesque adventure, and yet their names barely do justice to their colors.
The Friday after Thanksgiving, the four of us head up into the higher reaches of the cloud forest for a zip-line tour and a walk through the forest canopy on raised bridges and cat-walks. The sun shines ever so briefly that morning, but as soon as we start up the road toward the preserve, the mist returns and then gives way to the hardest rain we have experienced thus far. But rain and wind are part of the deal here, and zip-line tours must go on. We don rain jackets and rain pants, and we begin our tour.
Let me pause here to admit that I am a coward. I don’t like heights or speed, I don’t like roller-coasters, I don’t like flying, I don’t like anything that might raise my perception of my own mortality in any meaningful way. My daughter has wanted to take us zip-lining, and I have agreed, but as I am asked to sign papers guaranteeing the outfit running this show that I won’t sue them if I end the day dead, and then start to strap on harnesses and a suspiciously serious-looking helmet, my doubts grow. The bad weather doesn’t help, nor does the amount of time our guides spend teaching us how to “brake,” especially because “braking” basically consists of using our gloved hands to pull down as hard as we can on the metal cable from which we’re hanging.
But once we start ziplining, my fears melt away, and the sheer exhilaration of what we are doing takes over. There is one moment in particular, on the third or fourth leg of our 13-leg zipline tour, when I have a truly magical moment. This leg is about 650 meters long — about four-tenths of a mile, and while we begin the leg on a tower in one section of forest, and end it on a tower in another patch of trees, most of the line runs through open air, above the forest canopy of a small hollow. Each of us has his or her turn on the line, alone for the minute or two it takes to cover that distance. Rain is still falling; the forest is shrouded in a thin mist. And for that brief time, I feel that I am the only person on the face of the earth, flying like a hawk over the treetops, rain on my face, the faint, sweet smell of trees and mist filling me. By the time I reach the other tower, I am grinning, and I can’t seem to stop.
The walk through the forest canopy is dramatic as well, though perhaps not as exhilarating. Rain pelts down us, on the trees, on the few birds willing to show themselves along the trail. I have hoped to see toucans and quetzals, parrots and trogons, Laughing Falcons and perhaps an eagle. We see none of those on this day (although we do manage to find toucanets, parrots, and a Blue-crowned Motmot later in the week), but instead find the quiet rhythm of rain on broad leaves, and the haunting mists of forest and cloud that are the hallmark of this area.
Monteverde and Santa Elena definitely have been shaped by the ecotourism industry that is thriving throughout all of Costa Rica. They are more upscale, more eclectic in their food options and artistic offerings. There is a sense of relative wealth and well-being that seems to be absent in some of the (admittedly few) other towns we see during our travels. The presence of American and European tourists is obvious. Nearly everyone there speaks at least some English (as opposed to the airport city of Alajuela, where this is certainly not the case). English is especially prevalent among the young — our daughter tells us that in many families the children are fluent in both Spanish and English, while their parents and grandparents barely speak English at all.
And yet much of what I have said throughout these three posts about Costa Rica generally, applies to these two small communities, at least in diluted form. The comida tipica — the typical Costa Rican food — is ubiquitous here, even as it competes with tapas bars, Italian restaurants, ice cream stores and bakeries. The people are friendly and open, as if refusing to give in to the resentments that so often sour the citizenry of tourist destinations both within the States and in other countries. By the time we are preparing to leave Monteverde, watching one last sunset over the distant Golfo, we are utterly enchanted with the land and its people. Our first visit to Costa Rica is over; already I am making plans for the next one.