Monteverde, Costa Rica
By Thomas Lera
|Monteverde Cloud Forest in the Afternoon|
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve is the jewel of northwestern Costa Rica. Home of the resplendent quetzal, orchids, strangler figs and red-eyed tree frogs, it’s a brilliant wash of sensory overload. Raucous howler monkeys roar like prehistoric beasts at sundown and wake you with their grumbling at dawn.
The languages of the jungle are foreign and intriguing: the constant babble of birds and hum of insects; the omnipresent cipher of tracks; the formation and movement of clouds; the ebb and flow of moisture-laden heat; and the myriad colors, stripes and designs that speak to what’s poisonous and what is merely beautiful.
The Preserve has several outstanding ecosystems, from its mountaintop cloud forest lush with epiphytes, to the majestic rainforest in the lower Atlantic Watershed, to a seasonally dry forest in the Pacific Watershed. Elfin forests shaped by the wind are found on the exposed ridges, while in contrast, the protected valleys are home to giant trees covered with orchids, bromeliads, ferns, moss and vines. The lower, poor drainage areas have swampy forests, but most of the Preserve is crosscut by deep ravines and numerous crystal-clear streams that run swiftly down the mountains creating rapids and waterfalls in their path.
Hiking Along the Paths
Although I’ve hiked through the Monteverde Preserve several times without incident, by its very nature it seems mined with hazards. The temperatures can easily reach into the 90s. Craftily camouflaged poison dart frogs and exotic eyelash vipers, filled with treacherous neurotoxins, await your approach. Large, hairy black and yellow spiders the size of a hand string complicated webs across paths. Even the exotic three-wattled bellbirds, lurking high in the canopy of trees, verbally hurl down their loud “bonks” as you walk beneath them. Despite, or maybe because of, all of that, the clear 13 kilometer trail is a long, lovely, humid stroll that allows you to truly get in touch with nature, and just maybe your inner self.
The air is dense and rich with the vital scents of both sprouting and decaying vegetation, a profusion of flowers, wild avocados and animal pheromones. Smell is a sense I hardly use with precision. So while recognizing, maybe for the first time, I was inhaling a tremendous wealth of information in the interwoven scents that told the identities, proximities and relevant histories of untold thousand of flora and fauna (much of it sniffing right back at me, easily figuring my identity, proximity and history), I hadn’t the skills to interpret it. The jungle’s redolence envelops all, permeating hair, skin, lungs and, on some level, the mind.
|Yellow Eyelash Pit Viper – Sunning on a Frond|
The Monteverde biome is over 35,500 acres and is so rich with life the normal pace of walking can be too fast. I had to stop, slow my breathing and remain perfectly still for awhile to allow some of what had fled upon my arrival to venture back, and be able to see what was there but thus far invisible or disguised. Soon I spied high in a nearby tree a two-toed sloth! As an iridescent blue winged giant Morphos butterfly floated languorously past, I became aware of a clutch of hummingbirds enjoying a mid-morning snack of nectar. In a tree just uphill from where I stood, a lone toucan seemed posed for a photograph. I complied and slowly moved forward again. It took a bit more time and concentration to spy a pit viper on a broad leaf beneath a tree just off the path.
Even harder to spot was a three-inch-long red-eyed tree frog, common in the rain forests of Central America. The little creatures are a vivid green with neon orange feet, and cream and light blue coloration along their sides and groin area. The enlarged tips of their toes form adhesive pads which enable them to cling to the smooth surfaces of leaves. Against your skin, however, they feel like cold gummy bears! The frog’s most prominent feature is, not surprisingly, their large red eyes that some biologists suggest were adapted to use against a predator, as “startle coloration,” allowing them a quick escape.
One of the pleasures of the Preserve is the ability, at times, to experience it completely alone. However, on this trip, I came across a man setting up camera equipment near a massive, low hanging branch of ripening bananas.
The Importance of Bats
My curiosity does not end with flora and fauna, so I approached him to find out what he was doing. My lucky encounter was with the local bat biologist and conservationist Dr. Richard Laval, who explained he was setting up to take pictures after dark, not of monkeys as I had supposed, but of bats. Using a motion detector triggered by the bats, he was able to get fantastic pictures of a fruit-eating species found here in the Monteverde area. They are extremely important to the cloud forest ecosystem, as they swallow many seeds whole and disperse them in other locations when they defecate, aiding recovery of previously deforested lands.
During our discussion he explained other bats are important flower pollinators, especially for those of locally grown commercially important crops like bananas. He told me that he had even recently observed these bats at night at hummingbird feeders – a sight just as spectacular as with hummingbirds during the day!
Apparently not many hikers had shown interest in his research, and he was enthusiastic to share his insights and knowledge, as much effort and money had gone into his studying of them. As we shook hands and I continued my walk I thought once again how much this Preserve had to offer.
|The Bat Jungle Museum Takes up the Entire First Floor|
How to Get There
From San Jose take the Interamerican Highway north to Puntareas. Go another 12 miles (20 km) to the turnoff for Sandinal. The road is paved for a few miles but then be prepared for a bumpy drive. Thirty-nine spine jarring kilometers later you arrive in Santa Elena and then it’s a short 6 km to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. The Preserve is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the entrance fee is $12 for adults and $6.50 for children and students. Get there early because they only allow 120 people in at one time.
What to Do
Beside the Preserve, the area is home to a serpentarium, butterfly garden, frog pond, the World of Insects and the new Bat Jungle. All are located on the only road from Santa Elena to the Preserve, are open daily and charge an admission fee between $7 and $8. There is a local bus that runs between Santa Elena and the Preserve eight times a day and costs only 400 colonies (about 80 cents US). Just flag it down and hop aboard for a ride you will remember. It may stop at the local farmers market for a brief shopping excursion, drop guests at hotels along the way or go directly to the Preserve.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Belmar is a beautiful Swiss chalet-style hotel on the grounds of which I saw plenty of wildlife and heard the three wattled bellbird during my stay. The cost was $80 per night for a double. The Trapp Lodge is the closest hotel to the Preserve. The Hotel Fonda Vela, 15 minutes from the Preserve, has a great moderately-priced restaurant with a clear view of the cloud forest. Rooms are between $85 and $100 per night. If you are looking for an inexpensive place to stay try The Arco Iris Lodge in Santa Elena. A regular room with bath is only $50 per night, and budget travelers can stay in the “Bunk Rooms” for just $18 for a single or $28 for a double. With over 40 hotels in the area, one can always find a room for the night!
Where to Eat
All restaurants are on or just off the main road to the Preserve. Stella’s Bakery has an assortment of fresh food served cafeteria style for breakfast or lunch. Tramonti’s just across the street serves excellent pizzas and pasta. In Santa Elena, Morpho’s CafÃ© offers good, hearty, economical meals, with so much food on the plate you can’t eat it all. The restaurant at the hotel Fonda Vela prepares great “Tika” steak.