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Once were Gondwanan

The Cloud Forests of Monteverde

COSTA RICA | Tuesday, 6 March 2012 | Views [2698]

I have just come down from the clouds. Literally. I spent a week in the wonderful Cloud Forest area of Monteverde, in the north-west of Costa Rica. I have to admit I had never heard of Monteverde before I came to Costa Rica, and of this I feel a bit ashamed because I have since learnt that it is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

It was a five hour bus drive from San José to Santa Elena, the village where most people base themselves. It was a scenic drive with lovely views of the mountains. They are not dramatic like the Andes but very pleasant. As soon as we were out of the city I wondered why I had hung around there so long.

The area of Monteverde was uninhabited until after the Second World War when some Quakers from the USA, some of whom had previously been imprisoned for refusing to join the army, chose to settle there. The villages of Monteverde and Santa Elena are only a few kilometres apart, and nearby each are Nature Reserves of the same names.

Santa Elena is a tourist mecca. I think there were more tourists than locals. Most locals speak English as well as Spanish and although this can be handy in times of confusion, I tried to stick with Spanish for the sake of practise. I was swamped by options of different tours and activities, from a sedate Trainforest ride (a train in the forest) to extreme bungy jumping and zip-lining over the forest canopy. I was really only interested in seeing the wildlife, so I didn’t do those things, but I must admit when I saw other people racing over the treetops on a cable it did look like fun. They wouldn’t have seen any animals but they sounded like they were enjoying themselves.

My first activity was a night walk. It had been raining all afternoon (very unusual for Santa Elena in March) and was very windy. My umbrella was turning itself inside out so I went to the general store to buy a raincoat. I don’t think I have been to many other stores where there is someone playing the piano, but here I was treated to live versions of Fernando and then Ave Maria. It was rather lovely and I would have liked to stay longer but I needed to get back to my hotel in time to be picked up for the tour.

I was collected in a mini-bus while it was still light. We were taken to the starting point and luckily it was nearly dark by then so that my hideous, newly-purchased poncho (no rain-coats available, only a foul coloured poncho, presumably designed for camouflage) was not as visible. Alex, our guide, was enthusiastic and very skilled. There were perhaps six or seven groups on the trails that night, and in our group there were seven people. There were many trails through the primary and secondary forests, so we didn’t cross each others’ paths too often, unless the guide of one group radioed to another group when he spotted an animal.

The rain had stopped as soon as I put on my poncho, but I left it on as it was warm and that was the easiest option. In our torchlight I must have looked like Quasimodo with my backpack underneath. I was a bit freaked out by another member of our group, from behind in her white poncho and pointed hood she looked like a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

So it was far from a fashion parade but we did see several animals. Alex was amazing at locating the animals. He did have a bit of a heads-up because some animals had been there the night before so it was likely they were still in the area, but how he even knew which area we were in is beyond me. Keeping your bearings in the forest is hard enough in the day, but by night for me would be impossible. As Alex said, in the dark everyone looks the same, so we had to make sure to listen for his voice if we came across another group so that we didn’t get mixed up when we were moving on. That caused me to reflect that a lot of the piropos (comments by men to women) I had received were at night. How would they know if I was guapa (pretty) – they can’t even see me!

The walk lasted for two hours and I could happily have stayed for two more. We saw a variety of animals including a Side-Striped Pit-Viper, a lovely Kinkajou, a humming bird in its nest trying to sleep, a tarantula in a hole probably made by an aardvark, a Giant Stick Insect (I learnt that females can reproduce without males by making clones of themselves), a Green Spiny Lizard, fireflies, the ever-present Leaf-Cutter Ants ( I hadn’t known that they are blind and only stop work when it rains and they can’t find their path by using the other ants’ pheromones) and my particular favourite, a Two-Toed Sloth. I had no decent photos to show for myself but it was great to finally see some wildlife – I had seen very little up to now on this trip.

The Santa Elena and Monteverde Reserves are lovely, peaceful places. Although there were obviously other visitors there, most of the time it felt as if I was the only one in the Reserve. The tracks are well-made, with easy to follow maps. The staff at the entrance are helpful and suggest the best tracks to follow for your given available time.

The first time I went to the Santa Elena Reserve, I had barely been there five minutes when I saw a tarantula on the side of the path. It was almost as if he was a member of staff paid to be in the welcoming committee. Also that day I saw a sloth lazing high in a tree and some howler monkeys foraging for food on the forest floor. The one closest to me eventually saw me and ran off, but the others didn’t see me and stayed longer until they wandered away. I also visited the Monteverde Cloud Forest and a private forest called Selvatura. Over the week I saw and heard numerous different types of birds, including the Yigϋirro, (or, more boringly, the clay coloured robin) which is the national bird, the large Black Guan, and in the humming bird garden at Selvatura I of course saw hummingbirds. I also saw them in the Reserves, but in the humming bird garden there were dozens at once, darting around and drinking from the feeders. I wouldn’t say the word “garden” is particularly appropriate, it is a cemented area with tables, chairs, and feeders for the hummingbirds – but if the only aim is to attract these lovely little birds then it achieves it perfectly.

I do get excited about seeing mammals that are unusual to me, so I will also mention I saw a Coati at a park entrance rummaging through the rubbish bins and another day I saw what I think were Common Opossums. I stayed at the Monteverde reserve until closing, even though that meant missing the last bus back to Santa Elena. For $10 I could have got a taxi back, but it was an easy and pleasant eight kilometre walk, so I chose to do that. I saw a squirrel (my only mammal for the day) on the way back, so that was a bonus.

I did do the Selvatura tour of eight suspended bridges over a three kilometre trail, but to be honest, I was a bit disappointed. There were so many people there it was obvious that I wasn’t going to see much in the way of animals. It was more expensive than the parks, where you can stay all day. This was a one route ticket that took about an hour and a half. My experience was not enhanced by one family who shouted across the bridges to each other and didn’t seem interested in the idea of being quiet to experience the wildlife.  If I had my time over I would spend an extra day at one of the Reserves rather than Selvatura.

In the Santa Elena Reserve there is an observation tower to climb. I have to admit I only went to the second highest platform – the last was reached by a ladder and my feet were tingling their warning system to me. I felt that I was high enough.

I have focused a lot on animals because that is what is most interesting to me, but there are many epiphytic plants in the cloud forests. Monteverde is home to 2,500 varieties of plants, 420 of which are orchids alone. I saw one tree that was labelled as being home to over 80 types of orchids.

Santa Elena is a small town but it feels like it was specifically designed to cater for the tourist. The Costa Rica flavour is still available, but equally so are international influences. I had lunch one day at a sushi bar –very nice, but a bit expensive and obviously not Costa Rican. At this point I was eager to embrace anything other than the standard beans and rice because I knew I was soon to be facing four weeks of that at the Sea Turtle Project with little dietary variation.

So, despite being overrun with tourists (I am one myself, so how can I complain?) Monteverde is a lovely area with plenty to offer. With peaceful natural forests, beautiful sunsets over the mountains and more biodiversity than you can poke a stick at, who can ask for more?

Tags: central america, cloud forest, costa rica, monte verde, nature, santa elena, travel

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