Monteverde and around
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Though generally associated only with its eponymous cloudforest reserve, Monteverde actually covers a larger area, straddling the hump of the Cordillera de Tilarán between Volcán Arenal and Laguna de Arenal to the northeast and the low hills of Guanacaste to the west. Along with the reserve, you’ll find the spread-out Quaker community of Monteverde village; the neighbouring town of Santa Elena – with the majority of the area’s amenities and budget accommodation – and, further afield, its own cloudforest reserve; as well as several small hamlets, including Cerro Plano. Throughout the region, the enchantment of the cloudforests is magnified by a combination of tranquil beauty, invigorating weather and the odd mix of Swiss-style farms and tropical botanical gardens.
Seeking autonomy and seclusion, the Quaker families living here arrived from Alabama in the United States in the 1950s. The climate and terrain proved ideal for dairy farming, which fast became the mainstay of the economy – the region is famed throughout the country for its dairy products, and you’ll see a variety of its cheeses in most supermercados. Abroad, however, Monteverde is known for its pioneering private nature reserves. Of these, the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde is the most popular, although the Reserva Santa Elena offers equally pristine cloudforest cover and, because it receives fewer visitors, may prove the more fruitful of the two for spotting wildlife. The huge Bosque Eterno de los Niños (Children’s Eternal Rainforest), established with funds raised by school kids from all over the world, surrounds Monteverde; day and night walks are offered in the Bajo del Tigre section, the easiest part of the reserve to explore. To avoid the inevitable crowds, consider visiting at the beginning or end of the wet season (May–Nov), when you should still get decent weather.
Note that the roads to Monteverde, built purely to serve small rural communities, are generally in poor condition. While tour operators bemoan their state, the Monteverde Conservation League (MCL) and the wider community have resisted suggestions to pave them, arguing that easier access would increase visitor numbers to unsustainable levels and threaten the integrity of local communities. Whatever the future holds, it’s unlikely that Monteverde will be ruined: the community is too outspoken and organized to let itself be overrun by its own success.
The most obvious property of the cloudforest is its dense, dripping wetness. Cloudforests are formed by a constant, near-one-hundred-percent humidity created by mists, produced here when northeasterly trade winds from the Caribbean drift across the high ridge of the Continental Divide to cool and become dense clouds settling over this high-altitude forest.
The cloudforest environment can be rather eerie, due to the sheer layering of vegetation, and the preponderance of epiphytes – plants that grow on other living plants for physical rather than nutritional support. Everything seems to be stacked on top of each other, and when walking the Monteverde and Santa Elena trails you’ll notice that green mosses wholly carpet many trees, while others seem to be choked by multiple layers of strangler vines, small plants, ferns and drooping lianas.
The leaves of cloudforest plants are often dotted with scores of tiny holes, as though they were gnawed by insects that soon gave up – which is, in effect, exactly the case. Many cloudforest plants produce toxins to deter insects from eating an entire leaf or plant. The plants are able to produce these poisons because they harbour excess energy that would otherwise be used to protect themselves against adverse weather conditions, such as a prolonged dry season or heavy winds and rain. The insects, in turn, guard themselves by eating only a little of a leaf, and by sampling a wide variety, so that they are not overwhelmed by one powerful toxin.
For an in-depth look into cloudforests, check out An Introduction to Cloudforest Trees, by William Haber, Willow Zuchowski and Erick Bello, available at the reserve visitor centre and in bookshops in San José.
Monteverde is probably the best place outside the Valle Central to learn about Costa Rica’s golden beans. Two companies here offer tours of their coffee fields and processing plants, enabling you to follow the journey from bush to bag. The co-operative Café Monteverde was the country’s first sustainable coffee producer and offers a hands-on tour of an organic plantation in San Luis, where you can visit their water-powered coffee mill, as well as a shorter trip to an agro-ecological, organic farm just north of Santa Elena; you can sample their beans without leaving town, at the Casa del Café Monteverde, near the post office on the road to Cerro Plano. Don Juan Coffee Tour, with an office on the Santa Elena triangle, runs similar trips to a small farm 2km north of the village.
Quakerism (cuáquerismo), also called the Society of Friends, is an altruistic, optimistic belief system founded by an Englishman, George Fox (1624–91), who instilled in his followers the importance of seeing God in everybody. From the beginning, Quakers placed themselves in opposition to many of the coercive instruments employed by the state and society – a philosophy that subjected them to severe discrimination when they first arrived in the New World in 1656 – and they continue to embody a blend of the conservative with an absolute resistance to state control.
In the early 1950s, a group of Quakers from Alabama fled the US, having been harassed to the point of imprisonment for refusing the draft (pacifism is a cornerstone of Quaker beliefs). Attracted by the fact that Costa Rica had abolished its army a few years earlier in 1948, they settled in Monteverde. At the time, the remote village was home to only a few Costa Rican farming families; there was no road, only an ox-cart track, and the journey to San José took several days. The Quakers bought and settled some twelve square kilometres of mountainside, dividing the land and building their houses and a school.
Quakerism doesn’t impose any obvious standards of dress or appearance upon its followers – you’re not going to see the jolly old man from the oatmeal box sauntering by – nor does it manifest itself in any way that is immediately obvious to visitors, except for the area’s relative lack of bars. The Quakers manage their meeting houses individually, with no officiating minister and purely local agendas. Gatherings focus on meditation, but anyone who is moved to say a few words or read simply speaks up – all verbal offerings in context are considered valid. The meeting houses welcome outsiders, who are never subject to being converted. In Monteverde, visitors can attend meetings at the Friends Meeting House, held on Wednesdays at 9.30am and Sundays at 10.30am.
Attracting visitors in their droves, the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde is one of the last sizeable pockets of primary cloudforest in Mesoamerica. At an altitude of 1440m and straddling the Continental Divide, the reserve was established in 1972 by George Powell (an American biologist) and Wilford Guindon (a local Quaker) to protect the country’s rapidly dwindling pristine cloudforest. Today, it encompasses ten square kilometres of protected land and is administered by the nonprofit Centro Científico Tropical (Tropical Science Centre), based in San José.
The reserve’s sheer diversity of terrain – from semi-dwarf stunted forest on the wind-exposed areas to thick, bearded cloudforest vegetation elsewhere – supports six different life zones, or eco-communities, hosting an estimated 3000 species of plants, more than 100 types of mammals, some 490 species of butterflies and over 400 species of birds, including the resplendent quetzal and the three-wattled bellbird. The cloudforest cover – dense, low-lit and heavy – can make it difficult to spot wildlife, though the amazing diversity of tropical plants and insects more than makes up for this, with guided walks leading past thick mosses, epiphytes, bromeliads, primitive ferns, leaf-cutter ants and poison-dart frogs.
Nine trails wind through 13km of the reserve and most are contained in a roughly triangular pocket known as El Triángulo. They’re clearly marked and easily walkable (at least in the dry season), and many of them are along wooden or concrete pathways that help prevent slipping and sliding on seas of mud.
If you’re keen to plunge straight into the cloudforest, make for the Sendero Bosque Nuboso (1.8km). The forest canopy along this trail is literally dripping with moisture, each tree thickly encrusted with moss and epiphytes. You’ll probably hear howler monkeys and the unmistakable “boink” of the three-wattled bellbird, but it’s difficult to spot either in this dense cover – your best bet for bird-watching is at the beginning of the trail. The spongy terrain efficiently preserves animal tracks, and in the morning especially you may see tracks from agouti or coati. One creature that you will see on this trail is the clearwing butterfly, whose transparent wings are as fragile as the thinnest parchment.
At the end of the trail, a small mirador, La Ventana, has vistas of the thickly forested hills on the other side of the Continental Divide. It’s reached via a staircase of cement-laid steps that lead to a lookout point suspended over an amazingly green expanse of hills – a surreal place, with only the sound of wind as company.
The Sendero Camino (2km), higher in elevation than the others, is stony, deeply rutted in spots and often muddy, but as this trail (which also leads to La Ventana) is wider than the others, it gets more sunlight, attracting greater numbers of birds and butterflies. Often quite steep, the Sendero Pantanoso (1.4km) passes through sun-dappled swamp forests and leads past magnolias and the rare podocarpus – the reserve’s only conifer. It links with Sendero El Río (1.1km) to bring you, in a long arch, back to the park’s entrance. The Sendero Wilford Guindon features a 100m suspension bridge that takes you high up into the trees for great birds’-eye views of the cloudforest canopy.
Less touristed than Monteverde, the Reserva Santa Elena, 7 km northeast of Santa Elena, offers an equally memorable cloudforest experience. Poised at an elevation of 1650m, the three-square-kilometre reserve is higher than Monteverde and boasts steeper, more challenging trails and a slightly better chance of seeing quetzals (and three-wattled bellbirds) in season. Established in 1992, the self-funded reserve is supported by entrance fees and donations and depends largely on volunteers, particularly foreign university students. It’s run by the local high school board, whose students help maintain the trails year-round.
Santa Elena’s 12km network of trails are confined to an area just east of the entrance – cut wood and mesh cover some trails, while others are rough tracks. The easiest is the hour-long Youth Challenge Trail (1.4km) with an observation tower halfway along, from where it’s possible to see Volcán Arenal on clear days; for the best chance of viewing the volcano, arrive early before cloud, mist and fog roll in to obliterate vistas. The longest, the Caño Negro Trail (4.5km), named after the river that flows from here north to the border with Nicaragua, takes about four hours to complete and crosses two streams en route. There’s also a wheelchair-accessible trail that loops from the visitors’ centre, passing a couple of lookouts and a small orchid garden.
The dry season in this region is from December to May, when temperatures are pleasant. The wet season is from May to December, but don't let this put you off - the temperature is around 30 degrees all year and with sufficient rain gear your trip will still be great.
You’ll see plenty of hummingbirds – strung along the entrance path is a line of feeders that draw many of the multicoloured birds – but for a better chance of viewing all the wildlife that lives here, sign up for one of the highly recommended guided walks.
Ever since National Geographic declared that Monteverde might just be the best place in all of Central America to see the resplendent quetzal, spotting one has become almost a rite of passage, and many zealous, binocular-toting birders come here with this express purpose in mind. This slim bird, with a sweet face and tiny beak, is extraordinarily colourful, with shimmering green feathers on the back and head, and a rich, carmine stomach. The male quetzal is the more spectacular, with a long, picturesque tail and fuzzy crown. About a hundred pairs of quetzals mate at Monteverde, in monogamous pairs, between March and June. During this period, they descend to slightly lower altitudes than their usual stratospheric heights, coming down to about 1000m to nest in dead or dying trees, hollowing out a niche in which to lay their blue eggs. Your best chance of seeing one is on a guided tour, or arrive on your own just after dawn, the most fruitful time to spot birds.
Another bird to look out for, particularly in Santa Elena (and from March to August), is the bizarre-looking three-wattled bellbird, whose three black “wattles”, or skin pockets, hang down from its beak; even if you don’t see one, you’ll almost certainly hear its distinctive metallic call, which has been likened to a pinball machine. The far rarer bare-necked umbrella bird can only be seen in Santa Elena, and not very often at that, but those lucky enough to witness its spectacular mating routine will never forget it.
Several types of endangered cats, including puma, jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi and margay, live in the reserve, which provides ample space for hunting. You’re unlikely to come face to face with a jaguar, but if you’re lucky, you may hear the growl of a big cat coming out of the dense forest – usually unnerving enough to cure you of your desire to actually see one.
Another famous resident (now thought to be extinct) of the Monteverde area is the vibrant red-orange sapo dorado, or golden toad. First discovered here in 1964, the golden toad hasn’t been spotted in many years and is thought to have either been killed off by global warming – the mean minimum temperature in Monteverde has risen from 15°C in 1988 to 17°C in 2010 – or to have succumbed to the chytrid fungus that has decimated amphibian populations worldwide over the last few decades.
Top image: Monteverde cloudforest, Costa Rica © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock