April 30 through May 3, 2002. Monteverde and Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica.
The morning of April 30, Clark gave dinghy lessons to Mike, our backpacker friend and boat guard. Mike had never been on a boat and had never started an outboard engine. So he did struggle a bit (and got himself a bit wet) through a crash course on engine starting, handling current and landing the dinghy on shore and back at Temptress. But he delivered us safely on shore so we could catch our bus in the afternoon. He had not been sleeping well while traveling in Nicaragua (something to do with the heat and the numerous rats in his room) and was looking forward to spend a few quiet days catching up on sleep and reading books.
We took the bus to Santa Elena, the small town nearest the famous cloud forest of Monteverde, in the Costa Rican highlands.
The area had been settled by Quakers in the mid-1900, who had converted the cloud forest to pasture for their dairy cows. The area’s elevation is between 1200 and 1600 meters (4000 to 5000 feet), high enough for the grass to remain green and to support western types of dairy cows such as the holstein and the brown swiss. It was weird to drive through the hills in a landscape more reminiscent of Swizterland than Central America. The Quakers did preserve a third of the forest on the land they purchased, to protect the watershed. This reserve became the Monteverde reserve, which has been expanded several times since then. Another reserve, Santa Elena, was created to relieve tourism pressure on Monteverde. There are also several private reserves in the vicinity.
The bus ride took almost 4 hours for maybe 80 km (or 50 miles) because the bus was performing local service all the way from Puntarenas to Santa Elena and the last portion of the road was a dirt road full of potholes. Half the bus was full of regular travelers who knew the driver well, joking with him and kissing him goodbye. Some locals also hailed him on the way and took a 20 meters (yard) ride to chat. The other half were backpackers like us (except younger). We eventually arrived in Santa Elena and found a room in a cheap hotel with shared bathrooms and kitchen facilities. The mattress was good but the pillows were hard and I found a scorpion in the bathroom!
The next morning, we took a shuttle to the Santa Elena Reserve and followed a guide into the dark cloud forest. We were soon hunting for the magnificent quetzal, the symbol bird of Guatemala (although it is now quite rare in Guatemala). The guide could whistle the call of many of the birds in the forest and would listen to the responses to help him find them.
He had a powerful scope on a tripod, which he would focus on the bird once he found it. And we did see 3 quetzals! Of the first one, we only saw the turquoise tip of the tail while the rest of his body was inside a nest. We saw the body of the second while leaves hid its tail. And we finally saw the whole bird, a male with iridescent emerald back and tail and red and white breast. We would not have seen any of these without the guide and the scope. We did learn to recognize the quetzal various calls, which was going to be useful later. We also saw the triple-waddle billbird who looked like he had a long black worm hanging on each side of his beak. That was his waddle and it was supposed to attract females. Yuk! He had a sharp cry and seemed to strangle himself every time he tried it. We saw other birds, a rodent, many bright insects, including a glass-winged butterfly with transparent wings except for their brown outline.
A strangler tree, which uses another as support while growing, then strangles his support as it matures.
We admired rare cloud forest trees, supporting an amazing number of plants on their trunks and in their canopy, with lianas (tarzan vines) hanging down everywhere. It was often difficult to figure out which tree was supporting the others as the branches where all tangled in a green mass with 5 different shapes of leaves sprouting around the crown. We saw the leaves of many orchids and bromeliads but it was not flowering season. After the guided tour, we had lunch in the cafeteria and watched hummingbirds fight for access to the sugared water dispensers nearby. The smallest of them seemed intent on preventing access to any other hummingbird, which resulted in many acrobatic chases around the feeders. It was fun to watch, although their speed made it dizzying to follow the action.
After lunch, we walked to a private reserve where a company had installed long suspension bridges above the trees to allow observation of life in the canopy (Sky Walk). The four bridges were connected by nice trails in the forest. Our morning guide had said that the unusual sunny weather was discouraging quetzals from flying as they would be too visible to predators. The forest is typically shrouded in low grey clouds (similar to Seattle…). Fortunately for us, the grey clouds did come marching in the afternoon and on the last bridge we heard the quetzal call and then saw one beautiful male fly across the canopy with a ray of sun making its feathers shimmer. It was a glorious and very lucky sight and we stayed on the bridge a very long time, getting soaked by the rain, hoping to see the quetzal again. We finally gave up and had hot chocolate while waiting for the shuttle back to the hotel.
We accidentally scared the mother off her nest along the trail.
Although Santa Elena is at about the same elevation as Antigua, the clouds and humidity made it much colder than Antigua and we had to ask for a second blanket at the hotel. But I did enjoyed again having a nice cup of hot tea before going to bed, which is out of question in the coastal heat. We also enjoyed the typical Costa Rican food, which is simple and healthy without the excessive spiciness of Mexican food. The typical meal is a casado, which includes rice, black beans (not refried), a little meat in a tomato sauce and a salad (cabbage, cucumber and tomato). However, it is not very varied.
The next morning, we took the “jeep-boat-jeep” connection to the town of Fortuna, near volcano Arenal. It was much more expensive than taking a bus but, because a boat was used to cross Lake Arenal, instead of driving around, the trip took 3 hours instead of 8 hours. The lake was pretty, surrounded by green rolling hills and remains of cloud forest, but the heavy clouds will probably prevent it from becoming the next hot location for a large tourist resort. Volcano Arenal is an active volcano which is regularly spewing gas, rocks and lava. Climbing it is not allowed, of course, but when the weather is clear, you can get a good view of the action on the north side.
We had made reservations in advance for a guided hike up to a viewpoint for the volcano and regretted it when rain poured almost non-stop in the afternoon. We were unlikely to get any view! However, the naturalist who took us on the tour was very good and we ended up seeing many spectacular birds on the hike. Our favorites were the toucans, which were just as colorful as in the books. We saw two kinds of toucans.
We also liked the oreoles, very different from northern oreoles. They are big heavy black birds with a white face, which gives them the look of a penguin or a monk, with a colorful beak. They build intricate hanging nests. We also saw two types of tropical wood peckers, one rare with a bright red head, swallow tail kites, and parrots. We did not get to see the monkeys who do not move much when it rains. And it rained and rained! We were all soaked through and the paths in the forest were very muddy. We were glad we had taken our heavy hiking boots with us on this trip, despite their weight. Fortunately, Fortuna is a lot warmer than Santa Elena, and even wet, we did not get cold until exposed to the wind at the volcano viewpoint. For a while, it looked like the clouds might lift and we did hear explosions from the volcano but we finally gave up and finished the tour with a soak in hot springs. They were quite warm, like being in a nice hottub, but artificial looking as the water was directed into fancy pools in bar/restaurant/resort complex.
Friday, we took a series of bus back to Puntarenas. The last one was supposedly an express bus from San Jose to Puntarenas but the driver stopped just to buy some honey for himself at a road stand. I have to admit I was tempted to buy the honey too if it was that special! At another bus stop, a woman came on board just to retrieve a package hidden between two seats and obviously destined for her. Buses seem often to do some package deliveries on the side here.
We made it back by late afternoon, and Mike was there at the dock to pick us up. The dinghy was in good shape, Temptress still floating and Mike seemed sorry we were already back! We did not spend any more time inland because we have 5 more parks we can see on the pacific coast of Costa Rica. Most of them are accessible directly by boat and on foot and we were promised many monkeys and birds by other travelers who had already seen them. We have already heard many howler monkeys in the anchorages we stopped in on the way down, and maybe, soon we will finally see one.