Monteverde – Costa Rica’s Amazing Cloud Forest
In 2018 year Alison and I visited Colombia and Panama on a tour with our favourite travel company Adventures Abroad. You can read about that amazing trip in any one of the 20 + posts on this website. Although the tour was continuing on to Costa Rica our original plan was to call it a day after Panama as Costa Rica was a country I felt we didn’t really need to take a guided tour to properly visit. It has a pretty decent road system, is relatively safe and most of the attractions are easily reachable from either the capital San Jose or Liberia, both of which have direct flight connections from Canada. But then I had a second look at the introductory tour and noted that it included two areas that would not be easy to do on your own, Monteverde Cloud Forest and Tortuguero National Park. With respect to Monteverde, even with a detailed map I couldn’t find anything resembling more than a goat path leading to the dot on the map that marks this small town high in the Costa Rican mountains. Tortuguero is another story that I’ll cover in the next post. Although a new road is being built into Monteverde, it is probably years from completion and when it is the number of people visiting this wonderful place will undoubtedly sky rocket. So here’s why visiting Monteverde sooner rather than later is my strong recommendation.
It turns out what I wrote above was wrong. Alison and I returned in early 2020, just before the pandemic and found the new road completed and actually far fewer tourists in Monteverde than in 2018 as I described in this post.
I’d never heard much, good nor bad, about San Jose the capital and by far largest city in Costa Rica. It is not an old colonial city and quite frankly is pretty dull compared to dynamic Panama City or historic Cartagena. However, it has a decent pedestrianized area with some good restaurants and bars and you won’t be accosted by beggars and bums like in my home city in Canada. Oh, and it has a really nice climate – that counts for a lot. Turns out I was a bit too casual in writing off San Jose as well as I noted in this post from January, 2020.
The Pan-American Highway runs the length of Costa Rica and makes getting around this relatively small country fairly easy; that is until you get on the side roads. As the crow flies, it’s not that far from San Jose to Monteverde and about 90% of the way is on very good roads, but it’s the 10% that would make driving this route on your own problematic. Monteverde sits at almost a mile above sea level atop the continental divide and the roads that lead to it are very steep, narrow, poorly signed and if you do happen to go off the road, it’s about a 1,000 foot drop to the bottom. Even though we were in this large bus, I felt much safer than if we had tried to navigate here on our own in a smaller vehicle. There were a few times that I could have sworn that the tires must be halfway over the edge of the sheer drop, but I’m still here to write about it.
A few miles from Monteverde the roads improve dramatically and after what seems like a never ending climb, the town comes into view at last. It’s surprisingly big given the fact it’s so damn hard to get to.
Driving through the narrow streets of Monteverde it becomes quite obvious from the many outdoor themed shops that eco-tourism is the raison d’etre of the place and that it by no means ‘undiscovered’. We are one of many tourist buses in the town and we’ll see if that detracts from the experience or not. We are here for a few days with a chance to explore as fully as you can in such a short stay what National Geographic has called “The jewel in the crown of cloud forests”.
The first pleasant surprise is our accommodations. The Ficus Lodge is modern, fits in very well with the surroundings and has a good view of the town and the surrounding cloud forest.
It also has monkeys that will check out your room if you leave a door or window open while you are out. Don’t ask me how I know this. This is our room during our stay in Monteverde. Not exactly roughing it. Adventures Abroad does a good job of selecting the best available accommodations at a reasonable price. You won’t be staying at any Four Seasons, but neither will you be in a Motel 6.
We have some free time at the end of the day so Alison and I make the short walk into the centre of Monteverde to check it out and see about some food. But first, I have a difficult choice – which of Costa Rica’s two most popular beers to drink, Imperial or Pilsen? The reality is that they are both light tasting lagers made for slaking your thirst in a hot, humid climate and this is a hot, humid climate so I’ll try them both. Note that the Pilsen can has a Movember theme related to men’s health issues. Until I saw this can I was not aware that it this was an international movement that actually started in Australia and not just a Canadian charity as I previously believed.
See, drinking beer in foreign countries can really raise your level of awareness about important things around the world!
Adventures Abroad always includes breakfast and usually dinners as well, but lunches are on your own and although it’s actually closer to six than noon we haven’t eaten since breakfast. I know it’s an old saw, but it really is almost always true that if you go to where the locals are eating you’ll get a better and cheaper meal than if you go to the obvious tourist oriented places. When I saw this sign and saw only Costa Ricans sitting at the few stools, I knew we had to give it a try. The sign is actually bigger than the restaurant.
Raulito himself does the only thing Raulito needs to do – roast the chickens on a spit and then dish them out to his customers. This is one order split in two and washed down with Canada Dry. Total cost – about $7.00 and worth every penny.
After eating we hooked up with a few others who had eaten elsewhere and we’re surprised to hear how much they had each spent on a meal. Score one for Raulito.
OK, I’ve talked about how we got here, where we’re staying, what kind of beer to drink and where to eat, but what about Monteverde itself? Well, it’s a nice little town, but the real attractions are in the nearby cloud forest so let’s get going starting with butterflies.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve protects 26,000 acres of almost entirely virgin forest in an area of constant high humidity which results in almost constant water vapour in the air, aka clouds. It is an area of astonishing eco-diversity – over 100 species of mammal, 400 + bird species, 125 + reptiles and amphibians and almost countless numbers of insect species of which new ones are found on a regular basis.
Surprisingly the name Monteverde (Green Mountain) is not that old. It was given this sobriquet by American Quakers who bought land in the area in the early 1950’s to avoid the Korean War. Their descendants are still farming the hills below Monteverde today producing artisan cheeses and other dairy products. Between contributions from the Quakers, various scientists and the not-for-profit Tropical Science Center, Monteverde grew from an initial protected area of only 810 acres in 1972 to its current size today. Tensions that once existed between local farmers and others who wanted to exploit the resources of Monteverde have largely subsided as everyone now realizes that there is more money in sustainable tourism than there would be in a one off from cutting down the trees.
Tourist visitation to the town of Monteverde now tops out at over 250,000 per year, yet surprisingly only 70,000 visitors actually make it to the Cloud Forest Preserve, I presume spending their time at places like the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens which is our first stop in exploring the area.
Monteverde Butterfly Gardens
Canada has produced a lot of great comedians – John Candy, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Dan Ackroyd, Russell Peters and Samatha Bee to name a few, but I never thought I’d run into one of the best in Costa Rica. Bryna Belisle is from Quebec, but now resides in Monteverde where she is the co-owner of the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens. I’ve been to a number of butterfly gardens around the world, but none like the one Bryna runs. Before entering the screened in areas that contain the butterflies and other insects she puts on her own show with her ‘pets’.
They include this guy, her pet cockroach which she stuffed in her mouth and then let crawl out between her lips. Creepy? Kinda, but her routine is so hilarious that even the most squeamish get over it. She does have a more serious underlying purpose – understanding that insects are as important to the ecosystem as any other creatures and are not there just to be squashed by bratty kids who grow up to be psychos.
And who doesn’t love butterflies? This owl butterfly is widely found throughout the tropics and uses the camouflage of an owl’s eye to deter predators.
There are a lot of attractions vying for your attention in the Monteverde area and to be honest, if I were travelling on my own, I probably would not have stopped here, but I’m sure glad we did. Bryna should have her own show on Animal Planet.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve
Further up the mountain this was our next stop and the main reason I wanted to go to Monteverde. The hiking and birding opportunities are world class.
After paying the entry fee you get this trail map and a choice of guided tours or striking out on your own.
Our tour leader Andrés Fernandéz had arranged for a guided walk up to a waterfall and back with birding along the way. This is our guide, Roberto with his powerful spotting scope.
However, before we got underway there was quite a commotion down one of the paths where another party had spotted a quetzal bird high in the canopy. This caused everyone who’s never seen this rare bird to rush to the scene and create somewhat of a mad house. Fortunately our group had seen quetzals on the Panama portion of the trip so we could afford to quietly slip away and enjoy the call of the bell birds that is said to be the loudest in the avian world.
The trail ended at lovely Monteverde Falls where all in our small group posed for pictures at this jungle oasis.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve deserved more time than we could give it and I would highly recommend that anyone who does get to Monteverde set aside at least a day to hike as many of the trails as possible. Despite the seemingly large number of people around the trail heads, within minutes you can find yourself alone and you might even get a glimpse of something rare, like this howler monkey. I’m still kicking my ass for not taking my telephoto on this trip with which I could have got much clearer shots.
One thing you must do at Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve is go the verandah of the little gift shop just down the road where there are literally hundreds of hummingbirds buzzing around the many feeders. Despite being the smallest of birds they are very aggressive with one another and their aerial battles are entertaining to say the least as of course are their wonderful colours. Trying to get a good photo of a hummingbird is another matter as they act like they’ve been raised on espresso and can’t sit still for more than a second or two. I took at least a couple of dozen and this was the best I could do. It’s a male rufous tailed hummingbird.
Selvatura Adventure Park
Our final stop of the day was at Selvatura Adventure Park which offers a number of attractions including the one I was most interested in, the canopy walk featuring eight suspension bridges which allow one to get a close up of life in the jungle canopy. I had been on one of these years before in Kakum, Ghana, but there the bridges were made from rope and tended to swing quite a bit. Not for the faint of heart or those with acrophobia, although it didn’t bother this guy.
The bridges at Selvatura are quite a bit more solid and shouldn’t bother most people. This is the longest of the eight.
Life is surprisingly quiet high up in the trees with only the whistling of the wind in the late afternoon. You can appreciate the massive size of tree ferns that put their fronds out 80 feet in the air like something right out of Jurassic Park.
Here’s a video of what’s it’s like up there where sloths and the monkeys do roam. Technically it’s not taken in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, but it is in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
Returning to earth, I chased away a band of naughty coatis that are to Costa Rican garbage cans what raccoons are to Canadian ones, except, if anything, they are even more brazen.
Alison and another tour member were far, far behind so I had a chance to resume my Imperial vs. Pilsen investigations before catching a ride back to the lodge.
Next stop, Tortuguero which could not be more different from Monteverde than seemingly possible in such a small country. Hope you’ll join us.