The last 18 miles of the road leading to the Monteverde is full of ruts and potholes by design, and takes over an hour and a half to bump your way in. The locals like it that way, and they choose not to fix it because then it would be a little too easy then for tourists to visit.
That may not sound all that hospitable, but it illustrates the emphasis Costa Ricans place on conservation. And the cloud forest, which I visited prior to Covid as part of an Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Costa Rica, is indeed an ecological marvel worth saving –- and seeing. But you have to really want to go there!
So what exactly is a cloud forest? It's a rare kind of moist, high-altitude rain forest characterized by fog and low-lying cloud cover where plants actually grow on top of trees. The technical explanation is that “the combination of altitude, humidity and irregular topography creates a unique environmental situation where the clouds remain low for most of the year, preventing the breakthrough of sunshine, locking in moisture, and creating an atmosphere where plant activity is so high that they actually cover the trees.” The non-technical explanation? Lots of clouds and rain result in every inch of the trees from bark to branch to be covered by things green and growing. These epiphytes, as plants which grow on trees are called (pictured below), cover every branch and limb, creating a dense wonderland of greenery. Fifty percent of all the vegetation in the cloud forest lives on the tops of trees.
Now, I’ve been in many a rain forest before, but never one so overwhelmingly green and lush, a blanket of emerald and jade and olive and lime, unrelenting and opaque. There are no empty branches, tree trunks or ground area so that the immersion in this sea of green is utterly complete. Each branch, bush, leaf is so unique in its color, design, texture, size, shape and sheen as to more resemble an art form than a mere fragment of foliage, in which Ellen Kaiden of Sarasota, Florida, the artist in our group, claimed to detect different emotions. “I was overwhelmed by the life force of the Costa Rican cloud forest. We were privileged guests in an alternative universe of the canopy. It was pure magic,” she noted.
Although our guide Andrés Herrera González spent three hours discussing the ecological and biological implications of every plant, I was perfectly content to just let myself be absorbed into the visual immensity of my green-laden surroundings.
Equally important to the expansive plant life is the multiplicity of animal life living among it. This enormously rich ecosystem supports 7 percent of the world’s plant and animal diversity in only 0.1 percent of the Earth’s surface. It’s an amazing place but was only one of several rain and tropical forests, as well as beaches, villages and farms, we visited as part of OAT’s 12-day Costa Rican adventure.
And as important as the actual itinerary may be, what sets OAT apart from many other tour companies is its emphasis on learning and discovery, a part of the OAT philosophy that the company takes very seriously. And with a guide like Andrés, a botanist with two master’s degrees in ecotourism and sustainability, it was hard not to be learning all the time. Woven into the formal activities are opportunities to learn about the people, explore local markets and towns and participate in cultural exchanges.
The village of Monte Verde is just one of the settlements up here, which include Cerro Plano, Los Llanos, and the largest, Santa Elena (above), where most of the lodgings, restaurants, shops, and galleries are located. And scattered throughout are a wide variety of things to do such as a visit a creamery/cheesemaker; ziplines; horseback riding; and attractions devoted to butterflies, reptiles, bats, and orchids.
But what can happen unexpectedly during that itinerary is equally interesting. The rides from place to place can be long but not boring. Perhaps you stop for lunch and get as dessert an unexpected exhibition of resident show horses belonging to the owner of the restaurant (below). A bathroom break brings a surprise demonstration of sugar cane extraction in an old mill; the fact that they mix the resulting samples with Costa Rican-distilled rum made the experience all the more special.
Add to that a photo op of a volcano at which our eagle-eyed leader spotted a sloth in a nearby tree or a random opportunity to milk a cow at a local farm, and the other stops not included on the itinerary compete with those which are for excitement. And the time actually in the bus is consumed with lectures on history, geology, culture, political corruption and other controversial topics all surrounding the Costa Rican experience.
Meanwhile, back at the cloud forest, there was quite a bit of local color to break up the monotony of greenness. Time was spent seeking out the unusual resplendant quetzal (below), a large bird of beautiful bright colors that is as elusive in Costa Rica as the kiwi is in New Zealand. Traversing a series of hanging bridges (above) provides a bird's-eye view of the forest very different than that from the ground. Zip-lining across the tops of multiple trees ensures an experience in which the adrenaline rush clearly topped environmental appreciation -– at least for the moment, and a visit to a hummingbird sanctuary where hundreds of the colorful little critters flapped their little wings with impossible-to-measure speed entranced tourists who eagerly tried to capture them on their cameras and cameraphones.
The story of Monteverde dates back to 1951, when a group of U.S. Quakers settled the area, and a meeting with Martha Campbell, the daughter of one of those settlers, provided some historical context. Back in those days there was no plumbing, no electricity, no phone service, and very few people. Though the Quaker community survived by cattle ranching initially, eventually they discovered that a far greater good – as well as making more money - could be accomplished through conservation and the tourism trade that followed.
Still, Campbell bemoans what she sees as the too-large influx of tourists of the past two decades: “I wish there would be less development. Sure there are more job opportunities, but also more cars, maybe more crime, and I just miss the simple life we used to have.” I would hazard a guess that the road leading to the Monteverde isn’t going to be fixed anytime soon.
OAT trips are expected to resume this summer. But whether you come with them, another tour operator, or on your own, don't miss experiencing this extraordinary eco/adventure experience. For more on the area and what it has to offer, check out MonteverdeInfo.com.
All photos by Victor Block unless otherwise noted.