Monteverde Cloud Forest – Straddling the Divide
Our first evening in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica, was spent looking down at the clouds below us and listening to howler monkeys and birds say their good nights. After dark it was so quiet, some of our traveling companions resorted to white noise apps on their phones to sleep. The silence was profound, the kind where you can hear your heartbeat.
Monteverde (“green mountain”) was named by the original conservationists in the area, a group of Quaker families from the Southern United States who bought land in the 1950’s. The warm humid trade winds from the Caribbean move up the eastern side of the Continental Divide to this 4,662-foot elevation where the cooling causes them to condense into clouds that shroud the valleys and forests. Soil is rich and rain is plentiful.
The original families set aside some of their land to be kept natural and wild and recently donated it to the local reserve. The best way to see the cloud forest is from above, where sky bridges like this 774-foot-long span allow you a bird’s eye view. If that takes too long to meander, enjoy an adrenaline-charged series of zip lines working down the mountain. Hikes below have you looking up into forest so dense, the sun is barely visible.
Orchids are one of the epiphytes that thrive in the Cloud Forest. Getting water and nutrients from the moist air as they cling to trunks and vines, they represent almost 30% of the flora. Of the more than 500 species of orchids that can be seen here, 34 are only found in this Cloud Forest.
The forest also supports six species of large jungle cat, over 1200 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, butterflies, hummingbirds, and countless other birds and mammals. Bring a camera or binoculars and your patience/time to see all the Cloud Forest offers. Wander the trails on your own with your eyes on the sky or the ground, or hire a trained guide with a spotting scope to help you find illusive residents.
Most of the tours in the area are hikes (in the air and on the ground), canopy bridges, horseback rides, zip lines, and coffee farms. Monteverde’s big neighbor Santa Elena is home to the first zip line in Costa Rica and you can find plenty of ecoadventure choices between the two cities. Horseback companies welcome beginners, so don’t fret if you are not an expert.
If you are interested in learning more about the early primary agricultural products of Costa Rica, take one of the local coffee, sugar cane and chocolate tours to learn about how these products are grown, harvested and prepared for market. If you have the opportunity to meet and talk with any of the Quakers, particularly the few founding family members, take it; the story of the history and development of the area is not to be missed.
Things You Need to Know
Major portions of the road to Santa Elena and Monteverde are not paved, it’s said to restrict the number of visitors. It helps to have a rental car with 4-wheel-drive clearance or better yet, someone else in charge. While Monteverde can be done as a day trip from San Jose, it takes hours to get there. It’s better to plan at least a one night stay.
Like most places in the world, you will see less congestion in shoulder season (May to November). May and June have some rain, lower costs and lighter crowds. Peak rain is normally September to November.
Bring a flashlight or headlamp. The nights are very dark when there is no street lighting, which is the norm. Local sodas (family diners) provide good food options for light snackers or heavy eaters. Hotels are known for their talented cooks, great menus and tasty ingredients.
A Fun Place to Stay
The El Establo Mountain Hotel used to be a cattle ranch. When your driver chugs up the mountainside in their complimentary minivans, you appreciate how rugged and challenging that work must have been, once upon a time. Enjoy the pool or hang out by the pond next to the restaurant balcony, the latter situated higher up with views of both the clouds below and flowers galore.
A tip: Ask for a room on level 5. It’s next to the restaurant (walk the road from the level 5 drop-off area that looks like it continues uphill to take a quick shortcut), has terrific Pacific and sunset views, and if you’re lucky, a coati will wander by as it forages. Lunch and dinner are served at this restaurant; the breakfast buffet is down at the street level dining hall next to Reception.
The rooms here are exquisite, with large super-modern bathrooms and rocking chairs that invite you to pause and reflect on nothing at all as you watch the clouds roll by below you. A large desk area and amenities like a minifridge make it easy to imagine staying for a week – or longer.
Monteverde Cloud Forest is located in northern Costa Rica, on the western side of the Cordillera de Tilarin (Tilaran Mountain Range). While distances from San Jose are not far as the green parrot flies, the roads don’t follow the same straight paths as they wind around geographic obstacles and protected land. Allow two days and one night to travel to and from the region and enjoy minimal tours and visits. Better yet, stay longer to linger and experience all this rich region has to offer.