It was the quaker movement of the 1950’s that put Santa Elena and Monteverde on the map. These migrants from the US were escaping being drafted in the Vietnam war and skipped to the beautiful mountains of Costa Rica. Since then, the towns have grown to a full blown tourist destination with backpackers rubbing shoulders with families and high end travellers.
The two main attractions in this region are the amazing cloud forests and the adventure activities. We came for both and Steve jumped right into the adventure part, taking one of the many zipline experiences on offer.
This experience has you zooming over the canopy of the cloud forest and then across a valley. It’s a surreal experience being so close to the trees and then having them drop away to see the valley floor hundreds of metres below you. The day also included a stomach churning Tarzan swing and a 1 km Superman style zipline back across the valley.
When the adrenaline wore off, it was back to nature for both of us. While Steve was experiencing Tarzan lifestyle, Sandra found out about a smaller reserve that allowed a better chance of seeing animals and with a guide it doubled our chances. We were in good hands as our guide Jorge had us looking at brown-hooded parrots and spider monkeys before the tour even began.
Shortly into the tour, we located a small tree viper sleeping off its meal. The colours and detail of its skin were amazing and we were impressed 5 minutes into the tour. Our journey wound through the secondary forest and along a stream before climbing to a mirador.
Along the way Jorge provided us with his knowledge on all the local flora, pointing out orchids, endemic plants and some interesting species. Butterflies were always present as were the chirps of birds.
A quatsi came out of the trees as a small rodent ran across the trail. As they departed, a pygmy possum sniffed around looking for any left overs. At the mirador, high in the tree, a rare toucan hopped from branch to branch getting his fill of fruits. With Jorge’s long range binoculars, we had a great view of this amazing bird.
There is one bird that most people try to spot when they come to this region: the quetzal. We were lucky to see one in a tree, but this one was a female who looked to be growing new feathers. While she had some nice feathers, it is the male who wears a gorgeous tail with rich greens and deep reds.
In the park there was a small feeder station where about 10 different species of hummingbirds hummed around. They floated through the air like fairies, zipping from one station to another and pushing each other out of the way. To get so close to these special birds was really impressive.
We were so impressed with Jorge that we took one of his night tours. In a small group, we first watched an amazing sunset through a gap in the menacing clouds before taking our flashlights and heading into the night.
Our search was for the nocturnal animals and it wasn’t long before we located some small frogs. As bats flitted overhead, we continued to scan the trees for anything large but it was the smaller creatures that gave us the most entertainment.
A small salamander slowly slithered back into its hole, while glass winged butterflies flew around us. Up high, Jorge spotted a viper stretching across branches in search of a meal and not much later, a small rodent bolted across the high tree tops to safer ground.
While we did not locate any larger mammals, we did locate plenty of insects and we had a great night listening, smelling and learning about the forest.
We tried to use this new found knowledge the next morning as we hiked the Santa Elena Forest Reserve on our own.
Being there early paid off as we had the trail to ourselves and searched hard for all types of animals, but without a guide we struggled to locate the common creatures. Birds were heard more than seen and the cacophony of insects proved the forest was very much alive.
After an hour of sneaking through the forest, we arrived to a mirador that provided a fantastic view of Arenal Volcano and the clouds parted long enough for us to enjoy the view with breakfast. The rest of the hike was much the same. We took our time enjoying the flora and its myriad of layers and enjoyed the fauna when we located it.
As we rounded one of the last corners, a guide was showing his customers a couple of large sloths hanging in the canopy. They were so well camouflaged, we believed we had passed many large, hairy lumps of hair during our walk. Still, it was a great way to end our 4 hours walk in the cloud forest and ultimately end our trip in Latin America.
From Monteverde it was a bit of a blur with a bus to the capital, a few hours sleep before 4 planes from Costa Rica to Miami, Philadelphia, Madrid and finally Lyon!
We were nearing the end of our tour du monde and it was a bittersweet time: We were sad to be leaving the nature, people and experiences, the cultures and environments BUT, happy we would not have to search for our next hotel, negotiate our next transport or find a cheap place for our next meal.
Most of all, we are looking forward to come back home and to not have to live out of our backpacks for the next month! Vive la France.