Monteverde (Santa Elena) (18 to 21 November 2019)

Arenal to Monteverde 

As mentioned in our previous post, there are quite a few outdoor activities operators in La Fortuna.  They all offer much the same things – hiking in the old lava flows/rainforest, rafting, bird watching and the jeep-boat-jeep transfer to Monteverde.

Only one offers a cross-country hike from Arenal to Monteverde.  Maybe that should have been a clue.

Bearing in mind that it’s the end of the wet season, we asked about the track.  Is it boot sucking mud?  “No.  It’s walking on muddy paths, not sinking into mud”.  And the river crossing?  “Easy.  Mid calf depth and not fast flowing”.  We signed up.

When we arrived at the meeting point next day, the guide was wearing knee high Wellington boots, not hiking shoes.  Maybe that was a second clue.

There were the two of us plus one other walker, the guide and a trainee guide.

We were driven by jeep to the start point and headed off.  Before long, we crossed the first stream.  Ankle deep.  No problems.

We walked on.  We reached the river and the guide looked doubtful.  Only at this point did he confess he had not walked this track in four months.  He was coy but our impression was no one else had either.  The river wasn’t wide but it looked deep and, more importantly, was flowing very fast.

The guide took off his Wellingtons and waded in.  Not even half way across he was over waist deep.  Then the current knocked him off his feet and he had to swim like crazy against it to get to the other side.

Long story short, with the guide and trainee holding either end of a rope across the river, the three of us managed to get across.  In Julie’s case, this was pulling herself hand over hand after the current swept her off her feet.  The guys managed to stay upright but it made no difference as the water was so deep in the middle, everyone was completely soaked through.

We crossed another small stream, changed from our water shoes into our nice, dry hiking shoes and set off.  We were wet but our boots were dry.  Excellent.  But they didn’t stay dry for long.  What was that about “walking on mud” not “sinking into mud”?  Before long we were ankle deep crossing a mud mire.

Then we started the uphill climb.  Up and up through the rain forest.

For about three hours we climbed almost continuously.  The going up was slippery but fine.  But every time we reached a crest and had to drop down again, the path was a perilous mudslick or boot sucking porridge, depending on whether the mud was solid or soft.

But the weather held and the exertion kept us warm despite being wet.  There were toucans above and puma tracks in the mud.  The rainforest was spectacular.  There were flowering orchids high in the trees.

Our guide was happy to clown around.

After about three hours, the environment suddenly changed.  We had reached the cloud forest.

Walking through the misty forest was lovely but the time was marching on.  The light was fading and we  tried to get an answer on how much further to the farm house, but the guide was being delphic.

Our walking companion commented that the same guiding company had almost killed him and a boat full of others on a white water rafting trip the previous day which was “a lot more intense than they’d said it would be”.  We surrendered to fate and marched on.

Eventually we reached another peak and emerged into farmland.  The guide was now able to give a time estimate.  Looking at the light situation, it wasn’t good news.  But there was no possibility of hurrying.  The mud was getting deeper and the slopes steeper.

We knew we were close when we were greeted by the farmer’s three dogs.  Gorgeous dogs, eager for company, who leapt all over us.  Their muddy paws didn’t matter.  We were already covered in it.   We walked the last half hour in near darkness, trusting to luck not to trip on tree roots or slide in the mud.

We had a really nice evening with the dogs and the lovely farmer, who spoke no English but had a gentle, kindly manner and cooked us a hearty meal on a wood fireplace.

It rained solidly all night but in the morning the rain had stopped.  We didn’t need an alarm.  At the first opportunity the dogs came barreling in.

We farewelled our host and the dogs, and headed for Monteverde.

The walking was easy.  And we saw some interesting critters along the way, as well as more beautiful orchids.

And so eventually we reached the road and a van collected us for a bumpy ride into Santa Elena, one of the villages which are used by visitors to the Monteverde cloud forest.  We were still wet.  There’s no chance of boots or socks drying in this climate, but the walk was really worthwhile, and much more of an adventure than taking the bus!

We spent the next few days in Santa Elena, visiting the cloud forest and other nature based activities for which the area is justly famous.

Selvatura Park

This 1,200 acre reserve of protected cloud forest has some fantastic walking trails through dense, towering trees with lots of bromeliads and orchids.  Its permanently misty, giving it an other-worldly feel.

Our main reason for visiting was the Treetop Walkways Hanging Bridges.  Along a 2km trail there are  eight suspension bridges high up in the canopy.  The longest is 157 metres.  You get a fantastic experience of the high sections of the forest and views through the mist.

If you’ve ever wondered what a cloud forest looks like from above, you can see it here.  Some of the bridges are so high, you are literally looking down into the canopy.

For us, this park was all about the trees, rather than animals, but we have to mention the Zombie fungus.  It is like something out of sci-fi movie.

The fungus releases spores which land on or are inhaled by small insects, ants and beetles.  Once inside the animal’s body, the fungus forms a micro-network around it’s victim’s muscles and organs.  It doesn’t lodge in the brain but somehow sends signals to the victim’s brain compelling it to climb to the higher reaches of the trees where conditions enable the fungus to sprout.  It then compels the victim to climb back down.  And this is where it gets really icky.  As the victim is dying, it grasps onto a branch or twig and the fungus bursts out of the victim’s body, enabling it to release spores, and the cycle continues.

The inspiration for the Alien movies, perhaps?

Here is a beetle that met its fate this way.

The parks at Monteverde and Arenal both have zip lines, but we’ve done the longest zip line in the world, Copper Canyon in Mexico – 2.5km long, shooting over the second biggest canyon in the world, with a vertical drop of 450 metres.  And we are not sure the forest animals appreciate the noise of humans zinging through their habitat at speed, so we said no to that one.  The beauty of the forest and strange quirks like the zombie fungus are the best entertainment here!

Hummingbird Garden 

Out of 350 species of hummingbird identified worldwide, over 50 are found in Costa Rica, although only two are completely endemic to this country.

They are small, averaging just 7.5-13cm in length.  Hovering in mid air, they have a flap rate of 70 to 80 times per minute.  That’s more than one per second!  Their rapidly beating wings create a humming sound at a frequency audible to humans, hence their name.

The rapid flapping also makes them very fast – up to 54kph.  Plus they feed on the wing, swooping in, hovering for a few seconds to gulp nectar, then retreating.

The combination of all these factors means they are hard to spot in the forest and even harder to photograph there.  But luckily they aren’t too shy to emerge from the trees if they sense a good feed is on offer.

Hummingbirds feed on the nectar of very specific flowers, and are attracted by bright colours.  Selvatura has set out a garden with bright red feeders stocked with a sweet liquid mimicking the nectar loved by these sugar fiends, to draw them into view.

A couple of them sat still long enough for us to get a close look at their incredible irridescent colouring. 

But they are most fascinating to watch on the wing.  Their wings move so fast, they look like they are just hanging, suspended in mid air.  Sometimes so fast their wings are barely visible.  And so manoeuvrable.

Butterfly Garden 

There are more than 3,000 species of butterflies to be found in Costa Rica.  Butterflies endemic to Costa Rica account for 90% of all Central American butterfly species and 18% of the world’s species.

The Butterfly Garden attached to the Selvatura Park is one of the largest butterfly gardens in the Americas.  The structure of the enormous dome manipulates the temperature in a way which means more than 30 species from different altitudes and climate zones are able to thrive. 

The national butterfly of Costa Rica is the blue morpho.  Despite how they present to the human eye, the wings aren’t actually blue.  Rather, the top of its wings are covered in tiny reflective scales, and light passing through the scales is seen as a brilliant blue.  The science is similar to the way light shining through a clear glass prism can produce colours.

The under side of the wings shows the butterfly’s true colours, and couldn’t be more different.  Here’s open and shut on the same butterfly.

There were lots of others, some of which were happy to get close.

And an unexpected bonus up in the rafters – a scarlet macaw.  He is a rescue bird who can’t be released into the wild as he’s too dependent on human feeding and wouldn’t survive.  And although in the wild they will eat caterpillars, this one is too well fed by the humans, so all the residents are happy!

 Monteverde Orchid Garden  

You might have noticed a theme by now – Costa Rica has an amazing biodiversity.  And the orchids are no exception.  There’s about 20,000 species worldwide and 1,500 of them are native to Costa Rica.

They are found from sea level up to 3,500 metres but most are in the mid elevations, in wet rainforest and cloud forest.

There are commercial orchid gardens open for public visits in many places in Costa Rica.  The Monteverde Orchid Garden gets great reviews so we thought we better check it out – and get some pics for Julie’s mother who’s a dab hand at propagating them.

The garden has over 400 species of orchids, with about 150 species in flower at any give time.  The guide gave very interesting information about what characteristics define an ‘orchid’ and all sorts of fun facts about them.

They have the smallest orchid in the world – this tiny one, with a flower less than 1mm long (circled below as it’s so hard to spot).

There is even one that grows entirely underground, endemic to Western Australia.  It’s leafless and survives via a symbiotic relationship with a fungus.  It even blooms underground.  Of course, you can’t see it.  Because it’s under the ground.  Sounds like the emperor’s new clothes, but it’s not.

They have orchids from all around the world, but of course the emphasis is on local varieties.  Latin American orchids are generally smaller than the Asian varieties that most people know about because they are marketed worldwide.  Many are micro-orchids.  There’s an amazing diversity and it was a pleasant way to while away a couple of hours.

Being in the cloud forest region, Santa Elena is a damp environment.  Our water shoes smelt like they were rotting but somehow we got our hiking shoes and packs dry.  We were ready for some sunshine, so we headed south to Manuel Antonio and the promise of monkeys on the beach.

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1 Comment

  1. Glenice
    December 15, 2019 / 7:38 am

    Thanks Julie. Loved this blog . Must have been great seeing all the orchids, butterflies ,birds and the animal life.

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