Walking in the clouds

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Costa Rica  ,
Monday, May 10, 2004

We were very reluctant to leave the beautiful and tranquil spot by the lake, but after our five minute look had turned into four days we thought it was about time to move on. Once we were on our way we couldn't resist a quick stop at a roadside stand to pick up some fruit - the pineapple, mangoes, papaya and guava are some of the most luscious and tasty we have ever had. Our drive continued through the lush and green countryside, but only with occasional areas of dense rain forest. Even though Costa Rica is famous for its enlightened approach to environmental conservation - over 25% of the country is now protected as national parks and reserves - deforestation continues to be a problem and the 75% forest cover of the 1940s is now a distant memory. As we drove further up through the Cordillera de Tilarán the rain forest became more extensive and beckoned to be explored.

As we arrived in La Fortuna, a small town at the foot of Volcán Arenal, we were in for quite a shock as we realized that the whole town was dedicated solely to serving the tourism industry. Everywhere we looked were signs and billboards advertising canopy tours, whitewater rafting, birdwatching tours and every other "ecological" activity imaginable. And, as we were soon to discover, everything came with a price....a highly inflated price! Even the best spots for viewing the volcano came with a price tag (as the volcano was covered in cloud the entire time, we had no problem in declining) and a camping spot with no facilities commanded a princely sum. Every way we turned there were tourists (as you've probably realized by now there is a subtle distinction between tourists...and travellers like you and us!), and it felt as if we had arrived in Banff or Niagara Falls at the height of the season. After our peaceful respite of the last few days this was quite a jolt to our system. Luckily, after chatting to a friendly young man at an information office he offered us a quiet spot in his family's garden to camp for the night.

The next day we pressed on, leaving the cloud-shrouded volcano behind, and wound our way along the beautiful hillsides bordering Laguna de Arenal. Once again we felt as if we were driving along a byway in Devon, England, or maybe in the South Island of New Zealand. However, we were reminded that we were still very much on the tourist circuit by the profusion of cute tearooms, restaurants and gift shops along the way - again, with what we considered to be astronomical prices. Never mind, a sticky treat from the German Bakery in Nuevo Arenal, and a beautiful spot to camp at a park at the water's edge kept us in a good frame of mind for the night.

Did we mention that being up in the rain forest, naturally it....rains? And rain it did, generally throughout the night, as well as on and off during the day, interspersed with nice sunny spells. Gentle rains, and gusty, persistent winds. Further around the lake we discovered a wind farm with 30 or 40 huge turbines - from the look of the trees in the area it was obviously a suitable spot for exploiting this natural form of energy. As we headed on towards the Montverde and Santa Elena Reserves in the heart of the cloud forest, the road got rougher and more potholed and the light started to fade.
We had expected that the Monteverde community, established by a group of Quakers in the 1950s, would be a quaint village in a picturesque setting, but instead we were disappointed to find a rather haphazard collection of nondescript buildings alongside the muddy and rocky, potholed road. No camping facilities appeared to be available, and we spent the night in an overpriced but grim and very basic lodging.

The next morning revealed the magnificence of the surrounding cloud forest with extensive views across to the Pacific coast on the Golfo de Nicoya, but the town itself confirmed our first impression and seemed unimaginatively commercialized, rather messy and, worst of all.....full of gringos! Our response was to put on our hiking boots and rain jackets and head out into the forest. There we were rewarded with the true beauty of Monteverde, in the amazing plant diversity (apparently 10,000 species of plants have been identified, including over 1,000 orchids and almost 1,500 tree species)
- we didn't see them all, but it almost seemed like it! Seeing the green flash of the Emerald Toucanet, following a huge flittering Morpho Blue butterfly, or watching a Spotted-crested Treecreeper carefully listening before extracting insect larvae from beneath the bark as it examined a tree trunk from base to tip, made up for lack of finesse in town.

That evening we were fortunate to find that a beautifully located and inexpensive camping spot with all facilities was indeed available in the grounds of a small lodge run by a German family, and so we able to happily set up our base for a few more days of exploring the surrounding area.
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