Driving to Monteverde

We have flown into Liberia on our last couple of trips. I like the San Jose airport more.  It is more modern and full service, and I always enjoy visiting with our San Jose hotel friends.

But the drive to Monteverde from Liberia is an hour shorter.  While American Airlines is absolutely my least favorite carrier, they have a flight to Liberia that goes through Dallas.   This allows us to avoid the headaches of the Miami airport.

We drove up the road through Las Juntas. This is the first time we have gone this way, and it is the best road that we have found yet. There is a very good paved road from the Pan American highway that leads into Los Juntas. You have to navigate a little in town, but if you can find the statue of several Campesinos, you are on the right track. Turn here, and you are on the road to Santa Elena. There is good paved road leading out of town, and only the last twenty kilometers (twelve miles) are unpaved. Even then, this road is in very good condition and is generally not as scary as the other road up from the Pan Am. It probably is not worth the extra drive from San Jose. But if you are coming from Liberia, this is by far the best choice.

Two Dozen Things to do in Monteverde

I spend a lot of time reading and sometimes responding to forum posts in the different travel web sites.  I know that a lot of the folks there enjoy the beaches and the volcanoes of Costa Rica.

But I also notice that many people have said that there is not a lot to do in Monteverde. My guess is that this is because the activities here are not as “in your face” as they are in other parts of the country, or on an organized tour.

I always bristle a little when I read this. As a (very) part time Monteverde resident, I have to disagree. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder.monteverde reserve

So here is my list of two dozen things to do in Monteverde:

  • Canopy (zipline) tours. Invented here, and still the best in CR. Maybe the world.  Don’t miss the Tarzan swing.
  • Hanging bridges. Ditto.
  • The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. World famous, for good reason.
  • Check out any of the other reserves. The different altitudes create different ecosystems. You will be amazed at the bio diversity up here.
  • Check out the numerous art galleries
  • Hike to the San Luis Waterfall
  • Take a horseback tour through the countryside around Canitas.
  • Tour the Rainaro (Frog zoo)
  • Tour the Serpentarium (Reptile zoo)
  • Tour the Insectarium (Insect zoo)
  • Take the “Trepiche” tour. A local family farm. They take you from the harvest to the farm’s own production of coffee and sugar. Sweet family, and much more interesting than I expected!
  • Check out the Bat Exhibit (with flight cage), more than you ever wanted to know about bats. But fascinating.
  • After you visit the bats, go upstairs to the little restaurant that makes their own chocolate. Great food here too, Argentine owned.
  • Tour the cheese factory, then enjoy the best milkshake you have ever had.
  • Visit the Orchid Garden just outside Santa Elena.  The self taught horticulturist here has created an amazing garden, and even discovered a previously unknown species.  We were amazed by the tiny orchids that you need a jeweler’s loupe to see.  A perfectly formed orchid in miniature.
  • Take a guided night tour into the forest
  • Have a coffee and great fresh pastry at Stella’s bakery
  • After your visit to Stella’s, walk across the street to shop for handicrafts made by local women at the CASEM woman’s arts cooperative.  You can also buy local coffee from the roaster next door.
  • Hear live music at Moon Shiva. Jazz, folk, Latin, etc. Always entertaining.
  • Check out the Saturday farmer’s market. Definitely some local color. Sometimes there is music, and there is always local food to eat on site. Good Ceviche!
  • Ride the little tram through the woods
  • Go to the hummingbird gallery. Great photo ops of dozens of hummingbirds.
  • Eat at any of the “International” restaurants. We are getting some interesting food up here!

Ziplining: a safe and thrilling adventure!

monteverde-canopy-tourThe zipline tours through the forest canopy originated as a commercial venture in Monteverde.  There is some dispute about  how they were invented and by whom.  One    of the local businesses even has a copyright on the term “canopy tour”, which has become the catch all    term that many use to describe this adventuresome activity.   I won’t get involved in this argument, but I will tell you that this is one of the most fun things you can do during your adventure in Costa Rica.  They are scattered all over the country.  But I feel that the best ones can still be found around Monteverde.  There are some slight variations on the mechanics.  But all are basically long cables stretching from one hilltop to another.  The participant (that would be you) wears a harness, that was borrowed from rock climbing gear.  There is a pulley mechanism that fits over the cable, and this attaches to your harness.  You stand on a platform, lift your legs, and let gravity take over.

Soon you are flying through the trees, and over valleys, sometimes several hundred feet up.  You can get moving at a  pretty good clip too.  There are guides with you constantly, to assure your safety.  They help you get your gear on, and hook you to the cables.  They are there to stop you at the end of each run.  Sometimes, the platform is high up in a tree or on a tower.  In these cases, you are attached to a safety line before you are released from the main cable.  The pulley system itself has some redundant safety lines too.  So this activity is a lot safer than it first appears.

It is not for the faint of heart, or those with a fear of heights!  But it is exhilarating and lots of fun.  The typical tour will have at least ten platforms, sometimes more.  As each new tour opens, it brings improvements.  So the established tours scramble to keep up.  I have heard of a Central Valley tour that offers a long “superman” style cable.  Here, you lay straight out and face down.  The cable is above, so you fly like Superman.  Sounds great.  At least one Monteverde operator has added a “Tarzan swing”  as a side attraction.  They hook you up to a swinging bungie cable.  You free fall about ten feet, and then take a long lazy swing out over a little gully.  It is scarier than it sounds!  But still fun.

The zipline tours are meant for all ages, as they really are not that strenuous.  Obviously, the littlest kids are not going to be allowed.  But I have seen kids as young as five years old on the tour.  They usually ride double with a guide.  The cables are very strong.  A guide once told me that they could support a car.  But some do have weight limits, that will restrict the largest folks.  So if you think that this may be an issue for you, it is best to check ahead of time.

Two of the Monteverde tours also offer bridges and walkways through the cloud forest canopy.  This is a great place to walk with a guide or by yourself to see what you can spot in the treetops.  It is also an option for the less adventurous to enjoy while the family daredevils are on the cables.  One tour operator has expanded into a full blown nature park with butterfly and hummingbird gardens, insect exhibits, a reptile and amphibian exhibit, and a full restaurant.  You can enjoy a whole day here, and never leave the grounds.

One last thing.  Some of the tours offer this up as a nature experience.  Other than the pretty woods, this is usually not the case.  The hooting and yelling tourists tend to drive the animals away.  But let’s be honest.  You will be standing on a platform and attached to a cable, preparing to speed high over the treetops to a destination that you may not even be able to see.  Are you really going to be thinking about birds and flowers?

Here kitty, kitty, kitty….

Okay.  I will admit it.  My wife and I are into cats.  Big ones or little ones, it doesn’t matter.  We have four in our house, and one in my office.  We have a small colony of ferals that we feed in the yard.  I have a cat in my lap as I write this.  We haven’t quite reached the level of “crazy cat people” yet.  But that is a line that we are well aware of, and we try our best not to step over to the other side.

We like dogs too, but we don’t own any.  We have always had fun with our neighbor’s dog in Monteverde.  She is a bouncy golden short hair lab.  She comes to visit, and hang out in our kitchen.  When Melissa is cooking, “Lady” will beg for a taste.  Or she will keep me company while I handle minor repairs outside.  She has always been part of our Monteverde experience.  Just a big old sweet dog.

During one trip, we didn’t see Lady at all.  We heard her barking a couple of times, but she never stopped by.  One night, we were coming in from dinner with friends.  We have some small lights along the walkway from the driveway.  When we flipped them on, we saw Lady lying in the shadows near the forest.  Melissa started to talk softly to her, and walked over to give her a little scratch.  She got about fifteen feet away when Lady raised her head and looked at her.  Then she got up, and walked into the woods.

Melissa called to her, and then came back to where I was standing.  She was puzzled as to why Lady was being so standoffish.  After all, she was very friendly and usually glad to see us.  But we also noticed something.  Lady didn’t “bounce” away like a Lab.  She slunk away.  Like a big cat.  A really big cat.  I felt a chill, and we hurried inside.

Our friend Holger stopped by for coffee the next morning.  He is also our sometime carpenter and a guide in one of the local reserves.  We told him our story, and together we walked over to the area of the yard where “Lady” had been.  Puma tracks were everywhere.  Holger had no doubt at all.  We went down to the road, and found more prints high in the soft earthen berm where it had crossed over.  Yep.  My bride had tried to pet a mountain lion!

This is a very rare sighting in Monteverde.  The woods are dense enough to support some other big cats.  One night, we heard the sound of a large “something” that sounded like a child screaming in pain.  Friends said that this was probably a large cat.  We didn’t see it.  To be honest, we didn’t want to look for it.  It was a little spooky!  We have also encountered a Jaguarundi on the bridges at Selvatura.  This is a much smaller, kinda ugly cat that has an almost weasel like look.

But we had never seen something this big.  A large predator like this needs a lot of territory.  Over the last few years, the local conservation groups have been buying up land to protect existing “biological corridors” and create new ones.  They do this so that animals can move around, and keep the gene pools diverse.  If they are confined to a small area, in-breeding will eventually doom an isolated population.  Holger speculated that our visitor might have been a young male passing through, looking for love.  There had been a strong cat urine odor outside the evening before.  I had just assumed it was a local tom marking his territory.  Now, I am not so sure.

We visited our neighbors.  We wanted to let them know what we had seen, and to make sure they kept Lady in for a day or two.  They were understandably a little skeptical.  Their daughter said that she wished she could have seen it.  She had never seen a big wild cat before.  We were very glad that our friend Holger stopped by, and was able to verify our sighting.  We were not just dumb gringos mistaking something else for a big cat.  This was the real deal.  And now Melissa has a great story to tell.  The night she tried to pet the lion!

I think she is taking this whole cat thing to the extreme.

Monteverde restaurants

On a recent visit to Monteverde, we spent our last evening in Monteverde at Johnny’s Pizza.  This is one of our favorite spots, though the name is a little misleading. Sure, I have had some good pizzas there, and my wife tells me that they have the best vegetarian pizza that she has ever eaten. But they make some other very interesting dishes as well.

For starters, we shared a huge stuffed tomato with red sauce for an appetizer. I know that doesn’t sound that interesting, but you will just have to trust me on this. They also do a baked mushroom au gratin appetizer that is really good too. My favorite entree is the baked penne pasta. They have a wood fired oven. The pasta and sauce is baked in a metal bowl, the top is smothered with cheese that melts into the dish. It is already good, but the secret here is that if you ask, they will let you add some pizza ingredients. So I usually add fresh tomatoes, olives, some kind of meat, etc. Beats the heck out of rice and beans! 

We also found something totally unexpected for this area. There is a new restaurant in downtown Santa Elena, the small town that is the home to most of the local businesses in the Monteverde area.  “Trio” shares the same building with the supermarket. You have to look a little to find it. It is at the end of the parking lot, and not where you would expect an upscale restaurant to be. It was my wife’s birthday, and Susanna (the owner of Arco Iris Lodge) had made a passing reference to a delicious passion fruit mojito. It intrigued us, so we thought we would check it out. 

We walked in and were a little confused. This place looked like something you would find in a modern European city. Very urban and hip. Gray walls and lots of metal or black accents. There were free form lamps, and hardwood floors. The wait staff was wearing the obligatory black, and fusion jazz played softly. Not at all what I thought I would find in our little Quaker / Tico / farm town! 

But we figured we would take a shot. After all, there were passion fruit mojitos and we were not going to be denied! The food was actually very good, and they had some interesting twists on the usual fare. One was hamburgers with figs and sun dried tomatoes and some interesting toppings that escape me now. I love ceviche, and theirs was made with the usual sea bass, peppers, lime juice, and so on. But they included coconut milk, and some other surprises that really made it sing. They also offered a “tower” of tomato, avocado, and palmito. Everything was well presented. The prices were high by Costa Rica standards, but much cheaper than you would pay for similar fare in a similar setting in the US. 

While the appearance of this place was much hipper than I will ever be, in the end it was still a little slice of Costa Rica. Ticos and Ticas can’t hide behind a facade of sophistication for long. They will never be disinterested urbanites, no matter how trendy the setting. When the waitress heard that it was my bride’s birthday, she was excited and as sweet as could be. After dinner, she surprised us with a dessert and candles. The bartender was friendly and accommodating. He remembered us, and we were warmly welcomed when we stopped by a couple of days later for lunch. And yes, the mojitos were excellent!

The Quakers of Monteverde

In the 1948, four young Quaker men in Fairhope, Alabama declined to register for the draft. This was shortly after WWII, and feelings of national patriotism were running high.  To stand up for their beliefs at this particular point in time was an extremely courageous decision. 

The young men were sentenced to a short prison term, of which they served four months (one young man served a little longer).  Upon their release, the young men returned to Fairhope.  Along with their families and other members of their meeting, they began to discuss the possibility of leaving the United States and make the move to a less militarized country.  They considered several Central American countries, before eliminating them for various reasons. 

Costa Rica turned out to be the perfect choice.  The government was stable (the oldest democracy in Central America), the economy seemed sound, and the country had recently abolished its military.  In October 1950, a group left Fairhope to travel overland for the arduous journey to Costa Rica.  Over the next year or so, a total of 48 Fairhope Quakers arrived in Costa Rica.  More joined the group in Costa Rica later. 

Several locations were considered around the country, before they hit upon this mountaintop.  The group was able to purchase 3400 acres, and the community was established in mid 1951.  When you think about it, this was really an amazing undertaking.  Some may even say foolhardy.  Many of these people were not farmers back in the US.  There was no electricity, no telephones, no hospital, nor a school.  Plus, if you think the road up the mountain is bad now, can you imagine what it was like a half century ago?!  But they had a strong community and an even stronger will.  Eventually, the community thrived and became what you see today. 

Another interesting development from the Quaker influence here is the Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve.  The Quaker holdings at the very top of the mountain were originally set aside to preserve the watershed for the farms below.  This also preserved the delicate ecosystem that is a tropical cloud forest.  In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the area was discovered by biologists.  Eventually, the Cloud Forest Reserve was established.  This also marked the beginning of tourism in Monteverde.   Tourism is an important source of income for the community today. 

This is an extremely brief history of the Quakers in Monteverde.  If you should be fortunate enough to visit, look into picking up a copy of the “Monteverde Jubilee Family Album”.  This was published in 2001 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the community.  Drawn from old letters and personal recollections, this is the most comprehensive record of the history of this area.  Even if you don’t know a soul here, it still makes fascinating reading.  Except for the occasional mention of generators and jeeps, it reads like something from the homestead days of the US.  The later chapters refer to much more recent developments in the area, including local conservation efforts, and educational opportunities. 

Look for the light green soft bound book at the Reserve gift shop or in the book store in Santa Elena.