Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 6: Hiking Monteverde's Forests

Destination: Monteverde

After a generous helping of a typical rice-and-beans breakfast, Vincent and I decided to walk to the Ecological Sanctuary, just a mile from our hotel. It was a beautiful day, if a bit chilly, and the walk promised to be pleasant.

Rambling past an ice cream parlor, a Latin fusion restaurant and a recommended steak house, we moved onto an even bumpier dirt road. The street dead-ended at the reserve, and there was very little traffic to disturb our communion with nature. Tall pine trees rose up around us, interspersed with oaks and tropical hardwoods. The sun shone strong against the blue sky, and I felt deep satisfaction creep through my body.

At the entrance to the Ecological Sanctuary, a slow-moving aerial tram crawled along the canopy top. Watching two wildlife watchers drift by above us, we slowly made our way into the private reserve. Armed with a color-coded trail map, Vincent and I reviewed our options: waterfalls, lookout points, picnic areas and myriad animals awaited.

Opting for the blue-coded waterfall trail, we trudged through secondary forest. The sanctuary was once a farm, but today, four million trees per year are planted in an effort to reforest. Their success was evident: birdsong danced through the air, and we soon turned down a shade-covered path onto steep stairs leading to the waterfall. Moss covered the stone steps, and I clung to the railing to steady myself -- when in the forest, I loose my footing almost more than I keep it.

The natural stairwell glittered with emerald epiphytes, and we could hear the cascading water tumbling in the distance. The air changed to cool and humid, and I knew that our downhill walk was almost over. Suddenly, a sliver of cold, crashing water emerged before our eyes; we had reached the sanctuary's second largest waterfall.

The cold mountain water streamed twenty feet down two huge boulders, and the powerful sound of falling water hitting the stream below thundered in my ears. Pulling out his camera, Vincent began to shoot photos of the beautiful waterfall. As we began to climb back up the stone stairs, my legs ached with exertion: the almost-vertical, 300-foot ascent was no easy task, especially when combined with moss-covered stone.

As soon as we had finished our ascent, a sign indicated that we should descend again to a second waterfall. We saw a huge cascade rushing hundreds of feet below, and I secretly hoped that we weren't headed so far down. Soon, I realized that we were not: a small waterfall rushed in levels, each only a foot or two high. Climbing out onto the rocks to get a better view, the inevitable moment arrived: I slipped.

Scrambling not to lose my footing, I hit the slippery stones with a crash. Nothing hurt, but I started to slide into the small creek at my feet. Grabbing on to a nearby root, I stopped my fall and struggled to my feet. I grinned at Vincent, who showed me how to walk on slippery terrain: plant one foot firmly before moving the next. I committed this strategy to memory, determined to make it a habit.

Turning around to climb back up to the mountain pathways, I carefully placed my feet into secure footholds. We both made it without falling, and when we reached the top of the hill, I had already fully recovered from my fall. Walking through the tree-lined paths, we soon arrived at the Nicoya Gulf lookout.

Again, the Pacific Ocean looked almost close enough to touch, framed beautifully by the expansive valley. I sat and stared in awe -- it was truly an incredible and inspiring panorama -- before we moved on to the next lookout point. Just a 15-minute walk away, we weaved through the trees and along the path, eyes wide open for wildlife.

At the hawk overlook, we didn't see any swooping birds of prey, but the green valley was again a wonderful sight. Perched high on the cliff side, I felt as if I were on top of the world. Cows in the valley below looked smaller than a pencil eraser, and trees dotted the ground like swipes from a paintbrush. We sat and observed for awhile, drinking in the amazing sights -- this was the last lookout point on our walk, and we wanted to appreciate nature's beauty.

As we trudged back toward the sanctuary's base station, Vincent spotted a white-faced monkey in the branches above. Soon, the small capuchins were all around us, eating and frolicking in the trees. I laughed as a medium-sized female lowered herself by her tail, dangling only seven feet in front of me, to peel tasty bugs off of a dying leaf. For ten minutes, we watched and called to the primates before they had eaten their fill and left for greener pastures.

Walking back to our hotel, Vincent and I spotted a small restaurant. It was after one, and we were starving, so we stopped by for a warm, filling lunch. Stomachs full, we returned to the hotel for a bit of rest and relaxation before the Children's Eternal Forest night walk, scheduled for 5:30 that evening.

The Children's Eternal Forest is a private reserve that was founded by Swiss school children. After hearing of efforts to save the Costa Rican rain forest, they collected money to purchase a small tract of land near Santa Elena. Today, the reserve covers more than 54,000 acres -- 90% Atlantic and 10% Pacific -- and belongs to every child in the world.

Almost before our night walk had begun, we spotted a blue-crowned motmot in the trees. He had just arrived, and was prepping himself for bedtime -- plumping up his feathers, he retracted his head into soft down and balanced on one leg. Walking through the reserve, the songs and sounds of rain forest wildlife danced in our ears. Though frogs and birds do sing at night, 90% of all forest noise is made by insects, usually crickets and katydids calling to their mates.

We soon found a promising hole in the ground, and saw the telltale markings of an orange-kneed tarantula. I knew that only females lived in holes, and our guide added that they can live 25-35 years, as opposed to a male tarantula's paltry five-year lifespan. Additionally, the orange-kneed tarantula's leg hairs are severe irritants, and can blind a human in minutes.

Tiny orchids decorated many of the forest trees, and our guide told us that Costa Rica is home to 1,600 species of orchids. 550 of those species live in Monteverde, and 350 are mini orchids. Tree-dwelling orchids, which make up 88% of the country's orchid species, are epiphytes, living in symbiosis with forest trees. Interestingly, they cannot live on the prevalent strangler figs because their bark is poisonous.

Unfortunately, we didn't seem to have much luck this evening, and rounded out our tour with a few insects -- walking sticks, katydids and crickets are always easy to find. After saying our goodbyes, we headed to a nearby Italian restaurant, recommended for its seafood, and dug into a hearty plate of fried calamari and a delicious pizza.

Day 6: Hiking Monteverde's Forests in Pictures

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