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Part III: Giant Explorations on the Cerro de la Muerte

Destination: San Gerardo de Dota

This morning I awoke to the burble of a mountain creek a few hundred feet below our cabin. The sun's rays peeked over the horizon, their morning warmth already beating back the night's chill. Cocooned under my cozy half-foot of fleece, I was struck by the serenity of the mountain's so-called silence: here, quiet did not mean the absence of sound, but rather a gentle harmony of birdsong, trickling water, and leaves rustling in the breeze.

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I snuggled under the blanket, relishing the dual treat of my beautiful surroundings and the time to leisurely enjoy them. When I finally threw off the covers, I already felt fully awake -- a far cry from my usual morning grogginess that is only quelled with a double shot of strong coffee. This is why we had retreated to the secluded and picturesque Cerro de la Muerte: for rest and relaxation.

After a hearty breakfast, Jorge invited us on a morning hike. We grabbed a pair of hand-hewn walking sticks from the restaurant's stoop and headed out into the fresh morning air. The temperature was perfect for the 2.5-mile hike: brisk but not cool, crisp but not brittle. We set out onto Los Gigantes (The Giants) trail, so named for the dense cloud forest at its end. The forest is what's known as a virgin or primary forest, meaning its trees have never been cut down. Los Gigantes refers to its oldest specimens, some of which are more than 600 years old and 75 feet tall.

As we walked down the muddy path, I took a break from communing with nature to marvel at my walking stick. I'd never hiked with one before, and was absolutely amazed at how much leverage and balance it afforded me. Even in the stickiest mud and most slippery crevice, I didn't fall. I barely even wavered. Note to self: buy walking stick, take it everywhere.

Cresting a small hill, a green gorge appeared in front of us. I say this not as hyperbole, but as the truth: one moment we were on a rock dirt path, and the next minute a rainbow of green engulfed my entire line of sight. Jade, emerald, chartreuse, and beryl -- you name it, and it was there. The cliff rocks were covered in vibrant moss; the trees hung thick with fresh leaves and cloud forest epiphytes; and new grass covered the hillside. Through the center of the gorge, a river flowed just a few inches deep, appearing as if from nowhere. Jorge informed us that it was the Parrita river headwaters -- the river's point of origin.

We climbed up and around the river, squeezing through rock formations and weaving through the trees. At the top of the mountain, a lookout hung over the cliff, affording a view of the valley below. Jorge pointed out small towns like Santa Maria de Dota, and off in the distance, San Jose, the Pacific Ocean, and even the faint outline of Arenal Volcano. We were on top of the world.

Finally at our destination, we forged into the virgin cloud forest. Here, tiny saplings vied for tiny slivers of sunshine that penetrated the forest canopy. There were few birds to spot and even fewer flowers, but color was everywhere. Maroon bromeliads clung to the trees; pea green vines snaked their way up every surface; and the damp, fertile earth was almost black.

We slowly made our way back to the lodge, where I ordered a steeping cup of hot cocoa. As we settled down to watch Brazil battle Chile for World Cup honor, a storm rolled in. I had never seen anything quite like it. To the left, the sun shone brightly, illuminating the colorful landscape; to my right, the world had turned gray and rainy. The contrast was surreal. A few photos later, I hurried back inside to enjoy my cocoa and comfy couch. There was no place in the world I would have rather been.

Part III: Giant Explorations on the Cerro de la Muerte in Pictures

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