Costa RicaCosta Rica

Snakes, Frogs, Hanging Bridges and a Canopy Tour

Destination: Monteverde

I was up at dawn. Today, Vincent and I would visit Selvatura, one of Monteverde's most popular tourist spots. An all-in-one adventure, the large facilities include a canopy tour, hanging bridges, serpentarium, insect museum, butterfly garden, hummingbird garden and many nature walks. We had tickets to see it all.

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Again, we ate a light breakfast in preparation for the canopy tour. We left our hotel by 7:15, and drove up the dirt road to the Selvatura entrance, located at the base of the Santa Elena reserve. Arriving at 8 a.m., we were scheduled on the 8:30 canopy tour. A friendly employee handed us our attractions vouchers -- they were color-coded for easy recognition. She suggested that we begin with the canopy tour and hanging bridges, followed by lunch and then any other activity that tempted.

The Selvatura canopy tour takes less than two hours and spans 11 cables -- the longest, at over 1650 feet, allowed for speeds up to 30 mph. Another Tarzan swing also waited, and I was eager to give it a try. This time, instead of screaming and closing my eyes, I wanted to enjoy my jump.

We took a van to the canopy's beginning point, and our guides began by checking our gear and giving us a brief introduction to canopy safety. Climbing up to the first tower, I readied myself for fun. Directly in front of me, two women were conversing in German -- I soon learned that they were sisters, and that the older of the two, at 80 years old, was about to embark on her first canopy adventure. I was impressed.

The first cables went smoothly, but our third cable disappeared into cloudy mist. I was excited to fly through a cloud, but nervous: if I couldn't see the platform, how would I know when to break? Zipping along the cable, I soon felt the telltale up-and-down bouncing that indicated I should slow down. Reaching far out behind me, I placed downward pressure on the cable. Before I knew it, I had arrived at the platform and the guides were helping slow me to a stop. My face was wet from the cloud, my heart was racing, and I was having a blast.

Hiking through the jungle, we arrived at the Tarzan swing. I stared up at the platform that looked much higher than I had expected. I climbed up the stairs, mentally working up the courage to jump into nothingness for a second time. When my turn came, the tour guides opened the gates and herded me off the platform. Downward, I plummeted, this time with almost-open eyes; I wasn't even scared.

I swung back and forth on the giant swing, a smile painted on my face. The wind in my hair felt fantastic, and I felt safe enough to enjoy myself. Too quickly, my ride was over, and as I waited for the rest of our group to finish, I wished that I could jump again. Several cables later, and we had finished our canopy tour, landing just a few steps from the base station.

After getting the harnesses off, Vincent and I took off for the park's eight hanging bridges, interconnected by beautiful nature trails. Walking over the dirt pathways, we kept our eyes trained on the treetops: though we are tempted to look around at eye level, most forest life lives in the trees.

The first bridge measured almost 215 feet long, and took us up into the canopy. Instead of being above the trees, we walked almost through them, giving us a very unique vantage point. Keeping our eyes peeled for sloths, monkeys or even a quetzal, we stayed hopeful while walking across the green-painted bridges.

Arriving at the fourth, the longest at 515 feet, I looked ahead of me. It crossed over a deep canyon and a small stream rushed below us. A small family walked ahead of us, and the father suddenly exclaimed, "what a beautiful bird!" Walking to catch up with him, we followed his gaze to a beautiful resplendent quetzal sitting on a tree. His ruby-red chest puffed with pride, he stared ahead, snacking on a small avocado fruit.

We quickly snapped our photos, and before five minutes had passed, the shy quetzal had gracefully flown away. Excited by our success and disappointed by its short duration, we moved on. Unfortunately, we did not see any other wildlife in the trees, and an hour later, we had finished the almost 2-mile circuit and were eating lunch in the breezy dining room.

After lunch, we made a beeline for the serpentarium. I am a strong believer in knowledge being the best weapon, and I wanted to know which snakes were (and weren't) venomous. Accompanied by a guide, we walked into the glass-walled building.

Immediately, I was greeted by a giant boa constrictor that had, quite obviously, just eaten and was digesting his meal. He moved his head around in a satiated stupor, as our guide directed us left to the first cage. Inside, a benign-looking black-tailed cribo lay staring at us. His milky eyes signaled that he was ready to shed his skin, which, according to our guide, accounted for his lethargic movements.

Next up was the coral snake, a small but highly venomous species. Though often confused with non-venomous snakes, the coral can be identified by its red-yellow-red-black markings. To commit this to memory, our guide taught us the phrase, "Red and yellow kills a fellow, red and black's a friend of Jack." Simple enough, though I wasn't sure I could recall the phrase in a crisis situation.

Turning around, I saw the side-striped palm viper, a lime green, very venomous snake. In a nearby cage lurked a parrot snake -- a non-venomous species often confused for the previous. Seen together, the two green snakes looked very dissimilar: the viper's trian gle head and almost neon body seemed much more menacing.

Behind me slept the most dangerous snake of all: the fer-de-lance, or terciopelo as it is called in Costa Rica. This pit viper species is found throughout Central and South America, and is often called the "ultimate pit viper" due to its strong venom and aggressive -- not defensive -- nature. Further fueling my fear, our guide told us that females can have up to 60 babies at once, and that each can live up to 15 years. To avoid their bite, wear hiking boots and long pants, and always stick to marked paths.

The next venomous snake species was the eyelash palm viper, an amazing species that awed as much as scared me. This species can be green, red, gray or yellow in color, but the yellow is endemic to Costa Rica. Interestingly, yellow females can give birth to any color of baby, but only yellow snakes can give birth to other yellow. They are relatively small and live in coffee plants, causing serious problems for coffee pickers.

The room was filled with many other reptile and amphibian species, including frogs, toads and lizards, but we were running short on time, and had much to see before the park closed at 4 p.m. We chose the insect exhibit for our next stop, where more than 400,000 specimens decorated the walls.

Walking in, I was struck by the giant scorpions, white morpho butterflies and other exotic insects that covered the wall cases. Only 40% of the 1+ million-insect collection is on display at one time, the life work of one of the world's most important collectors. Browsing the room, I saw butterflies from all continents, cockroaches of every size, walking sticks that looked like real twigs and even, strangely enough, a small shrunken head.

Soon, I heard keys turning in the lock -- the park was closing for the day, and it was time to leave. Thanking our guide, we hopped in the car and drove back toward Santa Elena, making sure to pass by the public bus station. The next morning, I would take the 6:30 a.m. bus into San Jose. Dining on pizza, we said our goodbyes to Monteverde, still one of my favorite places in Costa Rica.

Snakes, Frogs, Hanging Bridges and a Canopy Tour in Pictures

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