Costa Rica, part 3 - Magical Monteverde

After a delay due to a family trip all around Northern California, I'm back and have found some time to go back to Costa Rica to tell you all about the fabulous area around Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  We only spent one night here, so it was a whirlwind tour for us, but WELL worth the extra time on the road.  To me - THIS was Costa Rica.  Not that the other areas we visited weren't, but this just felt different, maybe because of the clouds.  ;)

In any case, we were treated to a really dramatic drive up (further) into the hills after our little boat crossing at Lake Arenal.  Gorgeous steep ravines, with views over lush green hills as far as you could see.  We had a slight traffic jam thanks to some horses roaming the road, and then a near-disaster when the bus caught on a low-hanging wire.  My fellow back-of-the bus passenger (and tallest male available) became the hero of the day by climbing up onto the roof of the bus (through the emergency exit panel) to de-tangle us & maintain phone service (or whatever) to the area.  The loss & recovery of a cell phone during this same period paled in comparison.  See- not all travel adventures are due to nature!  In any case- here are a few shots from the drive up:

Note:  you don't do this drive if you head to Monteverde directly from SJ, which of course is possible.  It is a tough drive, also, with very small roads in questionable states, so be sure you have a 4WD vehicle if you do decide to do it!  In any case, after our adventures, we drove through the very cute little town of Santa Elena, and found our first lodging option, where we enjoyed lunch.  The Monteverde Lodge & Gardens is basically right in town, and is a very cute, small property to use as a base to explore the area.  The food was really tasty, and it all just had a nice, homey, casual atmosphere.  The gardens were full of gorgeous, exotic plants, and you felt like you were already in the cloud forest, with views out over the surroundings from every brightly colored room.  Even the little hot tub area seemed like it could be a butterfly habitat- very cute spot!

Next up, after checking into our lodging for the night (which I'll get to shortly), there is the equally cute and homey property called Fonda Vela.  This place is closest to the private reserve entrance (so further from town) and has been integrated very carefully into the environment.  In an attempt to disturb the existing forest as little as possible there are lots of different small buildings spread around a very lush area, leading to lots of different kinds of rooming options.  There's a really great covered pool and game area (where we had an impromptu ping-pong challenge), and the restaurant & bar features great windows onto the surrounding jungle.  The bar gave us our favorite drink of the trip (so far) and the dinner was perfectly fine (we were starting to get tired from going and touring all day, and several of us had a night hike to look forward to, so dinner wasn't high on our priorities.)   It really seemed like a great choice for families, especially with all the random life-sized statues around which added a whimsical touch.

And the third lodging option in the area that we toured was our host for the night - the giant, sprawling resort of El Establo.  Fortunately, were able to arrive and tour this during the daylight, because it's placement along a hill up to the canopy gives an INCREDIBLE view out over the descending hills.  You could even catch a glimpse of the pacific coast under the cloud-line!  All of the rooms feature some portion of this view, and our rooms were almost the highest building on the hill, so we had possibly the best views available (not that any were bad).  Once we toured the property (via van - it's so huge and set over such a hill that there are vans constantly shuttling people around), we realized that this property is a magnet for school/tour groups.  We saw many a bus parked around, and the breakfast buffet was pretty busy (and this was low season, so only one of the two restaurants was open).  Our rooms were very nice, if a bit-no frills, but even the rooms that were deemed "honeymoon" or "family" suites seemed a bit institutional.  I must say though, that this amazing location also affords guest their own zip-line course through the cloud forest canopy, guided nature walks all day, and even the guided night walk which I, along with several of my colleagues, opted to do.  We didn't luck upon any sloths or bears or anything major poking through the forest (it was a full moon, and a bit rainy, which doesn't lead to optimal wildlife viewing), but we did see some amazing insects, a few teeny frogs, and generally had an adventure creeping through the giant rain forest in the pitch-black dark.  Having these activities right on-site is definitely a bonus, especially if you don't have time to also visit Arenal but still want a zip-line experience.  In any case- here are some shots from our stay & tour:

Now that you have an idea of the lodging options in the area, which - as you can tell - are much more rustic than those around Arenal, now lets get to the main attraction: the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  Now, I have to preface this tale with the fact that one of my travel colleauges on this trip is an awesome photographer, and she could tell I was interested in learning how to take better photos, so she'd given me a crash course and some tips as we went along (not that you can necessarily tell from the photos shared above!).  Brimming with some new knowlege, I was determined to get some cool cloud forest shots.  Luckily, I had some partners in crime in wanting cool photos, so shortly after setting off for our "quick" nature walk led by our awesome guide Jose, I and another couple had fallen MAJORLY behind.  I'm sorry - it was just SO BEAUTIFUL.  Silent in that way giant old-growth forests have, when it's actually not silent but full of rustles and birds and and the squish of your own footsteps.  Green in every shade imaginable, with pops of vivid orange and yellow.  We came to a fork in the road and debated returning immediately back to the bus area, but we ran into another couple from the trip & they explained that the group had forged ahead along a more difficult path, but they were going to turn around so we'd meet them in 20 minutes or so.  Happily- we continued further into the mystical cloud forest.  After a blissfull half hour of hiking up & down amidst the ridiculous lush trees, it dawned on us that we'd seen nobody and we were meant to have left the forest around then.  Oops.  The only thing we could do was continue on, maybe with less egregiously-long photo stops.  We reached the end of the trail, which is where you really understand why it's called a cloud forest.  A vista into nothing but fog - very cool, and we felt like we were on the edge of the world.  BUT - now we were actually a bit nervous about being left, so we hoofed it back as quickly as possible on the main path back to the parking lot.  Yes, we had delayed the group's departure, but the guide was actually WAY later than us, as he'd run back through the entire forest circuit to find us, and it took him easily another 30 minutes to make it back out.  Lesson learned- pick a meeting point and time, and stay there!  Hehe.  Anyways- here are a few of the pics I took of this really, truly magical private preserve (Bless the Quakers who pooled their lands together & kept it from development!):

I know Arenal is really the "top" destination for Costa Rica, and it was awesome, but there is something about Monteverde that seems so authentic, so remote, and so special that I can't imagine not having visited it.  I've been to a few other rain forests in my life, but seeing the clouds filter through the trees was just really magical.  I really recommend fitting it into your itinerary if you can spare an extra day!

Up next- we headed down out of the hills to the coast for two excellent days in Guanacaste!