Among Clouds: Monteverde, Costa Rica

Monteverde was the fourth stop in our Costa Rican adventure. It was quite the odyssey to get there from Tortuguero: we took the boat to La Pacvona, from where we took a “colectivo” to Cariari, a bus to San José and finally another bus to Monteverde. It was all worth it though, Monteverde is one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever visited. Because of the altitude, you get the feeling of being among clouds, breathing the purest air. Everything there is green and the ground is covered in moss. Every tree, both in the village and in the parks, is crawling with animals and plants.

The town of Monteverde is picturesque to an extreme. Most buildings resemble chalets or cabins, and the streets are super inclined, which makes it hard to walk. There’s always fog and the weather is cold for Costa Rica. In Monteverde alone, we saw more wildlife than in any other location: howling monkeys, capuchin monkeys, agoutis, lizards, frogs and many different kinds of birds. It was one of the highlights of the trip, not to mention here we found the cheapest hostel of the trip, Sleepers, which was like $7 the night.

Santa Elena Cloud Forest

Clouds are one of the main appeals of Monteverde. A cloud forest is a rare ecosystem, they only exist in places where tropical weather, the mountainous topography and the atmospheric conditions conspire to allow a constant cover of clouds. The result is not only beautiful to behold but it allows thousands of different species of animals and plants to thrive in this humid and not too cold conditions. To visit the Cloud Forest Reserve of Monteverde you have three different options: Monteverde Cloud ForestSanta Elena Cloud Forest, and Bosque Eterno de los Niños. We visited Santa Elena, which is not that expensive and offers a nice view of the Arenal Volcano.

Being September, we prepared ourselves for rain and left early to start hiking at 10am. In Santa Elena we were surprised by a clear and sunny day. Santa Elena Cloud Forest is a magical place. It offers four well-kept hiking trails and a close encounter with nature. We spent the whole day there and barely saw any more people. We did see, however, all kinds of vegetation, cascades, giant birds, monkeys and the most spectacular ficus trees. It was an adventure and not even the rain that came later in the afternoon could ruin (and boy, did it rain).

Ficus trees

Another thing you can do in Monteverde is climbing a ficus tree. When we were in Puerto Viejo, a friend told us about a huge ficus tree we could climb. He explained where it was and showed us on the map, so we thought it would be easy to find it. We spent about an hour walking there from the village and, once we got there, saw a forest full of ficus trees. They all looked climbable, but none resembled the picture we’d seen. We gave up the search when it started to get dark, and on the way back we saw at least ten capuchin monkeys dancing and playing in the trees. We also heard a very loud howling monkey and saw a lovely agouti, so I would not call it an unfruitful adventure.

Monteverde is, to put it plainly, a wonderful place. It is one of my favourite places in Costa Rica and one I wish we had spent more time in.

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A Walk in the Woods… of Mexico City?

Last Sunday I woke up at 6:00 am to pack a small backpack and make some pb&j sandwiches. I dressed quickly and walked some 20 minutes to where I was supposed to meet with other hikers, a lonesome gas station near Coyoacán in Mexico City. For the first time in a long time, I was early. We left the spot before 8:00 am and headed south.

“This place is, no kidding, just thirty minutes away from the city”, our guide was saying. If you’ve ever been in Mexico City, you probably know that there is no such thing as undisturbed nature close to it, so I was skeptical about the hike. We passed huge malls, taco stands, gyms, dirty roads and trafficked avenues heading towards San Jerónimo, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. At some point the fancy houses gave way to smaller, older buildings, small churches and cobblestoned alleyways that make you feel like you’re not in Mexico City anymore.

And eventually it all ends. What follows, if you keep going south, is neither a road nor a highway, but some sort of rural path wide enough for two cars, with food stands all along the way. All I could think was,”where the hell are we?”. In front of there was a forest. Thousands and thousands of trees seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. I lived in the city for almost five years and I had no idea that this existed, a green lung still providing oxygen for the monster city. This was not, however, anything like Chapultepec, the most famous forest/park in the city, made tame with paved paths and trash cans. This one was just a forest, a real one.

The van made its way into it and I was relieved to see there were rangers blocking the way under a green sign that read “Parque Nacional Los Dínamos“. They asked us if knew where to go and how to behave. “It’s a protected area, one of the last clean rivers of the area is here”, they explained, “be careful and don’t get lost”. We drove further up to a place called La Bodega, where there were a few parking spots, a small restaurant and toilets. We parked and got out of the van.

Many of my visits to natural areas in Mexico have been marked by the fact that there is trash everywhere. It is so in many beaches, mountains and parks, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this place was clean once you made it past the entry sign. The restaurant didn’t offer disposable packaging and people living in the area—for there were some houses at the very beginning of the forest—seemed to take care not to let any trash reach the river. The only other place I remember to have been so clean was the Iztaccíhuatl

We refilled our water bottles, adjusted our shoes and backpacks, gor out our trekking poles and started upwards, for there is nowhere to go but up. There were three peaks we wanted to reach, each one higher than the other. We started fairly high already, some 10,500 feet above sea level, and finished at around 11,500. 

The first part of the hike, about one hour long, was the hardest, for the rise of the terrain was steep and there were logs blocking the way, as well as loose stones that seemed fairly steady at a first glance. The higher we went, the livelier the sounds of the forest became: chirping birds, bubbling brooks, creaking trees, croaking frogs and an ocassional unidentifiable sound. The forest comprehends 429 hectares, so I can only guess that many animals live there, although I just saw birds. Right when the terrain gets more even you get the first views of the forest, an expase of nothing but trees and rocks rising towards the sky, undisturbed. I am still baffled at how a forest like this can exists so close to Mexico City.

After the first peak we walked for another 30 minutes or so, this time on easier terrain, towards the second one. The most difficult thing here is the loose ground, which makes it kind of slippery. The temperature here starts descending and the fog rising—speaking of which, can anyone recommend good hiking boots for both warm and cool weather?—. The vegetation also changes, now there are mostly pines whereas at the start there are many ferns and brackens too. The second peak offered a view that I can only describe as beathtaking.

To get to our last peak we just had to walk half an hour more. The terrain became steep and more slippery now, but it was easier than the first bit. The fog came and went, and the air felt cold and fresh. At the beginning I was wearing a polar jacket, but that proved too hot once I started walking, so I took it off. Now, almost at the top, I was cold again, so I took a very thin cotton sweatshirt from my backpack, it was enough. In the last peak we met another group of hikers and a dog, so we talked and had lunch together there for a while before making our way down. The views from the last peak are like nothing I had seen before: trees and trees, each one a different shade of blueish green, and behind them only mountains and rocks.

Not many things can compare to a walk in the woods. This forest is like an oasis in the middle of a concrete desert, and I could not be happier to know I’m so close to it.

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