Monteverde

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Monteverde is the name of a spectacular area in Costa Rica, that is northwest of the capitol and home to the Monteverde Cloud Forest. A cloud forest is a specific type of rainforest that is only found in the mountains. The humidity is often 100%, so that clouds that cover the trees deposit their moisture directly onto the vegetation. Monteverde, which means green mountain in Spanish, is so aptly named for the constant supply of light mist created by the ever-present clouds causes the leaves to drip water. This source of secondary precipitation is a source of life for epiphytes, which are plants that grow on other plants. Mosses, ferns, and 450 types orchids are some of the over 800 species of epiphytes that live in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

Monteverde has only begun to gain interest in the past 20 years with scientists who study the forest and the tourists who follow them, so this is an area that is still relatively new to economic development. The Cloud forest has become central to the economic well being of the area. Since it is one of the many protected Costa Rica biological reserves, the tour guides and other employees of Monteverde Cloud Forest depend on it for their livelihood.

The Monteverde Skywalk is a series of bridges and platforms that allow the visitor to explore the canopy in a way that is safer and less nerve wracking than Costa Rica canopy tours, which often involve flying through the forest at high speeds hundreds of feet above the rainforest floor on a zip line.

While there is no proper town in the cloud forest, over 60 gift ships, restaurants, and hotels can be found around the Monteverde, Costa Rica area, which refers to the area to the west and north of the Monteverde Cloud forest. Many eco lodges and Monteverde hotels can also be found along the road to Santa Elena to the north.

Approximately 7 miles northeast of the Monteverde, Costa Rica is the town of Santa Elena, which boasts its own reserve. The Santa Elena reserve is only about 3 miles north of the city, and has 7 miles of spectacular hiking within its 900 acres. The walk to the reserve from Santa Elena takes an hour when traveling at a brisk pace. Santa Elena has a post office, bank, police station, and a supermarket. Cerro Plano is a plateau that lies between Santa Elena and Monteverde, and home to the Cheese factory. The area around the Monteverde Cloud Forest was settled in 1951 when a group of Quakers who objected to the draft moved here.

Whether you’d like to experience the Monteverde Skywalk or simply enjoy the beauty of the rainforest on a long relaxed hike from your Eco-lodge, the Monteverde Cloud forest is something every visitor to Costa Rica should experience.

Cloud forest alive with birds, butterflies, orchids

The Monteverde Cloud Forest is a treasure trove of botanical wonders.

It’s also a major pain to get there.

Five miles of new paving on the Monteverde Road was just finished in December, adding to the seven miles already paved.

But the last 13-mile stretch is still an infamous 1 ½- to 2-hour trip along a potholed, take-your-life-in-your-hands uphill road better suited for donkeys. Crawling along at barely 5 mph, vehicles weave up the mountainside, stones flying from the tires over the no-rail precipice.

Purists always have been against paving the whole route. They worry that tourists will overwhelm the fragile spot that is home to a rich ecosystem that includes 400 species of birds, 600 of butterflies, 300 of orchids and 200 of ferns.

But with tourism faltering due to the worldwide recession (visitor numbers to Monteverde hover between 100,000 and 250,000 people a year), sentiment is building for paving the entire route — with caveats.

”Much tourism is lost due to horrible road conditions,” says Richard Whitten, an American biologist who recently moved back to the United States after living in Monteverde for 15 years collecting insects. “But much damage to the fragile ecosystem can result from weekend joyriders and others who only come up the mountain for quick thrills and who care little for the real value of Monteverde, one of the last most amazing cloud forests on the planet.”

Rumors are that the government plans to pave the last part soon. On the other hand, ”I will not hold my breath. Things are slow here, and frankly that is just fine,” says a Monteverde tourism official who didn’t want his name used.

Having survived the harrowing trip, I can say that the cloud forest makes every minute of the drive worth it.

Monteverde (”green mountain” in Spanish) is a magical anomaly in nature.

Set in the stick-dry Pacific coastal Tilaran Mountains, the Monteverde region has its head in the clouds at 5,000 feet elevation. Just past the town of Santa Elena, you traverse suddenly from hot, dry and sunny to cool, misty and rainy, with clouds hovering barely above ground nine months of the year.

Only 13 percent of sunlight makes it through to the ground. That allows the damp forest to grow like a wild terrarium, with smaller plants growing on the trees up to the sun.

The result is a botanists’ wonder of wild orchids and bromeliads blooming on trees and delicate moss and ferns seemingly sprouting from tree trunks. You may see a hummingbird’s nest no bigger than the palm of your hand or a quetzal bird with a long, multicolored feathered tail.

The plants that grow on the trees are called epiphytes. There are more than 500 species here. The forest also boasts 500 species of trees, 100 of mammals and 120 of reptiles and amphibians.

Dreamily dubbed an ”elfin forest” for its canopy of short, gnarled trees, Monteverde also has Quaker roots.

In the 1950s, a group of American Quakers from Alabama settled here to raise dairy cows, far, far away from the violent world they deplored. Some are still here, although tourism has taken over.

It is possible to hike through portions of the 26,000-acre Monteverde reserve areas, but most tourists see a portion of the bountiful scenery via swinging bridge skywalks or zip-line rope courses.

I visited Selvatura Park, which has a Tree Top Walkway of eight long swinging bridges set nearly 200 feet above the canopy floor. It also has a ropes course featuring 15 zip-line cables and platforms, some more than 1,000 feet long.

The park also has a phenomenal outdoor hummingbird park (50 species live in Costa Rica), a restaurant and an insectarium featuring Whitten’s collection, called Jewels of Costa Rica. Costa Rica has an astonishing number of bugs — including bugs with luminescent ”headlights” — iridescent butterflies, and beetles as big as dinner rolls.

A few degrees warmer here or there, and Monteverde’s clouds could lift and its creatures be left to bake in the sun.

To see the diversity here is to realize what we stand to lose.