On the trail of the quetzal – Monteverde, Santa Elena and surroundings


Walking through Monteverde reserve is like walking through the most perfect fairytale I’ve ever read. The forest on every side is green from the ground to the canopy, moss covering the trunks, and plants upon plants hanging from every bit of bark. Creepers and vines wind their way round the trees, and purple tongued orchids suspend themselves in mid air on flimsy stalks. Tiny streams trickle through mossy rocks and prehistoric ferns that look like mini-palms sprout beside the river-bed, their shade of leaves ruffled by a slight breeze.

Tiny birds nests are built into the banks next to the path, and if you look closely you can see miniature mouths squeaking within. Brown-winged parents with yellow bellies fly past to drop off a grub every few minutes. If you’re lucky, you can look up and in the branches above there will be the magical mystical resplendent quetzal, its long green feathers curving down like a quill from its little fat body.

Some say the fairyland is ruined by the abundance of tourists that this little piece of perfection sees every year. It’s the most touristed place in all of Costa Rica – quite a title to hold. Everyone has it on their list, and many are here to hunt down the quetzal, the notoriously aloof, wonderfully exotic inhabitant of the world’s disappearing cloud forests. A Monteverde guide said that one of his clients was so overwhelmed when she saw a quetzal in the reserve that she literally broke down and cried. Its that emotional. But I have to say I managed to contain my tears after I’d seen a male and female in the trees just metres away from the Monteverde reserve gates.

In my opinion, tourists or no, this is a beautiful corner of the world. Walking through the bosque nuboso trail early on a clear morning is a real experience. You could actually believe that fairies live here. From the entrance, the trail climbs gently through perfect, untouched forest. It seems like its been there for millions of years, holding an ancient, impenetrable memory. Birds hoot from the treetops, but are difficult to spot through the thick greenery.

As the trail climbs, the view of the valley opens out below you, with ridges of dark green falling away towards the towns below. You walk up from the Pacific side, but it’s when you hit the continental divide that the treat comes. On one side of the ridge, the land slopes down towards settlements, but on the Caribbean side, the ridge gives way to a steep slope falling down into a valley surrounded by undisturbed hills. As far as the eye can see, the earth is covered in thick deep green, undisturbed by roads, houses, even human figures. It’s then that you realise the legacy of this park. Tourists are only allowed to set foot in a tiny section of it, but that section does contain some of the most beautiful forest. The 10,500 hectares that make up the reserve are mostly left to their own devices.

The marked paths are easy to follow and if you time it carefully you can have a path to yourself at least for fifteen minutes or so. Many people take tours, which are excellent for spotting animals as the guides really know what they’re talking about, but it doesn’t leave much space for personal communing with nature. If you are desperate to see a quetzal, it’s worthwhile taking a guide. It’s also worthwhile because according to the administration there are 100 mammal species, 400 bird species and 3,000 plant species in this reserve. The guides are all trained biologists who speak English and Spanish and can answer pretty much any question you throw at them. You will find out about the many species of avocado that grow here, the reproductive habits of ferns and the evil-looking tarantula-wasps. These are so-called because they sting a tarantula and inject their eggs inside it. When the eggs hatch, the lavae start to eat the tarantula alive from inside.

There are trails that lead further on from the triangle of marked trails towards some very little-visited huts, but at the time of writing they were closed and would be for an unspecified time. Closing them consists of putting up a wooden closed sign that is easy to walk past, but be careful if you do choose to go down the paths that they are very slippery and steep. They are also wider than the paths in the forest, making them considerably less interesting. If you sit still for a while, the tranquility does mean that you have the chance of mammals such as nose-bears coming along and snuffling around you for a while.

It should take no longer than a few hours to walk around a good proportion of the 26 or so kilometres of trails in the park. Transport to the reserve is by bus from the village of Santa Elena, with buses leaving town at 6.15, 7.20, 9.20, 11.20, 1 and 2.30, returning at about two hour intervals until 4 o’clock. The cost is 1,000 colones for the return trip.

Entrance is $15.

Santa Elena Reserve

Also a good choice, Santa Elena’s forests are almost as dense and impressive as Monteverde’s, but lack something of the magic. There are fewer tourists, but also less trails. You will be greeted at the gate by the very friendly and enthusiastic Charly, a pet wild pig who was raised by humans and now can’t get enough of them.

Quetzals are a common sight here as well, along with the loud and rare three-wattled bellbird. This bizarre animal has three black things – spaghetti, as the guides call them – hanging off its beak. Take your binoculars and try and see one soon though – their numbers are dwindling drastically. The guides say this is because of global warming. Now that the temperature in the mountains has gone up, other species are climbing to higher altitudes. Predators such as toucans that were never here before now pray on quetzals and three-wattled bell birds, threatening them with extinction.

If you get a nice clear day you have the chance of seeing one of the most impressive views of volcan Arenal available. Take the Caño Negro trail, and look out for a lone bench as you turn a corner. A valley stretches out below, and at the end of it Arenal rises, a perfect cone, whisps of smoke mixing with the white clouds that cling to its summit.

The reserve is managed by the local community in association with Youth Challenge International, a Canadian charity. The charity has a trail named after it, and on this trail there is a thing called ‘the tower’. A large metal construction vaguely resembling a scaffold tower, the lookout point is terribly maintained. Steps are loose, hinges are giving way, and half of the top platform clearly rusted into nothingness a short while ago. Be careful if you want to go up it.

Entrance is $12, guided tours are $15, and can be booked in Santa Elena town. Buses leave from in town and go at 6:30, 8:30, 10:30, 12:30 and 3:00PM returning at 11:00AM, 1:00PM and 4:00PM. It costs 1,000 colones each way.

San Luis Waterfall

If you don’t have transportation to get to this lovely waterfall, be prepared. It’s a good 6 kilometres uphill on the road from Santa Elena towards Monteverde reserve, then another 4 or so steeply downhill after you take the right-hand turn marked San Luis. Then it’s another at least three ascending to the waterfall.

Entrance fee to the little trail is $8, and from the entrance huts the trails is not very long. Reaching the waterfall itself, you catch your breath twice. As you approach, it seems to be a nice thin waterfall falling from a cut in the cliffs into a small clear pool, but a few steps more and you realise it’s twice the height you originally thought, falling in two steps through the carved black rocks.

If it’s a hot day the trip is worth it for a cool down in the pools. If you don’t have transportation it’s usually possible to hitch rides on the roads to and from the waterfall – people are understanding about the hills!

But if you do walk, you get the added bonus of a spectacular view of the gulf of Nicoya. Standing at the lookout point on the road towards San Luis, at first its hard to believe that the shimmering blanket in the distance really is the sea. Dark island float in it, and you can see all the way to the Peninsula on the other side, curving round to make the gulf look almost like a lake.

Santa Elena Town

Small and definitely gringofied, this little community centres on a street full of restaurants. There are some decent eating choices here such as the Tree House, but it’s not cheap. There is one soda for the hard-up. If you didn’t see the animals you wanted to see then there’s always the ranarium, serpentarium, insect museum and butterfly garden, not to mention the orchid nursery.

Monteverde is famed for two things other than the nature: ice cream and cheese. Having actually tasted what cheese is meant to be like, this stuff still doesn’t cut the mustard, though i’d say it’s slightly better than the regular plasticky crap in the stores. Monteverde’s sharp cheddar is not too bad. The other stuff with lots of herbs in really just has a lot of salt in it. The Monteverde cheese factory has a store in it with all of the varieties. It also gives tours.

The ice cream is better – it is very creamy and doesn’t taste of a huge amount, but it’s quite satisfying. Choose something with a flavour you can’t miss, like mint choc chip. It can be bought from the heladeria in the middle of town, Sabores on the road to Monteverde reserve, or at the factory itself.

If you must do a canopy tour, there is plenty of choice around here. Just try to avoid disturbing the monkeys too much with your yodelling when you are swinging through their natural habitat.

Places to stay:

Monteverde Backpackers
Only a year old, this little place is affiliated to Pangea, a San José based hostel, which makes it slightly more expensive at $10 a dorm bed. The house is homely though, with sofas, a TV and two computers with free internet. A friendly, bilingual father-son team run the place and can help out with tours, buses and whatnot. The dorms sleep six and have private bathrooms – there’s usually a good bunch of people around to chat to. A small kitchen can be used if you want to avoid the expensive restaurants, and the supermarket is just steps from the door. Telephone: 2645-5844

Pension Santa Elena
Always full, with people lounging in rocking chairs and hammocks on the porch. This place is slightly cheaper at between $6. Telephone: 2645-6240

Buses to Santa Elena/Monteverde leave San José daily at 6.30 a.m. and 2.30 a.m., returning at the same times.


Climbing Cerro Chirripo

Scroll down for info on reservations, transport, and why Chirripo is a public health risk

Hikers who drag themselves out of their sleeping bags in the early hours of the morning, don their woolly hats and strike out towards the summit in the dark can have sunrise at the highest point in Costa Rica all to themselves.

After a groggy two-hour walk and a final scramble up to the peak of Cerro Chirripó, the intrepid walker sits 3,820 meters above sea level (about 12,533 feet), with valleys, lakes, and blankets of calm, white clouds spread out below. There is no sound except the wind and an occasional bird, a world void of human presence. It is rumoured that on clear days, you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts simultaneously.

Costa Ricans take great pride in the activity of hiking the 20 kilometres (about 12 miles) from the little village of San Gerardo de Rivas to the stark peak that provides such a sharp contrast to the beaches and rainforests of the rest of the country.

Some even claim, wrongly, that it is the highest point in Central America – that title is claimed by Volcan Tajamulco in Guatemala, which reaches an impressive 4,211 metres of altitude, easily outstripping Cerro Chirripo.

Foreigners who are not in the know can find it hard to get into the national park. This isn´t the kind of mountain you can just turn up at and expect to climb – oh no, it´s far more executive than that. Ticos make reservations months in advance to ensure their space in the Los Crestones refuge that lies a few hundred metres below the peak.

Backpackers have been known to camp outside the park office gates in San Gerardo de Rivas from 3 a.m. in the morning to be the first in the queue for the ten places that officers say they always have free for the following day.

The walk is worth the difficulty in securing tickets, largely because it provides such a refreshing change to the rest of the country. Instead of packing your bikini and flip-flops, you´ll be needing a scarf, hat, sturdy hiking boots, a portable stove and all the food you want to eat during the time that you´re in the park

The hike technically starts out four kilometres (2.5 miles) outside Chirripó national park and winds its way up through ever-changing vegetation on obvious paths. It´s a friendly mountain, and you won´t need a guide. Cloud forest surrounds the trail for the first few kilometers, and birdlife is plentiful. Among the more interesting species is the emerald toucanet, a bird that is slightly smaller than a regular toucan, with green feathers and a long yellow and black bill.

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Hammocks and hummingbirds – San Gerardo de Rivas

If you do get stuck waiting to go up Chirripo, or even if you’re not an altitude hunter and never wanted to go up that far anyway, San Gerardo de Rivas is a thoroughly beautiful place to hang out. The village is strung along the road that leads from San Isidro del General and ends up at the Cloudbridge Reserve, leaving the rest of the mountain to undisturbed nature.

The Cloudbridge Reserve is a private project to protect and reforest the lush valleys below Chirripo. Various trails weave through the reserve, passing by waterfalls and at one point giving a vista over two waterfalls in the valley below, surrounded by green. You could easily spend a day wandering the beautiful paths, but beware that it rains a lot here – more than at the top of Chirripo, which often has its head above the clouds. Visit http://www.cloudbridge.org.

Hot springs are the other attraction, but you´ll be more in need of a cold shower after walking up the insane incline to get to the pools. If you’ve already been to Arenal and spent enough money to eat for a week on the entrance to Tabacón, you might be disappointed. There are two small man-made pools set into the rocks, and one of them could be better described as tepid than hot. It is a great place to meet locals though, as it is often packed with Ticos who bring picnic feasts for a family day out, especially at weekends and on holidays.

But one of the best thing to do in San Gerardo is relax on a balcony or in a hammock, watch the many species of colourful birds darting around the flowers that cover everyone’s gardens, have a pizza on a balcony overhanging the valley, and appreciate one of Costa Rica’s most attractive and authentic little towns.

Places to stay:

Casa Mariposa

This is a hummingbird and hammock-filled chill-out house, built next to a valley that drops down to a little stream, and only a few yards from the trailhead. The dorm room’s walls are half carved out of the rocks of the mountain, with beds resting on natural ledges, and a massive boulder almost obstructing the way to the bathroom opposite. Meals can be cooked in the homely kitchen, where there is a communal food basket to rummage through before you set off on the hike. Guests often cook together, as the cosy hostel is perfect for getting to know other people of all ages and nationalities. Everyone usually congregates in the kitchen and lounge, where there are several comfy sofas, and books to exchange or read. The real bonus, though, is the hammock garden. Just uphill from the dorms, three hammocks and various chairs are set under a small roof, with a sweeping view of the valley below. Hummingbird feeders ensure that the little birds are fluttering around you all the time, with the occasional visit from an emerald toucanet, and plenty of butterflies. Greenery and flowers are abundant, and friendly owner John is now working on a project to clean up the stream bed that is near the hostel, and make a waterfall that falls from a cave into a peaceful, natural place for his guests to visit. Telephone: 2816-7573.

El Descanso

If you’re trying to get away from the gringo crowd for a while, this is a very Tico place to stay. It’s much closer to the park admin office too, which makes it more convenient if you need to be down there by 6.30 a.m. to make a reservation. The best thing about it, however, is the homage to Chirripó’s biggest annual event – the Cerro Chirripó race. One day a year, usually in March, a bunch of crazy people get together and run from San Gerardo de Rivas’ football pitch to the refuge and back. Considering it took me 6 hours to get up there and 5 down – and I ached afterwards – I can’t help but respect the balls of these people, some of whom do the distance in less than 3.5 hours. Pictures from twenty years of racing are hung all over El Descanso’s dining room. Owner Francisco Elizondo used to win the race every year, but now that he’s past seventy he falls into the veterans category. He still wins that category. Apparently there is also a crazy gringo with an enormous white beard who runs the thing in cut off denims and bare feet. He, predictably, is usually the last down the mountain. If you arrive at El Descanso and it looks shut, just holler a bit and you will be attended to. Phone: 2369-0067.

Crime in Costa Rica – is it as bad as the Ticos would have you believe?

Just before a female friend and I set off on a trip to Puerto Viejo (de Limón) for the first time, we mentioned our plans to a bunch of Tico friends.

“Have you been before?” They started.
“If not, you shouldn’t go alone. Wait until one of us can go with you – it’s dangerous if you don’t know your way around.”
“There’s a lot of crime there. And drugs. Two gringas like you will almost certainly get robbed.”
“Don’t leave the hostel at night, in the dark it’s worse.”

This went on for a while until I became thoroughly irritated and even more determined than ever to go to Puerto Viejo. And when we arrived, we were surprised. It seemed like a laid-back rasta town, with quite a large proportion of hippy gringos living there. Most of the locals looked to be pot-smoking surfers, and everyone was thoroughly pleasant to us.

My point is that a prevailing sense of fear has crept into the Ticos’ everyday life over the past five years or so. I don’t deny that there is certainly crime in Puerto Viejo, and have heard this from Gringo sources as well. They speak of people being knocked off their bikes, their bags robbed at machete-point, and of drug-runners threatening the lives of would-be whistle-blowers. But really, if you go to Puerto Viejo and take the proper precautions – such as not carrying a massive purse and avoiding dark lanes at night – you should be fine.

If a Tico tells you a place is dangerous, it is probably worth getting a second opinion from a traveler who has been there before. Costa Rica is no more dangerous than most other Central American countries – in fact I would say it is less so, especially outside the capital. The paranoia seems to largely come from the fact that ten years ago, crime was almost unknown, and in the last five years it has suddenly become a fact of every-day life. My Spanish teacher tells me that in the ten years before 2002, she only had one student come in and tell her that they had been mugged. Now, she says, it’s more like two a month. Her three children have had their cell-phones robbed five times between them, and the news media has run several stories in the six months I have been here about people who were shot dead because they wouldn’t give up their cell-phone. If someone tries to rob you, as in any country, give them what they are asking for.

I’m told that if you call the police and ask them to come out to a crime, they ask you if you’ve got enough money to pay for their petrol

Ticos will have you believe that crime is burgeoning because of the sudden inflation of immigration into the country by Nicaraguans and Colombians. Ticos tell every tourist that the person who robbed them was almost certainly not Tico. Ticos have more dignity than that, they add. It may also be something to do with the ineffectiveness of the police. I’ve never had the occasion to try, but I’m told that if you call and ask for someone to come out to a crime, the police often ask if you have enough money to pay for their petrol. They’re pretty badly underfunded and underpaid.

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The forgotten Ticos – Indigenous people in Costa Rica

Travelling through Costa Rica, it would be easy not to see a single truly indigenous person. Unlike other countries like Guatemala and Bolivia, where you can´t move without coming across indigenous influences, Costa Rica looks at itself as a ´white´ country.

The small population of indigenous people who still remain are hidden, living on reserves that do not belong to them, pushed back into the hills, and surviving in conditions that most Costa Ricans would be shocked to see existing within the boundaries of their own country.

Many don´t get a chance to experience this shock, because Ticos are woefully under-educated about the 1.6% native population that remains.

Indeed, in a recent United Nations survey, 77 percent of Costa Rica’s inhabitants admitted that they did not know that 22 indigenous territories exist within the borders of their country. 73 percent of the very few indigenous people left in Costa Rica live within or close to these territories, keeping the indigenous largely separated from the ´white´ Tico majority.

I made a trip to the Cabecar reserve near Turrialba, and described what I had seen to the tica girlfriend of my housemate. I told her about the fact that the families who live in the village I visited have to walk seven hours up a mountainside to reach the nearest village – which means seven hours to fetch rice to feed the family, seven hours to sell what little produce they can from their farms, seven hours to get to a doctor or a dentist. I described the houses they live in – huts made of cana brava (a thin long twig-like cane) with gaping holes between the cane, roofed with corrugated iron, open fires for cooking spreading smoke through the house. The house has three rooms for 25 people. There is no electricity. They bathe in the river. The toilet looks like a real toilet, but there is a pit instead of a flush, and it is open air, with only a strip of corrugated iron protecting the user´s dignity.

She was shocked. She said that she never knew that there were people living like that in her own country. She was particularly apalled that only 50% of them speak any Spanish. Many do not need it, because they never leave the reserve. The hike is just too far.

I have seen this kind of life before, but never in a country that believes itself to be so far along the road to development, and never with such a high level of ignorance about the conditions people live in on the citizens´ own doorstep.

Scroll down to read more about the trip to the indigenous reserve, and the difficulties their lives entail.

Indigenous people in Costa Rica have yet to develope a proper tourism industry, but there are a few places to go where they are starting their own ethnotourism projects. The community described in the article below is not touristed.

Yorkin reserve

Travel by boat to this remote community near the Panamanian border, where many of the indigenous have identity issues, not knowing whether to call themselves Costa Rican or Tico. BriBri indigenous people live here, and have their own craft tradition. Leaves from Puerto Viejo de Limon or Cahuita, details at http://www.greencostarica.com/rural_tourism.htm.

Kekoldi indigenous reserve

Tour includes explanations of how the villagers use local flora and fauna, and some BriBri mythological tales. Leaves from Puerto Viejo de Limon or Cahuita.

Boruca indigenous

The people of the southern Pacific side of Costa Rica have well preserved traditions, including mask-making and the annual Fiesta de los Diablitos, celebrated in the village of Boruca each December. Set up a cultural tour at http://www.galerianamu.com/eco-ethnic-tours/boruca_tour/

Hiking out to the hidden Cabécar people

Standing next to her family’s water pipe, 4-year-old Sandra winces at her first encounter with the fresh, strong taste of toothpaste.

Living in her remote home in the jungle-covered Chirripó Indgenous reserve, she is a seven-hour hike away from the nearest shop that sells such things as a toothbrush and a tube of Colgate.

Her unevenly spaced and slightly browned teeth are experiencing this today thanks to a Christmas donation of toothbrushes and small toothpaste tubes from a Western well-wisher.

The art of toothbrushing has just been demonstrated to her and 15 other squatting children by Daniel Montoya, who puts as much energy into the lesson as if it were a revolutionary new invention.

“Brush forward, back, forward, back. How do you say teeth in Cabécar?” Montoya asks through a mouth of foam.

Montoya and his colleague Hector Soto started coming to the reserve after they received an unexpected knock on the door of their Christian mission, Voz Que Clama in Tuis, Turrialba. A Cabécar chief was standing outside, asking them to help his community.

There are few people who will spend the energy to visit the remote community, and the villagers often feel forgotten by the rest of the country.

Indeed, in a recent United Nations survey, 77 percent of Costa Rica’s inhabitants admitted that they did not know that 22 indigenous territories exist within the borders of their country. 73 percent of the very few indigenous people left in Costa Rica live within or close to these territories, keeping them largely separated from the Tico majority.

For Soto, Monotya and their 12 volunteers, the journey here started the day before with a three-hour drive in the back of a truck, up a dirt road to the village of Quetzal.

From there it is a two-hour downhill hike to the valley bottom on trails just wide enough for a horse to pass between the banana palms. Continue reading

“There are only two dentists for 30,000 people”

For years, Peter Aborn has been traveling from his practice in San Pedro to Shiroles in the Reserva Indigena de Talamanca as often as his budget will allow, spending several days doing operations and procedures without charge. His commitment and generosity have already been recognized by CNN, that put him on the top 100 list of ‘CNN heroes’ — a program that searches out unsung heroes around the world who give an exceptional service to others.

Toothbrushes and toothpaste are unheard of in some of the reserve’s communities, meaning that rampant decay and gum disease are common. Lack of accessible dental services makes it near impossible for teeth to be straightened, filled or replaced.

“I have seen periodontal disease (gum disease) in 8-year-olds and malocclusions (crowded teeth) in 12-year-olds,” said Aborn. “I saw a 3-month old child with active leishmania tropica, an insect-born disease that causes scarring sores, on her face.

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