Cloudy with a Chance of Quetzals

Costa Rica is famous for its jungles and forests, its clean, green landscapes, and its eco-tourism credentials. Parks and reserves cover over a quarter of the country’s territory, and many tourists come here to walk through the jungle and look for the wildlife. And two of the most famous of its many protected areas are the Cloud Forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena.

Oddly, Monteverde owes its existence to Quakers from the USA, who left the States in the 1950s in protest over conscription into the US Army during the Korean War. Much like the Mennonites of Belize, their pacifist principles put them at odds with their home government, so they left; and after a period of international wandering, they arrived in Costa Rica, and eventually settled in the green mountains of Monteverde. Costa Rica had just abolished its army (and today it’s famous for being one of the world’s few countries with no military); and the countryside of the northern highlands was perfect for raising cattle (also like the Mennonites, the Quakers seem to have a knack for making dairy products, and are famous for their cheese; and before the tourist tsunami, the local dairy was the region’s biggest employer). In order to protect their new home, the Quakers agreed to preserve the forest at the top of the neighbouring mountains, and the rest is history.

But now, like so many other places in Costa Rica, tourism (particularly eco-tourism) is the main earner, and people come here in their thousands to trek through the nearby cloud forests. And fly through the air on ziplines (the first in the world were opened here); plus horse ride, rappel down waterfalls, walk along hanging bridges, take aerial trams and sky trains, and go on coffee tours. As a result of this tourism flood (and its accompanying infrastructure), the main town of Santa Elena doesn’t feel especially authentic or Costa Rican, and the locals are massively outnumbered by white people (most of whom seem to be from North America); and all the locals that I meet are in the tourism business. But there’s plenty of cheap hotels, fast wi-fi everywhere, and more international food than the canteen at the United Nations.

In order to try and escape from the tourist hordes, I’m up in time for the first shuttle bus from Santa Elena town to Monteverde. Unusually, for rich, developed Costa Rica, the road to the reserve is in terrible shape, looking like the roads you see in the rest of Central America – apparently, the government keeps asking the locals if they want the roads paved, and the locals keep saying no, reasoning that easier access will increase visitor numbers to unsustainable levels. So apparently there are limits as to how many tourists is too many, even in Costa Rica. Despite the car park being full of cars when I arrive, the tourist buses haven’t got here yet, so I can get a head start on them. But on the downside, it’s pissing down with rain. And it doesn’t stop all day. Santa Elena town was quite warm (and most importantly, dry); but the cloud forests are several hundred metres higher, and on the tops of mountains – mountains which are located right in the middle of the skinniest bit of the Central American isthmus. So moisture-laden winds from both the Pacific and the Caribbean blow up here from the coasts, then condense into clouds and dump rain, all day every day. And even when it’s not raining, the fact that the whole forest is in the clouds, with nearly 100% humidity, means that everything is surrounded by (and covered in) a kind of dense, dripping wetness.

To be fair, the whole environment does have a kind of ethereal beauty to it, with the stunted trees, the swirling mists, the chattering birdsongs, and the steady plip-plop of all the water. If Tim Burton was directing a movie set in a magical forest, it would probably look like this. I almost expect to see the headless horseman from Sleepy Hollow come galloping out of the clouds at me. Every tree trunk is covered in mosses and plants, most of them getting their nutrients from the mist floating around them. There are huge ferns that wouldn’t look out of place in Jurassic Park, numerous dangling vines, and various exotic-looking (and poisonous-looking) mushrooms. And this being one of the most touristed places in one of the most touristed countries, the park management have helpfully covered the trails in wooden boards or stabilised them with concrete slabs. So my boots just get wet, instead of muddy and wet.

All this cloud means that the view from the mirador is rubbish – a total white-out, with the added ‘pleasure’ of a constant blast of cold, wet wind in the face. My Lonely Planet guidebook describes it as “magical, even on cloudy days, when the fine mist washes over you in waves.” I beg to differ. But on one of the other trails is a hanging bridge, swaying gently in the wind, which gives you a birds-eye view of the forest. And one of the most famous birds of the cloud forest is the Resplendent Quetzal. Worshipped by the Maya, and famous for its rarity and its multi-coloured plumage, with its blue mohawked head, red breast, and long green tail, it’s one of the most colourful birds in the world. Unlike many birds, for some reason Quetzals can’t survive in captivity, so you can’t see them in zoos or aviaries, only in the wild. And having spotted keel-billed toucans in Belize, and scarlet macaws in Honduras, I was rather hoping to add to my short-but-colourful list of avians.

But it’s not to be. While on the bridge, I hear a bird-like sound that I imagine could be a Quetzal. And not long after, a group of tourists led by a guide trudges along the bridge towards me, shaking and swaying the structure to the point where I have to grab on to something. The guide explains to me that the noise was actually him, making bird sounds to attract our feathered friends. And he wasn’t even making a Quetzal noise, he was doing an impression of a three-wattled bellbird. Which just goes to show how well I know my bird calls. The guide says that there is a healthy Quetzal population in the park, but they don’t live around here – too many noisy tourists!

The next day I opt for another hike, this time in the neighbouring Santa Elena reserve. Like Monteverde, it’s a cloud forest, but at a slightly lower elevation, so hopefully not quite as cold and wet. It gets a fraction of the tourist traffic that Monteverde receives, so I may have more of the place to myself. And I push the boat out and hire a guide, as the only animals I saw the previous day were a family of beetles eating the decomposing corpse of a rat on one of the trails, and a coatimundi rummaging for scraps through the bins near the entrance.

And no matter how much you pay for these guys’ services (sorry ladies, I’m not being sexist, but they do all seem to be men), it’s worth it. Plenty of training, years of practice, and a huge knowledge of the animals and plants, means that they see things you couldn’t possibly notice. And then they explain them in detail and give you the names in English, Spanish, and Latin.

And sure enough, after walking past the giant ferns and sprouting bromeliads, and over the wide trails of swarming leafcutter ants, the guide finds the hole in the bottom of a tree where an orange-kneed tarantula lives; and he takes great pleasure in coaxing the frighteningly-large spider out of its hole with a stick, and pushing my face close enough to it for me to see the hairs on its legs. There’s an observation tower, from which one can view all the way to Lake Arenal and Volcano Arenal (at least, one can during the 15 minutes out of every year when there’s no cloud).   And at the very end of the tour, at the back of the information centre, we find the motherlode, as the guide suddenly exclaims in delight while walking in front of me (I actually thought he’d seen a jaguar or a tapir or some other rare animal). Hunching down into the mud, he points at a small paw print in the ground – an ocelot, apparently. And a few metres away from the feline’s pug mark, we really hit the jackpot – a tiny, dry pile of shit. The guide can barely contain himself, and picks up the ocelot scat to examine its contents. There’s hair in it, from the cat’s squirrel dinner. The guide is still excited to find the cat evidence so close to the park entrance, and runs off to find his colleagues and get a camera and a tape measure; and while I relax in the cafeteria, I can see several more guides running back to check out the finds. Clearly, these people love their jobs, and are dedicated to preserving Costa Rica’s unique and beautiful environment, and the animals that live in it.

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