Sunday, November 12, 2006

Travel Edition - Hiking in Clouds In Costa Rica

Our second trip to Costa Rica started with a weather report from the Captain: “I hope you guys are planning on doing some surfing--October is the wettest month of the year.” Actually, we weren’t planning on catching any waves and, about three hours later, we were climbing the hardscrabble road to Santa Elena in Monteverde. As we drove up the mountain road – which rolled, twisted and turned, rising to a point 5,000 feet above sea level-- we marveled at the green pastures and the apparent slow pace of life. Locals looked up in mild interest and smiled as we passed slowly by. We waved affably and tried not to overplay our interest in what they were up to.

Costa Rica is rapidly growing in popularity and, in the year between our last visit and this one, a strip mall with an American-style supermarket – is that “Maxi-Bodega”? – had opened up in Liberia. Liberia is regional capital of Guanacaste and the location of the recently expanded northern Costa Rican airport. We had landed here with the intention of spending a few days hiking in the rain forest followed by five days in the sun. As we de-planed, the likelihood of five days in the sun was dimming but, as we entered the clouds in our approach to Santa Elena, I wasn’t thinking about that at all in anticipation of seeing the rainforest firsthand.

Dusk was closing in as we jolted into Santa Elena and the ground-level clouds made it virtually impossible to see anything. Mrs. PND and I had settled on Hotel Sapo Dorado (she really didn’t have much to do with it) – the name has something to do with frogs – which turned out to be both empty and rustically adorable. Staffers told us that the hotel is usually full between mid-December and April with a mix of European and US guests. Fifteen cabins are spread across a hill above Santa Elena, most with views of the town and the Nicoya Peninsula beyond. Once settled in our cabin (which had an outdoor lanai, two queen-size beds and a basic bathroom), we proceeded to dinner in the hotel restaurant. As we discussed plans for the next day, we were a little worried about the rain but decided we would hike through the Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve.

Costa Rica has an aggressive ecological program and recently designated a large tract of forest in Northern Guanacaste as national park--though they haven’t yet decided what they will actually do with it. It has neither bathroom nor navigable road but, nevertheless, it represents the country’s desire to create yet another feast for eco-tourists. At 8:30 am the next day, we found ourselves hiking through the cloud forest on a route suggested by a park ranger based at the trail head. On the well-maintained trail, we rarely faced any mud or other hazards. I was a bit disappointed about this, since I had bought hiking boots and Mrs. PND only had Nikes--I was looking for a real hike, with real mud. At this altitude, we quickly became short of breath and regularly stopped as we climbed through the greenery. Tall trees covered in epiphytes and wrapped in vines towered above us; others seemed to have succumbed to the stranglehold of the hangers-on and had fallen across the forest floor, taking a chunk of the canopy with it. We later read that winds at this level can be very strong and often result in casualties.

Occasionally, we emerged from the dense forest to stand on the edge of a ridge, where we surveyed the peaks and valleys intersecting the region. Sixty minutes into our hike, we arrived at the Continental Divide, which provided a rest stop as well as an opportunity to look out over the forest toward the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other – or at least we could have, if the clouds had cooperated. The return trip took us over one of the hanging bridges common to Costa Rican parks and reserves, and we resolved to visit another of these reserves the following day. That day’s supposed 3.5 hr. hike took us about 2.5 hrs. and, as we returned to the car, the rain started to hammer down.

The Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve is only 10 mins. from Santa Elena and we were eating a well-deserved lunch by 11:30 that morning. As the rain pounded away, we spent the rest of our day reading in our cabin in the clouds. I plotted our activities for the next day and wondered why we weren’t spending more than two days up there. . .

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