Cloud Forests of Monteverde II - 6 to 14 November 2012

Published: November 15th 2012
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We liked living in our log cabin and enjoyed the peace and solitude of the grounds which bordered the cloud forest. There was always plenty of wildlife wandering around the cabin that we were never short of company. If we needed supplies there were a couple of small stores nearby or we could walk down the hill to the tiny town of Santa Elena- although we had the long steep climb to get back from the town to our cabin........We were about 2km from the town in one direction and several Forest Reserves for hiking in the other. I should warn you here before you read on that this is a rather long blog so do not feel obliged to read it all..............

After a morning’s hike it was lovely to relax outside our cabin surrounded by banana plants and and enjoy the peaceful setting and the songs of the birds. One day a family of Agouti walking around our cabin, parents complete with ‘young ones’ in tow who kept stopping and her parents had to keep going back to collect him......... On another day a mother with twin cubs wandered around without taking too much notice of us and again she was having difficulty controlling her young cubs. We were also often visited by a White-nosed Coati - who would search around the grounds for food and particularly like climbing up the banana plants. We had left our banana skins on the picnic table outside for the birds but the Coati sniffed them out and we watched him climb up on to the table and devour any banana left on the skins. It was lovely to sit and watch him before he disappeared up a tree or into the undergrowth. One day we watched as a Coati chased of another ‘on his patch’ along our path and out into the forest, only for the one that was being chased to return about ten minutes later and sneak back up the path............We were quite surprised one day to see a large Coyote wandering around outside the cabin, we grabbed the camera but it disappeared as soon as he saw us and we never saw it again. The banana plants also attracted many birds as well as Variegated Squirrels and they would strip a banana in seconds and disappear down the plant with the whole banana in their mouths. We were lucky with so many bananas plants around the cabin (the grounds used to be a farm) so we could watch the birds feeding on the ripe bananas just feet away from us. We were able to spot many different species at Los Pinos including; Baltimore Oriole, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, Blue-gray Tanager, Rufous-collared Sparrow, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Hoffman’s & Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Grayish & Buff-throated Salators, Great Grackle, Red-fronted Parrotlet, White-fronted Parrot, Brown Jay, Slate-throated Redstart and the vivid red Summer Tanager as well as lots of Warblers and Hummingbirds which are so hard to identify. I have included a number of additional photographs at the end of our blog and if you scroll down after the text you will be able to see them if you are interested - Simon I know you will be. One day whilst watching the fruit eating birds feeding on the bananas we turned around and sitting on the lower branches of a tree were a pair of beautiful Blue-crowned Motmots. We had last seen these in Tobago which was where we met our friends Bob and Elaine all those years ago. We were staying at a hotel where Princess Margaret had spent her honeymoon and can clearly remember the lovely Hummingbirds as well as the large Motmots quite vividly.

Not all was lovely though at the cabin as one day whilst cleaning my teeth a large Leech started crawling up through the plughole..........being an eco-friendly hotel they do not use any chemicals so it’s what one must expect in the jungle I suppose - takes some getting used to though.........another day I had a small leech hanging on the back of my leg - ugh...... We also found a long flat worm wriggling just outside our door...........On a nicer note though one morning we were visited by yet another Agouti who wandered across the driveway and disappeared - try as I might I could not spot him for ages until I saw his little ears poking out of the undergrowth. I stood still and watched him but he got fed up with waiting and darted out in front of me before scrambling away as quickly as he could.......they can really run...........these little critters.....

We visited the Monteverde Ecological Sanctuary located in a transition forest nearby that goes from humid to dry on short trails. We followed one and were lucky to see several Agouti as well as a White-nosed Coati near the park entrance. There were good lookouts out over the Gulfo de Nicoya and we had a clear view of several of the island in the bay. We continued our walk, descending rapidly into the forest and took a side trail to a waterfall but on the way nearly stepped on a ......Snake. Luckily it slithered quickly away, it was brown and quite thin but very long all of six feet - although Paul’s version will say three feet - see what you think in the photograph - later Paul revised the size though, upwards..........

We got up ‘extra’ early one day and reception called us a taxi to take us to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve so that we could hike some of its trails. Monteverde is not a village in the traditional sense of the word as there is no centre of town - only dirt lanes leading off from the ‘main’ dirt road to various farms, hotels and restaurants with the road dead-ending at the forest entrance. The taxi driver was obviously used to taking visitors as he expertly maneuvered around the numerous potholes on our way, but then most of the roads here are the same....... On the way we passed Stella’s Bakery, a Chocolate Shop, a Bat Jungle, an Arts & Craft Cooperative as well as a Cheese Factory outside of which was a cart with a couple of large oxen on reins........ We thought we would come back and look around here another day as it looked quite interesting. At the entrance to the reserve we were asked if we wanted a guide but decided we would walk the trails on our own as after Curi Cancha we thought we were a little ‘natured out’. The Ranger asked us how long we wanted to walk and we said about two to three hours. He gave us some indication of routes to take so we set off with map in hand.

As soon as we entered the cloud forest we heard the sound of the Three-wattled Bellbird - it gives a loud, characteristic bong. The bird is highly unusual and distinctive with the male capable of producing the loudest bird call on earth, a thunderous bell-like sound which can be heard over a kilometre away (we thought it sounded more like a gate shutting though). The male’s head, neck and chest are white, while the rest of the body is a bright chestnut-rufous. It has three long, fleshy, black-grey wattles hanging from the corners of its mouth and the upper part of the beak - hence its name. Like the Quetzal it feeds on the fruits of the Lauraceae tree (wild avocado). The bellbirds that breed in Monteverde make a complex, altitudinal migration. In June, after the breeding season, the birds cross over the continental divide from the Atlantic slope and descend a few hundred feet to the remnant forests on the Pacific slope. They congregate there for a couple of months and then fly back across the divide, descending to sea level on the Atlantic coast, where they gather in Nicaragua, just over Costa Rica's northern border. A few months later they return to Costa Rica, making a cross-country flight back over the mountains to the Pacific lowlands, and then, two months later, return to Monteverde to breed and begin the cycle once more.

We continued out walk with the sounds of the Bellbirds all around us and even though we could hear them so clearly we never did get to see one which was a shame (perhaps we should have had a guide). It was good though to be able to walk along at our own pace and enjoy the peacefulness of the forest. We continued for about an hour before the route took us steeply upwards and we came out to a double lookout at the top of the mountain, one side you could see the Pacific Coast and all was calm but on the other side the wind was blowing and cloud obliterated most of the forest canopy. We watched as this cloud blew over the top of the mountain and drifted down the Pacific slope towards the Golfo de Nicoya. It was awesome to watch this happening before our eyes - we were at the top of the continental divide. We were joined by a couple on their honeymoon from Colorado and we chatted to them for a while. They had just come from Arenal Volcano but they never did get to see it ‘free of cloud’ so again we are lucky to have so much time to wait an experience the beauties of this country.

We walked on and on and were getting quite tired as the track would descend for a short while and then would climb again for about twice as long - we seemed to be walking continuously up hill........ After a while we noticed a different sound coming from the forest, a huge roar which got louder and louder and then we realized it was coming from Howler Monkeys. It was so loud you thought they were right next to you but like the Bellbird we did not see a Howler that day although we did get a brief glimpse of a White-nosed Coati climbing up a tree and then we could see the tree canopy rattling hundreds of feet above us as it foraged for food.

After walking for a couple of hours we came to a Skywalk - a suspension bridge that traversed the tree canopy crossing over a canyon far below. There was a large sign saying maximum 10 people on the bridge at one time. We could see a group of schoolchildren with their teacher in the middle of the bridge and although there was probably more than ten we thought they were only ‘little’ so we started across. The bridge was quite wobbly and it was weird walking across as you could see through the floor railings as well as the side to the tree tops all around - it was just like walking on trees. While it was terrifying because of the height it was also breathtaking to be above the canopy and look down on the jungle. Taking photos from the bridges was very difficult though with people walking across which made one’s hands ‘shake’ - I must admit though I did not linger and was glad when I managed to reach the other side. That being said a few years ago I would have had to turn around and walk all of the two hours back to the entrance - Paul would have been really annoyed!!!! The cloud forest canopy has an amazing variety of colors and patterns and it was lovely to see the large trees ferns from the hanging bridge as well as the taller trees stretching up to the sky trying to reach the sun. It was amazing to see so many different species of plants and flowers and I noticed there seemed to be a variety of begonias growing wild in the forest as well as a multitude of philodendrons, lichens, mosses and bromeliads as we had seen in Curi-Cancha the day after we arrived. Bromeliads often hold water in their leaves and one of the Poison Dart Frogs deposits her tadpoles in these tiny pools of water. We have yet to see a frog up close although there were several around us in our apartment in Samara, particularly when it rained and they jumped up on to the porch.

It was interesting to learn later that until recently, little was known about life in the tops of tropical forests, as it was nearly impossible to get so high. Early explorers used ropes and pulleys or ladders carved into tree trunks to make their way up - more them than me......... Today, biologists explore the forest canopy using towers, suspension bridges and construction cranes - much easier by far. Biologists also now know that about 90 percent of all organisms in a rainforest are found in the canopy. The sun that barely reaches the forest floor strikes treetops with full force, fueling the photosynthesis that eventually results in leaves, fruit and seeds. Since there's a bounty of good food way up in the canopy, animals abound in the ‘heights’ as well, as we had observed with the White-nosed Coati..........

Once we had reached the other side of the bridge, more schoolchildren were waiting to cross with their teacher and one young lad wanted to know what our names were and then proceeded to spell them. He got ‘Paul’ right but had real problems with ‘Sheila’, the teacher said that I would have to change my name....... We stopped and chatted to them for a while and then decided to do a detour of an extra walk (one hour) to a nearby waterfall which was well worth it in the end and we were the only ones there to enjoy the view as the water cascaded from the top of the mountain to the forest floor.

At the end of our hike we stopped in a cafe near the entrance where there was also a gift shop selling local crafts. We rested for a while drinking costa rican coffee and enjoyed some cheese and almond cake which was jolly good. A park ranger then organised a taxi to take us home back along the bumpy track..........we noticed a tee-shirt for sale in the shop which said ‘I Survived the Monteverde Road‘ - perhaps we should have brought one of those.........

The next day we decided to visit the Cheese Factory we had seen the day before on our way to the forest. The factory had a side shop selling some of the products they produced so we bought some cheese and yoghurt to try. There was a viewing window where you could watch the workers making the cheese which was quite interesting to watch - must have been a bit strange for them though having us tourists peering through the windows whilst they worked......... One of the workers was elbow’s deep in a huge tank manually separating the ‘curds from the whey’, whilst another was taking samples from another large tank. The Monteverde Community was established in 1951 by Quakers from the United States who wanted to leave behind a constant fear of war. They chose Costa Rica primarily because it had no standing army and it still doesn’t.. Although they came here to farm the land, they wisely recognized the need to preserve the rare Cloud Forest that covered the mountain slopes above their fields, and to that end they dedicated the largest adjacent tract of cloud forest as the Monteverde Biological Reserve. In 1953 the settlers started a cheese making industry with 50 Jersey cattle they had brought from the US which became the first formal business to be established in Monteverde.

The Quakers had produced the first pasteurized cheese ever to be produced in Costa Rica. In its 60 years of history the Monteverde Cheese Factory has grown to be the second largest cheese maker in Costa Rica, producing over twenty different types of cheeses and is the now the economic base in the Tilarán Mountain Range.

Just before the cheese factory was Stella’s Bakery where we stopped for a coffee which the lady owner freshly brewed for us. All the food was homemade on the premises so we purchased some rolls and croissants for breakfast and decided we were definitely walk back here again to sample some of the cakes and fruit pies......

Opposite the bakery was a Crafts Cooperative selling goods handmade by local people, most of which were made using raw material indigenous to the area. The proceeds of sales went towards helping local impoverished families, who benefited from the income raised. The cooperative was founded by eight local women 1982 and has since grown to nearly ninety people. A non profit organization, its aim is to provide local women with an opportunity to gain independence and at the same time learn new skills. The shop had a large selections of gifts at very reasonable prices and we noticed that they were all very well made. Although we do not purchase anything for ourselves when we travel I did buy a small homemade cushion cover with an embroidered Resplendant Quetzal which perhaps we will use when we do decide to settle down...........

One day we decided to walk to the nearby Children’s Eternal Rainforest known as Bosque Eterno de los Ninos (BEN) in Spanish where there are several good hiking trails. BEN exists thanks to children around the world who took part in what is known as the Children’s Rainforest Movement. The fundraising movement began in 1987 at a primary school in Sweden when a teacher was helping her class learn about rainforest and the animals that need them for their own survival. They found out about deforestation and how this was starting to hurt a beautiful forest in the Tilaran Mountains of Costa Rica. A nine year old boy asked what they could do to help and the class decided to raise some money to buy some of the forest. The children donated and raised about £1,000 which was enough to buy about 15 acres of land. The movement grew and other children from around the world wanted to help as well and many fundraising projects to help protect the rainforest began...... Today BEN is the largest private reserve in Costa Rica, with an area of 54,000 acres of protected tropical forest in the northwestern region of Costa Rica.

We thought we had arrived at the entrance but it was still a long track way from the 'main' track. It had been raining for two days non-stop so the ground was pretty wet but today as we walked along the sun was shining and although it was extremely windy it was a pleasant day for a hike. We finally arrived at a small kiosk where there was a shop selling souvenirs and several displays about the fauna and flora in the reserve many of the exhibits had been prepared by local children. A noticeboard listed the animals and birds that had been seen in the previous month, October and also November and we were hoping to add to the list. The lady who gave us our tickets said to only keep to the main trails she had highlighted on the map (which she let us use provided we returned it at the end of the walk as it was the only one she had) as the many of the tracks were closed due to landslides and were requiring maintenance. She also told us to stay clear of one of the 'wobbly trees’ which was near a notice as she said, ’this was dangerous’ and with all the wind it might come down - she advised us to walk quickly by! We asked if anyone else was on the trails todday but she said, 'no' and to be careful (I think everyone else had decided it was not the day to walk for a walk in the forest!).......

Well in the end it was a pleasant hike although we did not see much signs of life, we think all the birds and animals were probably sheltering because the wind was high and debris kept falling all around us, so perhaps so should have we! However as we arrived back at the entrance we came to a small lookout platform above the forest canopy and it was there that we spotted a Keel-billed Toucan. We saw a flash of bright yellow and then noticed the toucan hanging on to a branch, which was being swung vigorously in the wind - it looked like it was enjoying its trapeze, high up in the trees. We remembered to hand the map back and met an elderly chap who said he had come to Monteverde from the US in 1966 to see birds and had never returned home. He was currently undertaking a research project at the reserve to identify the songs of 400 different birds and said he spent hours tracking them through the forest. He was designing an internet program whereby anyone could ‘click’ on a map identify where they were, ‘click’ on a particular bird and then the song would play. He said that the birds name would be in English and Spanish and that this did not take up much space but the audio of the songs was proving a different matter. He said he was working with another scientist who was identifying all the ‘trees’ in the reserve - both of which seemed like a lifetime’s work to me. I said perhaps they should join up there projects so that one could ‘click’ on a tree and know what birds might be feeding there - he just smiled........... Before we left the reserve we added our ‘Keel-billed ‘ to the list - it was the first one seen in November so that was good.

Every few days we would walk to Stella’s Bakery to sample her homemade cakes but also found another equally good coffee shop just outside Santa Elena which was just before the long uphill walk back to our cabin! So which ever way we walked we had good facilities in either direction. Probably better not to stay here too long or will be putting on some weight - but they both have such long walks to get to............. The coffee at the Common Cup Coffee Shop though was the best we had in Costa Rica and the owner made delightful designs in the froth on top. As we walked about the area we often saw a couple of local policemen together on scooters and they always waved and said hello as did most of the locals around the Monteverde area - very friendly people up in the mountains. One day when we were walking down hill into town an elderly lady stopped us and asked us if we spoke Spanish - we said - un poco español - that’s OK she said because I speak English. She then offered us a massage........... maybe on the way back up the hill........

Paul and I often wandered up to the Hydroponic Garden to collect our free veggies, salads, herbs and strawberries which was a real treat but it always felt strange to just wander in and help ourselves - but the gardeners just smiled at us or chatted for a while before returning to their jobs. All the time we stayed at Los Pinos Cabanas we did not have to buy any fresh foods and the tomatoes were particularly good - never knew you could make so much with them - I think we ate them in some form most days. Did not repeat the mistake we made though thinking that the large orange peppers we had picked were sweet peppers when in fact they were hot chillies...........We were getting a little fed up with the same meals though and longed for a roast chicken dinner which we were really missing, but you can imagine how difficult that was with just three little burners and no oven - it did not quite work but was just about edible though!

Some evenings we would sit inside and watch the rainclouds gather before a heavy downpour and one night we had a spectacular thunder storm right overhead. The roof of the cabin was being bombed with debris from the trees all around us all night and then all day.........On our last day in our cabin we walked around one of the trails at Los Pinos and were really lucky to see the Emerald Toucanet again, the only Costa Rican bird with green breast and belly - it was well hidden in the forest but flew out and we had a clear view for a while but were unable to get a good photograph but I have included it at the end of the blog. This was the first bird we had seen in Monteverde so I suppose it was apt that it was probably the last one also.

Monteverde is indeed a stunning area and we enjoyed our stay in the mountains and cloud forest. The unbelievable biodiversity found here has given it international acclaim as one of the most exceptional refuges in the entire world. There has been talk of making the area more accessible by sealing some of the tracks but locals are happy that it stays the way it is and we could not agree more even though we knew we had a bone-jarring journey ahead of us as tomorrow as we move on to San Jose and then transfer to Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean Coast - see you there

Additional photos below
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16th November 2012

That seals the deal - we have to visit CR next autumn! Save all your tips for us please. Your photos make Jim very envious. Safe travelling, love S & J

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