53. Santa Elena / Monteverde
If you have read all the way through this blog, you will know we like to do things on the cheap. Today was no exception. From Playa del Coco we caught a bus to the nearby main town, Liberia. We asked around at the bus station to find the next bus we needed to catch, handing over an obscene amount of cash when we arrived at the appropriate window. While waiting for the bus we took a walk around the surrounding desolate streets, only to discover another bus terminal down the road. It didn't take long for us to learn that these buses were much more affordable. I sprinted back to the first terminal, begged and pleaded for a refund, which was eventually granted. This was followed by another sprint back to the cheap bus, jumping on as it was leaving. Success!
After four buses and over four hours of waiting around time between buses, we reached our destination, Santa Elena. The last bus was the most infuriating. It was only one step up from a chicken bus and it took 2.5 hours to travel 40 kilometres along a winding dirt road. We were so exhausted by the time we arrived that we said yes to the first person who approached us with an accommodation offer.
The hostel ended up being a decent place, with a large kitchen, free breakfast, travel agency attached and tons of brochures for all the touristy things we planned on doing. They even advertised hot water showers, which was a luxury we often went without and didn't normally need in this part of the world. Santa Elena was different. It was cold. Jacket and pants cold. Blankets on the bed cold. No chance of getting in a cold shower cold. Perfect weather for red wine cold. It was fantastic.
We achieved a lot in the Monteverde region. Here's a rundown:
1. Monteverde cloud forest. It took the bus 30 minutes to drive the 6km from Santa Elena to the entrance of the park. I could have run there faster. Half of the trails were closed but we meandered along the rest. The forest was absolutely stunning, with low hanging clouds obscuring the tops of the tall trees, and droplets of water regularly dripping on our heads. For over four hours we walked at a snail pace, searching hard for any animals that might be hiding from view. All we spotted were a few birds, fuzzy caterpillars and some playful squirrels. We could hear monkeys but I guess they knew where the quiet, tourist-free areas of the forest were and resided there. Maybe next time we should sign up with a group, like almost everyone else did - the tour guides probably knew where the animals hung out.
2. From the cloud forest we walked all the way back to Santa Elena, stopping at a coffee roaster (for Danny), a wholefoods store (natural peanut butter!) and a butterfly garden (fairly average; the leafcutter ant colony was more fascinating than the butterflies).
3. The next day I tried to go for a run along the streets, but there was not one single flat section of road in town. My legs were tired from all the walking the day before, and it had been months since I had undertaken any sort of serious hill training. The cold weather was a godsend though, keeping me going while I toyed with the idea of quitting. Who knew when I would experience temperatures like these again?
4. Canopy (zipline) tour. Danny and I had completed a few of these before but not for a number of years (not counting that seated, uber-long, single zipline in Mexico where I wasn't in control of the launch) so we thought we would give it another go. The first few ziplines were short (i.e. boring) but they slowly increased in size, with some being a few hundred metres long. The scenery was beautiful, with forest stretching out as far as the eye could see. In the middle of the tour there was a small Tarzan swing, which of course Danny wouldn't touch with a 10 foot pole. I loved it, and would have done it again if they had let me. The last two ziplines were "superman" cables, where we travelled face-down head-first, looking at the trees below. The first was a kilometre long. It was surreal, almost like flying except for the annoying whirring sound above me from the cable. The second was through a tunnel, almost pitch black in the middle. It was awesome.
5. Night tour. Danny and I were taken out to a forest near Monteverde by a knowledgeable, English-speaking guide. Our priority was mammals, specifically sloths. If the sloth isn't the coolest animal in the world, then I don't know what is. My main goal in Costa Rica was to see a sloth out in the wild, and here was the perfect place to achieve that. No such luck. We did see an owl, a pygmy frog, fireflies, a tarantula the size of my hand (no exaggeration), other spiders and insects, and some sort of glow in the dark fungus (more interesting than it sounds). We also received a whole botany lecture about the ficus tree: the ficus seeds are dispersed by birds or wind, landing on top of other trees. They then grow their roots down to the ground, completely taking over its host. Sometimes the original tree dies, leaving a hollow core (we saw a few of these). Fascinating, isn't it? With no sloth sightings in this forest, our guide did his best to find one on the streets on the ride back to our hostel. Right on the edge of town a sloth was spotted, hanging from a branch that was swaying violently in the wind. Our first sloth! I didn't feel like I was seeing it in its natural environment, surrounded by buildings, roads and street signs, but it was easily the highlight of the tour.
6. Self-guided hike. A five and a half hour trek exploring the mountains around town. First stop, after a tough, 30 minute climb, was a hollowed out ficus tree that we could climb, straight up through the centre of the trunk. The roots formed a large, mesh-like pattern, making it easy to obtain a solid footing. Towards the top the tree started bending sideways so that it became parallel to the ground, and at the same time the trunk grew narrower. There was a spot to exit and climb out on to a branch, but I wasn't overly confident in my tree climbing skills (not having practised for a number of decades). Instead I poked my head out, took a few photos of the town and surrounding countryside and then shimmied my way back down. Our hike continued for another few kilometres until we hit the Children's Eternal Rainforest, set up by children in Sweden who wanted to save Costa Rica's rainforests (how sweet is that?). The forest consisted of a 3.5 kilometre loop, on which we saw agoutis, a whole family of coatis (yeah, we didn't know what these animals were either), a few birds (including the awesome hummingbird) and multitudes of insects. The sound of bellbirds as we ventured through the forest brought a tranquil ambience to our trek. After this we headed back to the coffee roaster (where Danny received a free coffee tasting) and the wholefoods store. You know when there are signs above food samples saying "free tasting" and they expect you to take a quarter of a teaspoon? I think I ended up eating half a cup of organic crunchy peanut butter. It was possibly the best peanut butter I had ever tasted. I had no regrets.
The inside of the ficus tree, looking up.
7. Danny visited a brewery. Twice.