Category Archives: Activities and Adventures

Monteverde, The primer: an essential guide to one of Costa Rica’s tourism gems

A typical tourist visit to Monteverde involves a large bus with a yellow “turismo” placard attached to the back. The bus delivers its occupants to one of the several large hotels in the area, then later deposits those same travelers at one of several tourist-centric restaurants. The following morning the bus takes the group to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve for a guided hike down its world-famous paths.

There may or may not be another outing, another dinner and one or two more nights at the hotel but, one way or another, the bus and its occupants soon depart the mountain for their next stop, which is often Lake Arenal.

The occupants of the bus can say, correctly, that they visited Monteverde. They don’t realize it, but they actually passed through, perhaps even stayed in, one or two other towns during their time in Monteverde, which is actually a community and not a formal town.

When the Quakers from the United States and Europe moved to this zone in the 1950s they settled in the area formally known as Cerro Plano (Flat Hill). Lucille “Lucky” Guindon, one of those Quaker settlers, believes the greater area was originally called Cerro Plano because hunters down in the nearby, steep-walled San Luis Valley enjoyed its relatively flat expanse.

Ms. Guindon also explains that while the Quaker settlers named their community Monteverde — one word — somewhere along the way, likely inspired by the tourist traffic, the Costa Rican government re-named the larger district Monte Verde (two words).

See also: Monteverde – You can get there from here, but you’ll need some pura vida

Soon after their arrival, the Quakers erected their Meeting House and school, and also created a factory to produce cheese and generate income. Most importantly, in the early 1970s, the Quakers agreed to lease a significant amount of land they’d previously set aside to protect the area’s watershed. The new purpose of that land? Helping to form the Monteverde Reserve.

The population of the Monteverde community is relatively sparse (less than 800 versus around 7,000 for the greater Monte Verde district), with much of the land devoted to working farms and a variety of other large, residential properties. Many of these belong to members and descendants of the original Quaker group. Although there are far fewer businesses in this area, those that operate predominantly cater to tourists, which means that while most of the residents readily speak Spanish, it is also very common to hear English.

It is not possible to venture to the unpaved roads of Monteverde without first traveling through Santa Elena: 606 is the connector from the north or south. Santa Elena, which is located on the opposite side of the district, is different from Monteverde in many ways. Unlike the large, comfy tour buses that frequent Monteverde, Santa Elena is frequented by the crowded tourist vans as well as a continuous stream of backpackers who walk from the public bus station just up the hill to one of its many hostels.

Santa Elena is where business is done. A hair dresser and a veterinary clinic are positioned close to the municipal building. There are two large grocery stores, three pharmacies, several hardware stores, the post office, three banks, several bars and, of course, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) office. Unlike Monteverde, the roads in the town square — which is actually a series of one-way streets that form a triangle — are paved.

The lots in Santa Elena are smaller, akin to what is found in much of San José. Unlike Monteverde, there are sidewalks throughout the downtown area and even a couple of stop signs, though it is wise not to count on everyone abiding by that fact. Catholicism is the dominant religion in this part of the district, and there is both an “old” Catholic Church and a “new” one — a super-sized structure that at this point is still in need of walls and a floor.

Santa Elena is the “Monteverde” that first greets backpackers and budget travelers. Tickets to all of the attractions in the area, including the many parks offering zip-lining, are sold by any number of businesses. Hint: those stating that they are the “official” source of tickets do so because 20% of the sale price goes back to them as the seller. The 20% commission is a large source of revenue for a variety of operations and, no, tourists do not receive a discount if they go directly to the attraction to buy their tickets.

Santa Elena is therefore a melting pot, though many of the ingredients are temporary. While there is quite a bit of English, French, German and other languages spoken, there are also many Ticos. Tourists who get accustomed to bilingual staff at the hotels and hostels quickly find that, quite understandably, the employees of the banks, hardware stores and most of the other local businesses speak only Spanish. There is a sprinkling of inhabitants from abroad, but the vast majority of the permanent residents here are Costa Rican.

As you leave Santa Elena on the main road, 620, and head towards Monteverde proper. you’ll briefly find yourself in a town sandwiched between the two: Cerro Plano. This is the portion of the original Cerro Plano that wasn’t part of the Quaker purchase. It has a number of hotels and restaurants, though not as many as Santa Elena. The housing in Cerro Plano is a mix of small lots as well as several larger plots.

Here, too, the bulk of the permanent residents are Tico, but there are immigrants who have settled here permanently — so much so that one spot is informally named “Gringo Hill.” There is also an ever-changing group of visiting teachers who teach in one of the district’s three bilingual private schools, and students who take advantage of the many homestay opportunities in Cerro Plano.

It is easy to miss that fact that you’re in Cerro Plano. To some degree, this is because of its position between Santa Elena and Monteverde. The primary lack of name recognition, however, comes from the fact that many of its larger businesses present themselves to the world as being part of Monteverde. Two of the larger, more luxurious hotels in the district are located in Cerro Plano, but all references to their location on their websites and brochures simply state “Monteverde.” “Green mountain” is apparently a better branding option than “flat hill,” and, unlike both Santa Elena and Monteverde, there is no reserve to tout in Cerro Plano.

With all the differences, it’s surprising but true that the distance from bustling, crowded downtown Santa Elena to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is roughly six kilometers — and 300 meters of additional elevation. By car or bus this distance passes relatively quickly, though the unpaved portion will make you drive slowly whether you like it or not. It’s worth noting that up until the past decade, much of the traffic was by horseback.

Part of what makes the larger community unique is the spirit of cooperation between these residents with diverse ethnicities, religions and languages. However, as in any community, issues do exist. Whatever displeasure a portion of the Quaker community may feel about their conservation efforts being converted into tourism is matched by members of the Tico community who believe that local miners inhabited the area at the time of the Quaker purchase, with indigenous groups pre-dating the miners. They do not appreciate the notion that Monteverde was created by Quakers.

Those debates are not easily settled and are seldom heard in public, and the vast majority of residents of one town or community do embrace the presence and contributions of the others. This also extends to neighboring communities such as San Luis, Cañitas, La Cruz among others.

If you find yourself in any of these spots, be aware that there are many ways to explore the natural beauty of the area. Don’t be afraid to ask a local about the whereabouts of a good trail or scenic overlook, and have at least a general understanding of the geography and the location of the various communities.

Cabs are generally available, but you’ll save yourself time, money and aggravation if you understand up front that Santa Elena is the gateway to the majority of the adventure parks; a hotel stay in Cerro Plano makes the majority of potential destinations in the district walkable; and Monteverde is known for natural beauty and the Quaker community, but has nothing to offer in terms of a post office, bank or pharmacy.

Recommended: Dealing with climate change in Costa Rica’s treasured Monteverde cloud forest

Marshall Cobb and his family moved to the Monte Verde district in 2015. He takes breaks from working on his novel by posting blogs on his website and can be reached at: marshall@marshall-cobb.com.

Palos Verdes National Park

Palo Verde National Park: A private ranch’s loss is the world’s gain

I signed in at the entrance of Palo Verde National Park and drove down the main dirt road, wondering if I’d accidentally wandered onto a private ranch. It is an understandable sentiment as the 45,000-plus acres that make up the park were indeed a private ranch up until the mid-1970s, when the land was expropriated by the Costa Rican government.

As I puttered along, dodging iguanas that seemed too emboldened — or too comfortable — to move, I thought through what I had read about the park. I knew I was going to see birds, dry tropical forest, the Tempisque River and, hopefully, crocodiles. I also knew that I was going to be hot. I was not disappointed on any of these fronts.

After an interesting 15-minute drive I arrived at the biological station operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies. OTS operates in the park under an agreement with the Environment Ministry (MINAE). OTS offers accommodations which are typically used by visiting students and researchers.

The main office.

The main office. Marshall Cobb/The Tico Times

The guide on duty, Gustavo Rodríguez González, 31, from Cañas, checked me in and confirmed that he was available for a free guided tour of the park later in the afternoon. I am not accustomed to hearing the words “guided” and “free” in the same sentence so I confirmed that my poor Spanish and I had interpreted this correctly. I had.

Gustavo showed my around the OTS facility, which features an office, dormitories and a kitchen/mess hall. I immediately found a friend in the chef, Romelio Campos Jiménez of Sarapiquí. I was fortunate that my visit would end a day before a group of 70 students arrived, so I was able to spend time with don Romelio, Gustavo and other employees as we all shared a table for lunch.

The only time Don Romelio didn't smile was for this picture, where he displayed his photo from the September 1991 edition of Lonely Planet. He is found at the bottom left as a strapping young man holding bananas.

The only time Don Romelio didn’t smile was for this picture, where he displayed his photo from the September 1991 edition of Lonely Planet. He is found at the bottom left as a strapping young man holding bananas. Marshall Cobb/The Tico Times

As both a compliment and a warning, the food is excellent, and in the form of a buffet with no limits to the number of trips you can take. Gustavo and I both lamented this fact a few times during my stay as we patted our overfull bellies. There is also a large cooler that dispenses cold water — not as filling but very necessary in the heat.

Prior to my tour I walked over to the observation pier that extends out into the wetlands and was confused by what I saw. Why was a small herd of cattle roaming freely in the wetlands among the whistling ducks? I would learn more about that later. I also discovered that I should have brought something other than a telephoto lens, as much of the wildlife followed the style of the iguanas and were loath to move away.

One of these things is not like the other.

One of these things is not like the other. Marshall Cobb/The Tico Times

Since I’m not a biologist, or any other kind of scientist, my conversations with Gustavo during our tour were limited to keen insights like, “It’s strange that the iguanas don’t seem scared of people.”

Gustavo smiled and dead-panned, “That’s because we don’t eat them here.”

This is true, but I also later learned that, for tracking purposes, researchers have tagged a number of the iguanas with beads that are pierced into their backs. I suppose that an involuntary piercing is better than being eaten, but, personally, I’d still run.

Iguana with yellow tracking bead.

Iguana with yellow tracking bead. Marshall Cobb/The Tico Times

We used my car for the free tour, which was good, as there was a lot of ground to cover. It was even better when the guide turned to me and asked if my car had four-wheel-drive and, if so, if I’d like to drive out onto the muddy path recently cleared by heavy equipment.

One does not say no to this kind of opportunity. I don’t suggest trying this in a rental car, or without permission and accompaniment of a guide. If you do use a rental car, you’re going to need to plan ahead as to where you can find a lavacar (car wash) and practice your best vacant stare so you’re prepared when the rental car agent asks you why there’s mud and grass glued to the bottom.

Palo Verde boat tour.

Palo Verde boat tour. Marshall Cobb/The Tico Times

We slid down the muddy trail cut through a huge field of cattails and eventually stopped about 100 meters shy of a small lake tucked away between some limestone hills. The shallow lake, which is called Laguna Bocana, is home to a population of crocodiles that abandon it when it dries up in favor of caves in those nearby hills (another reason to avoid spelunking). One of the resident researchers has been studying these crocodiles for nearly four years. Unfortunately, last week’s unexpected early end to the dry season compelled the crocs to return to the once again water-filled lake, so the cave study will have to wait.

Lavacano.

Laguna Bocana. Marshall Cobb/The Tico Times

Over the next couple of days I was able to take in the various trails on my own and saw far more wildlife than I’d expected. Several of the trails go up into the hills, and it is well worth the modest effort of the hikes to take in the differences in the forest and, of course, the view.

My final morning I shared a guided boat tour of the Tempisque River. My companion, a different Gustavo — from Spain — is an avid birder who has traveled all over the world in search of different species. He and the captain/guide had detailed conversations about the various birds we encountered. Much of these discussions were lost on me, but when we stepped back onto the dock Gustavo confirmed that it had been one of his better outings.

The elegant trogon.

The elegant trogon. Marshall Cobb/The Tico Times

All the OTS staff, the independent researchers and the boat captain insisted that however much I had enjoyed the fauna and flora at the park in the dry season, it was nowhere near the quality of the wildlife I would find in the wet season (June through November). I agreed to come back and will likely bring my whole family, though I will have to search our youngest son’s pockets at the end for any iguanas he has attempted to adopt.

Whistling ducks at the pier.

Whistling ducks at the pier. Marshall Cobb/The Tico Times

I also learned that these delicate ecosystems within Palo Verde face a number of significant challenges from the past and present activities of their human neighbors. The cows, for example, are allowed to roam alongside the ducks as part of an effort to free the wetlands from the tenacious grasp of typha (cattails). In addition to the cows, park staff uses heavy equipment to try to uproot and kill the typha. The work is never done, as each long, brown tail of a typha plant contains roughly 250,000 seeds. These efforts have gone on for a number of years and are not without controversy.

The crocodile population in the river is also at risk. The percentage of male vs. female crocs, which should be roughly 50/50, is severely tilted towards the males. Researchers are studying potential causes for this problem. Is it global-warming-induced temperature variations for the crocodile eggs within the nests? Is it instead discharges from the tilapia farms up-river which use chemicals to promote sex changes in the fish, as male tilapia are larger and male-only populations are more profitable? Whether or not this practice and how it is being administered locally has any impact on the crocs or the river is something experts will have to decide.

White-faced monkey.

White-faced monkey. Marshall Cobb/The Tico Times

The only sad element of our otherwise fantastic river tour was the never-ending line of dead fish floating among the leaves and branches — fish which are eaten by the birds and crocs. Here again there is no easy answer. The captain/guide feels it is linked to chemical runoff at up-river farming operations.

Ignoring these challenges won’t make them disappear. Visiting Palo Verde and spending money to support it and the research being conducted here can help, as will any subsequent efforts to tout its beauty and wonder to others. I will soon return to continue doing my part to help, and I encourage anyone interested in seeing and preserving this special place to do the same.

Marshall Cobb and his family moved to the Monte Verde district in 2015. He takes breaks from working on his novel by posting blogs on his website and can be reached at: marshall@marshall-cobb.com.

 

Monteverde – another great adventure…

Monteverde: You can get there from here, but you’ll need some pura vida

“Excuse me. Could you tell us how much further it is to the Monteverde Reserve?”

I stopped my stroll along the dirt road and leaned down to try and see the driver. It was one of the ubiquitous Daihatsu rental cars optimistically advertised as full-sized with four-wheel drive.

I smiled past the lady in the passenger seat, who looked nervous, and accidentally locked eyes with the man behind the wheel, who looked frazzled. A bead of sweat trickled down his temple and he tried, and failed, to avoid flinching in response to the kicks that the two small children tethered into oversized car seats in the second row were delivering to the back of his seat.

I’d been this exact guy about five years ago on our first trip to Monteverde. It’s a long, hard drive, particularly with your entire family and related luggage squeezed into less space than is typically provided by a mini-fridge. His eyes spoke panic, so I tried to keep my response short and simple.

“A little more than three more kilometers that way.” I pointed in the same direction he was already headed down the bumpy dirt road.

Read also: Monteverde dazzles – wet, wild, lush and teeming with life

The driver leaned towards me so that his head was just beneath his wife’s chin. “That can’t be right. We passed a sign about three kilometers ago that said it was only three more kilometers.”

I’d also been there and done exactly that. “You passed through the town of Guacimal on the way here?”

The woman, fighting for space, looked past her husband’s head at the directions in her lap. “Yes. And when we got back to the paved part of the road we veered right. That’s where we saw the sign.”

I knew the sign. We had often giggled about it and some of the other signage in the neighboring countryside, which, depending on your route, indicates that Monteverde is getting further away as you draw closer.

Sometimes three kilometers are not what they seem.

(Courtesy of Marshall Cobb)

“I understand. The sign is wrong. You’re about three kilometers from the entrance.”

“Why wouldn’t they fix the sign? Isn’t this the biggest tourist attraction in the area?

He had a good point, but he wasn’t grasping the situation. Pura vida, as I’ve come to find out over the last couple of years, means that you should be happy the sign is pointing the right direction. The fact that somebody might have mixed up which sign should go where from a distance standpoint wasn’t really material.

I wanted to say that all the locals know where the Reserve is and, like cat skeletons up trees, permanently lost tourists don’t exist. It was all going to work out. I didn’t say any of this but instead took the advice of comedian Bill Burr, treating the situation like you’d treat a large, nervous rescue dog: slow, calm words and no sudden moves.

“Yes, that’s correct. Just keep driving the direction you’re going. Once you cross the bridge stay to the left and you’ll see more signs–”

The driver grabbed the directions from his wife. “What bridge? I don’t see a bridge!”

Recommended: Dealing with climate change in Costa Rica’s treasured Monteverde cloud forest

The lady, equally tired and cranky but also taking the rescue dog approach, gently pushed him back to his side of the car and took back the now crumpled piece of paper, which she extended out her window towards me

“Can you please just show us where we are?”

I winced as a large tourist bus full of grey-haired, well-heeled tourists honked at the stopped car and blew by on the wrong side of the dirt road. The honk made the kids stop screaming and kicking, at least for a second. Locals often jokingly refer to the posh tour buses as the “five thousand year buses” due to the collective age of those therein.
I bent down and looked at the map. I’d seen a lot of horrible, completely not-to-scale maps produced by the hostels and hotels in the area, but this one looked homemade (criollo, as we now say in our family).

(Courtesy of Marshall Cobb)

She noticed my hesitation and smiled. “I did some research and put this together.”

In the background, the ever-antsy husband rolled his eyes.

I took one end of the piece of paper and tried to figure out her map. It mostly made sense, and I pointed to a spot at the beginning edge of what is called Monteverde. “You’re about here.”

She frowned. “I don’t understand. I thought we’d been driving through Monteverde for a while already.” She pointed to a spot further back on the map. “See, this is our hotel. And our hotel is in Monteverde.

This could have gone a variety of directions. I could’ve said that once the Quakers, who settled here in the 1950s and named their purchase Monteverde, leased a large portion of their land in the 1970s to help create what is now the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Eventually local businesses started cashing in on the tourism angle and hotels and restaurants that weren’t particularly close to the Reserve and had nothing to do with conservation proudly announced that they were located in Monteverde.

Further, as I learned from Lucille “Lucky” Guindon (one of those early Quaker settlers), the Costa Rican government got in on the act and eventually named the entire district Monte Verde (though why they made it two words remains an unsolved mystery).

I could’ve said all of that, but the driver likely would have resorted to violence. Instead, I smiled and said, “Your hotel is actually in a small town called Cerro Plano. I know it’s confusing but all you have to do is drive about three more kilometers that way.” I again pointed the same direction they were already headed.

Read more: Resisting climate change feather by feather in Monteverde

He wasn’t going for it and again tried to hog the map. “We’re going to have dinner tonight at this nice restaurant with gardens. They said they’re in Monteverde but it’s before our hotel — close to the sign that said three kilometers until the Reserve.”

“That’s actually Santa Elena,” I finished for him. “That’s the name of the larger town you first entered when you got back to the paved road.”

He looked with disgust at their homemade map. “So that’s not Monteverde?”

I gently pushed away from their car, smiling as I went. “Yes, at the end of the day it’s all now Monteverde.”

No one looked happy, and the kids began bickering in earnest. The man grumbled under his breath and put the car back in gear, grinding it a bit, like a lot of other folks who aren’t used to a stick shift.

She smiled at me and then turned as best she could to address the children. “If you don’t behave we won’t go to the Quaker Cheese factory for the tour and ice cream later on.”

I watched them drive off, fighting the impulse to let them know that the Quakers had sold the cheese factory to a Mexican company several years back, and the new owners had eliminated the tours — though you can still buy ice cream.

I continued my morning walk back towards our house, which is tucked away in the woods in the hamlet of Cerro Plano. Our move here was an unexpected development that evolved out of what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical. I had been just like that driver: Type-A, rules-oriented, demanding.

Pura vida has not completely changed me, but I suspect the walking and the reduced stress level may gift me a few years I would otherwise not have seen — unless I end up getting run-over by one of the tourist buses flying by in the sidewalk-free portions of the Monte Verde district.

Marshall Cobb and his family moved to the Monte Verde district in 2015. He takes breaks from working on his novel by posting blogs on his website and can be reached at: marshall@marshall-cobb.com.

Escape the Summer Heat at Guanacaste’s Hidden Waterfalls | The Voice of Guanacaste

Some new adventures to take advantage of!  The secrets are here…

Summer’s here to stay for a few months in Guanacaste. The temperature rises every day, the air feels heavy and water becomes a treasure. It’s the perfect time to get out of the house and find a way to cool off.

Source: Escape the Summer Heat at Guanacaste’s Hidden Waterfalls | The Voice of Guanacaste

Costa Rica is becoming a runner’s paradise | The Costa Rica News

Costa Rica tourism is growing exponentially, with close to $3,000 MM earned and 3 million tourists in 2015 is no secret that it’s the country’s main source of revenue. A huge part comes from ecotourism but there are other niches that are becoming more and more popular, such as running. There are currently three marathons […]

Source: Costa Rica is becoming a runner’s paradise | The Costa Rica News

Guanacaste: Painted Pony Guest Ranch is a horse lover’s paradise

For the Horse lover in your travels!  This ranch is near Tamarindo, in some beautiful countryside.  I’ve met the owner and the ranch is as quality as the author represents.  Give a look if you enjoy equestrian pursuits.

 

Saddle up for some tropical horseback riding at the Painted Pony Guest Ranch and Casagua Horse Farm in Guanacaste, home of the world’s happiest horses.

Source: Guanacaste: Painted Pony Guest Ranch is a horse lover’s paradise