Sunday, May 30, 2010

Monteverde, Costa Rica

Santa Elena is a quiet little town, a triangle of three streets full of shops and restaurants that cater to the gringo tourists.  It reminds me of several other little towns like this we've been to, although this one has the distinct advantage of being surrounded by lush mountains and views over the Nicoya Peninsula down below.  As soon as we checked into our hostel, we were given the (wide) array of tour options we had.  Several different reserves for hiking and animal-searching, an aviary, an insect zoo, a "serpentarium", a bat zoo, and an assortment of coffee tours and cheese factory tours and, of course, the canopy zip line tours.

We, being us, remained non-committal and decided to skip the tours and just do our own thing.  The next morning, we took the public bus to the Monteverde reserve, which is the main reserve in the region.  We had heard lots of conflicting opinions about whether it was really the best, or whether the smaller ones were less crowded so offered a better experience overall, but we decided to just go for it.  Places get famous for a reason, and we were arriving early enough (7am as they opened) we hoped we could beat the crowds and have a good time.

The road from town to the reserve is only paved about half of the way.  Apparently as the reserve began gaining popularity, the locals were concerned that if access was too easy, so many people would come that the park would be overrun and the very thing people wanted to see would be destroyed.  So the roads remain unpaved.  We were dropped off about 15 minutes before the park opened, so we walked around and right away began finding totally awesome bugs.  Metallic silver beetles, huge hairy caterpillars; we were thrilled before we'd even walked in the gate.  Once they did open up, we were the first ones in the door.

The park is actually very well set up for visitors.  Right in the gate there are about four different trails leading off in different directions.  You tell the attendant how long you want to hike, and they draw you a route through the park, which helps break up any congestion.  Not that we had to worry about it, there are definite perks to coming in off-season, and we only saw maybe a dozen other people the entire time we were in the park.

The forest was beautiful.  A cloud forest is different from a rain forest, in that while it doesn't get near as much rain, the clouds roll through bringing lots of moisture.  The canopy overhead was dense, blocking out a good deal of the sunlight.  The relative darkness, combined with the fluctuating mist as clouds rolled through, actually make it difficult to spot much wildlife.  We could hear birds now and then, but rarely were able to see them unless they were actually flying around.  We soon realized that we were highly unlikely to see any sort of mammal (the park does have a few, such as sloths, but they are mostly nocturnal), and were probably not going to really see any birds either.  This was a little disappointing, as this was our last chance to see the infamous Resplendant Quetzal.  The Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, and was highly prized by the ancient Maya for its unusually long and colorful tail feathers, which they used to dress the king.  The birds are today endangered, as they only live in narrow bands of altitude in cloud forests, and quickly die in captivity, so you won't see one in a zoo.  For months we had been hoping to see one, but this was our first, and last, real opportunity, and it was pretty clear it wasn't going to happen.

With that realization, we turned our attention from the skies down to the dirt, and started hunting bugs.  We were quickly rewarded, and the fun kept coming.  We saw bugs and beetles of every color, delicate spiders, colonies of ants, huge millipedes, and all sorts of caterpillars.  Under every leaf a new little wonder would surprise us with an unusual shape or color combination.  This, of course, meant we were walking very slow.  Usually when we are told a hike will take us four hours, with our long strides it means we can cover the distance in two.  But turning over leaves and logs meant our four hour hike took us seven.  We'd planned ahead though and brought some sandwiches from a little bakery, so we were good.

Since I was trying to take pictures of the bugs, which was difficult to the low light, David often wandered up the trail ahead of me.  Just as I was finishing up with a particularly nice tortoise beetle, David comes running and yells a single word.  "Quetzals!  Quetzals!"  I caught up and we ran back up the trail, running into another couple who were, fortuitously, with a guide.  The guide was ridiculous, pointing into the dark tangle of trees after just a moments glance.  "There is a female!"  He had a great little telescope on a tripod and had it set up in two seconds, and with much grace they let David and I take a look as well.  The females aren't as colorful as the males, but we could see her bright red chest and green face and strange little tuft on her head.  More strikingly was the gigantic green and wiggling grub she had hanging from her mouth.  "She is waiting to take that back to the nest, but is checking things out to make sure the coast is clear," the guide told us.

There were at least four of them flying around, and although the guide pointed out the males for us, they were too quick to get the telescope focused on.  Still, we were pretty thrilled and thanked the couple and the guide profusely for helping us out.  It was so satisfying, when something you've been wanting and thinking about for months just suddenly happens.  We continued on down the trail a bit, chatting happily, when suddenly David looks up and sees another female.  This time it was close enough we could use our binoculars.  As we admired her, a male comes along and finds the perfect perch to let us admire him.  His tail feathers weren't particularly long, but he was still gorgeous.  We watched them for about ten minutes before they finally flew away.  We continue down the trail, marvelling at our luck, when another male comes along. He was singing away, and this one did indeed have the long emerald green tail feathers.  He gave us quite the show, again from a perfect little perch where we could watch him.

We felt like all our Christmases had come at once.  The birds were too far away to photograph unfortunately (google one, they are worth it!), but with the binoculars we had quite the performance.  For a shy bird that most people don't get to see at all, for us to see that many that well was really unusual, and we feel extremely fortunate.

But don't kid yourself.  We still kept looking for bugs.

1 comment:

  1. I looked up the Quetzals. They are beautiful. How fortunate to see one. Your trip is complete, but keep going! Can't wait to see what is next. I am going to be as bummed as you two when the 5 weeks are up. Cari