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Costa Rica
Monteverde Cloud Forest:
A Costa Rican Tourist Attraction That Discourages Tourists

Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block

he last 18 miles of the road leading to the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica, full of ruts and potholes by design, takes over an hour and a half to navigate. The locals like it that way. And they choose not to fix it because it would be too easy then for tourists to visit.

cloud forest in Costa Rica

That may not sound all that hospitable but it illustrates the emphasis Costa Ricans place on conservation. And the Cloud Forest, which I visited recently as part of an Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Costa Rica, is indeed an ecological marvel worth saving – and seeing. But you have to really want to go there!

So what exactly is a cloud forest? Well, contrary to popular thinking, it is not where all your technological apps are stored. It is, instead, a rare kind of rain forest where plants actually grow ON TOP of trees. The technical explanation is that "the combination of altitude, humidity and irregular topography creates a unique environmental situation where the clouds remain low for most of the year, preventing the advent of sun, locking in moisture, and creating an atmosphere where plant activity is so high that they actually cover the trees." The non-technical explanation? Lots of clouds and rain result in every inch of the trees from bark to branch to be covered by things green and growing. These epiphytes, as the plants which grow on trees are called, cover every branch and limb, creating a dense wonderland of greenery. Fifty percent of all the vegetation in the cloud forest lives on the tops of trees.

epiphytes growing on top of trees, Costa Rica

Now I've been in many a rain forest before but never one so overwhelmingly green and lush, a blanket of emerald and jade and olive and lime, unrelenting and opaque. There are no empty branches, tree trunks or ground area so that the immersion in this sea of green is utterly complete. Each branch, bush, leaf is so unique in its color, design, texture, size, shape and sheen as to more resemble an art form than a mere fragment of foliage, in which Ellen Kaiden of Sarasota, Florida, the artist in the group, claimed to detect different emotions. "I was overwhelmed by the life force of the Costa Rican Cloud Forest. We were privileged guests in an alternative universe of the canopy. It was pure magic," she noted.

red-leafed plant on forest floor, Costa Rica

Although our guide, Andres Herrera González, spent three hours discussing the ecological and biological implications of every plant, I was perfectly content to just let myself be absorbed into the visual immensity of my green-laden surroundings.

a pair of parrots on a tree branch in a Costa Rican cloud forest

Equally important to the expansive plant life is the multiplicity of animal life living among it. This enormously rich ecosystem supports 7% of the world's plant and animal diversity in only 0.1% of the earth's surface. It's an amazing place but was only one of several rain and tropical forests, as well as beaches, villages and farms, we visited as part of OAT's 12-day Costa Rican adventure.

And as important as the actual itinerary may be, what sets OAT apart from many other tour companies is its emphasis on Learning and Discovery, a part of the OAT philosophy that the company takes very seriously. And with a guide like Andres, a mere botanist with two Master's degrees in ecotourism and sustainability, it was hard not to be learning all the time. Woven into the formal activities are opportunities to learn about the people, explore local markets and towns and participate in cultural exchanges.

raincoat-clad tourists on a swinging bridge inside a Costa Rican cloud forest

writer with resident show horse of a restaurant owner

But what happens outside that itinerary is equally interesting. The rides from place to place can be long but not boring. Perhaps you stop for lunch and get as dessert an unexpected exhibition of resident show horses belonging to the owner of the restaurant. A bathroom break brings a surprise demonstration of sugar cane extraction in an old mill. The fact that they mixed the resulting samples with local Costa Rican rum made the experience all the more special.

Add to that a photo op of a volcano in which our eagle-eyed leader spotted a sloth in a nearby tree or a random opportunity to milk a cow at a local farm and the stops not included on the itinerary compete with those which are for excitement. And the time actually in the bus is consumed with lectures on history, geology, culture, political corruption and other controversial topics all surrounding the Costa Rican experience.

writer milking a cow at a local farm, Costa Rica

Meanwhile, back at the Cloud Forest, there was quite a bit of local color to break up the monotony of greenness. Time was spent seeking out – and reveling in – the unusual Resplendant Quetzel, a large rare and beautiful brightly colored bird that is as elusive in Costa Rica as the kiwi is in New Zealand. Traversing a series of hanging bridges provided a birds-eye view of the forest very different than that from the ground. Zip-lining across the tops of multiple trees ensured an experience in which the adrenaline rush clearly topped environmental appreciation – at least for the moment, and a visit to a hummingbird sanctuary where hundreds of the colorful little guys flapped their little wings with impossible-to-measure speed entranced tourists who desperately tried to capture them on camera and cell phone.

hummingbird at a bird sanctuary in a Costa Rican cloud forest

A meeting with Martha Campbell, the daughter of one of the original Quaker settlers of Monteverde in 1951, provided some historical context to the Cloud Forest community, which at that time had no plumbing, no electricity, no phone service and very few people. Though the community survived by cattle ranching initially, eventually the Quaker community discovered that a far greater good – as well as more money – could be accomplished thru conservation and the expanded tourism trade that followed.

tourists viewing birds in a forest clearing

Still she somewhat bemoans the large influx of tourists of the past two decades: "I wish there would be less development. Sure there are more job opportunities, but also more cars, maybe more crime and I just miss the simple life we used to have." I would hazard a guess that the road leading to the Monteverde Cloud Forest isn't going to be fixed anytime soon…

For more information about traveling to Costa Rica, visit oattravel.com

Related Articles:
Belize; Dominican Republic Adventure; Peru's Amazon; Amazon Tour, Ecuador; Amazon Jungle; Costa Rica Adventure; 800 Days in Panama, Part 1; Dominica; Aruba; Cozumel, Mexico

(Posted 9-19-2013)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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