monteverde: a cloud forest immersion

Thursday, January 12, 2023: After leaving our friends in Tilarán, we drove well over an hour on Route 14S and 606 (33km) on bumpy potholed and gravelly roads through the mountains to reach Monteverde. It was a brain-rattling journey, and we were relieved to finally check into the comfortable and welcoming Hotel Claro de Luna. We walked into the small and touristy town of Santa Elena to dip into shops.

After wandering a bit, we had dinner at the rather overpriced Tree House, which is built around a huge ancient ficus tree. We shared a hamburger and some leek and potato soup. The food was excellent and since we shared, it turned out to be not overly costly.

On the road back to our hotel in the dark, we saw a mural that said “Stop Animal Selfies.”

Friday, January 13: The breakfast room at Hotel Claro de Luna was very cute with tables set for each room with the proper number of place settings. It was a good breakfast with scrambled eggs, pancakes, fruit juice and coffee.

Hanging Bridges Tour & Aerial Tram at Monteverde Sky Adventures Park

The first thing we did in Monteverde was to take a guided Hanging Bridges tour at Monteverde Sky Adventures Park.  Our guide Danny led us through the cloud forest for two hours. We crossed over five hanging bridges and hiked on trails above the tree line of the forest. We saw a tarantula in its home cave, a millipede and a Highland Tinamou. Sadly we didn’t see any special birds other than that but Danny introduced us to the Merlin app which identifies nearby birds by their song. Danny identified a gray-breasted wood-wren using the app.

We didn’t see many other creatures but we did learn about the primary and secondary forest and the different plants and trees that sustain wildlife in the cloud forest. While a tree can host several hundred other species in the secondary forest (at lower elevation), it can host as many as a thousand other species in the primary forest, which is at a higher elevation.

It was a very windy day at the park, and Danny was concerned we might not be able to cross some of the higher elevation bridges because the wind might make them too dangerous.

We started at Puente 5 (Bridge 5), which was 774 feet (236m) long and 164 feet (50m) high. This was the longest of the hanging bridges. From this bridge we could see the Zapote tree. Its sap was used as bubble gum a long time ago.

Next we crossed the second longest bridge, Puente 4, which was 413 feet (126m) long and 118 feet (36m) high. From here we were introduced to the Inga, or ice cream beans. New leaves are brown in color, mimicking a dead tree to fool predators.

Puente 3 was 374 feet (114m) long and 56 feet (17m) high. Danny showed us the Maria (conostegia xalapensis), which has an edible fruit that is olive-shaped and purple in color. We saw a millipede, a Highland Tinamou, and turkey tails, popular mushrooms mostly known for their “medicinal” benefits. They help to decompose logs and stumps of deciduous trees, and on the rare occasion, coniferous trees. They’re widely used as a medicinal in things like mushroom tinctures.

Puente 2 was the third longest bridge at 400 feet (122m) long and 160 feet (49m) high. From here we saw the Cecropia, or Trumpet tree.  It has medicinal uses for asthma, cardio-respiratory diseases, and as a diuretic.

The shortest bridge was Puente 1 at 216 feet (66m) long and 49 feet (15m) high. The Espavel, or Anacardium excelsum, was used for tree houses, furniture and horse saddles.

We never made it over Bridge 6.

After our tour and before we took the aerial tram, we ate a delicious tomato soup with avocado along with a ham and cheese sandwich with various toppings and a delicious sauce, one of the best meals I’ve eaten at a venue like that.

We took the aerial tram which I thought would be a whole circuit around the park, but which was only a 12-minute blustery ride up to a high elevation at the continental divide. There, the wind and rain battered us on a short circuit hike at the top. We drank a fancy hot coffee to attempt to keep warm at the little cafe at the top.

After taking the tram back down after a 30 minute wait, Mike found a coati (or pizote in Costa Rica) in the parking lot.

We took a tourist bus back to our hotel where we enjoyed a nice snack in our hot tub accompanied by one of Mike’s drink concoctions. We then strolled all around the hotel property enjoying the lush tropical gardens. It was nice to have time to relax before our night walk at 6:00. After seeing a rainbow, a colorful bird, and the sunset at our hotel, we left by bus for our night walk at the El Refugio Night Tour (El Bosque Monteverde).

Night Walk at El Refugio

El Refugio is a 55-acre conservation area in Monteverde at the heart of a biological corridor, an area of habitat connecting wildlife populations separated by human activities or structures, where dozens of animals live. I had read about these wildlife corridors in Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate: Exotic and Unseen Costa Rica by Jack Ewing.

The night tour is a light 2-hour walk in search of creatures of the night. It is possible to see sloths, armadillos, porcupines, possums, coatis, olingos, monkeys and kinkajous, as well as frogs, snakes, sleeping birds and a wide variety of insects. It is also a great location to see bird species such as quetzals, mot-mots, and toucans. Animals in Monteverde are more active and prominent during the nighttime when they come out in search of food and shelter.

On our 2-hour night walk at El Refugio with Mauricio as our guide, our small group of six saw a sleeping hummingbird, a couple of toucans, a howler monkey, a green viper, a strangler fig that had killed its host, wild avocados, a couple of colorful birds and a katydid.

We weren’t too hungry when we returned to our hotel, so we just ate cheese and crackers in our room. 🙂

Sloth Sanctuary at Selvatura Park

Saturday, January 14: At 8:30 this morning, we drove to Selvatura Park and by surprise met with Mauricio from our night walk tour at El Refugio last night. He was our guide for the Sloth Sanctuary at the park. Most of the sloths were being their lazy selves but we saw one moving in slow motion on a quest for food. The others were all sleeping. One or two poked their heads up momentarily but I wasn’t fast enough with with my iPhone camera. We saw all three-toed sloths which thrive at the altitudes of the cloud forest in Monteverde.

We learned much about sloths from Mauricio and from the fact signs spread throughout the sanctuary.

Rather than being lazy, sloths are cautious, silent, discreet and respectful. They are basically pacifists. Their metabolism is very slow; they need to eat less than a large leaf a day and can take up to one week to digest it. Their evolutionary origin is in the neotropics and they come from one of the most antique animal lineages.

Algae easily adheres to sloth fur and provides sloths with good camouflage. The algae also provides sloths with nitrogen, a nutrient deficient in sloths due to their leaf-based diet. They absorb it in various ways: by licking their fur, through their hairs, or through their skin.

Some species of moths have adapted to live on sloth bodies and feed off the algae that grows on their fur during the rainy season. The sloths’ fur, as well as anteaters’ fur, offer thermic insulation. They transform into “spheres” to conserve heat and they don’t handle high temperatures very well.

Of six species of sloth, four are three-toed species and two are two-toed.

The three-toed sloth is called Bradypus Variegatus. Its weight varies between 3.9-12.3 pounds (1.8-5.5kg). The fur is long, dense and wavy. Its back color is marbled gray with prominent whitish spots that concentrate in its lower back and hind legs. Its head is small and rounded and its ears are not visible. Front paws are longer than legs, featuring three long and curved digits or claws on all limbs.

This species is more vulnerable to extinction, which has contributed to their disappearance from many of their original distribution areas. Their movements are very slow and their curved claws allow them to hang passively from tree branches, where they spend most of their lives feeding on the forest canopy leaves.

Females, who reach reproductive maturity at 3 years of age, give birth to a single offspring once a year after a 5-8 month gestation. Males can reproduce between 3-5 years of age, but they do not participate in the rearing of the young.

The average life span in nature or in captivity is 30-40 years. Their habitats include both Caribbean and Pacific slopes from sea level to 9,850 feet (3,000m).

The two-toed sloth, known as Choloepus hoffmanni, weighs from 4.5-8 kg. These are solitary with herbivore-omnivore diets. The 2-toed sloth prefers trees with lots of vines and canopy exposed to direct sunlight.  The two-toed sloth prefers to remain hidden between vines and leaves during the day, which makes it difficult for predators to find them and attack. They go to the ground to defecate every 6-8 days, at which time they are in the greatest danger. They can climb down from trees on their heads.

They have a more varied diet than the 3-toed sloth as they can eat fruits and flowers as well as leaves.

The general rule is there is one birth per gestation period, which usually occurs during the rainy season. The gestation period is close to 11.5 months. Females reach sexual maturity at 3-4 years, while males reach it between 4-5 years.

The average lifespan in the wild for the 2-toed sloth is 12 years. In captivity it increases to 31 years.

Sloths in general have 10 vertical vertebrae which provides them with an increased degree of head rotation (humans only have 7 cervical vertebrae). Sloths have few teeth, without enamel and with permanent growth.

During our tour, Mauricio showed us an owl butterfly which has eyes like an owl and plays dead when it senses vibrations nearby.

We stopped in the Selvatura Park Restaurant for coffee in hopes it would stop raining. It never did.

Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso de Santa Elena

After visiting the sloth sanctuary, we went for a moderate-level 2-mile hike at the Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso de Santa Elena. This 766-acre reserve is smaller and higher in elevation than the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

We took the Sendero Encantado (Encantado Trail). It was a 3.5km loop, 2-3 hours, moderate). It was rainy and windy the entire time. We were of course in the cloud forest, but we were told some kind of front was moving across Costa Rica from the Caribbean side. We got rather soaked but it was well worth it to experience the primary cloud forest and see its lush, jungle-like greenery.

Stella’s Monteverde

After our cloud forest walk, we stopped at Stella’s Monteverde for lunch. A British woman had told us after our Night Walk that we should have lunch there; they’re not open for dinner. It was one of the best meals we’ve had on this trip. I had a tasty limeade and quiche with hearts of palm and sweet corn. Mike had a Pork BBQ sandwich with Cole slaw. All of it was fabulous, plus we sat outside and watched colorful parakeets on the bird feeders. Besides that, they had an excellent gift shop on site that had locally-made arts and crafts. It was a nice relaxing experience after our rainy walk through the cloud forest.

At the gift shop, I bought a pair of silver dangly earrings that looked like tropical leaves. Mike planned to give them to me for Valentine’s Day. Also I bought a little silk scarf (what else is new?) and a journal.

We relaxed in our hotel room with a hot tub soak and Mike’s special drinks. We were tired and cold from our long morning.

For dinner, we walked into Santa Elena and ate at a big sports bar called Bar Amigos. We shared a Sopa Azteca. I had a Hamburguesa Especial and Mike had nachos with beef. It was a lively place for our last night in Monteverde.

Here is a video of our time in Monteverde.

Sunday, January 15: We left Monteverde this morning for a long mountainous drive to San José, our final destination before we would fly home on Tuesday. The views leaving Monteverde were spectacular. We could see all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya and the mountains all the way to Liberia. Amazing views! Costa Rica is truly a gorgeous country. 🙂

The drive was a harrowing one over potholed and super curvy mountain roads and it seemed to take us forever. Later we were caught up in heavy, slow-moving traffic and went on another detour to get around it, so we didn’t arrive in San José until early afternoon. 🙂