Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica, 1-7 April, 2019

Getting there: it was another three bus day.

After a wonderful breakfast at Posada Andrea Christina – scrambled eggs, home-made bread, fresh fruit juice, great brewed coffee, fresh fruit, and more – we caught the 8am bus from Puerto Viejo Sarapiqu to San Jose. A little while out of Puerto Viejo Sarapiqu the bus suddenly came to a stop. No traffic in front of us. Not a bus stop. John always sits on the window side – I prefer the aisle side. I asked if he could see what was going on. Yes, the driver has stopped to ensure a turtle did not get run over. It made it safely onto the verge.

There is a term used widely in Costa Rica – ‘Pura Vida’. We have been hearing it for weeks now and I had loosely translated it to a life lived well caring for others and the environment. That said, I thought I should do a google search to validate my thoughts. The following statements are from costrarica.org:

‘Costa Rican people tend to be much more relaxed and worry free’. Pura Vida means ‘simple life or pure life’…’and it’s a simple appreciation of life and the realisation that life is what you make of it’…I could spend hours googling life, health, happiness and poverty indices to validate my thoughts but I will leave that to another time.

John and I certainly have found the ‘Ticos’ as they are locally known, to be extremely friendly – I have commented on this in previous blogs. Even truck drivers wave at us – definitely a friendly wave, even when walking along the footpath.

So, the turtle made it safely across the road. We arrived in San Jose at 10.25am – the journey was supposedly two hours, but once again road works and San Jose traffic madness added an extra twenty-five minutes. We grabbed our bags from the stowage area and two minutes later we were in a taxi heading across town to another bus station.

Ticket buying is a very orderly affair with everyone taking their turn and forming a queue – just as you would expect. No pushing in, no unacceptable behaviour. I am now proficient in asking for ‘two tickets to Santa Elena’ for example. A far cry from our first trip to South America when we wrote down our destination and stumbled along.

At 11.15am, on the dot, our bus departed from San Jose for Punta Arenas. An extremely comfortable bus, but no air conditioning. This time we were heading north-west and the scenery was the complete opposite of the dense, moisture laden green jungle we had been in on the east side of the country. Dry, dry, dry with a mixture of bare trees and trees with leaves, and layers of brown dried leaves on the ground. The heat was dry and at times the breeze coming into the bus felt like opening the oven door.

We knew this was going to potentially be a very tight schedule as the bus from Punta Arenas departed at 1.15pm. Any roads works and delays would have meant staying there the night. It was a very unappealing spread out town from what we saw of it. Situated on a long narrow isthmus, the narrowest part was approximately 60 metres.

We arrived at 1.05pm, grabbed our bags, and walked over the road to a bus stop next to the beach. The bus was standing there, and already people were onboard. The driver could only fit John’s bag in the stowage area. The driver opened the wheelchair access door, and shoved my bag under the feet of a tourist with a surfboard and large backpack. In front of him was a washing machine in a box. I don’t think our fellow tourist was impressed as it meant he could not sit comfortably due my bag taking up his ‘feet room’.

We arrived in Santa Elena around 4.15pm – along the way the bus had to climb some steep ascents. At one stage the bus stopped and slide backwards a few meters – I thought the driver was going to ask us all to walk up the incline. But no, he managed to inch the bus up the hill. Very, very slowly in the lowest gear. It was a relief to finally arrive.

That all said, the three bus day was necessary as the alternative was returning to San Jose and staying overnight. There are two buses daily from San Jose – one departs at 5.30am – a tad inconvenient; the other at 2.30pm – also inconvenient due to accommodation check out times and given it is an approximate three hour journey. All travelling arrangements are due to John’s diligent internet research and use of the local timetables.

Above: map of Costa Rica showing the Monteverde region. Santa Elena is right next to Monteverde but not shown.

The township of Santa Elena is located in the famous area of Monteverde – the home of remarkable cloud forests. Situated at the peak of the continental divide, warm humid trade winds sweep up from the Caribbean and over the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The air then cools and condenses into clouds – a continuous mist that settle over the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. This is “billy-goat’ country – you would become extremely fit living here walking around the steep hills. Every so often we would see an extremely fine mist in the air, almost like fine clear dust particles if any such thing existed. One moment they were there, and then they were gone.

Quakers have an association with Monteverde.

The following information is from quakersintheworld.org:

The small Quaker community in Costa Rica was founded in 1951 by a group of eleven Quaker families from Alabama. Four young Friends had recently been jailed for refusing to serve in the Korean War and the families were seeking somewhere they could live in peace.

Hubert Mendenhall travelled overland by truck from the US, looking for suitable land for the group to settle, eventually arriving in Costa Rica.  The country had just abolished its army and the government was encouraging foreigners to come and develop the land. Once Mendenhall found Monteverde in the centre of the country, which was then accessible only by ox cart, he knew he had found what they were looking for.

The families purchased 1500 hectares of land, which was divided between the families. Each family then built their own house, with the community holding “house raising bees” to set the foundations and raise the heavy frames’…’However, the community also made the far-sighted decision to set aside an area on the mountain slopes as virgin cloud forest – high altitude forest cooled by moist air from the Pacific.  In the early 1970s, when scientist George Powell began buying up land to prevent forest clearance, this land became the kernel of the newly established the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, now an international model for conservation. Wolf Guindon, one of the original Quaker settlers, was among the leaders of these pioneering conservation efforts’.

We visited three reserves during our one week stay: the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and the Curi Cancha Reserve. All three reserves are different environmentally due to their locations and elevations, and influence of the trade winds. Prior to our visit I imagined they would all look the same – how wrong!

Weather. John says I only comment about the weather when it is stinking hot and I’m not ‘coping’ – fair enough. So, that said, here is my official comment: the weather here has been a wonderful period of respite. Cool enough to use a blanket at night – heaven!

We took the 6.30 am bus up to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Admission price: A$20 each. The reserve covers 765 acres and the elevation is generally 1600 metres. It is a communal project managed by the administrative board of the Santa Elena Technical High School since 1992. Strong winds swept overhead and the tallest trees swayed back and forth – the wind sounded like waves rolling onto a shore in the far distance. It is like an enchanted forest. Here all the trees are heavily draped with lichens and mosses. Epiphytes and bryophytes line the branches. Tree ferns, vines and mosses add to the overwhelming shades of green upon green. A visual and sensory experience.

Above: a ‘window’ into the forest at Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.

The excellent walking trails were constructed of concrete, brick or gravel.

Above: trail at Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.

It was extremely quiet bird wise – we did not hear birds calling until later in the morning. A sudden swoosh through the trees and two Black Guans landed almost above us. These large black birds have turquoise-purple bills.

Above: Black Guan.

Later in the afternoon I watched some videos in the cinema room. It was heartening to learn they have set up motion sensor cameras and amongst numerous mammals, have recorded five felines – amongst them jaguars, pumas and jaguarundis. Alas, I have no photos to show you, but it is wonderful to know these animals are protected here and hopefully safe from poachers.

Above: fungi – Coprinellus disseminatus – thank you for the information Kush!

We caught the 6.15 am bus to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, arriving around 6.45am. The admission price is A$31 each, and the entrance opened at 7am, which we thought was a bit late….the reserve is located south-east of the Santa Elena township and is not as heavily ‘draped’ in lichens as was Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. It promised sightings of the Resplendent Quetzal, however we were not holding our breath, having not seen them at Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. We walked for hours, and when eating our brunch around 11am began chatting with a fellow tourist. Had she seen a Quetzal? ‘Oh yes, it’s easy!’ she replied, and gave us instructions on where to see it.

We followed the trail she mentioned, then all of a sudden we came across two security guards! Two! Crowd control as a pair of Resplendent Quetzals had chosen a tree right next to the trail to nest in. The hole was only two to three metres from the ground. We took numerous photos, none of which are extremely good. John reckons we will see heaps more in Nicaragua and Guatemala – therefore more photo opportunities. I won’t hold my breath. Above: male Resplendent Quetzal, female behind.

Above: male Resplendent Quetzal inspecting the nest.

Above: security guard on the left. The other guards was around the corner – thus tourists were controlled from both directions. People were asked to speak quietly.

A white-nosed coutimundi crossed our path:

Above: white-nosed coutimundi, also known as a couti. Sorry, a little blurry.

We visited the bakery opposite the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve – a coffee and cake was essential by 1pm. The feeders were well attended by all the local hummingbirds, and even the odd species that I would not usually associate with such a feeder, such as a Banaquit. These feeders contain a sugar-water solution to attract hummingbirds -admittedly this is how you can have a really close look at hummingbirds. When visiting flowers they flit so quickly from flower to flower it is difficult to focus on them. Sugar solution is contentious and opinions differ as to whether this harms the birds or not. I plan to do a seperate hummingbird blog post.

Curi Cancha Reserve. Admission price: A$20.50 each. Once again, the 6.15am bus going to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, however Curi Cancha is located a few kilometres before Monteverde and at a lower elevation. What an amazing difference! The trails were dry and dusty, a thick carpet of fallen leaves lay under the trees and vegetation that was no where as dense as the two reserves mentioned above. Numerous huge strangler figs – perhaps we were noticing them because of the more open environment. And the ‘openness’ led to some nice viewings of difficult little birds normally elusive – for instance, Grey-breasted Woodwren and Rufous-capped Brush Finch.

Above: John standing in front of a tall strangler fig.

Above: looking up.

Above: John and tree.

We were excited to see a nine-banded Armadillo scratching around in leaves – John has posted a video on FaceBook.

Above: unknown impressive orchid species.

Above: this interesting insect visited at lunchtime.

Costa Rica is a progressive country, and the population is proud of its environmental credentials. And tourism figures back that up. Apart from this, cigarettes are hidden from view in shops, and no smoking signs abound in public places. Anti sexual harassment and foul language signs are in shops and even buses.

Above: sign in bus.

Above: sign in shop stating sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

There is an interesting article in The Saturday Paper article titled ‘All Torque, Not Enough Action’ by Mike Seccombe, (6 April 2019). The paragraph of interest commences: ‘Also, on the fast growing list of nations….’

Above: screen shot from The Saturday Paper 6 April 2019.

Our next destination is Cano Negro in northern Costa Rica near The Nicaraguan border – yes, another birding and wildlife hotspot.

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