Monteverde Cloud Forest and Arenal

The road up to the Reserves of Monteverde and Santa Elena wound through the volcanic hills towards the high cloud forest. The forest didn’t actually start till we were at the top but the scenery was still stunning with steep pasture and woods. Once off the Interamericana highway the road started out as a narrow ribbon of tarmac with sharp blind corners every few hundred metres. Soon though the tar ran out and we were on a wide gravel track up the hills for an hour. The people of the area have lobbied the government to keep all the access road to the parks unpaved to keep the flow of visitors to sustainable levels.

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We’d heard of a car park in which we might be able to stay in, as staying in the park isn’t possible. When we got there we found it was right in the centre of the little tourist town of Santa Elena, it belonged to the tourist office and they were happy for us to stay as long as we liked for free.

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The bus from the town took us straight to Monteverde Reserve. The rainforest as it is above 1500m is known as Cloud Forest. The winds bringing the moisture laden clouds from the Caribbean Coast collide in the highlands with the Pacific air. This creates a unique environment of forests shrouded in clouds most of the times. The humidity allows for a huge growth of plants such as mosses,lichens, liverworts and epiphytes. Monteverde is known worldwide for its biodiversity and a vast range of species are found there. This was immediately apparent when you looked at the large trees, they were thickly covered on every available space on their trucks and branches with epiphytes. These are non-parasitic plants that grow without soil on other trees, their roots absorb water from the surrounding mists and range from large bromeliads to tiny orchids.

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As a Biology teacher, it was a dream come true for me. We had wanted to visit Monteverde when we came to Costa Rica 18 years ago but as it was just a short visit had not had time. This time we were determined to make the most of it. The girls have been studying rain forests in homeschool since we’ve been in Costa Rica and were keen to check it out in person. We took a guide for the first couple of hours who showed us lots of unusual species and their relationships with other organisms. The whole place does indeed seem to throb with all forms of life. We then set off on our own to slowly explore the paths. As well as the amazing flora we also saw capuchin monkeys, a relative of the raccoon called a coati, a huge snake, birds galore including lots of humming birds and even a pair of rare resplendent quetzals.

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We bumped into to our friends Alex and Mireia who we’d camped with in Nicaragua on a quiet path, after they joined us for a fun evening in the car park.

On the forest floor at Monteverde we’d heard a lot of wildlife but not necessarily seen it. We were keen to see more of the canopy level of the trees, this is where many of the epiphytes and animals are found. The following day we set off to a private reserve that had eight suspension bridges across gorges and in amongst the tops of the trees. The weather had changed from the previous day’s unexpected bright sunshine and we now got the experience of what a “cloud forest” should really be like. Unfortunately we didn’t seen many more animals or birds but we had a fascinating morning being up inside and above the canopy layer.

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The following morning we headed down the dirt road towards Lake Arenal at the base of the active Arenal volcano. Half way down we stopped at some roadworks. The workmen there were pointing at our back tyre and we realised we had a puncture. The five workmen were really helpful and offered to use a compressor attached to their road grader to reinflate our tyre, so we could make our way to the next town. We have a compressor but it would have taken us a while to get it out and sorted, so they insisted we use theirs. When the puncture turned out to be too big to limp into town, these lovely guys set out to help us change our tyre. Although in theory the two of us can change our own tyres, at over 100kg each tyre any extra hands are very, very welcome. These guys were fantastic! Without being asked by us they wholeheartedly pitched in and were particularly brilliant when the roll bar underneath the truck, which has to be moved down to swing down the spare tyres from the back, was jammed. It took over an hour to change the wheel and they chattered and joked throughout, leaving their diggers and graders abandoned at the side of the road. When we offered them money for a few beers at the end of the day to say thank you, they said we should just give it to the two youngest guys. They were just so kind. The girl’s schooling that afternoon partly took place in the garage of the next town while we had the tyre patched. Sometimes you just have to be adaptable.

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Our stop for the night was a gorgeous boondocking (free) site we’d heard about on the shores of Lake Arenal.

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Around Volcan Arenal there are many hot springs including some super fancy spas. We opted for a more family friendly option and had a great afternoon checking out the 10 or so different temperature pools,from cold to almost scalding hot, at Los Laureles. It was very popular with Tico (Costa Rican) families with immaculate huge pools. We spent the night in their campground with a great view of the volcano, which until quite recently could still be seen glowing with lava on clear nights.

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Monkeys, Fish and Turtles

On our planned last night on the beach in Nicaragua another overland truck turned up with John and Betti. We had been in touch with them over the internet so it was great to finally meet them. So now there were four on the beach. Over dinner we were persuaded to stay another night. John had built the truck himself so there were a lot of notes to compare.

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The following evening we were easily persuaded to stay yet another night. It was a beautiful spot, Alisha was loving body boarding and it was great to have good company from people doing the same thing.

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Finally after 5 days on the beach we left and drove to the Costa Rican border. The border crossing was pretty normal and took the usual 2 hours. Most of the time was taken with getting the truck out of Nicaragua and then temporarily imported into Costa Rica. In Nicaragua this meant getting 4 stamps from various officials who were randomly scattered around a car park. They needed to be all obtained in a certain order which you had to guess. Everyone was pretty friendly so we worked our way through it.

On the Costa Rican side there are 2 customs offices 300m apart and you have to walk back and forth between them as certain things are done at one, and others at the other.

Gilly and I had been to Costa Rica 18 years ago and really enjoyed it. On crossing the border the scenery changed and it was immediately clear that the country was more developed with better infrastructure and much wealthier. This was confirmed when we stopped to do our shopping as everything was much more expensive than the rest of Central America (except perhaps Belize).

We headed to Santa Rosa National Park which is a dry hardwood forest. As it is the dry season the trees are losing their leaves and it almost looked a little like Autumn. In the park there was a campground the first proper one we have had in ages.

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Just after we arrived a troop of White Faced Capuchin Monkeys crossed through the campground very close to us. This must have been part of their regular route as they crossed the campground at the same time the following day.

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While there we also saw some White Tailed Deer. The National Park was also set up to preserve part of the Costa Rican heritage. There is an old Hacienda in the park which was the place where Costa Rica successfully stopped an invasion from Nicaragua. We walked around the museum and up a small hill for fantastic views across the forest.

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The following day we drove back to the beach at Playa Grande where we found a spot to stay in a small car park just next to another beautiful beach. At the edge of the beach were a strand of palm trees which gave good shade from the fierce sun. We were sitting under these when we got talking with a Danish/American family who were holidaying in one of the villas along the beach. They were interested in our trip and as we were talking they told me they were going deep sea fishing the next day and there was a spare spot in the boat. If you know me, I could not resist.

As always on the Pacific the sunsets are spectacular and we never tire of watching them.

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The next day I was up early to go fishing. The girls were happy to stay and play on the beach. We were on a beautiful boat and set out to sea on a cloudless sky, with a flat ocean and high hopes. After 4 hours fishing for bill fish though we had not had even a sniff of a bite. Although we had enjoyed the dolphins jumping and playing by the boat.

The captain decide a change was needed and we did some bottom fishing to make sure we at least caught something. This was much easier, everyone caught some Grouper, although I was the only one who had to have 2 goes to catch something. This also meant we had some nice fish for supper.

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After this we went back to bill fishing. This became more exciting in the afternoon as two sailfish approached the boat but they did not bite. Then just before we turned for port one hooked up. It was fantastic to see it jumping out of the water. It was Stefan’s turn on the rod so he got to enjoy an exciting fight before finally landing a 70lb Sailfish. It was unhooked in the water so it could be safely released.

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It was a great end to the day with a lovely family.

The next evening we had arranged to go to see Turtles nesting as that was the main reason we had gone to Playa Grande. Unfortunately we had just missed the giant Leatherback nesting season but Black Turtles were still nesting nearby. So after an early dinner, just as it got dark, we were driven to a nearby beach. The tour was all a bit chaotic. We thought we would just be on the beach but first there was a 1km trek over a headland in the dark and no one was wearing the right footwear.

We did get to see 2 turtles though and they were impressive. The first came up the beach but then decided not to nest and returned to the water. The second started to build a nest and we all waited some distance away. Then at the right time the guides moved us in closer. We were able to watch the turtle dig her nest but the spot she had chosen was too dry and the nest kept filling in. In the end she decided not to lay and returned to the sea.

Whilst it was great to see, I do feel we were intruding and really the groups were too large and no one really knew what was going on.

Sorry we do not have any photos of the turtles as you can not use torches or a flash and it was too dark for anything to come out.

I think we have had enough beach time recently so now it is time to head inland and up to the cloud forests.

Reflections on Nicaragua

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Lucy

I like to call Nicaragua “knickers-jaguar” or the “tiger country”, when I forget what it is called. I like playing on the beach with all my friends. I get very sandy and it is very hot. We saw loads of howler monkeys who were very noisy. We have also seen spider monkeys. On one of the beaches I caught a fish in my bucket, I called it a “golden fidget”.

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Alisha

The best thing I did in Nicaragua was boogie boarding. It is really easy once you get the hang of it. I can go further than anyone else on a big wave. I met lots of people traveling like me and we have all been playing together.

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Gilly

Nicaragua has impressed us with its clean roads and friendly people. The colonial towns of Leon and Granada were picturesque and fun to wander around. Our time on Isle de Ometepe gave us a chance to see more of rural, agricultural Nicaragua. We’ve loved staying on the beach at Playa Madera. When so far from our home community it is always nice to meet up with other who are doing something similar to us, especially if we meet them several times.

The view from the window above our bed.

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Steve

Whilst Nicaragua is the largest Central American country we have only really travelled down the narrow side of it near the Pacific and have only driven about 500 kms in nearly two weeks. The rest of the country leading over to the Caribbean is less populated and fairly flat countryside. There is a lot though packed into the small side we visited. Colonial towns, volcanoes, a large freshwater lake and some fabulous beaches.

It has also been great catching up with fellow overlanders and swapping stories and spending time having a beer together. Been camped on the beach was great as it was such a beautiful spot and great company.

Part of the girl’s project on Mexico and Central America.

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