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