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(Monteverde, Costa Rica – 14 August) “Want to see a sloth?” our guide asked in a whisper as our small group ambled through the dense rainforest. We turned our heads in the direction he was looking and saw only trees, leaves, vines, ferns, and countless epiphytes (all variety of parasitic plants that grow in and on trees). Our amateur eyes saw no sloth. Javier had been a nature guide for 11 years at the Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve and fortunately for us he knew what to look for. He carried with him a loaf-of-bread-sized scope attached to a tripod which he quickly set up and aimed at the hidden hairball. I put my iPhone to the scope’s eyepiece and took the video below. You cannot see much, but it was nonetheless very cool to be voyeurs of nature in that moment.
The sloth-sighting story doesn’t actually end there. After the hike was over and we returned to the hostel, I was chatting with one of the staff about how we saw a sloth. He motioned for me to follow him outside the hostel’s front door and about 20 steps to the left. His head and eyebrows nodded towards a tree growing next to the road. There sat a sloth resting not a frisbee-toss away from our room.
Green Mountain, Indeed
Monteverde is a very interesting and lively destination in Costa Rica. Its primary draw is, of course, the rainforest, but they have developed so many add-on attractions that one is left with hundreds of options for what to do. Zip-lining, bungee-jumping, and sky-walking (on a series of suspension bridges) are all available for a price. There were also butterfly, frog, snake, bat and hummingbird sanctuaries to visit; often multiples of each. We decided on two activities. Jessica chose the Original Canopy Tour, which bills itself as the first zip-lining tour company in Costa Rica. I chose the more sedate (and “educational”) guided tour of the Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve.
The zip-lining took place first. A van picked us up from the hostel at 7:15 in the morning and we drove about 15 minutes (all uphill) until we reached the tour starting point. They outfitted us with gear and our small group of 7 followed local guides, Davíd, Dany and José, by foot higher and further up the mountain. The two of us were accompanied by another couple from Spain, and a father, son & daughter trio from Holland.
Our first little bit of fun was a “Tarzan” swing. I went first, stepping up onto the 25 foot high platform and jumping while Jessica did an excellent job of capturing the video. Once back on terra firma it was her turn and I was handed the camera. That’s when all hell broke loose. Not with regard to Jessica and her perfectly executed Tarzan swing, complete with screams of fright and delight. The problem was my inability to manipulate her simple point ‘n shoot camera. I tried to take a photo of her, but the camera was set to video. Changing the settings was challenging because I had to remove the big stinky gloves they give you for zip-lining in order to manipulate the small settings. Plus, without my readers on I couldn’t make out the tiny labels on the camera to know what buttons to push anyway. It was a bonafide disaster and I whatever pics and vids I managed to catch of Jessica’s brave and glorious moment are honestly unworthy of showing. You’ll see.
Zip-lining is a lot of fun all by itself, but to think you’re doing it in the middle of a Costa Rican rain forest is the shiz! Altogether, there were 15 different zip-lines that had us moving through the trees faster than a pack of monkeys on their way to a banana market. Some were short, some were long. Some sent you swooping amid the trees and others sent you soaring over them. The longest zip was 800m, which means you’re flying like a bird for around half a minute.
Included in our tour was an encounter with the elusive and endangered quetzal bird, a large, red-breasted, green-feathered bird with a disproportionately long tail. I snatched a pic of it on the assumption nobody would believe we saw one without proof. This one was a female and identifiable as such because its tail is far shorter than the male’s.
We also did some repelling followed by a super-cool scramble back up the tree through the inside. Turns out we had been high up in a strangler fig (or ficus) tree. This unique tree is created when a specific type of epiphyte sends its roots down the side of the host tree all the way to the ground. It takes centuries, but these roots eventually feed off the host tree until there is literally nothing left of it. What remains looks like a tree, but is actually a shell-of-a-tree; great for a multitude of animals who will end up using it for their home. The photo below was taken from inside the base of the tree looking upwards. See the rope ladder to help us climb.
On the day we went to the Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve (and spied on the sloth through the scope), we did huge amount of walking. We started on foot from the hostel and trekked slowly and leisurely the 8 kilometers (about 5 miles) to the preserve. The route took us passed the frog sanctuary, the bat exhibit, several Casa de Artes, restaurants, coffee shops, and a cheese factory. The cheese factory is significant because it was Monteverde’s first major business and responsible for shaping the entire region into what it is today.
The cheese factory (no relation to The Cheesecake Factory restaurant) was founded by a group of Quakers from the US in the 1920′s. Supposedly, at the start they knew nothing about how to make cheese and taught themselves the entire process. They also created schools for their children and generously opened them up to any child from the community. Thanks to the Quakers it seems everyone from this area speaks English…and quite well, too.
Given all this backdrop, Jessica and I absolutely had to stop and sample some cheese. The “factory” was inside a medium-sized metal building and looked altogether unremarkable. From the small store at the entrance we bought a small, 7-slice package (odd number, I know) of one of their white cheeses. It was nicknamed by the company as their “King of cheeses.” It was good cheese, to be sure. But neither of us saw any reason to crown it King.
The hike to the preserve was long and 90% uphill, but we enjoyed it very much. The weather, the views, the sparkling blue butterflies flittering about along the way. All good. Jessica has this fantasy that one of those spectacular blue butterflies will land on her shoulder and stay there long enough for me to take a photo. Yeah, good luck with that! I was able to manage catching her pose with this giant moth.
Javier, our guide at the preserve, was no less than phenomenal. In near-perfect English, he led our group of four on a 3 hour tour (a 3 hour tour) through one of the most magnificent rain forests on the planet. (The other two in our group were a couple of friends from Germany and Austria.) Javier’s knowledge of the flora and fauna surrounding us was incredible and his ability to spot wildlife, simply uncanny. Even while talking to us, his eyes were busy scanning the surroundings for anything that moved. His ears were keenly aware of each bird and beast that stirred the air.
When he found the sloth shown in the video above, it was not directly with the naked eye, but rather with his binoculars. I grilled him, “…but how did you know to look at that spot in the trees with your binoculars?” With his arm and index finger extended, he tried to lead my eyes to a place he’d noticed high in the trees where two limbs of a single tree branched-together without any bromeliads growing along them. This struck him as unusual so he looked there more closely with the binoculars. That’s when he saw the sloth. He’s telling me this and in my mind I’m thinking, “Are you freaking kidding me?! There’s 18 billion branches in this forest and you thought those two looked peculiar?!” [I think he planted that sloth there in advance.]
After the guided tour, we had a little more time and hiked out to the preserve’s only suspension walk. It was off-the-charts awesome. The cloud-mist washing over us was so cool.
We really enjoyed our time in Monteverde and anticipated missing it even before we had left. We especially enjoyed the cooler mountain air. But Costa Rica is known for its great beaches and our plans had us heading westward to the Pacific Ocean. A little beach town called Santa Teresa was calling our names. Until then, here is one last zip for you…