It was with great sadness that we said goodbye to Arenal, aka the ‘volcano & adrenaline’ leg of the trip – but with equal amounts of excitement to explore the next leg of the trip at Monteverde – aka the ‘creepy crawly cloud forest’ leg. Monteverde is home to a huge, magical Bosque Nuboso, or cloud forest, a rare and extraordinarily special place high up in the hills, with a mind-blowing ecosystem, lush greenery, gushing creeks and insane amounts of wildlife, all cloaked in ethereal mist.
We were more than a little nervous to tackle the drive to Monteverde. Online message boards raved about the terrifying roads to get there, and on arrival in San José we were warned that the roads around Monteverde are the worst in the whole of Costa Rica and that we might want to consider changing our route for an easier journey. Having already gained a few grey hairs on the drive from San José to Arenal, we were slightly unsettled about the prospect of tackling worse. In addition, with us visiting during rainy season, and with Monteverde being at a much higher elevation, we also had the prospect of hairpin mountain bends and torrential rain and thunderstorms, which make driving on even the easiest roads a challenge. However, I reasoned that plenty of people, including tourists, make this journey all the time, and that if we set off early enough we should miss the majority of the rain (it usually comes after lunchtime).
I am SO glad we ignored the hysteria around these roads. Yes, they are hard to drive on – they are completely unpaved and full of rubble and enormous pot holes. Yes, there are dizzying drops at the side of the road, especially as you get higher up towards the cloud forest. Yes, it did start raining when we still had around 30 minutes of the journey to go. However, in a 4WD the roads are perfectly navigable, and you simply drive VERY slowly, enabling you to avoid potholes where possible, stay at a safe distance away from the edges and easily manoeuvre around oncoming vehicles. We probably averaged about 10kph for the last hour of the trip, and the fantastic thing is that EVERYONE drives slowly on these roads. I have driven in places like India and Transylvania where the most frightening thing is not so much how bad the roads are (even though they are bad), it’s how scarily fast everyone else drives, overtaking on blind corners and often forcing you to move unsafely out of the way. Here, everyone is careful, and at no point have we felt endangered by anyone else on the roads – as you are all driving so slowly, there is always plenty of time to tackle anything that gets thrown at you. My biggest criticism is that there should have been someone handing out sports bras at the start of the road to Monteverde – the most helpful tip I can give my large-breasted sisters is, for the love of god, pack and wear those reinforced boulder-holders or else spend the majority of the journey as I did, embarrassing your kids by screeching ‘OW!’ and grasping your poor knockers every ten seconds.
So, as I said above – we were handsomely rewarded for tackling these roads. If you ever make this trip, please don’t let them put you off as they are really not as bad as they are made out to be (and as we drove up we saw a lot of men at work resurfacing some parts, so in future months/years these roads will probably be a lot better anyway) and Monteverde is quite simply one of the most remarkable and wonderful places you could ever visit. In retrospect, knowing what I know about the treats that were waiting for us, I’d have tackled roads far worse to get here. I’ve been referring to this season as “rainy” season, but actually the Costa Ricans call it the “green” season, as everywhere is so much more lush, and nowhere is this shown to be more apt than at Monteverde (the ‘green mountain’). It literally seemed as though life was sprouting up all around you, breathing the air felt like it was nourishing you from the inside out, and the mist was thick with the sounds of insects chirping, animals calling, water rushing and leaves rustling. I can think of no place on earth I’ve ever visited that felt so pure and vibrant.
We arrived into the little Tico settlement of Santa Elena (local Costa Ricans refer to themselves as ‘Ticos’) early afternoon, and joyfully discovered our beautiful wooden ‘cabin in the forest’, nestled in woodland on a local family farm, with the rain drumming on its tin roof, cosily cloaked in mist. Again we were treated to the warmest welcome from our host, Anabéliz – one of the absolute best things about Costa Rica are its wonderful people – unerringly friendly, warm, positive and helpful. Once she’d helped us to get settled in, she asked if we wanted her to make us a traditional breakfast the next day. We agreed for that first morning, thinking we’d make our own cereal etc the rest of the time, but ended up having her amazing breakfast every single day. ‘Gallo Pinto’, the traditional Costa Rican breakfast of rice and beans (cooked with spring onion and coriander), scrambled egg and plantain, rockets up there to the top of my all-time favourite meals. If, like I did, you’re thinking, “Well it doesn’t SOUND that exciting,” please just trust me, it’s bloody immense. Especially paired with the mind-blowing local Salsa Lizano (currently ditching most of my belongings so that I can fit 63453 bottles of this in my suitcase), it’s the food of the gods.
The biggest challenge I’d anticipated about Monteverde was the Spider Factor. Joe has for some years now had quite strong arachnophobia, becoming visibly unnerved at the appearance of even the smallest spider in the house. Our neighbour at Arenal did actually show me a photo of a tarantula he’d just found in our back garden, but I made the executive decision not to relay this to Joe. The cloud forest at Monteverde is a haven for all types of wildlife but especially insects and birds – it’s definitely the ‘creepy crawly’ capital of the country, and we knew we had to expect (and welcome) large numbers of them – spiders, millipedes, centipedes, beetles, ants, cockroaches, the lot, possibly even scorpions. We’d ‘coached’ Joe a lot before the trip to make sure he understood that this would be the case, and to discuss how he might approach any spider-related experiences, and bless him, he was determined to tackle it and try to get over his fears.
As we pulled up into the driveway I hoped it had escaped Joe’s notice that almost every single bush and tree around the house was literally coated from head to foot in large spider webs. Luckily, there were enough other insects around to distract his attention from spiders for the time being. “WHAT’S THAT?!” could be heard echoing around our cabin every couple of minutes for the whole duration of our stay – the shower particularly seemed to be the hotspot for various strange wriggly creatures, millipedes, beetles and worms, all gently washed down the drain with a friendly wave and a sigh of relief. Some of the toys I’d brought with us for Huey were those squidgy rubbery insects that stick to the wall when you chuck them – in retrospect a moronic purchase given our destination – so after thinking for the hundredth time that I’d trod on some kind of revolting gelatinous insect, I decided to bin the lot – there were enough real ones schmoozing their way around the place without adding ridiculous fake ones into the mix.
The insect we found most unnerving at first were the ants. Right from the start of the trip, they have been omnipresent – on the floors, the walls, everywhere. In Arenal and Monteverde they were mostly quite small and black, tiny sometimes, although in our beach house in Samara (covered in the next instalment) they are pretty big and red. For the first few days I found them really hard to get used to, but honestly, after a week or so, you mostly just don’t notice them, they become part of the furniture. It’s always worth checking the floor when you stand still, just to make sure you’re not stood in a nest or particularly ‘busy’ area, but generally speaking you can just forget about them most of the time. Occasionally you do get a nip on your foot, but it usually doesn’t hurt too much (quite a sharp ‘sting’ at first but then they fade to nothing after a couple of minutes, much like a nettle sting) and you just have to make sure that you keep all food, including packets, well sealed in an airtight jar or in the fridge (as we discovered on Day 3 when I poured milk on Huey’s breakfast and about 50 ants floated to the surface that had been hiding in the cereal). They are incredible things and quite fascinating to watch – always SO busy, and frequently working together to overpower insects hundreds of times their own size. Outdoors you often see huge production lines of them, carrying massive leaves – you see the leaves moving before you see the ants themselves. As with most of the wildlife and creepy crawlies in Costa Rica, for the most part, if you ignore them and let them get on with life, they extend the same courtesy to you.
The prize to the most amusing insect goes to the cockroach who proudly took up residence on Adam’s crotch while he was having an evening nap in our cabin. I was lying next to him reading a book, and honestly hadn’t noticed it climbing on up there until I turned to wake him up. Waking Adam and seeing him sleepily register his new ‘buddy’ (who clearly was taking his identity as a ‘cock’roach very literally) was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to make the call as to whether his initial waking paralysis or his squeaky panicked requests for toilet roll were the funniest thing about it, but I loved every minute. I should have realised that laughing at him would ensure that karma dished out something revolting for me later this trip – this morning I discovered a dead squished millipede stuck tight to the bottom of my foot. I’m ashamed to admit Adam restrained himself from returning the favour by laughing at me, instead gallantly helping to scrape it off – but I’m pretty sure it’d have been a different story if it had been a live one chilling out on my nether regions.
We had only two full days and three nights in Monteverde – if Huey had been older we’d have spent longer here, but as many of the activities up here are geared towards older children and adults having a deeper appreciation and understanding of ecosystems, flora and fauna, and many of the adventure activities have age limits (usually aged 5/6+), we kept this leg shorter. That’s not to say that Monteverde isn’t fantastic for kids of all ages – it is – just that given our limited timeframe in the country, we thought Huey would get more from spending longer in other locations. The first day we went to Selvatura for a long hike in the cloud forest, over the incredible, huge hanging bridges, and also visited their insect and reptile exhibitions, where we learned that despite being riddled with spiders, Costa Rica only has one that is especially dangerous to humans (phew!) but that it has 22 types of dangerous snakes (oh). We also learned that the scorpions here aren’t particularly harmful to us – they’d only give you a painful nip at worst – but in truth I still think I don’t think I’d cope well with finding one in the shower or in a shoe, which thankfully, we didn’t (shoe shaking is an essential part of the daily routine out here – or, whenever you can, just wear flip flops). Fortunately the only local creature we did bring home with us from the cloud forest was a cuddly sloth for Huey from the gift shop, to whom he’s given the majestic name of ‘Doody’ and who now accompanies his favourite toy ‘Doosh’ wherever he goes.
On the second day we went on a night hike in the rainforest, which we all said was one of the most incredible things we’ve EVER done. 80% of the wildlife in the rainforest is nocturnal, so although a daytime hike, as we’d done the day before, is wonderful, a night-time one is truly special and utterly astounding. Led by a guide, we ventured into the forest at sunset, wrapped up in waterproofs and close toed shoes, all grasping torches, with Huey strapped to my front in the baby carrier. The darkness was so sudden, pure and thick – the torches helped you see the trail ahead of you, but if you turned to look behind, you couldn’t even see your hand held up in front of your face. I’d been excited about all the things we’d see, but the first thing that unexpectedly hit me was all the amazing things we could hear – so many different calls, squeaks, songs, movements, rustling, shuffling, chirping, all around you, from every side, above and below you. It’s worth going on one of these night walks even if only to hear the sounds. You’re immediately and humbly aware that you’re a trespasser in a huge, busy, bustling secret world that thinks nothing of your existence. Our guide explained that the animals tolerate quiet, gentle human guests because hunting is illegal in Costa Rica – so, quite simply, they’ve never learned to fear us – we are basically just irrelevant to them.
In the eerie torchlight we found hundreds and hundreds of incredible creatures – on the ground, in the bushes, inside tree trunks, on branches, hanging down, flying around, crawling, scampering…. Spiders, stick insects, grasshoppers, birds, bats, tiger beetles, katydids, a porcupine high up in a tree (I never knew they climbed!) butterflies, enormous moths, agoutis, millipedes, fireflies (I’d never seen these before, absolutely magical), opossums, cockroaches and slugs. Some of them ‘found’ us – occasionally you’d get a massive moth in your face, or as poor Joe, my arachnophobic son, discovered when he shone his torch upwards, a huge spider rappelling quickly downwards towards his face from a tree above his head. I was anxious about Joe doing this night walk – as I mentioned before, with him being so scared of spiders, and knowing the forest would be full of them, I had visions of atomic meltdowns in the darkness and the need to quickly abort the walk. But he was determined to face his fears, and at the end of it, after coming face to face with hundreds of massive terrifying-looking spiders (that quite frankly I was none too keen on myself), he announced that he was no longer bothered by them. Massive thumbs up to Costa Rica. The most terrifying moment of the whole trip was when Huey, who had fallen asleep in the sling on my chest pretty much on arrival (it was his bedtime), suddenly woke with a blood-curdling scream right in the depths of the forest darkness. He went promptly back to sleep but it was enough to make everyone jump out of their skin and probably left most of the rainforest animals wondering about the terrible new predator on the block.
So, having terrorised the cloud forest with our screeching toddler, we spent our last night in our cosy wooden cabin, said a sad farewell to Anabéliz and her beautiful breakfasts, and set off for the next leg of our trip – the ‘surf and beach bum’ leg – in Samara on the Nicoya Peninsula.