Our tiny rental car shuttered along the narrow, rocky edge of mountains as we made our way east from Tamarindo to Monteverde. The winter season at The Bunkhouse was over, so a few of us used our off-season break to seek warmer climes. So far in Costa Rica we’d visited beach towns and waterfalls, and later we’d explore the volcano, tree houses, and hanging bridges of Arenal, but my favorite scenery would reveal itself here, in the area known for it’s Cloud Forests - after I recovered from my bout of rough-road-induced nausea. My friend Ashley flew the car over those rocks like she'd done it a million times, while my eyes glazed over in the backseat in a depressing show of weakness.
Perched high above sea level, the towns of Monteverde and Santa Elena feel like a completely different world from the rest of the country. There is something reminiscent of Grimm’s fairytales here, something a little spooky and cozy at the same time. A mist hangs over the lush forests, similar to atmospheres I’d come across in the Pacific Northwest or parts of Alaska, except that “forest” here means something more akin to “jungle”. When Ashley and I made it to one peak viewing area on our hike through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde), the condensation hung so thick that you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you. I think you were supposed to be able to see out over the entire forest at a clearer hour, but every twisted tree and strange individual example of vegetation we came across throughout the hike demonstrated enough majesty in and of itself, and we weren’t so disappointed to miss the view; in fact I admired the ghostliness. The farther we got from the main trails the more alone we were, with what felt like the entire forest to ourselves, but closer in we benefitted from tour guides pointing out small animals and birds to other hikers. We kept an ear out for pumas, but no such luck. You guys, I have never seen any of the dangerous animals everyone yells at me about not preparing for, and it's a real gyp. At all times I have a nagging feeling of guilt hanging over me about not carrying bear spray, and for what? Nothing. In proportion to my lack of cool animal sightings, I spend way too much time strategizing the best way to gaze deeply into the eyes of a predator in order to telepathically make it understand I come in peace.
To get to this magical and disappointingly safe reserve (which is one of two main cloud forests - the other is the Reserva Santa Elena), we hopped a local bus for $1 at a stop nearby our hostel. The Pension Santa Elena is one of my favorite places we stayed throughout the whole trip; it felt like an adventurer’s outpost. When we first arrived we gathered with other recent check-ins to get the whole spiel from the staff about the best things to do and see in the area, and what local tours and transportation options were available to take us there. Guests introduced themselves to each other and coordinated who all might want to join together for trips - “Is anyone else doing the night hike? What time are you going? Me too”, “I think we’re the only two who want to go horseback riding, want to go together?” The hostel, conveniently, served as a pickup spot for many of the tours, so all we had to do when we signed up for the coffee and cocoa tour (which was delicious), or Ashley's zipline, or my horseback riding trip (where my guide Martin and horse Legolas, who I looked comically large upon, lead me through dense forest to a great spot to climb ficus trees!), was stand out front and wait for the driver. The hostel is also connected to a life-saving taco stand called Taco Taco, and every guest receives a few comped coupons to order breakfast from them when they open in the mornings. Hammocks and community seating areas abound, and I felt like I wouldn’t mind hanging out there long term.
Despite the fact that transportation into and out of Monteverde and Santa Elena is limited, getting around within the area is fairly simple and cheap. The Santa Elena mountain town itself is highly walkable, and we found great local shopping and food around each alleyway (Ashley and I had become obsessed with passion fruit and mango by this point in our trip - we ordered desserts drizzled with passion fruit glaze and bought chocolate-covered fruit candies at local shops. I also couldn’t stop wolfing down casado and patacones every chance I got). The surrounding farmlands are more difficult to get to if you don’t feel like walking, but why not have an adventure and hoof it on foot? I actually enjoyed walking around town in the frequent summer showers, too - they had that cleansing effect always alluded to in moody movie montages. Stray dogs roam the streets alongside you, cared for by the community at large - we came to know a few of their names (I wonder if the locals would describe us the same way?).
Because of this, we knew we wouldn't need transportation and had dropped our rental car off upon arrival on the first day (there are no rental companies within Monteverde, but the company sent someone from a nearby city to handle the drop-off for us), so for the trip out of Monteverde to Arenal we did the jeep-boat-jeep (aka taxi-boat-taxi), which was a blast. A van picked us up outside the hostel, dropped us off lakeside where we transferred onto a ferry and zipped across Lake Arenal to the opposite bank, and then a bus picked us up and delivered us to the city of La Fortuna. I noticed a sticker someone had fixed to a post on the ferry that said "Life Before Work", and in that moment as I felt the spray from the waves and looked towards our next destination, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.