Note: The video above showcases two trips I took over a couple of weeks with Gecko Trail Costa Rica. Below is an excerpt from my upcoming travelogue, tentatively titled Talking Tico, on living abroad in Costa Rica for 10 months and traveling around Central America.
I left for Monteverde via a shuttle pickup from a chain hotel off the highway in Santa Ana. At least I was able to take the bus there, I thought, though I’m sure I looked ridiculous to motorists as I lugged my roller bag behind me and prepared for a mad dash across Lindora Avenue to reach the hotel. (There were no crosswalks or lights for pedestrians nearby.)
The shuttle ride was much like the others I had already taken around Central America. There were a number of foreign tourists, North American and European, minding their own business for the two and a half hour drive up to Monteverde. Whereas Tico taxis are typically chatty, I always found shuttle drivers quiet. I assumed this was because of the larger group and assumption that the foreigners didn’t speak Spanish.
Our driver did share one concern — carretera 606. The winding, northerly road that connects the Central Valley and coastal Puntarenas to elevated Monteverde had been under construction. If we arrived at the wrong time, we’d be stopped and have to wait as one-way traffic passed us by.
We lucked out on any road delays thanks to some heavy rain that reminded me of the so-called green season back home in Ciudad Colón. Nobody wanted to be working in that mess. But as we approached the final few kilometers to Monteverde, mud started to cover the road where construction workers had taken over the rare piece of flat land to keep unused equipment. Our driver paused as he observed the road ahead. A hole separated us from our final stretch into Monteverde.
One worker came running over in nothing more than jeans and a tee shirt, drenched from the downpour. At least he had boots on to deal with the mud.
I overheard him instruct our driver to go over onto the adjacent field and that would lead around the hole in the road. Though of course to get through the field, we had to crawl over one small hill, a hill that would be insignificant in any other kind of weather. But we had rain of biblical proportions. The shuttle simply couldn’t get over the hump, metaphorically and literally.
Instead we got ourselves stuck, the wheels spinning like a toy race car being held by a toddler, unable to gain traction. Two workers came over to help push the shuttle out of the way and we retreated back to the road, our driver appearing to think up a Plan B. No such plan materialized as we watched other vehicles more suited for this weather easily roll over the hill and onto the other side. I could sense concern from the driver, possibly because some Gringos can become incessantly impatient when things don’t go perfectly their way. Thankfully this crowd appeared to be more empathetic for the driver rather than aggravated.
Eventually one of the workers hopped into a nearby bobcat UTV and started scooping mud and filling the hole in the road. Another worker with a shovel flattened the dirt to smooth it all out. There was still a ditch to our left that our driver had to carefully navigate along the narrow pass. If a wheel slipped in, I’m not sure how we would have gotten out.
Our driver, however, handled the pass with ease, and gave a couple of friendly honks to the workers who helped us out as we sped into Monteverde.
On cue, the rain stopped by the time I got dropped off at the Arco Iris Lodge, a modest-sized lodge spreading out into different cabins connected by stone paths. I was greeted by someone who appeared to be a Gringo working the front counter in the main lodge, but I didn’t want to assume. Even if he was, part of me wanted him to know that I wasn’t one of those Gringos who couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish.
Separating myself from the typical Gringo tourist was a constant battle and one in which I always engaged in by speaking Spanish first. More often than not, speaking Spanish proved successful in knocking down the assumption that I’m on my way to some gaudy resort. In Osa, a waitress who started recognizing me flatteringly called me, “Casi Tico” or “Almost Tico.” This felt like a huge win. But sometimes in the more touristy towns, I’d still get an English response.
“Good afternoon. Table for two?” a waitress would ask.
“Sí, mesa para dos, por favor.” I’d respond.
“Follow me,” they’d stay, still in English. “Here you go. Something to drink?”
“¿Tienen frescas naturales?” I’d tenaciously respond in Spanish.
“Yes. They’re listed right here.”
And so the impasse would continue until one of us broke.
“Buenas. Tengo una reservación,” I said to the front desk.
“Buenas. ¿Como se llama?” he responded before another couple of tourists skipped ahead of me to ask a quick question in English. This appeared to fluster him as he attempted to switch his brain back to Spanish. But after taking one long look at me, he made the wild guess that I could speak English.
“Uh,” he muttered, glancing down at his notes. “You speak English, right?”
One of the first things anyone asks someone who has been to Costa Rica is, “Did you go zip-lining?” Living there, folks back home assumed it was the mode of transportation.
“Costa Rica, eh? Do you just zip-line everywhere?”
Yet it admittedly wasn’t one of my favorite activities. I had previously done it twice, once in Puerto Rico and a second time in West Virginia. I enjoyed myself plenty, but I prefer hiking and taking in my surroundings as opposed to the quick thrill of zip-lining. Nevertheless, that’s what you do in Monteverde, an ecotourism hotspot resting roughly 1,200 to 1,500 meters above sea level. You go zip-lining, and I was happy to give it a whirl with Sky Adventures.
My Monteverde group consisted of three American college girls, two Mexican women in their 40s, and another American couple. One of the college girls had no intention to partake in the zip-lining, crippled by her fear of heights, but accompanied us nonetheless to take pictures for her friends. She did, however, endure the initial sky tram ride up to the top of the canopy course, giggling in anxiety the entire way as her eyes welled up in tears.
“Oh, you’re so brave! You’re doing good!” her friends offered encouragingly. Meanwhile, one of the Tico guides, a charismatic young man who knew his way around people, used it as an opportunity to chat her up.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you,” he said as he stretched his arm around her, instructing the distraught girl’s friends to snap a picture as he flashed a goofy smile. The gesture seemed to take her mind off what I’m sure she imagined was an imminent, crashing death from the tram.
Those of us not clinging for dear life were able to take in our surroundings. With the rain gone, we were treated to a remarkably clear sky that allowed us to catch Volcán Arenal out in the distance. Below, the dense forest swallowed everything that wasn’t cleared out for the sky tram. The air was pleasantly cool with a bit of a mist, as one might expect in a cloud forest.
Stations were placed perfectly so that there was little hiking in between zip-lines along the canopy course. I generally prefer a bit of a hike, but others appeared thankful to avoid hiking with those adult-sized diapers they make you wear to latch onto the zip-lines. With a smaller group, we finished the eight-line course earlier than the expected two hours. Nobody was shy about hopping up for their turn once our heights-averse friend left the group to snap photos. It’s an interesting process when you think about it. You’re chatting, as one does with a new group, and in mid-conservation you pause to quickly slide down 750 meters of cable before picking up where you left off.
“Yeah, I moved to Costa Rica about nine months ago, and…”
“Ready to go, amigo?”
“Sorry, one sec while I bullet across the forest.”
The other highlight in town, perhaps even more popular than the zip-lines, is hiking in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, founded in 1972 by scientists George Powell and the Quaker Wilford Guindon. That wasn’t the first time Quakers got involved in Monteverde. In fact, present-day Monteverde was founded by U.S. Quakers whose pacifist values didn’t mesh well with the draft effort during the Korean War. Dairyman Hubert Mendenhall led the group after first visiting Costa Rica in 1949. He was won over by the cool climate (hospitable to dairy farming), and the country’s lack of a standing army.
My excitement for this hike tripled when I discovered my group was no more than a Tico guide and a Spanish couple. One of my favorite cheap thrills was to do tours exclusively in Spanish. It always felt like an accomplishment if I could understand more technical Spanish, describing our surroundings and the biodiversity. I can order food in German, but I don’t consider myself a German speaker, but I would if I could comprehend the language in the midst of a hiking tour that describes the local flora and fauna.
The Spanish couple were on their honeymoon. As we made introductions, I realized I had never spoken to a Spanish person in Spanish before.
As I listened, I realized that I ironically had a more difficult time understanding Spain Spanish (Spainish, if you will) than I did the Latino variety. Most non-Spanish speakers think Latinos speak impossibly fast, but that title should be reserved for the Spanish. To the contrary, Ticos pride themselves in having what one might consider the most approachable form of Spanish. Many linguists agree.
Ultimately I faired fine with my Spanish companions, even though I kept imagining flamenco music scoring the conversation.
Monteverde has been called “the jewel in cloud forest reserves” by National Geographic. Newsweek wrote that it’s one of the world’s 14 places to remember before it disappears. For birders, it’s a favorite stomping ground.
During our hike, rumor quickly spread among the guides that there was a quetzal afoot. Our guide insisted we hightail it back to the sighting. The quetzal is a rare find, which made it all the more exciting for the guides and hiking birders. Our guide tip-toed through the dense brush, staring intensely through the woods in hopes of spotting the quetzal. Finally we were called over once the quetzal had been spotted again, perched on a faraway branch. By the end of this birding hunt, it was time for us to turn back for the colibríes (hummingbirds) fluttering around by the feeders placed near the reserve’s entrance.
Oddly enough, I ended up being more entranced with the town of Santa Elena than anything else I had experienced in Monteverde. It was a walkable, picturesque little town that afforded its residents plenty of adventure opportunities a short drive away. I imagined myself living here and getting lost in the cloud forests. For work I’d spend my days at Beso Espresso, even if only because a barrista there made me feel important by noticing my camera and taking an interest in my travel videos. Melanie and I would then take in dinner at Tree House, a dimly lit, rustic establishment that features a giant higuerón tree growing from the center of the restaurant and stretching its limbs out and around the tables.
Yeah, I could do that.
Disclaimer: Accomodations and trip-planning were provided by Gecko Trail Costa Rica.