Terra: Santa Elena, Costa Rica
Monteverde represents Costa Rica’s modern progressive paradox. The balance between preservation of the cloud forests and the willingness to share it with the rest of the world is the subject of no small debate.
Monteverde is also far from a day trip, and the excursion to get there is worthy of its own narrative. The transition from battered dirt roads to pavement marks entry into the town of Santa Elena, at the foot of the cloud forests.
The city of Santa Elena resembles a house with multiple hasty additions. Each section built at a different time, with different materials, to suit different people. The concrete and iron homes of the locals contrasts with the glass and metal of growing business. There isn’t much of a native population, but you get the impression that the people who do reside here live to serve the endless stream of travelers. The pay in tourism isn’t great, but it’s steady, and it comes right to your front door.
The road leads downtown, to a small Main Street. Unlike other Latin American towns the absence of a central plaza and church is disorienting. The hills and valleys make it near impossible to find enough flat space to construct roads, let alone plazas. The city center includes a small tourism office, various hostels, restaurants, and “extreme sport” offices that advertise aerial tram rides, zip lines, nighttime excursions, and more. It’s a “disneyesque” facade that overshadows the true allure of the region.
The sporadic buses that rattle down the roads carry unkempt backpackers to and from the coast. It’s not hard to find American college kids, Britons on holiday, Australians on walkabout, and sightseeing Chinese crossing paths around town. Each storefront, each tourism office, each restaurant makes you double-guess the authenticity of your surroundings. I doubt that this is what ecologists had in mind when they constructed access points to their research stations in the wilderness.
“Ecolodge” is the new buzzword for the industry, and rustic accommodations can be found at reasonable rates. Clouds fly by overhead, close enough to challenge the birds for dominion over the skies. The verdant canopy extends for miles, and rolls like a green blanket over the hills. The vista is only broken by the occasional cell phone tower, a reasonable price to pay for sparse access to the outside world. At sunset the air chills and the winds grow. A little rain is always expected, and renews the forest for another day. In the communal kitchen students play a card game while pasta boils on the stove. After the shops have closed and the lights dimmed, the spirit of the cloud forest permeates the night and laughter fills the space in between rooms at the lodge. Like the peeling paint on the front door of the cabin, the layers of artificiality are stripped away, and the bare essence of Monteverde is exposed. The forest comes alive, and beckons you to enter.
Michael Van Etten
The LEAF Project
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