Terra: The Road To Monteverde, Costa Rica
Getting to Monteverde is as great of an adventure as the reserve itself. Costa Rica boasts diverse extremes, and the journey from San Jose to the cloud forest is no exception.
Language should not be taken for granted, for one man’s molehill is another’s mountain. The “road” to Monteverde can barely be classified as such, and let us be clear, there is only one road. From the outskirts of San Jose, the solitary path follows ruts cut by Spanish explorers, coffee-laden oxcarts, and finally horse-drawn supply wagons. Today it starts as pavement, to gravel, to clay, and back to pavement again. The route carries people to Santa Elena, Monteverde, then continues onward to Volcán Arenal and beyond.
The trek begins at sea level, in the city. Rental companies will specifically ask if you are traveling to Monteverde, and won’t let you depart until you’ve been equipped with four-wheel drive vehicles and additional insurance. The concern is well founded. This is not to say that the road is impassible, or even dangerous by some standards. However, if you were raised in the concrete jungle, mountainside driving will present a new set of challenges to those unaccustomed to passing dust-covered tour buses on narrow switchbacks.
Flat drives turn to inclines, asphalt to stone and clay. Smooth riding becomes bone-rattling, and tests the patience. On paper (or GPS) the route seems simple. Most experienced drivers double the estimated travel time. The road to Monteverde is no place for haste. Sheer cliffs are common, and passengers can see straight down verdant volcanic valleys. The lack of guard rails, security barriers, or even warning signs raises eyebrows for the most fearless. This is not, by any means, the most dangerous road in Costa Rica, or even Latin America. However, tourists rarely comment positively on the experience.
Tourism (turismo) vans are the norm here. They are an efficient mode of personal transport, and are at least one notch less-terrifying than taking a full-sized public bus. Renting one of these personal guides ensures that the driver has probably taken this road at least once before. Ticos don’t necessarily frequent the road to the cloud forests, and someone who knows the way is always a plus. Sitting in the front seat (and speaking Spanish) will give you small hints of the upcoming road conditions. When the driver leans, you lean. When the driver lifts off the seat, best that you follow suit. Zagat usually neglects to tell you these things.
However, the rise in altitude gives way to breathtaking vistas. Explosions of orange-colored blossoms punctuate verdant carpets of leaves. Coffee plantations cover entire mountains, red berries shaded by deep black fabric. As you ascend, the clouds part and the blue sea melts into the horizon. Rain collects in the cloud forest, creates flowing rivers, and the ravines trace their way past your feet all the way down to the ocean. The air around you transforms, becoming lighter and drier as you ascend, and oxygen becomes slightly thinner. The experience gets to your head.
From sea level to mountain heights in a few short hours, it overloads the senses. The first to travel this road were greater adventurers than I. When you plan on visiting Monteverde, getting there is indeed half the fun.
Michael Van Etten
The LEAF Project
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