Over the past few years, I've created a secret mental list of destinations in my head, based on my preferences, interests, and what I've read. Costa Rica has popped up in that list a few times, but the timing was never right, and traveling there seemed quite a ways outside of my comfort zone.
An opportunity presented itself when my dear friend of almost 10 years invited me to her wedding in Costa Rica! Several months, much preparation and one personal crisis later, I was on a flight to Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport with my friend, and fellow wedding guest, my friend Melody. The flight wasn't too bad, just a little bumpy and around 5 hours. I'd pre-booked private transportation since we had a long drive ahead of us.
I did a ton of research before my trip - I learned about climate, expectations, wildlife, and how to pack. There are many great resources online with packing guides and plenty of information to set realistic expectations. I'd also like to put a little plug in here about being prepared. I was a bit taken aback by hearing very strong opinions about Costa Rica from people who have never been there. I was told I wouldn't need bug repellent, and that I would "see sloths everywhere," for instance. The good news is, I trusted my gut and I did enough research to know better. For instance, sloths live in particular areas, and there is more than one species of sloth in Costa Rica, AKA you are not guaranteed seeing sloths. Anyway, a lesson to you all: Please consult some legitimate resources and don't be swayed by your friends who are speaking from zero experience. Being prepared really helped me get through this trip, and that included packing appropriately, bringing efficient clothing, and having accurate expectations.
Although the wedding was to take place on the pacific coast side, I couldn't come all the way to Costa Rica without visiting at least one part of its famed rainforest or cloud forest regions. I decided on Monteverde, a high-altitude region full of cloud forest, popular for zip-lining, adventurous excursions, and coffee. So after we got off our flight, we met our driver and were whisked off to the top of a mountain.
Our first impression of Costa Rica was a rough one - our driver turned around to talk to us before we headed out. He said, "The first part of the drive will be okay, but there will be parts that are VERY bumpy... a free Costa Rican massage!" We giggled, not knowing that "bumpy" really meant being tossed around on unpaved roads going up a mountain with literal cliffs on the side, a la the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. Unlike my travel companion, I normally do not suffer major motion sickness, but even I was on the verge during that very bumpy, very dark and very scary drive.
We eventually arrived at our hotel, Cabañas Bosques de Paz, a family-run collection of cabins with great views and homemade breakfast. We'd arrived well past check-in time, close to 11PM to be exact, and could not see anything in the darkness. We were greeted by a security guard who was waiting for us. The hotel was extremely accommodating for our entire time there, beginning with our late check-in. We were escorted to our room and finally crashed. You can read my full hotel review here.
Our shuttle arrived (skillfully redirected with help from hotel staff), and we were off! We picked up a few people from surrounding hotels before continuing onto pavement-free roads and admiring the scenery we hadn't seen the night before. Many parts of Monteverde seem very dry and dusty, but other parts are overgrown with lush vegetation and plans that remind you that you are indeed in cloud forest region.
"Cloud forest" differs from the rain forest - a cloud forest climate retains a certain level of moisture pretty much all the time, resulting in low-lying clouds and fog. Our shuttle climbed higher and higher, and about 25-minutes from our hotel, we entered Selvatura Park. We were directed to the main office, which was crawling with people! It was a little before 9AM, much earlier than the 11AM tour I had scheduled. After checking in, we were given instructions to be harnessed up and shown where the lockers were located.
Selvatura Park provides lockers and locks for your belongings. For us, we were advised not to bring a backpack because we paid the extra $10 to do the Superman zip line, meaning we'd be given a backpack with our harness, and we had to carry that the entire time. I just added my stuff to that backpack and left everything else in the locker.
I also spent the extra money for the photo package. A photographer takes a photo of you before, in your gear, then they shoot a handful of photos during the first zip line. I knew it would be difficult to get photos while we were ziplining, so the photo package was a worthy investment in my eyes. Below are a couple photos taken by staff.
Selvatura Park is a well-oiled machine - they have a lot of experience, and every step of the tour went smoothly for us. We were ushered into a prep room where we were fitted with harnesses and helmets, then were escorted to a shuttle to take us uphill a bit. From there, we did a mild hike to the first platform (which felt terribly exhausting because of the altitude), where staff explained how to sit, where to put our hands, and how to brake.
I am afraid of heights, but I thoroughly enjoy zip lining. The speed, smoothness of the movement, and overall experience really feels like you're flying. I felt safe the whole time - even when on the platforms, I was always attached to something. For me, the two highlights of the tour were the Tarzan swing and the superman zip line. The Tarzan swing is optional, and scary! The Superman zip line is exceptional - it is 1km long, and you 'fly' horizontally on your belly. The cost is $10 extra, but it was definitely worth it for us. You can view both in my Monteverde video at the bottom of this page.
After the canopy tour, we realized we had extra time since our tour had begun early. I was thrilled to have time to see the hummingbird garden and some of the hanging bridges. We were advised to only do about half of the bridges, since we had limited time. The walking up to Bridge #5 was easy, fairly flat, and beautiful.
During this time, I was able to take my first big breath and soak in Costa Rica. Everything had been such a whirlwind from the time we stepped off the plane, but the quiet tranquility of the cloud forest was the perfect break from the crazy. I loved walking along the winding pathways and admiring all of the flora and fauna. I could finally see the appeal of Costa Rica, and why so many come just to see its natural wonders. While we were on one of the bridges, we had an incredible experience - we saw not one, but two Resplendent Quetzals! They flew below the bridge we were on, and their incredible grace and iridescence took our breath away.
After Selvatura Park, we took a shuttle back into town, and asked the driver to drop us off at a restaurant. Lunch was fabulous, and we (foolishly) made the trek back to our hotel from there. This was the first time during the day that I remembered we were close to the equator - the sun was absolutely blazing, and I was feeling it. I may have suffered a bit of heat exhaustion from wearing so much clothing and exerting myself in the openly sunny area, along with a sickness I'd picked up from a coworker before leaving on the trip.
Soon after, we were whisked away to our next adventure, a horse ride through the cloud forest. Costa Rica in general is full of horse tours, and it can be challenging to pick one. I stumbled upon Martin Horse Tour via Tripadvisor, and I'm incredibly happy with how my experience turned out. Martin owns 13 horses and practically runs his business out of his home. His horses are full of personality, are quite gentle, and well trained. They were so familiar with the trail that we didn't have to do much to guide them.
We mounted our horses and Martin lead us right into the forest. The tour was an hour, ample amount of time to get a solid handle on the local flora and have a quality experience. We sauntered on, one horse after the other, through uncultivated forest with only the sounds of nature as our soundtrack. My theme for the trip was definitely "authenticity," and being engulfed by such wonderful vegetation was incredibly peaceful. The tour ended with Martin taking us up to a vantage point to watch the sunset.
Finally, we ended our day around 8PM and were EXHAUSTED! I definitely slept like a rock, and tried to prepare myself for more adventures the following day.
Sunday held one of my most anticipated activities - a coffee farm tour. Similar to my horse tour dilemma, there were several options for a coffee farm tour in Monteverde. After quite a bit of consideration, I used Anywhere.com again to book the Monteverde Coffee Tour. While it doesn't have the commercial, gimmicky feel of the popular Don Juan Tour, I don't regret booking this particular tour.
The Monteverde Coffee Tour emphasizes sustainability and education. It is important for coffee drinkers to understand not only how their coffee goes from berry to cup, but also how those berries come to be. We had an amazing guide named Sergio, who is exceptionally passionate about coffee and sustainability. He did a great job taking us step-by-step through the farm so we could appreciate how much work goes into one cup of coffee.
We interacted with animals, learned about their role on the farm, and how everything is used, wasting as little as possible. One aspect of the farm that really stood out to me was the respect for the animals. Sergio greeted the pigs and they were so happy to see him, it was like seeing puppies getting excited to be pet! The farm believes in treating their animals well, and it shows. It was utterly inspiring to see a functioning farm producing such a great product while still maintaining the greatest respect for the environment. The farm houses several acres of coffee plants, and takes in workers from Nicaragua to help harvest the coffee berries. They work so hard, all so we can enjoy our morning dosage of caffeine.
It was eye-opening to see how much Costa Rica offers, with regard to the land itself. There is a small population of people who believe in respecting the land and maintaining it, but there are still so many large corporations who don't give the environment a second thought. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all of the edible plants grown on the property to feed the workers. Parts of the plants that are not eaten are used in compost to fertilize other plants and help the coffee grow. Not only are so many people fed, but plants are taken care of by other plants, the waste from the animals, and even a collection of earth worms. Even the methane gas produced by the pigs is used.
Walking through rows of edible plants and familiar herbs was pretty magical, too. The sun was shining and we were surrounded by so much greenery - something I am not used to back home. Our guide picked fresh basil off a plant and handed me a piece to enjoy.
Of course, the last part of the tour focused on coffee. By then, we had a real appreciation for how the plants are taken care of, how much goes into each plant, and how many years it takes to cultivate a fruit-bearing coffee tree. Part of the tour allowed us to don traditional baskets and pick our own coffee berries, which was very special to me. Coffee plants need a particular climate and environment to grow in, so many of us have never seen them before. It was a treat for me, as a coffee enthusiast, to not only see the plants and taste the berries, but to put myself in the shoes of the people who make it possible for me to enjoy my coffee.
It started with the germination of the seeds (beans), then onto the nursery, then onto mature trees. We saw the small crank machine used to separate the coffee berry from the seed (what we know as the bean), then to the roastery and finally we ended with a coffee tasting. I entered the tour excited to learn about coffee, but I left the tour having learned so much about the country of Costa Rica, its land, and how important sustainability really is.
One of the guests on the coffee tour asked our guide why the roads into Monteverde had not been paved, and I feel that his answer sums up my experience there. He explained that if the roads were paved, it would be easier for more tourists to come, so businesses would make more money. Monteverde would increase in popularity, but in order to accommodate more tourists, the environment would suffer. It wouldn't be worth it. I was so touched by his answer, and I believe this to be Monteverde in a nutshell.
By the time the coffee tour was over, I felt that I had finally adjusted to Monteverde, and I was sad that it was time to go. I knew the time would be short, but it felt even shorter! We saw a lot of incredible sights and wildlife, and I am very grateful I had some very special experiences in the little mountainous oasis of Monteverde.
Below you will find a video summary of some of my favorite moments in Monteverde!
Stay tuned for my next post about where I spent the rest of my time in Costa Rica!