Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Coolest Climbing Tree EVER, and the Cloud Forests of Monteverde

We arrived on Monday to our next stop, the mountain town of Monteverde, known for its cloud forests, wildlife and of course the zipline canopy tours. Since we decided not to rent a car for our trip, I was sort of dreading the process of getting there. To get from the beach town of Samara to Monteverde was going to require a taxi, 3 buses connecting in 2 different mid-way cities, and a total of around 6 hours.

As we were packing up from our hotel in the beach town of Samara, I saw another young couple packing up their car. I figured it can't hurt, so I asked where they were headed. He said they were going to Monteverde - exactly where we were going!
The roads in Costa Rica are pretty bumpy, but riding with our new German friends was much more enjoyable than a bus! 

He talked to his girlfriend, and they decided they had space in the car for our luggage and we could join them. It worked out just great! Not only did we avoid the long bus trip, but we also got along great with them and ended up doing two hikes in Monteverde together. You can see Caroline's enthusiasm for the hike in the picture below. She is clearly excited that we picked the longest one :)

This area is known as cloud forest, and if that sounds magical to you, you've got it about right. It's not quite as wet as a rainforest, because it is at higher elevation, but the humidity is always high and the vegetation is extremely dense. The tree tops form a canopy so dense that only a small fraction of the light filters down, and yet there is tremendous amounts of growth at ground level. Mosses, lichens and other things with fancier names are everywhere, and every fallen branch has been colonized by more green growth.

While the plant life was amazing, we didn't see as many animals as we had hoped. This bird (above) was the most exciting creature that we saw on this particular hike. I'm not sure what it was, but it was quite large, about the size of a goose. It also made a really cool sound when it flapped its wings, almost like a helicopter propeller.

Even we didn't see a lot of wildlife, we did see some amazing views that really gave us a sense of how expansive this cloud forest is.

That afternoon, we were feeling like we should do one more thing, but we didn't want to sign up and pay for another tour. As you might expect from a tourist-centered village, there are a million things you can pay to do, and seems like nothing remains for free. We decided we would just start walking and see what we found. On the way up a hill, we ran into two Americans talking as they came down the hill, so we stopped and asked them if they had come from something good :)

It turned out they were ex-pats, having moved with their families to this area for the bilingual, nature-focused schools. They told us that if we kept going up the (very steep!) hill, we would find a ficus tree that is amazing for climbing. We didn't know it yet, but we were in for a real treat.

 The pictures above and below show you what we found - essentially a hollow tree with a lattice of vines for climbing. It almost seems impossible, but we had just learned on a guided tour the previous day how a ficus tree grows. The ficus is like a parasite; it starts growing on and around a different tree, sending shoots down toward the ground and up to the top. Eventually it takes all the sunlight and nutrients before the host tree can get them, and kills the host tree. In this particular case, it is old enough that the host tree has completely decomposed, leaving only a hollow shell of ficus growth.

It was absolutely amazing for climbing. I went up to the very top, and you can see in the picture below it was very tall! The climbing was actually easier as you got higher up, because the spacing between the branches got tighter. This meant it was easier to reach the next grip, and also the diameter narrowed enough that it didn't even really feel like you could fall very far. What a cool experience!

As an added bonus, we also learned from some Costa Rican school kids that there was going to be a tourism commercial filmed at this site the very next day, and today they were preparing. Sure enough, there were a few workmen getting the tree ready for filming - by decorating it with other plants! It was so funny to watch; the workmen would lug these big bags full of leaves down from the road and then carefully attach them to the tree or the ground nearby. On the one hand, it seemed kind of silly to be decorating a tree, but on the other hand, it actually did look pretty great with the extra leaves and flowers.

Check out all the supplies they brought! All those big fern-like leaves around the base were added in, not naturally there. I guess we learned that you can't always trust what you see in tourism videos :)

We had more adventures in Monteverde, including a beautiful bird sighting, but we'll save that for another post. For now, we are in the town of Alajuela, where we just had a delicious Mexican dinner and tomorrow we will go to see a volcano, Volcan Poas.

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