Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Costa Rica 2010 - Monteverde

Arenal to Monteverde (boat ride / mountain drive)

We left Arenal early in the morning and headed by van to Laguna de Arenal. We boarded a river boat and crossed the lake for approximately 1 hour before reaching land. From there we boarded 4x4s and traveled up mountain sides towards Monteverde. At some point I realized how high in elevation we were when the driver pointed out the Arenal volcano off in the distance and we had to look slightly below the horizon to find it.

An interesting thing is that the angles of the hills are so steep, it was not uncommon to find tourist vans overloaded with people and luggage that couldn't make it up the incline. Often the hapless tourists had to exist the vehicle and either allow it to drive well over a mile to the top and walk up, or help to push it up themselves.

El Trapiche Coffee and Sugar Cane Plantation

Arriving late in the afternoon we chose to spend our time by touring a local coffee and sugarcane plantation. For two items we so often take for granted, there a lot that goes on behind the scenes in order to produce it.

The growth and harvest of the coffee cherries whose pits are harvested is an extremely labour intensive process. Each cherry must be hand picked by a worker, and only if it is completely ripe. This is a real danger for workers as it does not pay much (they are paid per filled barrel) and the is a very real chance of being bitten by vipers that sun themselves on the branches of the trees. Very often if a worker is bitten, they immediately cut off the finger that was struck, as hospitals with anti-venom are so far from the remote village that death would otherwise be a certainty.

We were also shown the traditional methods for processing sugarcane into juice and subsequently into usable sugar.

The process involves boiling the juice along with sap from a local tree to remove impurities. The sap binds to the impurities creating a scum that can be scooped off. From here the juice is reduced into a concentrated syrup and transferred to a large trough. Air is then worked into the mixture and poured into molds, which is traditionally how sugar would be stored. When sugar is required, is it shaved of as needed.

To demonstrate this process on a smaller scale we were given a workspace with hot syrup and told to work the air into the mixture. The end result was our own sugar cane fudge.

With the tour complete we were taken into the home of the plantation owner where she brewed us coffee using the tradition method. By far this was some of the best coffee I've had, which is saying quite since from what we were told the 1st quality and "p-berry" coffee gets sold internationally and only the 2nd grade and below is kept for local consumption.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Early the next day we headed out to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. A rainforest that exist solely due to the elevation of mountain.

Due to the position of Monteverde, the warm air from the Atlantic passes over the Continental Divide and cools. This blankets the canopy in an ever present cloud cover which provides the vegetation in the forest a constant supply of moisture. Plants and mosses found here can literally suck the moisture out of the air, growing everywhere, including the trunks, branches and exposed roots of trees. This constant bath of condensing mist has the equivalent effect of over 4 meters of rain annually in the cloud forest.

As we walked through, the poncho I wore might as well not have been there. The air was so dense with moisture that my clothes were soaked through in no time at all. This of course highlights the necessity of quick drying gear, but that's another topic for later.

Sometimes nature provides all the shelter you need
The guide took us through the trails and explained the ecosystem, the history of the park, and the role that the conservation centre had in educating visitors and locals alike the importance of preserving the area. We were encouraged to stop and ask her questions at anytime, so I took to opportunity to ask her about

  • Local plants, their usefulness both medicinally and for edibility.
  • The work Universities were doing to take samples and catalog the plants
  • What was the government doing regarding preservation of tribal knowledge of the indigenous peoples
  • How pharmaceutical were investigating isolating and synthesizing compounds derived from medicinal plants
  • How they worked with the indigenous people, learning from them rather than pushing them out rather than invading the space and
At one point during the trail we approached an old fire tower which was used as a look out point for the area. It's now free for visitor to climb in order to see a view of the area...provided the clouds actually permitted you to do so.

I have a particular grievance with towers of this type, as it was after climbing to the top of one that I discovered my paralyzing fear of heights. Of course this day, in Costa Rica I took its presence as a challenge to be overcome. This day...of all days, where the wind was blowing and rain was beating against my face, I decided to climb the tower.

I ascended the tower bravely, reaching near the top platform and feeling the rig sway I saw...FOG! Fog and mist as far as I could see. Disappointed, I started my climb down the steel structure. I made it to the final platform, and as I took a step and let my weight onto my foot, the wet steel gave out under me and I slid. As I slid down the stairs I felt each metal step drive into my back as I tightened my grip around the handrails hoping to stop my fall. No good. The wet steel let my grip fail until the moment I hit an intersection with a cross peice and manage to stop myself, but not before having almost taken the two people in front of me down as well. My shoulders hurt for 4 days straight after that jerking stop...

Insectarium /Reptile Garden
With the weather too dangerous for zip-lines, we chose instead to head indoors to dry up. The insectarium and reptile garden provided an excellent opportunity to do so.

While the insectarium was a collection of preserved specimens, it gave us a great opportunity to see the diversity of insects that live in the Costa Rican jungles.

1/10th the size of the exhibit

The Owl Butterfly, whose wings look like both the eyes of an owl, and head of a snake

Moths the size of your head

Apparently the bigger the spider, the less you have to worry about it being dangerous.
See if you can remember that the next time you run into one of the bad boys in the jungle

The Bullet Ant or "Izula", the namesake of one of my favorites knives,
and the knife of choice to carry this trip

The reptiles and amphibians was equally as interesting. The wonderful thing about exhibits such as these is that it allows you both the opportunity to see the animals, something I learned first hand would be almost impossible to do in the wild with an untrained eye.

The Coffee palm pit viper. These guys love to sun in the branches of coffee trees
making encounters a very real danger for workers in the fields

Poison dart frog. The frogs are used to tip the ends of blowgun darts but do not
produce poison themselves. In the wild, they secret formic acid
which they absorb from their usual diet of termites.

Another poison dart frog. The ones in captivity are no longer poisonous due to
their more modest diet of crickets.

Santa Elena / Coconuts

The mornings events past us, a few of us decided to explore the town of Santa Elena and get something to eat. Lunch consisted of empanadas from a local bakery and ceviche from The Tree House restaurant. On the way we stop by a few grocery stores, where I promptly bought a coconut to quench my thirst.

Zip Lines
The morning before leaving for Manuel Antonio we headed to the activity I was dreading the most. Zip Lines.

To say that I was a more than a little agitated with the prospect of being strapped to a cable and travel over a kilometer is an understatement. After being harnessed up my girlfriend could tell I was on edge. She asked me what was wrong and after voicing my nervousness she looked me dead in the eye and said

"Batman is not afraid of zip lines"

I didn't say another word after that, and ended up really enjoying the whole experience. At one point towards the last tower the wind and rain were blowing so hard I was afraid I was going to repeat the events from the day before and slip off the tower, except this one had no rail to grab onto. Luckily no such thing happened. Enjoy the pictures and videos:

Up next: Manuel Antonio National Park

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