After a four hour transfer by bus, boat and bus we arrived in the small town of Santa Elena, which is the main service town for the Monteverde Cloud Forest area. Essentially, the difference between a Cloud Forest and a Rain Forest is altitude with the Cloud Forest being much higher and Monteverde sits around 5000 feet. This also drops the temperature by a few degrees making it, for us, a very comfortable 25 degrees.
The town of Santa Elena was much smaller than we had imagined. The area is well and truly on the ‘tourist route’, so we expected something along the lines of La Fortuna. It was, in fact, pretty much a one street town. It still had everything you needed, albeit on a smaller scale, including accommodation, bars, restaurants, supermarkets, souvenir shops etc. However, its main function appeared to be the organisation of tours to the Cloud Forest to walk at ground level, walk on hanging bridges through the trees, or zipline at speed above them. We ended up doing all three.
The hanging bridges walk was pretty unusual as it gave you a different perspective of the forest as you walked through the thick canopy of trees. Some of the bridges were quite long, a few hundred metres, and when the wind picked up or there were more than a handful of people on them you could certainly see and feel them swinging. You could see one or two people who obviously had issues with the height really struggling.
We did our ground level walk through the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. The area had four different trails of varying difficulty and length which allowed at least some sort of access to most people. We were up for a bit of a hike so we covered all the trails, which added up to over eight miles. We probably enjoyed it more than the hanging bridges. Some of the trails were quite steep over uneven terrain and at the furthest points, where fewer people venture, you had a sense of being alone in the super dense forest. I think if you stepped a few metres off the track you would be lost very quickly.
We didn’t see all that much wildlife in there but it was more about the atmosphere and location. At one point, quite high up, the forest opened up to a great view across the valley towards Arenal Volcano. It looked remarkably close and we couldn’t believe how it had taken four hours to travel from there. But then looking at the steep, rugged, dense carpet of trees stretching as far as you could see in every direction it was obviously a major achievement to get any sort of road in there at all.
Our final activity in Monteverde was to go ziplining. This is what many people come here for and so we had to give it a go. There are four different companies that offer the experience, all of which are similar but each one has something different to the others to try and entice the custom. We did our research and decided on one which included a couple of ‘Superman’ style sections, one of which went through a tunnel, an optional 50 metre high ‘Tarzan’ swing, plus it was the longest zipline trail in the area at almost three miles.
When we arrived we found it very busy and on our tour as there were 35 people. Our expectations of the day sunk pretty quickly as we had visions of long wait times between each zipline. However, we were completely wrong. We were kitted out with a harness, helmet and gloves and after a short safety brief, several members of staff set off along the route positioning themselves at the start and finish of each line. This meant that as soon as you finished each section you were unhooked and were free to walk through the forest to the next section where someone was waiting to hook you back on, and off you went again. This reduced waiting to a minimum and the whole experience was amazing.
It was one of the best things we have done like this in a long time. All in all there were 14 lines to travel along. Most were seated, a couple of which we were able to do in tandem. It was a fantastic feeling flying through the canopy of trees, emerging into open sky then decending to just a few feet above the trees. The views and the feeling were amazing, we were loving it!
We were surprised how long each line was. Each one was a few hundred metres in length and with some steep forest trekking in between it was quite a strenuous day. Some people were really struggling towards the end, but the last two lines certainly took people’s minds off how tired they might have been feeling. These two were the ‘Superman’ lines, one of which went through a tunnel but the other one was a kilometre long line where your harness was rearranged and you were suspended like Superman under the line.
You were then sent off from inside the Forest, emerging just above the canopy for a few seconds before the trees disappeared and you were left flying across open sky at 60kph with the valley floor hundreds of feet below, before disappearing back into the forest and the awaiting finish platform. To say it was exhilarating would be an understatement.
Just when we thought it was all over we were presented with the option of doing a 50 metre high ‘Tarzan’ swing. Several people decided against this one including Sarah. She will jump out of an aeroplane, climb an ice covered volcano, zipline through the Cloud Forest and numerous other things but the whole ‘bungee’ thing is not for her. We did one 20 years ago in New Zealand, she ticked the box and retired from that experience. Steve on the other hand couldn’t resist and took on the free fall drop and swung through the canopy to finish a fantastic day.
We had four fabulous days in Monteverde and our expectations had been well and truly surpassed. It sounds ridiculous but we had been unfortunate to have beautiful weather during our stay, with blue skies most of the time and we were slightly disappointed that we had not seen hardly any cloud in the Cloud Forest. However, as we left Santa Elena and made our way down the mountain we were treated to a lovely view in the forest below as a huge cloud filled the tree covered valley. It was the icing on the cake!
Another four and a half hour journey took us South from Santa Elena to the Manuel Antonio National Park. We are finding our current trip to be logistically different from a lot of our more recent trips. We have sort of got used to travelling with a certain amount of freedom to go when and where we want. Whether that is on our bikes, in a car, or in a campervan. On this trip we are bound by public transport constraints, mainly timings and routes. As such, without paying for expensive, private transfers or hire cars, those out of the way unusual places and secluded beaches are beyond us. We are tied pretty much to the main tourist points of interest. Don’t get us wrong, we are still seeing and doing some fantastic things, but we are noticing a certain lack of freedom and a definite increase in how busy some places are.
Manuel Antonio was busy. It is definitely a beautiful location and you can take a step back and imagine what it looked like 20 or 30 years ago. A rugged coast line with steep cliffs dropping into scenic bays. Then a long, crescent bay running into a rainforest peninsula with two lovely beaches, one on either side. It is understandable why it is popular.
But, as is the way with so many places in the world, a beautiful location is discovered and more and more people hear about it. Tourism infrastructure is set up, making it more and more accessible attracting more and more people and the expansion continues. Banana boats, jetskis, parasailing and the likes move in and the place becomes overwhelmed.
I suppose you could look at it, that through this cycle of several years everybody has their own opportunity to sample their own idea of paradise. Whether that is being the only one in the newly discovered beach location, or flying out of control on a jetski or drinking your fill of the local beer with the latest techno music blasting out in the background …. all at the same time! The people who want the quieter time move out, find somewhere new and the cycle starts again.
Manuel Antonio is now a five mile stretch of restaurants, hotels, shops and tour operators stretching back from the National Park to the town of Quepos, with a constant stream of traffic filling the road.
We gave Manuel Antonio a couple of days, sat on all the beaches, and walked the National Park from top to bottom.
We saw some wildlife at close quarters and were lucky enough to see another sloth in motion. We enjoyed it but it would not be our number one stop on this trip.
So we packed our bags and headed off in search of something different.