Into The Mountains

From what would be our last beach spot for a while in Dominicalito, we planned to head up into the mountains. We were going to visit some nice looking waterfalls, but as it rained heavily all night we decided that it might not be worth it. It being around $20 to get in, we didn’t want to pay all that and then enjoy a muddy torrent. We had been told that Panama is great for waterfalls too, and even better, they’re free. So we continued up into the mountains. After getting our engine hotter than we have ever got it, stress levels were high as we reached San Isidrio, a pretty sizeable town and the last of the climbing for that day.

From here, it’s not long to the mountain village of Canaan. I was happy to be done for the day and we sat in the pub and enjoyed a beer and some internet access while I worried about our headgaskets. By the time we had left, the engine was cold and I was relived to see that while the usual oil smoke cloud was there, it wasn’t joined by a big white coolant cloud too. There is some free camping in the village around behind the church and we pitched up for the night. There are two reasons to be here, one is the cloudforest and hiking nearby, the other is cheese.

Firstly, the cloud forest. Having established the previous day that reservations were not needed, we decided to drive up to this nature reserve. You can do a large hike to Cerro Chirripo (the highest peak in the country at 3,821m), which does require booking in advance, or you can go to Cloudbridge Nature Reserve. This had a fairly reasonable entry fee of $7 each to access around 5 miles of trails including wildlife and waterfalls. Now it was Lee’s turn to be stressed. The road was narrow, lumpy and sporadically filled with mopeds towing packs of horses. Coupled with Ruby’s somewhat sporadic power problems, it was challenging at times. We made it in one piece though, and parked up at the entrance.

We didn’t have to wait long for the first waterfall of the day as we started out on our hike.

Despite the fact that it was a Saturday, there wasn’t too many people around. We met the odd few, here and there, but on the whole had the trails to ourselves as we continued on.

There are some rather questionable bridges to cross the rivers and while I was ready with my bikini already on, the waters were just a bit too much on the refreshing side.

Lee spotted several Coatis, while I saw the a quick flash of green as some kind of snake flicked across the path in front. The only things we managed to get pictures however, were a new type of toucan as well as this posy humingbird.

Even with our week of surfing, we were still pretty tired by the end of our 4 hour walk. We headed back to the van and made our way back to the free spot. 

That brings us on to cheese. The village has it’s own designated cheese shop, made locally using a Swiss recipe. We have regularly complained about how hard it is to find good cheese through the Americas, but Costa Rica is a new low. Now you have to pay even more, and it tastes of even less. Therefore, we decided to treat ourselves to some proper cheese.

Having had a sample of everything they had to offer, we got two rather nice cheeses and headed back to the van. After a little juggling due to the impromptu German meat market that had appeared in the street, we managed to leave. Today we were going to be heading even higher.

Another reason for stopping at Canaan was the altitude. Having spent a large amount of time at around sea level, we knew from past experience that heading straight up to around 12,000ft is a bad idea. Canaan is not high, only around 4,500ft but it at least would help us acclimatise a little. After descending down to San Isidrio, we turned onto the main road and begun our ascent. It’s only around 30km to climb to this high elevation and we hadn’t been going long before Ruby got too hot. We really needed to look at our fans! Still, we pulled over and gave her some time, we were in no rush. Thankfully, after this with the cooling of the air temperature the engine actually managed to keep going as we climbed continuously to the second highest point in Costa Rica.

The free spot near the top of this peak offers a panoramic view of both oceans, when there are no clouds, and even with the clouds the view is stunning.

We watched a spectacular sunset from our vantage point before hurrying back into the warmth, up here it was cold with night time temperatures predicted to go down to near freezing. The cats had the right idea after all.

We awoke to a fresh, sunny morning. Finally, we were no longer struggling for battery power, the cooler temperatures letting the fridge use a lot less energy. We enjoyed the morning views here a while before driving on.

Our next stop was going to be San Gerado. This little town is only half an hour away, tucked into the side of the mountain. The road to it drops a staggering 1,000m in just 7km and we knew this was going to be a tough drive. I had adjusted our brakes back in Canaan, knowing we planned to take this road and it was therefore a little less daunting as we began to zigzag down the hillside.

We planned to stop at Rancho Las Isla. Here, you can hike a trail for $6 per person for the chance to view the rare quetzal. As a bonus, you can camp and use the facilities for free, a lovely quiet spot next to a crystal clear mountain river. The family we happy to let us stay and we headed down to our spot for the night. It was the perfect place to enjoy a warming fire and fall asleep to the sounds of the river. The next morning, we needed an early start.

It seems that a lot of the guided tours to see these rare birds, start about 5.30am. We knew that there was several other places we could go and see them, but that mean driving the road an extra time. Hanno and Kikki said they saw one right here on the trail, and so we decided to try our luck and just go straight there. At around 6.30am we walked around a bend on the track and were confronted with an army of huge camera lenses trained on the tree behind us. Clearly this was the spot. We sat and waited. At around 7am, several people gave up. Apparently it had been here yesterday though and we kept waiting. It was pretty cold sitting in the early morning shade and I was glad of our thermos full off coffee. The guide behind us was convinced it was going to show, or maybe he just hoped it did as these people had paid $35 each to see it. However, by 7.30am, they had given up too. At least we hadn’t paid a lot of money for that! Now absolutely freezing we went back to the camper to warm up and have breakfast.

We decided that we may as well do the little hike up to the waterfall, that we had actually planned to do earlier before we saw the tour group. Seeing as we paid for it, why not? Maybe we would get lucky and see a bird later. After the good hour that it took for me to actually feel warm again, we set off once more. It’s a pretty little hike through the jungle, next to a small creek. I spotted a bird far off in the trees, that after checking later does appear to be a female quetzal, however it was a long way away and not quite what we were after.

While we didn’t see any other birds, we did get to the end and see the nice waterfall. Thinking it was now pretty unlikely that we’d spot one, we made our way back down.

We were nearly back, when we both spotted it at the same time. The sun shone of it’s feathers, making the bright green appear almost metallic. It flew across the valley in front of us and settled in a tree opposite. It wasn’t particularly close, so it’s not the best photo, but I was pretty chuffed that we actually managed to see one. Now we could leave happy!

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