Monteverde & Laguna Arenal

As always, it was a hot day. Now back on the Pan American highway at the coast, we crawled along in a line of trucks. While the roads were not challenging, being forced to drive at around 15mph was not good on the radiator which was running with only half of its fans. We just about managed to make it to the turn-off, without boiling anything and here the road started to climb. While we could go at a more reasonable speed, the bendy mountain road made it nearly impossible to get out of second gear. I would have preferred to enjoy the beautiful scenery that I knew was starting to stretch out below us, instead, I focused on not crunching the gearbox or overheating the engine. After stopping a couple of times, we had climbed all the way up to the mountain village of Monteverde. 

Here we were reunited once again with tourism. There are several national parks here, all boasting around a $20+ entrance fee to the cloud forest, that’s a lot to pay to walk around a forest with no guarantee of anything apart from a nice walk. We had found one though that was free and headed to camp at the base of the trail. We parked up here, after much jiggling on this steep bend, just off the side of the road.

This put us in the perfect position to hike it the next day. It’s around an hour or so of fairly steep uphill dirt road to reach the summit, and while a lot of the route is shaded, it was super hot work. It’s nearly possible to drive, but the track is steep and in parts gravelly, the sign in the photo actually asks drivers to refrain from putting on chains on their tyres until the last section where it is necessary. A definite indication of how muddy this track can get. Meet a car coming the other way and you’d definitely be in trouble, so we were glad we saved ourselves the stress of trying. 

The top boasts a great view out towards the pacific and it’s was nice that despite now being near the cloud forest we could stand in the brilliant sunshine and observe the view. 

It’s a popular hike and so we shared our view with another large group of hikers and some workers attending to the masts up here. We met a friendly Coati, who came right up to us in search of food. 

From the peak, you can make a left turn and follow a smaller trail downwards into the valley and into the forest. Here it’s around a 90-minute walk to complete a circular loop in the valley that crosses over the river. Despite it being dry season, it was still pretty muddy down there and we were glad of our proper walking boots. 

According to the map, it’s possible to take another path now, rather than return down the way we had come. We always prefer a circular route and so we set off on this slight less popular path. It appears that while it is still clearly walked by people, any maintenance has long since ceased. We walked to the marked viewpoint only to find ourselves on a dead-end path in the middle of the forest with no view at all. The trail at points was a bit of a climbing exercise, squeezing through uprooted trees and beneath hanging vines.

We saw that viewpoints had also been constructed as we made our way down, but these two had fallen into disrepair. A shame, because the views that they offered were spectacular on a clear day like today. 

While we had thoroughly enjoyed our hike, it goes to show that some of the best things are free. The cloud forest here is only a matter of kilometres away from the other very expensive one. We walked for around 4 hours without seeing any animals except the coati. This isn’t a problem, we were just enjoying our hike. But we were certainly glad we hadn’t paid $40 to do it, despite the fact that we finally saw some wildlife, in the form of these monkeys at the end.

Back at the camper, we decided to spend one more night. As we enjoyed the last rays of sun, we listened to the steady drone of what we had heard all morning. Having finished our walk back on a different path, we know knew that this was someone who had spent the entire day pressure washing their roof. The pressure washing resumed again the following morning and we packed up and headed out. People here seem to love starting up their power tools bright and early to get an entire days use out of them.

I wanted to make a brief stop off at the tree bridge in town, before we moved over towards the other side. Another free attraction, this ficus tree leaned across the river, dropping it’s roots down into the water until it formed an entirely natural bridge. 

Our final stop in Monteverde, would be a night hike. The majority of Costa Ricas wildlife is nocturnal and so if you want to see frogs, snakes and owls, you’d better go at night. This is something that you really need to pay a guide for, and we found a place in the north of the town that offered a reasonable price with free camping. We went to enquire and the owner of the land showed us where we could camp. He wanted $10. At our horrified faces, he then waved his hand, “Ok, gratis”. That’s better. He was also quite happy for us to eat the lettuce and coriander that there were growing in a little vegetable plot next to where we parked, a nice bonus. 

The night hike started at 6pm, and so we walked down to the local microbrewery under the pretence of finding wifi. We were pleasantly surprised, the beer was not only good, but the tasty ‘snack’ we ordered was delicious and also massive. On top of all this, it’s the best wifi we’ve found since Honduras and we spent a good hour or so making the most of all these plus points. Now we didn’t need to bother cooking that evening, we headed back and got our shoes on. 

The car park was indeed filling up, as we had been told it would. We checked in at reception and were allocated our guide.

Along with another German couple, it was long before we were setting off into the dusk. Many other guides were also operating, generally in small groups like ours. We were given torches and we set off through the trees, seeing the forest lit up in different spots around us by other little groups. It wasn’t long until we spotted a tiny little frog, as well as a couple of stick insects. 

The good thing about having several other groups out in the forest meant that there was more chance of something being spotted. The guides were in contact view WhatsApp, sharing what they had found and it’s location. This meant we got the best of both, we walked around in only a group of 5 people, but we had the eyes of many many more. It was all necessary too. Some of the things that they spotted, like these snakes for example, we would have walked straight past. It was definitely worth paying the money to be shown some of Costa Rica’s hidden animals. 

There was no way we would have spotted this little frog either. Not quite the picturesque photo that it could have been as he was kind of under a rock. Even with the guide pointing it out to me, I needed a few minutes to spot him. 

As we continued on, a message came through that a sloth had been spotted. We hadn’t seen once yet and so we were pretty exited to spot our first one. A mother with her baby. All the rest of the groups had also converged on this one spot, making it the only point in the tour where it was incredibly busy. We negotiated our way around all the guide using the huge telescopes on tripods to get a better view. 

Shortly after, we got a fleeting glimpse of a possum running through the trees above, but he made his escape before I got a good photo.

Then, finally we saw a couple of sleeping hummingbirds as well as a sleeping lizard. It’s probably the only time you get to see these beautiful birds still and really appreciate their bright jewel-like feathers. 

Our tour lasted two hours and we felt we had really seen everything we wanted too, it was money well spent. And we were now ready to move on to Laguna Arenal.

This lake is located to the north, and as we bumped our way across dirt roads we discovered not only one other problem with the camper, but two. Firstly, we had a slow puncture in our tyre. Fortunately, just a slow one. This served to highlight the other problem which was when the steering was turned hard, the steering wheel popped up about 2 inches. It seemed to have a lot of play and not be achieving an awful lot. In the meantime though, we continued on to the lake through a gorgeous country back road.

With wind farms all around, and the water being whipped into white crests on the lagoon’s surface, it seemed we would need a spot with shelter. Luckily, where we were headed we could tuck ourselves away into the bank to escape the wind. A check on the steering revealed that the steering coupler had split on one side. We could still drive, but we needed to be careful. If the other side split, we would lose our steering completely. The only place for parts though was San Jose, it looked like we would be returning there after all after our jungle exploration.

Another issue had also made itself apparent the day before. For once it wasn’t mechanical. I had delved into our roof box to get out a warmed jumper for the night hike, only to realise that everything was sitting in water. Despite the fact that everything is supposedly in airtight plastic bags, these had merely served to hold the water in. It smelled like sewage. God knows how just rain and wet clothes could smell so bad, but they certainly did. We needed to get everything out, washed and dried as soon as possible to save what we could. It seemed like the lake would be perfect to wash everything through, but unfortunately, it was just so windy that the water along the shore was a muddy brown and not really going to be useful. All we could do for now was enjoy the view and try somewhere else tomorrow.

We knew that there was a nice free spot near the town of Arenal, which we had planned to go to next. With the clothes situation though, we opted for a spot nearer the town as it supposedly had a tap. When we arrived, we were happy to see that it did. But less happy when a local kid with an old police jacket said we couldn’t use it. 

A local cut across him, “Use whatever you need and don’t listen to him.” He told us. “He’s special”. He had downs syndrome. 

Whilst the kid remained guard over the tap, we got our water from the bathrooms as some kind of awkward compromise. I spent the entire day scrubbing mould from clothes and having to throw several of them away. We would have stayed here longer, but it seemed to be the local party spot. After a horrible night’s sleep, we drove around to our original destination. This windswept piece of land juts out into the lake catching the strong wind that blows across the water. As the washing mountain wasn’t dry yet, this was quite convenient. At this much more remote spot, we finally got some peace and quiet. 

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