MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — Part of the thrill of coming to Monteverde, the site of this country's oldest and best-known nature reserve, is seeing the glorious views of the Gulf of Nicoya and the quick succession of ecosystems you encounter on the rough and rocky road that leads from the coastal lowlands into the Cordillera de Tilaran.
Alas, it was a pleasure my wife, Stacie, and I would not know during our whirlwind New Year's holiday--because we ended up making the drive at night, thanks to our tardiness, a fairly natural occurrence here, where there is so much to see. So we missed the spectacular views, but, given the darkness, the lack of guardrails and the condition of the road, we were lucky that's all we missed. Every bone-jarring pothole on the 11/2-lane dirt road brought us that much closer to bird-watchers' heaven, in the literal and spiritual senses.
The last 18 miles took nearly two hours, even in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. We had hitched a ride with our newfound Canadian friends, Hoi and Carolyn, and by the time we arrived, we felt like an overprocessed martini: shaken and stirred.
Monteverde (literally "green mountain") is one of the most fertile places in the world to watch for--but not necessarily see--birds. Lots of them, in fact: about half of Costa Rica's 850 species, as well as 100 species of mammals, 120 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, and 2,500 types of plants, including 420 identified species of orchids. In the modern world of biodiversity, Monteverde is a mega hot spot.
By the time we rumbled in, however, Monteverde was decidedly chilly. A wet wind had begun howling through copses of shadowy trees in a suspiciously untropical way. Much too late for dinner, we retreated to our room to see what morning would bring.
In dawn's misty gray light we could clearly see that Monteverde, the mountaintop community of 4,000 about 150 miles west of San Jose, was nothing like Tamarindo, the Pacific Coast surfers' beach where we had watched giant leatherback turtles nest two nights before. And except for the Wild West streetscape, thick with hotels and trail outfitters, we detected no traces of Monteverde's American roots.
Monteverde was founded in 1951 by Quakers from Alabama who preferred emigration to the threat of being drafted during the Korean War. They chose Costa Rica because progressive President Jose Maria Figueres, known as Don Pepe, had abolished the nation's standing army after winning a 40-day-long civil war. Once here, they selected isolated Monteverde to build their Quaker community. They took up dairy farming because it didn't involve killing the cows and because processed cheese was one of the few products that wouldn't spoil on the weeks-long trip down the mountain by oxcart.
To ensure the purity of their cows' water supply, the environmentally savvy Quakers set aside about 1,350 acres of regenerating mountaintop forest. And so things stood until American biologists George and Harriet Powell were drawn to the area by the 1964 discovery of the 1-inch-long neon orange sapo dorado, or golden toad. The Quakers gave 800 acres in perpetuity as a wildlife sanctuary to be managed by the Tropical Science Center, a nonprofit Costa Rican research organization. Three years later, an adjacent tract of 1,370 acres was acquired with assistance from the World Wildlife Fund, and Monteverde, the eco-destination, was born. (Unfortunately it was too late for the sapo dorado, last seen in 1989 and now presumed extinct.)
Today "greater" Monteverde consists of five separate but contiguous private reserves, the largest of which is the Children's Eternal Cloud Forest, a 22,000-acre reserve begun in 1988 when Swedish schoolchildren, concerned about the world's rain forests, pitched in to purchase about 15 acres for $1,500. Adding to the confusion, the community of Monteverde is really a strung-out amalgam of three settlements that abut the reserves to the south and west: Quaker-controlled Monteverde proper (where bars are still taboo); tico (what the Costa Ricans call themselves)/gringo (what they call Americans)-controlled Santa Elena; and Cerro Plano, where we had settled in at the chalet-style Hotel Heliconia.
The hotel, one of the area's first and most respected eco-lodges, is neat, clean and spacious and has its own 10-acre finca, or ranch. We were awakened by the sounds of horses whinnying for their breakfast.
Lingering over homemade granola and locally grown Monteverde coffee at the Paradise Bagel Cafe, we plotted our day as we listened to vintage Bob Marley, watched hummingbirds feed in the garden below and, most encouraging of all, saw the first shafts of sunshine cleave through the swift-moving clouds.
Afterward we walked down to collect Hoi and Carolyn at the Monteverde Inn. They had long finished their breakfast of banana pancakes but had become mesmerized by a family of cara blanca monkeys (white-faced capuchins) cavorting in the enormous ficus tree outside the dining-room window.