anta Elena - Monteverde
May 6-10, 2004
We drove nearly three hours over dirt road from Tilaran to Santa Elena the sister city of Monteverde. The drive was over high semi-desert country with fantastic views. The weather was windy with blue skies and scudding clouds, just what Doctor Gerry ordered.
When we were about 8 kms from Santa Elena, we saw a sign by the roadside that caught our attention. It had two parts: "Tourist Information" and "Clean Bathroom". Gerry is a sucker for the first, and Jan had a great need of the latter. The information was very good and the bathroom very clean and by the time we left we had a reservation at the Sunset Hotel, a map of the area, and very good directions.
Given that we had driven all the way from Tilaran on gravel roads, we weren't surprised to find that Sunset Hotel was up another gravel road that went left off the main road climbing a little as it went. We were surprised, however, to learn that the next part of the directions sent us down another road that was entirely dirt, quite steep, and slick after the recent rains. We were, of course in the rainy season, a term that was going to take on a different aspect up here in cloud forest country. Happily, Gerry managed to negotiate the rather sharp turn into Sunset Hotel's parking lot where we found good traction, a pretty garden, and a lovely terrace fronting half a dozen hotel rooms.
We liked the place as soon as we saw it, but when we turned around and saw the view we liked it even more. The terrace faced west and had a view clear down to the Gulf of Nicoya. It was spectacular. And, true to its name, every evening brought another gorgeous sunset. We have rarely experienced such long-lasting and colorful sunsets, but here we got one every single night.
We don't usually wax poetic about the places we stay in, but we have to say that Sunset Hotel was one of the nicest. The price was right ($35), it included a very substantial breakfast, some really interesting guests (the other ones, not us), and a very nice host in the person of Vitalis Mengel. Vitalis is a German-Costa Rican, whose family brought him as a young boy to this area immediately after the war. He speaks fluent German, Spanish and English and is a great source of information, answering everybody's questions with patience and wit. What can we say, we liked him and his hotel. Note that there was no TV here, but with the natural world around us, we didn't miss it one bit. [By the way, this was not our first German hotel. We also stayed in a German B&B in Managua, Nicaragua.]
Cerro de los Amigos
We made two excursions from Sunset Hotel. The first was to Cerro de los Amigos. It took us a little while before it dawned on us that the amigos of the name comes from the Society of Friends. Quaker farmers settled the Monteverde area early this century and started dairy farms and selling their milk and cheese. Monteverde cheese is famous in Costa Rica and found in most supermarkets.
Cerro de los Amigos is the highest point in the area but only a few hundred meters above Monteverde and so easily walkable in a short day. From our hotel, we first walked 2 kms to Santa Elena, then on another 2 kms to Monteverde before finding at last the trail up the hill. In fact, however, we walked right by the actual trail and found ourselves in a rather exclusive housing development, all with large properties and stunning views of course. Luckily, some friendly people, leaving their home in a taxi took pity on us and drove us to the trailhead. It looked a little bit like the driveway of a brand-new home, before the builders have left. Except, of course, that it was an awful lot steeper than the usual driveway. Vitalis had told us that it was a jeep road (i.e. requiring 4-wheel drive) and that he wouldn't dream of taking his 4x4 up there. We now knew why. But undaunted, off we set up the road, slipping a little here and there. The higher we got, the closer came the clouds and the wetter and slicker it got underfoot, until at the end, we were having quite some trouble keeping our footing. We wish we could say that we got great views in return for our suffering, but we cannot. At the top, the cloud was impenetrable. Coming down was harder, if anything, than going up. It must be lovely in the dry season...
El Mirador de Volcan Arenal
Two days later, we braved the elements again, this time to walk to El Mirador, about 8 kms from Sunset Hotel in the opposite direction of Cerro de los Amigos. The goal was to see, if we could, the only active volcano in Costa Rica, famed Volcan Arenal. Vitalis had told us that the volcano was about 6km from the mirador as the crow flies and that you could both see and hear its eruptions if the weather was clear. The likelihood of that was very low, but we wanted the walk as much as anything else, so off we set.
Our walk took us past the famous Canopy Tour (a series of platforms and cables that let tourists "ride" above the forest for an exorbitant price), and the Santa Elena Reserve, another of Costa Rica's expensive national parks, or expensive for us on our budget. The road we followed was well-graded and passed through some open country but mostly forest. It rained on and off during our walk but we didn't get really heavy rain until very close to the Mirador. There we found a nice, simple hotel completely enveloped in cloud. We used their bathroom, warmed ourselves in their rustic lounge, and entertained ourselves with their old copies of guidebooks for half an hour. We sort of hoped the cloud might lift a little, but it didn't happen and so back we went to Sunset Hotel and beyond to find ourselves a meal in Santa Elena, getting back to our room just in time to enjoy the nightly show.