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  • Brian Johnson

Costa Rica: Monteverde, Arenal, and Playa Hermosa - Part 1

April 23-26, 2022


It’s time for another Johnson Family Adventure. This time Ben and Nick were both able to go with Lynn and I, so we had the whole clan back together. After a thankfully uneventful flight we landed in Liberia, Costa Rica shortly after noon and met our shuttle driver for the first leg of our trip. I think the total distance was not even a hundred miles, but it took almost four hours to negotiate the traffic, road construction, and finally the narrow, twisting mountain roads that brought us to our lodge just outside the gates of the Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve, our Mystery Night destination.

Those of you who have followed along in the past know that I like to slip a Mystery Night into our trips. They’re always a little nerve wracking for me at first, because if you’re going to take someone to someplace they weren’t planning on being at, it better be a wonderful experience, and if I do say so myself, over the past years I’ve built up quite a standard to live up to. And while I am the only one who knows where we’re going, I’ve never actually been to these places either, so it’s a bit of a mystery for me too. But after checking into our lovely rooms at the Trapp Family Lodge, with covered patios looking out at the forest, I knew I would be ok. The judges unanimously decided I would not be chopped. We’re actually spending two nights at Mystery Night this time, with tomorrow devoted to exploring the Cloud Forest, so it would have been awkward to be chopped the first night.

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The small community of Monteverde, Costa Rica has it’s roots in the American Quaker community. Four Quakers from Alabama were jailed in the U.S for refusing to serve in the Korean War. Upon their release from jail in 1950 they moved their families to the Monteverde area, attracted by the fact that Costa Rica had abolished their army in 1948, and started dairy farms. Along with local Costa Ricans they went on to found the community of Monteverde high up in the mountains, and eventually, in 1972, the Cloud Forest Reserve. Over the years the little community became a magnet for anti war activists and artists and others seeking an alternative lifestyle. As I tell Lynn, it’s the Hippy Dippy capital of Costa Rica, which is right up her alley. Today the isolated community has grown to over 7000 individuals, with growth restricted by the miles of only recently paved twisting mountain roads to get there. The Cloud Forest Reserve itself has gone on to become one of the premier ecotourism destinations in the world, with eight life zones perched astride the Continental Divide home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and more species of trees than exist in the entire United States.

After a fortifying Costa Rican “breakfast typico”, consisting of black beans and rice, scrambled eggs and plantains, we hiked ten minutes up to the park entrance. The park was a multi sensory experience. I think sometimes we humans focus so much on visual stimuli that we overlook the other rich sensory experiences around us. Certainly the park had much to see in terms of birds of all kinds, from hummingbirds to kites to the Quetzal, along with a variety of small mammals and reptiles, but as we wandered we were accompanied by a soundtrack of varying birdsong, and the rich, damp odor of earth and water and decay and life. Occasionally there would be a lull in the birdsong soundtrack, and in the relative stillness you could make out the faint sound of water dripping from the green canopy above onto the lush undergrowth below. At the overlooks the stillness was broken by the chattering of the human primates. All in all a lovely, lovely hike.

After a little afternoon siesta back at the lodge we took a taxi to the nearby town of Santa Elena to explore a little. The heavy afternoon rainstorm only made us hesitate a little. After exploring the little shops in the small downtown we perched ourselves in a little bar and had some Costa Rican beers before having dinner. Being night owls not at all we were back at our hotel by 8 pm and ready for bed. Before you judge us remember we were up by 6 am. Because it sits so close to the equator Costa Rica has about the same amount of daylight hours all year long, with the length of daylight only varying half an hour or so no matter the time of year. To maximize daylight we adjust our schedules to be up early, which does not come naturally to me, so by the time 8 pm comes around this old man is exhausted!

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My tens of readers who follow along no doubt know by now that I occasionally like to stray from the well worn path. Today was one of those days. Our shuttle picked us up at 10 am in Monteverde to take us to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, only 69 miles but almost 3 hours of driving time. Along the way I had arranged a lunch stop at the Lake Arenal Brewery. Actually Hotel and Brewery, but I didn’t really care about the hotel part. When we were in Costa Rica the first time we had stopped here, but since I was the one driving I couldn’t really partake fully of the offerings. This time I had arranged shuttles for our point to point travels, so I had been looking forward to a more extensive sampling of their products. The brewery sits back several hundred yards from the road, on the shore of lovely Lake Arenal, surrounded by lush foliage, and in all my travels is the most out of the way and unexpected brewery I have ever visited. And I have a wide, wide basis for comparison.

The Jungle Dunkel and the Paradise Pale Ale are highly recommended. The only downside to our shuttle was a certain time budget. As our stop time crept toward the hour mark I felt a certain pressure to finish my beer and load up. It didn’t help that it took me a few minutes to get going on my first beer. The drive there now makes my top ten list of Worst Drives ever. The two lane road down from the mountains was very rough and heavily pot-holed. Between the twists and turns and bounces we badly needed a break by the time we arrived. I am not normally prone to motion sickness, but even I was sorely tested.

After arriving at the Arenal Observatory Lodge we took a little siesta before heading to the restaurant for happy hour, two for one cocktails, and dinner. The afternoon rain had settled in and the views over Lake Arenal and the volcano were limited, but it made for a cozy and relaxing evening. Our rooms are amazing, with a nice balcony and views right up the volcano, when it’s not covered in clouds.

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The nice howler monkeys in the trees outside our balcony kindly let us know when it was time to start our day. No alarm clock necessary. The morning was overcast with intermittent light rain and mist, so after breakfast we decided not to try to do anything but just spend the morning in the outdoor covered hot tub adjoining the infinity pool. Poor us. Anyone feeling sorry for us yet?

Not to worry. We were rewarded for our slothfulness. The rain moved out and patches of blue sky opened up, affording occasional partial views of the volcano, and letting us alternate between the hot tub, the infinity pool, and the lounge chairs on the deck. Lynn and Nick explored some of the trails around the property for a bit, but Ben and I mostly stuck to the pool area. We only saw a handful of other people the whole time, but largely had the place to ourselves. Burgers and beers for lunch, delivered to us at the pool, made my contentment complete. When I start my next career as a writer I think one of my first projects will be “What I Learned From a Sloth: A Human’s Guide to Living Slothfully”. Life rewards those who live slowly. You heard it hear first. Write it down.

By mid afternoon the clouds and intermittent light rain rolled back in, but the timing was right as I was starting to get a little sunburn. After making reservations for tomorrow for one of the local hot springs, heated by thermal activity from the volcano, we spent a couple of pleasant hours on our balcony looking into the jungle, catching up on our reading, and admiring all the hummingbirds who flitted around. Then on to happy hour and dinner. Heck of a way to spend a day.

Continued in Part 2...

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