Monday, April 6, 2015

Exploring the Monteverde Cloud Forest & Selvatura Adventure Park


For years I have wanted to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest region in central Costa Rica. The first two times my husband and I traveled to Costa Rica, we explored the western coastal areas of the Guanacaste province, and then had an amazing trip to the Arenal volcano and the town of La Fortuna. Last November, however, my new little family of three was finally able to rent a car and drive up the crazy mountainside to the cloud forest for an unforgettable experience.

Giant trees in the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica

To be clear, the 'Monteverde Cloud Forest' is not just one place that you visit. The name is a descriptor of the entire region, encompassing nearly 15,000 hectacres of land which protects several native species of plants and animals. There are many parks to choose from when deciding to visit the cloud forest - I learned this when planning our trip. One cannot simply Google "Monteverde Cloud Forest" and find a singular website with entrance fees and walking tour guides. There are several places that allow access to this protected zone, and you have to choose which park works for you and your travel companions.

Strange plant pods in the cloud forest

The main parks that I encountered online included the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the Selvatura Adventure Park, and the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. A few hotels also offer some walking trails and zipline opportunities, but the three main parks will probably offer you a better experience than a hotel trail.

We chose to visit the Selvatura Adventure Park as our destination due to its multiple family activities: the hanging bridges, the zipline adventure, the butterfly gardens, the reptile and amphibian enclosure, the Superman adventure, and the insect museum to name a few. Of course, with a 10-month-old baby and a wife suffering from extreme morning sickness, some of these options were even unrealistic for us (this time around - I have every intention of going back when the kids are 10 and older so they can try EVERYTHING with me!).

Before I even get to describing the park, I would like to give you some tips and warnings about actually getting to Monteverde.  There are some important things you should know.

1. The Road(s)

For about half of the drive up the mountainside to Monteverde the roads are great. They are nicely paved, smooth, and although not extremely wide, still provide ample room for two vehicles to move past one another. It was a great drive, or so we thought (despite me throwing up every 30 minutes due to morning / car sickness that day, but that's another issue altogether).

Hard to photograph - the bumpy, rutted road up to Monteverde

After the halfway lookout point we visited (see below), the story changes. The road narrowed, turned to dirt and gravel (and boulders), and had ruts so deep I thought our car would fall in and never return. We had to slow right down, and the rental car we had began to squeak in protest as its shocks quickly eroded into nothing. Avy loved the bumps, but my barfing amplified quickly, and Joey's knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. For any of you wondering if the roads are 'as bad as they say they are'... they are. Be prepared. Do not rent a Porsche for your Monteverde excursion.

2. The Lookout Points

However, it is not all bad. Just before the roads turn sour, there is an amazing lookout point that I suggest you dare not pass by. It is unreal, both for its amazing vista and for the lovely customer service. We stopped for multiple reasons (photo opp, bathroom break, diaper change time) but I'm sure glad we did, no matter the purpose. The lookout point is actually on private property in someone's backyard, but they've done a stellar job on landscaping and do it all by donation (so please donate - we did).

The beautiful and peaceful gazebo at the lookout point

You walk past this nice lady's house, down a path, around a corner, and encounter a cliff-side with a gazebo resting peacefully on the edge. From there, you have a view of the Pacific Ocean far off in the distance, as well as the rolling countryside in between. Sheep and cattle graze in the fields below. It is stunning.

The view from the lookout point

To top it off, the lady that owns the place generously served us some cold orange juice to enjoy while we soaked in the view. She was super nice and obviously very proud of her property. Avy had more interest in the lady's lethargic puppy than the view, but to each their own!

The lady who owns the lookout point LOVED Avy Bear

3. The Climate

It is much colder in the rainforest of Monteverde than the rest of Costa Rica, at least the parts I have visited. Which I had read about, but then forgot. Hence, I did NOT pack warm enough for our stay. I had to buy a hoodie while there since I hadn't brought a jacket or sweater of any sort. I thanked my lucky stars I had packed at least one pair of capri pants instead of all shorts! Make sure you bring some warm clothes: you may be in a tropical zone, but high up in the rainforest where it is humid and rainy, you'll need to have some cozy outfits too!

Me wearing the hoodie that I had to buy while in Monteverde - brrr!

Now onto the park itself. I can't speak for what it is like to visit the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve (said to be more natural and mainly just walking trails), or the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (although I hear it is quite similar to Selvatura) but if anyone else has had the pleasure of exploring these places, please leave your impressions in the comments section below! I'd love to see how your experiences compare to ours!

We booked a morning tour to Selvatura through our hotel conceirge, which just seemed easiest. The next day, a Selvatura shuttle bus showed up at the hotel lobby and picked us up. After adding on a few more passengers (making the bus very full!) we were on our way. The road was bumpy, but nothing compared to the actual road to Monteverde (or maybe it was, the only difference being we weren't in a tiny rental car).

View of the rainforest canopy from one of the highest bridges in Selvatura

The cost to visit Selvatura varies greatly depending on which experience you want: we could not do any ziplining or Superman-ing, but wanted to see the hummingbird garden, so we were able to pick and choose our experience and the price reflected our choices. When we arrived at the Selvatura main office, we were handed colored tickets for each activity we had purchased, and a map of the hanging bridge trail. Off we went!

The hummingbird garden was the closest activity to the main office, so we began there. It is a small garden with about three large hummingbird feeders, some benches, and a flurry of activity from not only a wide variety of hummingbirds, but some scary-looking bugs, too. We saw purple, blue, orange, red, green, and multi-colored hummingbirds flitting here and there, chasing one another, and of course, gorging on the sugar-water provided.

A vibrant blue hummingbird approaches the feeder

Avy loved the birds, even if they often moved too fast for her to really focus on.  I was less impressed with the gigantic spider-beetle-wasp-mosquito things that were so big they sometimes pushed the poor hummingbirds out of the way to get to the feeders. Yuck! But it was a relaxing and pretty way to begin our tour.

Father and daughter both enjoyed the hummingbird garden

Once we'd had our fill of hummingbirds, we headed to the hanging bridge trail head. We handed in our colored ticket and began our 3 kilometer hike. The pathway is bricked and cobblestoned together to create a somewhat smooth road, peppered with stairs, log retainers, and the occasional accidental root intrusion.

The cute pathway through the Selvatura Adventure Park hike

I would not say the path is wheelchair-friendly, especially during the times when you have to climb a few steep metal steps to access the hanging bridges. We didn't have Avy's stroller with us, and I was glad we didn't. It would have been a total pain to cart around. (We also didn't have her baby carrier, which I did regret. We had to take turns carrying her, and after a while, that kid gets HEAVY!)

Lugging a sleeping baby over 8 hanging bridges!

The rainforest scenery was gorgeous - lush, green, cool, with pockets of really exotic plants and leaves to discover. Random pathways darted off of the main road, chained off to indicate they were not open to the public. Gullys and steep edges provided the opportunity for hikers to see just how big the rainforest trees can grow.

An alternate (and inaccessible) pathway in the Selvatura rainforest

We didn't see a great deal of wildlife, however. Our day was sunny and warm, with no wind or rain, so I was expecting to see more than we did. I had read that it was best to hire a nature walk guide so that he or she could point out wildlife that you would otherwise miss, but it was an extra cost we weren't willing to shell out. I had my eyes peeled pretty good. I just think the wildlife was avoiding the pathway area due to the busyness of the nice day.  What we DID see were a clan of coatimundi, way up high in the canopy above us. At just that moment, a couple who had hired a nature walk guide came our way, and we were able to overhear some interesting facts, such as how it is only females who live in the packs. The males 'come of age' and then leave and go live on their own. In fact, the name 'coatimundi' means to 'wander the world alone' (or something similar to that; I can't remember exactly what the guide said). We did see a baby coatimundi up close - it had wandered down a tree trunk before realizing we were there, and upon seeing us, skedaddled back up the tree again.

The baby coatimundi running away from us

My favorite part of the hike, however, was crossing the hanging bridges. They were fun to walk on, and provided some really amazing views of the rainforest canopy. There are 8 hanging bridges in Selvatura, some quite short (50 meters) and others surprisingly long (170 meters). They also range in how high above the ground you walk - sometimes you are only about 12 meters off the ground, which isn't that impressive, but a couple of the bridges were about 60 meters off the ground. Those bridges made me a little dizzy to be honest!

One of the eight hanging bridges in Selvatura

After our awesome hike, we had lunch at the restaurant near the main office. The prices were fairly reasonable, so we were able to order a decently portioned meal. Unfortunately, I was feeling quite sick and didn't eat much, and Avy Bear decided to use that time to destroy her clothing with a poorly-timed poop break. So lunch was not so successful for us that day! However, don't feel that you must pack a picnic lunch in order to eat at the Selvatura Adventure Park, as their diner is well-priced and well-stocked.

A fallen flower in the rainforest - I have no idea what it is!

All in all, I really enjoyed the Monteverde rainforest experience, and would recommend the Selvatura Adventure Park to families wanting to mix in some quiet hiking with some exhilarating activities. I know I would like to return with my children when they are old enough so we can all try ziplining and Superman-diving into the tree tops.