The Zen way through the rain-forest

Carrie Allen went to the Monteverde forest reserve in Costa Rica - and found it little short of a psychedelic experience

WHAT IS it about rain-forests? If you set yourself down on a muddy path and surround yourself by the steamy smells of the tropics, it becomes easy to see why we spend thousands trying to save them, hundreds going to visit them, and perhaps even why we sanction millions to destroy them. There is no controlling nature this raw, short of killing it off completely. Still it gets its own back in the end.

In the American classic film, The Emerald Forest, Amazonian tribal people call anything outside the rain- forest the "dead world", and so-called civilised people "termite children" - because "they came into the world and chewed up all the grandfather trees". For the average person, a holiday in the rain-forest can be scarcely short of a psychedelic experience. When you leave behind trains, work and everything else on a human timetable, suddenly it is not the rain- forest that is dying, but you.

The most inaccessible sites are usually the best. So it is with Monteverde, Costa Rica's most famous rain-forest reserve. After a few hours on Highway 1 from the country's capital, San Jose, there is a 35km leg of the journey up pockmarked mountainous roads that makes you wonder at the durability of motor vehicles. Sharp rocks, crater-sized potholes and dramatic drops off the sides of the switchbacked road make for a jittery journey. A promotional brochure for the area suggests travellers take it slow and "relax and enjoy the view". Enjoying the view is easy. Relaxing is not.

Some areas exist already inside us, just waiting to be recognised. Not Monteverde. She is an exotic stranger on a perilous road. The hills, covered in grass so green it looks man-made, fade to blue and purple over the waters of Nicoya Bay. Veils of mist hide sensual valleys; it is the rainy season and the click, click, click of raindrops on the top of the car sounds like the tapping of sharp fingernails.

We are exhausted when we make it to the reserve. Our hotel is El Sapo Dorado (The Golden Toad). The cabin is on a hill, surrounded by tropical flowers, and with a wooden deck that reaches out to Nicoya Bay. We could have found something dramatically less expensive; there are few tourists during the rainy season and more than a dozen hotels and bed and breakfasts line the muddy road just outside the reserve. But for pounds 18 we have a large cabin cleverly arranged not to overlook any of the others, two large double beds, stained-glass windows, and a deck grand enough for a candle- lit dinner, or for us to stay out of each other's way.

The rainy season is the worst time to visit a rain-forest, or the best. Boots become sodden and mud-caked, raincoats leave you in a perpetual sweat, supposedly durable hats end up soggy. But there are no people (isn't that argument enough), and since rain is what rain-forests are all about, you may want to trade dry hair, clean cuffs and "companionship" for the mystery of the storm.

And storms we get. One comes charging in moments after we enter our cabin, pounding relentlessly over our heads. We are housed by wood, surrounded by dirt and deep roots; at least the rain does not come down to meet concrete. I sit on the deck and watch the stampede out to Nicoya Bay. This rain is in its place, not ours.

The next day, we go with our guide through the reserve. I have been calling it a rain-forest, but that isn't true. It is actually a cloud-forest - 80 per cent of the moisture the area receives comes from the low-lying cloud cover at the top of Green Mountain. The Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve costs a whopping pounds 18 to enter if you want a guide, but most of the money goes for education, which environmentalists agree goes a long way toward preserving what little virgin forestland is left.

Our guide is Alex Villagas, the only one of the six of us who looks like he belongs. "There is no point in making this a competition, to see how fast we can go, or how far," Villagas says as he explains that he's only taking us 1km kilometre into the reserve and 1km out.

It seems that all the wildlife we encounter is nearly extinct - howling monkeys, hidalgo birds, toucans, tarantulas. Hidalgos, which according to Villagas have "the most beautiful voice in the world", are being trapped and sold in San Jose for pounds 100 to pounds 300. The tarantula is becoming a popular household pet. The most famous nearly extinct bird in the reserve we of course do not see - the quetzal. The bird is so shy (and now so rare) that when the Spanish conquered the area, they believed the creature to be a myth created by the local people. The reason for the bird's demise is that the quetzal's main source of food - wild avocado - grows on the best hardwood in the country. We also do not see the golden toad. Like other frogs across the world, the golden toad is disappearing. In 1987, 1,500 appeared at a popular breeding pool in the Monteverde reserve. In 1988, only one showed up. In the past three years, no one has seen any sapo dorados at all.

The hotel's restaurant provides a metaphor for the Monteverde community. Everywhere is the taste of Tico and Gringa. Vivaldi wafts out from the bar onto a deck heavy with the aroma of tropical flowers. The menu offers the typical Costa Rican arros con pollo (rice and chicken), and the more American stir-fried vegetables has the first tofu I have seen anywhere in the country. The owner of the hotel is the great-great-grandchild of the first Costa Ricans to live in the Monteverde area, before it was a reserve. His co-owner wife is part of the US Quaker community which came and settled at Monteverde in the 1950s to avoid the draft. They chose Costa Rica because it was seen as a peaceful nation, having disbanded its army in 1948. The cheese factory the Quakers established still makes some of the best queso in the country.

But back to rain-forests. Before coming to Monteverde, I had spoken to Tirso Moldonado, the director of the centre of environmental studies at Fundacion Neotropica in San Jose. His office is in a building filled with tropical plants, and backed by a large exotic garden; his job is to bridge the growing chasm between man and nature.

Moldonado works with local farm communities to set up areas around their farms so that reserves like Monteverde won't be affected by the tons of agrichemicals for which the country has become notorious. Moldonado and Villegas both stress the importance of education to preserve areas like Monteverde. Fundacion Neotropica makes maps, sponsors youth centres in the reserves and carries out research to increase awareness. Moldonado even flies local farmers, politicians and journalists over the reserves to show them areas of devastation.

"Flying," Moldonado explains, "you can see that what looks like a forest is only two rows of trees and nothing beyond that. If you use an aeroplane, you are really going to see what's going on. And you probably are going to change your mind very fast."

I am almost changing my mind very fast as I stand 150ft above the rain- forest floor. The next best thing to flying, this is the recently opened Sky Walk, a complicated system of suspension bridges and trails in the Monteverde Cloudforest. It is a privately owned venture and has yet to make it into the guide-books. On the bridges (there are five suspended an average of 100ft off the ground and they cover a kilometre of trails), the gap between the wooden planks underfoot, the sheer height of each, a constant swaying motion, and the Costa Rican reputation for lack of safety make for a heady mix. It is here, post-guide, post-group experience, that you can get down to the business of rain-forests. Be very Zen about it; go alone, ask nothing, look, sit. You may be surprised. The best knowledge is not always intellectual.

The sun is rising as my companion and I depart the Monteverde Cloudforest reserve, heading back down the awkward road we drove in on. The view is stunning at sunrise, draped in foggy sleep. But there is something different, too. Travelling always reveals too much, decreases some of the mystery. There are scars on the landscape I did not see before, banks of clear-cutting, wrinkles in the flesh.

We make record time going downhill on the sloppy road away from the reserve. On nature trails, you are often asked to leave nothing behind but your footprints. As we turn onto Highway 1 towards San Jose, we leave nothing behind - except perhaps the black smoke trailing from our exhaust pipe.

In the American classic film, The Emerald Forest, Amazonian tribal people call anything outside the rain- forest the "dead world", and so-called civilised people "termite children" - because "they came into the world and chewed up all the grandfather trees". For the average person, a holiday in the rain-forest can be scarcely short of a psychedelic experience. When you leave behind trains, work and everything else on a human timetable, suddenly it is not the rain- forest that is dying, but you.

The most inaccessible sites are usually the best. So it is with Monteverde, Costa Rica's most famous rain-forest reserve. After a few hours on Highway 1 from the country's capital, San Jose, there is a 35km leg of the journey up pockmarked mountainous roads that makes you wonder at the durability of motor vehicles. Sharp rocks, crater-sized potholes and dramatic drops off the sides of the switchbacked road make for a jittery journey. A promotional brochure for the area suggests travellers take it slow and "relax and enjoy the view". Enjoying the view is easy. Relaxing is not.

Some areas exist already inside us, just waiting to be recognised. Not Monteverde. She is an exotic stranger on a perilous road. The hills, covered in grass so green it looks man-made, fade to blue and purple over the waters of Nicoya Bay. Veils of mist hide sensual valleys; it is the rainy season and the click, click, click of raindrops on the top of the car sounds like the tapping of sharp fingernails.

We are exhausted when we make it to the reserve. Our hotel is El Sapo Dorado (The Golden Toad). The cabin is on a hill, surrounded by tropical flowers, and with a wooden deck that reaches out to Nicoya Bay. We could have found something dramatically less expensive; there are few tourists during the rainy season and more than a dozen hotels and bed and breakfasts line the muddy road just outside the reserve. But for pounds 18 we have a large cabin cleverly arranged not to overlook any of the others, two large double beds, stained-glass windows, and a deck grand enough for a candle- lit dinner, or for us to stay out of each other's way.

The rainy season is the worst time to visit a rain-forest, or the best. Boots become sodden and mud-caked, raincoats leave you in a perpetual sweat, supposedly durable hats end up soggy. But there are no people (isn't that argument enough), and since rain is what rain-forests are all about, you may want to trade dry hair, clean cuffs and "companionship" for the mystery of the storm.

And storms we get. One comes charging in moments after we enter our cabin, pounding relentlessly over our heads. We are housed by wood, surrounded by dirt and deep roots; at least the rain does not come down to meet concrete. I sit on the deck and watch the stampede out to Nicoya Bay. This rain is in its place, not ours.

The next day, we go with our guide through the reserve. I have been calling it a rain-forest, but that isn't true. It is actually a cloud-forest - 80 per cent of the moisture the area receives comes from the low-lying cloud cover at the top of Green Mountain. The Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve costs a whopping pounds 18 to enter if you want a guide, but most of the money goes for education, which environmentalists agree goes a long way toward preserving what little virgin forestland is left.

Our guide is Alex Villagas, the only one of the six of us who looks like he belongs. "There is no point in making this a competition, to see how fast we can go, or how far," Villagas says as he explains that he's only taking us 1km kilometre into the reserve and 1km out.

It seems that all the wildlife we encounter is nearly extinct - howling monkeys, hidalgo birds, toucans, tarantulas. Hidalgos, which according to Villagas have "the most beautiful voice in the world", are being trapped and sold in San Jose for pounds 100 to pounds 300. The tarantula is becoming a popular household pet. The most famous nearly extinct bird in the reserve we of course do not see - the quetzal. The bird is so shy (and now so rare) that when the Spanish conquered the area, they believed the creature to be a myth created by the local people. The reason for the bird's demise is that the quetzal's main source of food - wild avocado - grows on the best hardwood in the country. We also do not see the golden toad. Like other frogs across the world, the golden toad is disappearing. In 1987, 1,500 appeared at a popular breeding pool in the Monteverde reserve. In 1988, only one showed up. In the past three years, no one has seen any sapo dorados at all.

The hotel's restaurant provides a metaphor for the Monteverde community. Everywhere is the taste of Tico and Gringa. Vivaldi wafts out from the bar onto a deck heavy with the aroma of tropical flowers. The menu offers the typical Costa Rican arros con pollo (rice and chicken), and the more American stir-fried vegetables has the first tofu I have seen anywhere in the country. The owner of the hotel is the great-great-grandchild of the first Costa Ricans to live in the Monteverde area, before it was a reserve. His co-owner wife is part of the US Quaker community which came and settled at Monteverde in the 1950s to avoid the draft. They chose Costa Rica because it was seen as a peaceful nation, having disbanded its army in 1948. The cheese factory the Quakers established still makes some of the best queso in the country.

But back to rain-forests. Before coming to Monteverde, I had spoken to Tirso Moldonado, the director of the centre of environmental studies at Fundacion Neotropica in San Jose. His office is in a building filled with tropical plants, and backed by a large exotic garden; his job is to bridge the growing chasm between man and nature.

Moldonado works with local farm communities to set up areas around their farms so that reserves like Monteverde won't be affected by the tons of agrichemicals for which the country has become notorious. Moldonado and Villegas both stress the importance of education to preserve areas like Monteverde. Fundacion Neotropica makes maps, sponsors youth centres in the reserves and carries out research to increase awareness. Moldonado even flies local farmers, politicians and journalists over the reserves to show them areas of devastation.

"Flying," Moldonado explains, "you can see that what looks like a forest is only two rows of trees and nothing beyond that. If you use an aeroplane, you are really going to see what's going on. And you probably are going to change your mind very fast."

I am almost changing my mind very fast as I stand 150ft above the rain- forest floor. The next best thing to flying, this is the recently opened Sky Walk, a complicated system of suspension bridges and trails in the Monteverde Cloudforest. It is a privately owned venture and has yet to make it into the guide-books. On the bridges (there are five suspended an average of 100ft off the ground and they cover a kilometre of trails), the gap between the wooden planks underfoot, the sheer height of each, a constant swaying motion, and the Costa Rican reputation for lack of safety make for a heady mix. It is here, post-guide, post-group experience, that you can get down to the business of rain-forests. Be very Zen about it; go alone, ask nothing, look, sit. You may be surprised. The best knowledge is not always intellectual.

The sun is rising as my companion and I depart the Monteverde Cloudforest reserve, heading back down the awkward road we drove in on. The view is stunning at sunrise, draped in foggy sleep. But there is something different, too. Travelling always reveals too much, decreases some of the mystery. There are scars on the landscape I did not see before, banks of clear-cutting, wrinkles in the flesh.

We make record time going downhill on the sloppy road away from the reserve. On nature trails, you are often asked to leave nothing behind but your footprints. As we turn onto Highway 1 towards San Jose, we leave nothing behind - except perhaps the black smoke trailing from our exhaust pipe.

costa rica fact file

When to go

June to November is the rainy season, which is a fine time to visit. December to February brings driving winds, leaving March to May relatively calm. Temperatures average a cool 15C, so weather-proof clothing is essential.

Getting there

Flights from London to San Jose this July and August cost pounds 761+tax on Continental through Journey Latin America (0181 747 3108). A few cheaper tickets are available on Iberia, and from September prices drop to pounds 484+tax. From San Jose, catch the Monteverde Express bus from Tilaran Station or hire a car. Journey is four hours.

Accommodation

The two closest hotels are still a 10 to 15-minute (muddy) walk away: the Hotel Villa Verde (506 645 5025) has villas or rooms for pounds 50 and pounds 40 and the Hotel Fonda Vela (506 645 5119) has single and double suites at pounds 35 and pounds 50. The Hotel Sapo Dorado (506 645 5010) is highly recommended, with cottages from pounds 50 to pounds 60 and fantastic food, as is the Belmar Hotel (506 645 5201), a rustic complex with incredible views. From pounds 40 to pounds 60.

Further information

Entry to the Monteverde Reserve costs pounds 5, plus pounds 10 for a guide (highly recommended). The Monteverde Tourist Board is on 506 645 5025. There are numerous conservation groups in the area. Contact Fundacion Neotropica (506 233 0003).

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