Cost Rica Diary: Night Hike in the Cloud Forest

by Rachel Creager Ireland

La Colina Lodge, outside the town of Santa Elena, feels like a house where generations of hippies have lived and left their mark. The rooms are painted in pretty colors, and there’s a reading room with enough books that I could stay and read for six months, if I didn’t get distracted by the lovely mosaics in the floor. There’s a large yoga room with lots of windows. Andrea the manager was terrific at making recommendations and arranging activities for us.

The first evening we took a night hike at El Refugio. Our guide’s name was Javier. Before we began the hike, he asked us if we’d been to Costa Rica before. It was the first time for everyone in our group except me and Kevin, who had been there twelve years previous, for our honeymoon. He asked how we liked it this time. I said I was enjoying myself more than last time, which had been great. Javier was surprised, and remarked how much things had changed. How, I asked? There had been a lot of development, lots of paving of roads, with more planned. The gravel road we’d come on would soon be paved. He liked the way things were before, but said that the development is needed, in order to compete with other locations, as in the US.

Why compete? I’d love to have had a chance to talk at length with Javier about ecotourism and conservation of the cloud forest, but it was time to begin our hike. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I put together my memories and the place as it is now. Santa Elena was the dusty town we’d ridden into by bus. We were greeted by several people with binders, showing us pictures of rooms, to entice us to stay there. Not having a reservation, we took a chance and followed a man to a family-operated lodging that turned out to be inexpensive and scrupulously clean, and the only person in the family who spoke English was a little girl. That town, as I remember it, had one main, gravel street. Now there are more cross streets, and when I looked for it, I could recognize only one block. Everything seemed to have rotated and expanded. There are ten times as many restaurants, both casual and more upscale, and a supermarket. The town grew so much that I hadn’t recognized it.

Rustic and remote is always my preference when traveling to see nature; so why was I more thrilled to be in this place now? The answer lay not in changes in the place, but in the changes in myself. I’m much happier now, with myself as well as the world, and more able to be present and enjoy the moment. Also, while there is much pleasure to be had in discovering something new for the first time, there’s a special satisfaction in sharing that discovery with loved ones, especially one’s children. To enjoy a place, start by being able to enjoy yourself. Then find someone to share it with.

But I didn’t have time to figure this out, and tell Javier, because it was time to go off into the dark forest. Javier turned out to be an excellent guide. He knew the habits of the animals, and how to find them in the dark. He made a point of telling us that the animals at El Refugio are neither fed nor hunted by humans, and therefore don’t pay much attention to us at all. There were several groups out, and the guides talked to one another via radio, telling each other where they’d seen a coati, a kinkajou, a possum, or a tarantula or a trail of leafcutter ants. He also showed us a sleeping warbler, a walking stick insect more than six inches long, and a pit viper, which had placed itself, obligingly, at a comfortable distance from the path. Javier even walked off the path to get closer to the pit viper to take pictures for us.

We didn’t see any monkeys, which Kevin had hoped for. Monkeys were to come later.

By the time we returned to La Colina we were exhausted. Everything was damp, including the beds. You can’t keep moisture out when you live in cloud forest. I was chilly in bed, but quickly warmed up and fell into a deep sleep.

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