Days 33-38: Cloud forest, mass tourism and the vanishing volcano

[The Arenal volcano in cloud, or at least that is the rumour]

It is all too easy to get stuck in Nosara.

The blissful schedule of surf-swim-eat-repeat is too potent, too fulfilling and this place is a magnet. Holidaymakers come with an open mind and return with an open cheque book, walking into one of the 5 real estate agents (for what is effectively a big village) to make one of their big life dreams come true.

We stay an extra day for Lola’s birthday then we remember we’re here to travel.

We head for the hills.

We head for the cloud forest, 3.5 hrs drive inland. As with the UK, you measure driving distances in hours not time, but for different reasons. In the UK it is traffic, which can turn 1 mile into 1 hour. In our part of Costa Rica, it is the roads, which can turn 30 km into 2 hours.

We arrive at Monteverde and a new chapter opens up for the trip, though not the chapter we were expecting. We are coming to see cloud forest, which is tropical or sub tropical forest in higher altitudes, characterised by persistent cloud cover. The name, the phrase ‘cloud forest’ is evocative and we arrive with visions of new ecosystems and microclimates and wildlife.

We do find the cloud forest, but the new chapter of our trip is in fact our collision with mass tourism. It seems that in the past week Americans have stopped college and vast numbers have fled to Costa Rica. Of course, we are tourists too and when complaining about the volume of other tourists the line about the aforementioned traffic comes to mind: “You are not stuck in traffic – you are traffic”.

We have the self-awareness about our role as problem not solution and we have economic awareness too – there is simply too much money involved in tourism for the local entrepreneurs to desist, and good luck to them.

Every building becomes a hotel or restaurant or booking agent trying to sign you up for canopy ziplining / rafting / bird spotting / pineapple farm visit. The local sensibility is tranquillo and hard pressure sales are conspicuous by their absence.

Ziplining.

Let’s look at this one sporting activity which thrives in Costa Rica. In a country with a GDP per capita of ~%12,000, the numbers are startling.

We go ziplining, which is travelling on a little pulley along metal wires from tree to tree. It is $170 for the four of us. For context a decent plate of food in a local restaurant (called a Soda) is ~$5.

The ziplining in Monteverde is a factory, an extension of Disneyland, with large volumes pushed through. In our group there are ~25 people. At an average of $45 a head you have $1125 of income for just one group. There are 8 guides and it takes about 2.5 hours. If you’re paying people say $10 an hour (and I guess they get much less) then the gross profit on just one group of zipliners is around $925. This is a lot of money in any country, let alone this country.

There are many groups simultaneously on the course and 3 cohorts go out per day. At a (conservative) estimate of 30 groups a day we are talking ~$10-12m of income for a year. This is decent money for what is, effectively, stringing wires up between trees and the slightly less trivial task of keeping the punters alive.

You need the land and the fixed costs of setting up the lines and buying the kit but that’s it. So it is a great business, a perfect eco-tourism business: high margins, employing people in an area where farming must be very difficult and jobs hard to come by, and it does little damage to the environment. It is a lot of fun and recommended for everyone. [Just avoid storms – someone died here last year while ziplining – the wires are made of metal and above the trees so you become a human lightning rod.]

The cloud forest

Yet, despite the intrusion of mass tourism into our little bubble, it remains true that Costa Rica is so beautiful that the magic remains. We go on a night walk and see tarantulas, black grasshoppers, leafcutter ants, etc. These forests are crawling with life and the golden rule is ‘don’t touch anything’. The walk is the latest of many privileged experiences.

Not a tarantula but enough to shut us up

How does the cloud forest differ from the lowland rainforest? It seems dryer but the Monteverde area receives 118 inches of rain a year – 3 metres a year, so it is anything but dry. The trees have more moss and are slightly shorter. The vegetation seems less intense, but that is relative, like saying a Ferrari is cheap compared to a Maclaren. There are no bullet ants so our in-house Health and Safety Officer relaxes a bit though she is now obsessed with tarantulas.

The Arenal volcano – apparently

Three hours of carsick roads take us to Lake Arenal and the Arenal volcano, which last erupted in 2010 but at one point was one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world. We do not see it due to cloud – for 3 days straight.

Walking near Arenal volcano

So perhaps the volcano is just a myth started to lure tourists here. Large-scale tourism here is rampant with Las Vegas sized hotels and billboards fighting for business. Through it all the Costa Rican charm shines through, rarely have we met friendlier people. Arenal does not quite work for us and we break for the coast.

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