I’ve Looked at Clouds From Both Sides Now

Today’s slide show: Images from Monteverde. Today’s  audio: Wilfred Guinden remembers his half-century in Monteverde.

MONTEVERDE—Having a reporter’s fondness for the crutch of statistics, I decided this morning to take a complete inventory of my tick bites. The crown-to-ground tally, to the best of my mirror-assisted ability, is 72. Granted, I can’t swear that all the bites are tick, but they are all red, round, hard, and, sporadically, screamingly itchy, and even the most sadistic mosquitoes of my acquaintance can’t manage such effective body piercing. So let’s not split hairs, please. I’m practically depilated as it is.

Birdwatchers keep a silent vigil for the park’s avifauna

For the last couple of days, we have had our heads in the clouds. What do you expect? The Monteverde Biological Reserve is a cloud forest, which means it is in the mountains, and it feeds off the moisture of clouds. It is green, wet, windy, and luscious. There’s not a spot of real estate that isn’t slathered over by enough springy quilts of biomatter to make the princess forget her pea. Monteverde is located in central Costa Rica atop the continental divide, which is the place that separates the streams and rivers that flow toward the Pacific from those headed Caribbeanward. All the meeting and mingling of tropical currents from east and west that characterize a continental divide give birth to the clouds, and they, in turn, turn the monte very verde.

Monteverde is a popular eco-tourism spot for a number of reasons. First on anybody’s list is surely the near-absence of ticks and mosquitoes. It’s simply too breezy for bugs. Then there is the famed resplendent quetzal, a resident of the forest that we sought but failed to find—though this morning I did see a blue-crowned motmot sitting practically as close to me as my computer screen now is, and it was so coolly, blindingly beautiful, with its neon-blue haberdashery and long striped tail culminating in two feather tennis rackets, that it might as well have been a quetzal. And, oh, yes, the cushy accommodations in the surrounding area. I had a hot shower. I ordered white Russians. I put back on my coddled-tourist guilt.

To have one’s head in the clouds means several things, though. Being dreamy and happy, yes, but also being a bit out of touch. Monteverde is postcard precious. Everybody gets along here. Everybody is doing well. Raúl Solórzano Soto, the director of Costa Rica’s Park Service—whom, to my astonishment, I managed to interview in Spanish (take that, President Jorge W. Arbusto!)—told me that the community of 5,000 has just about the highest per capita income in the nation. You’ll have trouble finding a poor person here, he said. People make money giving guided nature walks, taking people on horseback rides, letting tourists risk their lives on the rapidly proliferating canopy rides—sliding in a harness on a cable slung across the forest every so often slamming into another person at 30 miles an hour, or crashing 100 feet to the ground, or, in the case of a 7-year-old daughter of a tourist from Connecticut, losing a finger. The locals are making all that capita off the forest without lopping down trees, just as the eco-tourism broadsheets promise. What’s more, they’re living in religious harmony—Catholic descendents of the original Spanish settlers, evangelical Christians from the United States, and the Quakers, whose name in Spanish, cuáqueros, sounds like a snack for a duck.

Why are there Quakers in Monteverde? As it happens, they founded the place. Way, way back in the Precambrian era—the early 1950s—a group of Quaker farmers were casting about for a peaceful place to live. Four of them had protested the 1948 Universal Military Training Act by refusing to register for the draft, and they were promptly jailed. After serving a few months time, they and their families and friends decided they wanted to find a less militaristic home base. Canada was too cold, Mexico was too strict about who could own land. How about Central America? None of them spoke Spanish, but, hey, Costa Rica had just abolished its army. So, in 1951, seven families headed south, bought 3,400 acres in the Tilarán Mountains, above then-prevalent threat of malaria, dengue, dysentery, and the like, and hacked their way up by oxcart. They named their pacifist haven Monteverde. To earn money, they started a cheese farm, poking holes in Quaker Oats cans to grow the cheese molds; and they are still trafficking in lactose, in a hugely expanded operation—7,000 pounds a day—and their cheeses and ice cream are delicious.

The Quakers also had the fortuitous sense to set aside a third of their land at the headwaters of the mountain streams as off-limits to any development to ensure good quality water. That set-aside is now incorporated into the 26,000 acres that make up Monteverde nature preserve. I heard the story of the Quakers’ odyssey from Marvin Rockwell, one of the original jailbirds, who’s now 80. I asked him if he didn’t feel a little strange about a bunch of gringo farmers coming down to found a town in Costa Rica. “We decided when we came down that we would not be a North American cell,” he said. “We wanted to be a part of Costa Rica, and we are.” He learned Spanish, and he married a Costa Rican woman. This is a common theme among expats, by the way, which is not surprising given the beauty of the Costa Ricans. I have seen enough sculpted cheekbones and pellucid eyes, on male and female faces alike, to fill any number of Ralph Lauren fashion shoots.

“I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said. “This is a wonderful place. People in the area have found that they can make a living by keeping nature in its natural state, and nature has been very good to us.”

Global-warming researcher Alan Pounds

Ah, but are we really keeping nature in its “natural state”? I said I had my head in the clouds, and clouds are gray and glum, and that’s how I felt by the time I was through talking to Alan Pounds, a conservation scientist at Monteverde’s Tropical Science Center. Pounds has bright blue eyes and a braying laugh and looks like an astronaut. He has spent years studying the changes in the cloud forest, and he doesn’t like what he sees. Golden toads have disappeared. The number of anole lizards, with their bright red do-me throat pouches, is shrinking. The keel-billed toucan is now nesting in the same zone as the quetzal, which it didn’t do in the ‘90s. Golden-crowned warblers and nightingale thrushes are moving to higher elevations to nest. These and many other changes in the forest, he said, are exactly what one would predict if the world were getting warmer. Global climate change is not a “looming threat.” At Monteverde and other tropical forests, it is a bullfrog in a china shop, hard to see, perhaps, but whoops, there it goes, and another irreplaceable item crashes to the floor.

“It’s disturbing that, even in seemingly protected areas like this, species are still at risk,” he said. “If our only strategy for saving biodiversity is to protect habitats, and those habitats are still vulnerable to large-scale changes, well, then, we’re screwed.”

In other words, my earnest content consumer and would-be eco-tourist, spending dollars at the Monteverde gift shop might not be enough. In fact, the mere act of traveling from tu casa to the casa de queso may have a net impact in the negative numbers. “It’s the great eco-tourism paradox,” Michael Kaye admitted. Jets add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So, too, do the tour buses that lurch and wobble up the rutted road to Monteverde. And your hair dryer, and your hot showers, and the ice in your white Russians. Yes, it adds up, and the earth heats up, and, well, I begin to think that the tarantula I saw at Monteverde had the right idea. Dig a hole, hunker down, don’t move, and wait for the idiot tourists looming overhead to turn off their flashlight and leave you alone.

Things to know before you go to Costa Rica.