The day after my return to Monteverde from the Caribbean, I was invited to go on a hike to Vera Cruz. This is land a little to the southwest of Monteverde, some owned by the Reserve as well as private farmlands – we would call this cattle range country in Canada. Luis Angel Obando, our friendly forest guard, was accompanying a group of youths, the Junior Rangers led by Dulce Wilson, to a mysterious place called the Casa de la Piedra – the House of Stone. The forest guards get out on regular patrols on trails all over the large expanse of Reserve land, looking for signs of squatters, hunters and tree poachers, and can often incorporate their trips with guiding groups to various destinations. Mercedes Diaz, who is Head of Environmental Education at the Reserve, decided to accompany the group and would lead them in an exercise about making environmentally-sound decisions. The last person in the group was Rosai, another forest guard, who would stay with the group once they were settled – and take care of the two characters who I think worked the hardest of all, the two pack horses. Although I had barely got my beach clothes out of my own pack, I didn’t want to miss the chance to go overnight into the forest.
The sad part of this for me was the fact that this was the first time that I was going on a trip into the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve without Wolf Guindon. It has been several months since he decided not to go on long hikes. His knee is bothering him, he gets tired, and he has lost a bit of the spirit for the long treks, although he walks the couple of kilometers back and forth to the Reserve most days. He is good on flat stretches but there isn’t much of this land that stays flat for very long, and the long slogs up and down the hills are getting too difficult to be fun for him. So he didn’t want to join us and I felt the loss. Luis is now Head of Protection, the position that Wolf created and held for more than a couple of decades. Luis in many ways is just like Wolf – full of energy and strength and humor and patience – and his love for being in the forest is constantly apparent. But Wolf is a very unique man and nobody will truly follow exactly in his footsteps. The day before the hike, I did walk with Wolf to his farm to meet Lucky’s niece, Sylvia, and we made our way through the beautiful bullpen. This is the St. Augustine pasture carved out of the old forest by the Campbell family where huge trees were left standing to provide habitat and shade and felled ones were left laying to rot – one of my most favorite places in Monteverde, that alone the world.
So on Thursday morning, Luis and Rosai picked me up in the trusty Suzuki and after getting Mercedes, we drove down to the meeting spot in San Luis. There we met Edgar who had brought the two horses and we were to wait for Dulce’s group to arrive. The meeting time was ten a.m. but what with one thing and another, we didn’t get on the trail until one p.m. A group of twenty-one kids between the ages of nine and sixteen made up the pack. The horses had been employed to carry the bulk of the provisions – tents, food, stoves – well, those poor animals were wider than they were high by the time they were loaded down.
Better them than me I suppose. By the time we got to our camping spot, my respect for these creatures had grown immensely. The trail was part old roadway, part groomed trail, but much of it was cattle paths through old pastures. Although the sun was beating down on us as we were getting our equipment ready, we weren’t very long on the trail before the rain started and stayed with us until close to four hours later when we were settled for the night.
Of course Luis and Rosai were the only ones who knew where we were going and what to expect. I’ve put my faith in these men of the forest so many times and have always been rewarded for the experience, so I don’t question, I just follow. But adding a group of this size to the mix was even more challenging – I know that Luis has many years of experience assisting groups of foreign students as well as Costa Ricans in their travels in the forest. But we got started very late and the rain slowed us down – we were trekking through thick mud much of the time – and although the Casa de la Piedra was our destination, Luis kept reconsidering our possibilities of where we could spend the night. How far could we get before dark? How tired, wet and cold would these poor kids be? And where was there water safe for drinking, meaning a mountain stream, nearby? His concern was only apparent because his usually smiling face looked a little pensive, although I doubt that many in the group would have noticed. But I could tell he was always thinking about just how far this slow-moving group could reasonably get before nightfall, which here is roughly 6 o’clock.
The land we walked through was beautiful. We could see layers of ridges, some cleared for pasture, some covered in new growth forest, with deep forested valleys in between. The Reserve had bought a lot of this land fifteen years ago and so the forest has been regenerating but some of the ridges were so windswept and severe with a sandy soil that only bushes and grasses could grow. Other pockets were well into a new generation of forest. There were some working pastures still, with bright specks on the distant hillsides representing cows. In other places, we could stand on the ridge and look into down upon the huge cedros and higuerons, the big ol’ trees stretching above the rest of the forested valleys. Luis’ keen eyes and ears could pick out white-faced monkeys playing a kilometer away, so high up in trees that you had to wonder what happened if by chance they ever lost their grasp.
Around 5 o’clock we arrived at an abandoned homestead that used to belong to someone named Pipé. It was a small flat pasture of long grass with the remains of a cabin on it. The views stretched west to the Gulf of Nicoya and there was a stream a few minutes walk away. We were still about an hour and a half from the magical stone house and it was going to get dark fast, so the decision was made to stay. Well! I’ve never seen such a disciplined group of kids in my life, although I haven’t hung out with many armies before, although I did work for years at a canoe camp in northern Ontario.
Dulce had those kids in formation, taking care of the necessary tasks, so fast that I couldn’t believe it. It was decided that they would all stay on the wooden floor under the roof in the cabin which would also protect our gear and where we could cook and not get wet. They immediately set up a large tent outside one of the doorways to use as a changing room for this mixed crowd of boys and girls. Dulce set the rules of where people could walk with boots or not – since we had walked through so much mud, and would continue to be wet and dirty, it was imperative that once the plastic tarps were down for sleeping, nobody should walk there in boots.
Rosai unpacked those poor horses who had trogged through the mud, up the steep inclines, in the narrow hollows that defined the path, with hundreds of pounds of weight – how they keep their balance and their humor (I’m sure horses must have a sense of humor), I’ll never know. They were then tethered loosely to trees and left alone to lazily eat the lush grass of the pasture which I can attest they did all night long. Luis set up two tents that the guards and Mercedes and I would sleep in, to have a little space from the large pack of youths. Mercedes and Rosai went down to the stream with containers to get water. I set up the stove and started what water we had boiling to get some hot coffee into us as quick as possible. We were all soaked and tired and it was going to get dark fast. It wasn’t that cold by mountain standards but the wind was blowing and everyone was chilled. I set up the second stove in the middle of the cabin for the kids to gather around like a campfire. In this wet world, it isn’t as typical to have a bonfire outside as in Canada – between the wet wood and wind, it can be almost impossible to start sometimes. They did have plans to make one later and one of the boys chopped out a fire pit in the pasture. Those older boys never stopped working from the time they arrived – at least they stayed much warmer that way. The younger ones were tired and stood about shivering, waiting for the tent to be put up so they could get inside and change into dryer clothes. I gathered whatever water was left from personal water bottles and put a pot on to heat on the second stove so they could have hot chocolate. Beyond that, Dulce and her group were pretty much on their own, and we four adults took care of ourselves. We made a great supper of hot soup, rice, tuna, pejivalles I had cooked and brought along to eat with mayonnaise, and shared the organic avocado that my friend Roberto had given me from his land in Cahuita. It tasted really good up there on the mountainside.
After dinner, Mercedes did her exercise with the kids while Luis, Rosai and I spent the evening laying in the tent together, talking, staying warm. We were all asleep by 9:30 I would think, but awake long enough to see the waxing moon brighten up the sky and the sparks of the fireflies twinkling throughout the forest.
The next morning, after lots of coffee and a good breakfast, Luis took Mercedes and I ahead of the rest to go and see the infamous Casa de la Piedra. We hiked through the wet forest in bright sunshine, up and up, until we got to the top of a ridge where we had a full 360 degree view of the ridges all around us. It was pure sand that only supported a type of miniature pampas grass and alpine plants.
There was the remains of a recent landslide which would have taken us a couple of hundred feet down without stopping. The misty clouds hung low in the valleys and the sun kept us warm despite the strong wind. We then descended down, down, down into the forested valley of Rio La Nica (who knows how and why these rivers get their names – Luis imagined that somebody brought a Nicaraguan wife here and therefore this river got called La Nica).
The river was a beauty – huge rocks strewn about by mythical giants, white water tumbling down various channels only to meet up again in pools of clear water, tropical ferns and vines hanging down over the banks as if to drink.
Luis showed us the first “Casa de la Piedra” which was a huge triangular conglomeration of rocks, trees, and strangler fig roots – maybe forty feet high and immense. We continued down the river edge until we were walking beside a massive wall of rock – and this was the outside wall of the House of Stone. Around the corner and up a rocky ledge and we entered a cave – maybe twenty-five feet deep and twenty feet high but narrow enough to touch both walls with outstretched arms, light streaming in from breaks in the rock above – it was impressive.
Bats flew about as we disturbed their daytime slumber with our flashlights and camera flashes. Luis told us that people used to live amongst these rocks – in fact, one of the young employees at the Reserve apparently was born in the house of stone.
When Rosai, Dulce and the rest of the group arrived, we left and went down to a pool in the river. Mercedes put on her bathing suit but spent most of the time sitting on a rock in the sun, shivering. Luis wouldn’t even go near the water.
I, on the other hand, northern bush babe that I be, swam like a seal in the channel of rushing white water that came through the rocks, happy as a Canadian clam. The mountainous water was about the temperature that the northern lakes I swim in generally get to at the height of summer. I could have stayed there all day and I suspect I will take the opportunity to go back to this rocky spa again just for the chance to swim.
We quickly had to get dressed and start the long slog back up, up, up the trail – we stopped on the top of the ridge where Luis had cell phone reception so he could call his kids and check in. Cell phone in one hand, machete in the other, GPS receiver in his pocket – this is a modern day forest guard.
Luis, Mercedes and I quickly ate some lunch and packed up, leaving Rosai and the group to stay another night. We got on the trail around three in the afternoon and moved quickly as the afternoon rain came down on us. We had flashlights with us but didn’t really want to be walking in the dark. Luis took us on shortcuts – although Wolf wasn’t with us, I was reminded of him often. Luis would point out some piece of trail that Wolf had hacked out while short-cutting his way through the forest, or some tree where during a rest stop Wolf had told some funny story. Wolf’s spirit is so omnipresent in this forest that he will be felt here forever. Luis is very much like Wolf, but whereas Luis would say, as the night was closing in on us and he was deciding which animal trail to follow to cut down our travel time, “we might end up lost” – I know from experience that Wolf would never admit to being lost – he’d just say we may end up in a different place than we hoped to be.
The final bit of Luis’ shortcut took us through a cattle pasture of very rough walking in horrible mud churned by animal hooves – but with beautiful views of the sun setting beyond the ridges and the clouds settling down into the valleys as if to sleep for the night. We came over a ridge top and heard a mad-sounding cow ahead of us. As Mercedes and I caught up to Luis, he told us that it was a mother cow who had just delivered her baby – you could see the very young calf hidden down on the hillside in the grass – and the mother was acting mad to keep the rest of the cattle – and us – away from her newborn. Mercedes and I – non-farmers that we be – were a bit worried as we made our way past this angry large-horned mother but Luis just made jokes and said it was all show. The other cattle were more interested in us than the calf and in the end, we were all amused.
We made it back to Edgar and the jeep in San Luis right as darkness gathered around us. I was at home by 7, unpacked and showered by 7:30 and sound asleep by eight, accompanied by dreams of clouds floating by me, long grass wrapping around my ankles, and a bed of mud cushioning my sore body. It was all perfect, except for the missing Wolf.