A very odd phenomenon occurs atop Costa Rica’s Cordillera de Tilarán.
The range is part of the Continental Divide, which runs like a great crooked spine through the country’s northwestern region. Its scalloped ridge abruptly separates the Caribbean Sea’s humid flowing mists from the cool, dry winds of the Pacific side. The result is a long, snaking wall of eternally churning white wisps.
It’s here that mysterious clouds descend to visit the Earth.
I’m faced with a decision — which way to go?
At the entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, six trails fan out before me. From this position, they all look the same: lush and dense, though I know each will reveal its own unique set of wonders.
I hesitate, then go left.
As I begin my trek, I’m struck with the sense that I’m entering a sort of sacred cathedral where nature reigns supreme. I feel myself quickly sedated; lulled by a sweet silence that quiets my mind and heartbeat with each step.
The trees lining the path stretch upward into a sheltering canopy — an arched ceiling of emerald stained glass, softly filtering beams of sunlight.
Rising from damp, aromatic soil, reverent ferns and palms reach verdant fingers toward the sky in prayer.
Flowers and moss express joyfulness in their own ways; one with ecstatic eye-catching vibrancy, and the other with a humble subtlety as it steadfastly climbs the trunks of trees.
Drawn to the vibrancy of the flowers, hummingirds hover, flit and zip about like tiny rapturous angels.
Somewhere ahead, I hear the song of rushing water. Before I reach it, the trail divides and I again must choose my path through this enchanted forest.
This time, I veer right.
The voice of the hidden flowing water grows more insistent. I follow my ears, round a bend and stumble across a highway of white water, surging through the leaves and tendrils.
I stay, transfixed, forgetting about time. I’m alone here and it feels like my waterfall, my secret Eden.
I pretend I’m the only person around for hundreds of miles.
Creatures stir along the path, and I have to look closely to discover their miniature movements in this place of tip-toeing silence.
I’m so blissfully lost in the noiselessness that a sudden thrashing of nearby ferns stops my heart.
Some sort of animal pushes through the brush before me, unseen except for flashes of dark fur. My brain darts to a poster I’d seen on the wall of the reserve’s ticket office, which depicted several types of large cats…including jaguars.
I hold my breath as the beast emerges.
A white-nosed coati saunters onto the trail, sniffing the ground with purpose, seeming not to notice my frozen posture. It’s several seconds before I remember these animals are essentially harmless, they’re scavengers like raccoons. I exhale.
I wait for it to meander off again into the overgrowth before hiking on.
Moments later, I’m confronted by an entirely different fear.
The muddy trail halts just shy of mid-air. A metal bridge is strung from cables across a precipice. The trees that previously acted as the roof to my glorious natural cathedral are now fearfully extended, grasping upward from a seemingly bottomless gorge.
I begin to cross, feeling the pricking of my nerves as the rusted grates beneath me start to sway and bounce with each footfall. I glance down furtively at the lush pit as I shuffle by.
On the far side, I scurry away from the wriggling metal monstrosity and let go a great sigh. Not so bad after all.
Soon I start to realize that the gently inclining trail has tricked me, the elevation is very high here. I know because I have gradually, finally… stepped into the clouds.
They float around me like delicate, humid breaths of lace, curling through the canopy. Everything is slick and ghostly and glistening with condensation. Wet diamonds cling to leaves, drip from moss-draped branches, and shimmer from the tendrils of ferns. The enigmatic mists absorb into my sleeves and pant legs whenever I brush against the crowded plants as I move up the path. It’s spellbinding.
Now, I think, I have become a cloud walker.
I can clearly make out the same mysterious clouds I passed through the day before, though this time I view them from the back of my horse — a young, brown and white pinto-colored fellow appropriately named Pinto.
The late afternoon sky is beginning to sweeten into pastels as Pinto’s regular hoofbeats take us deeper into the hills of the Cordillera de Tilarán. We trespass through the pastures of cows and wild-looking steeds; some raise their heads in curiosity and call to us as we go.
Pinto and I follow the lead of José, my Costa Rican guide. The kind-eyed man with weathered skin and a smile of aging teeth rides his trusted 14-year old roan, stopping occasionally to pull and crush fragrant leaves in his hands for me to smell, or to point out a toucan perched in high tree branches.
We talk to each other using his few words of English and my few words of Spanish, mixed with a mime act of hand gestures and and imitated sounds. In this way, I learn that José is 51 years old and has lived on his family’s farm in Monteverde his entire life — he inherited it from his father, who was also an avid horseman.
We zigzag in and out of grassy hills and groves of trees, at one point halting between the strange spider-legs trunk of a towering ficus tree. José insists we take advantage of this photo opp. Pinto seems unsurprised by this strange rest stop.
Soon, the forest gives way to a vista unlike any I’ve seen so far in Costa Rica. The mountains fade into the distance in every direction, each peak embraced by a milky vapor that seems to emanate from the ground up.
We stay and gaze outward while José tells me in Spanish the names of some of the far off mountains. He points in the direction of the Caribbean Sea to the East and, making a whooshing sound, illustrates how the clouds are blown up the side of the Continental Divide. A crashing noise tells me without words that the fog then collides with the cool air of Montederde to form the high, puffy streak along the ridge.
“You are very lucky to live here and see this beautiful view.” I tell my guide in the few Spanish words I know.
He nods, “Si, yo se. Es muy bonita.”
We follow the ridge as the sun deepens in color. Pinto begin to pull at the reigns and I can tell he wants to run.
“Lopé?” José asks. Do I want to gallop?
“Si, ok!” I reply.
Pinto has been waiting for this. I give him slack with the reigns, lean forward in the saddle and urge him on with leg pressure. I don’t have to ask twice. Pinto, only four years old and full of energy, nearly leaps forward in glee and we gallop into the whistling wind, past expansive fields of grass and through beams of dusty light cascading over the hills.
Eventually, we slow and pull up. José glances back to see my reaction, and appears satisfied to see me still grinning in exhileration.
“Si, me gusta! Es muy divertido.”
Our final stop on a high ridge offers a truly spectacular grand finale. The sky has deepened to watercolor brush strokes of plums and magentas. We are quiet; the wind speaks beautiful words for us.
At last, the sun punctures the shadowed horizon of the Cordillera de Tilarán.
As we prepare to walk back, I take one last look at the evening mists floating upward from the valleys with ever greater speed.
It’s as if they were determined to rise high enough to visit the heavens.
Next up: I head north to Mexico!