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High on the ridge above the coastal plain are the town of Santa Elena, and the adjacent farming colony and cloud-forest reserve of Monteverde. Costa Rica is rich in montane tropical rain forest of the type included in the Monteverde reserve - the forest atop the volcano Poás is one example, and is much more accessible.

The slow ascent to Monteverde offers spectacular views, the rolling, pastured countryside is idyllic and even spiritually uplifting, and the reserve is large. The inns in the area invite the visitor to linger and explore the forest, or relax in the fresh mountain air.

The Monteverde farming colony was founded on April 19, 1951, by Quakers from Alabama, some of whom had been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the U.S. armed forces. There were only oxcart trails into the area at the time, and the trucks and tractors of the settlers had to be winched up the mountains.

Land was laboriously cleared, and the colony eventually found some prosperity in dairy farming. Monteverde cheeses now have a solid share of the Costa Rican market. Over the years, some of the original families moved on, while non-Quakers bought land in the area. Monteverde is now a mixed, largely English-speaking community.

The original settlers set aside 2,500 hectares of land to protect native plant life, even as it was being destroyed by clearing in other parts of the colony. A private foundation, the Tropical Science Center, now administers the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Government protection has been afforded to the rare species found at Monteverde, including the golden toad (sapo dorado), which is known to live only in rain pools in the vicinity.

The area of the reserve has been expanded to 10,000 hectares (22,000 acres) by the purchase of adjacent lands, some of which had been farmed but are now being allowed to return to their natural state. Another 5,000 hectares comprise the Children’s Tropical Forest (Bosque Eterno de los Niños). These protected areas now form the core of the 110,000-hectare Arenal Regional Conservation Unit, stretching along the Pacific backbone of Costa Rica.

The Monteverde cloud forest is created by winds, particular temperature and moisture conditions, and mountainous topography, which combine during the dry season to hold a steady cloud cover along the continental divide.

During the rainy season, of course, the forest receives its full share of precipitation from storms blowing up from the coast. The rains, and the moisture in the air, nourish trees and plants rooted in the ground, as well as many plants that live at the upper levels of the forest, and take their nutrients directly from the mist and dust that that pass through the air.

The result is an enchanted, fairy-tale environment, where trees are laden with orchids, bromeliads, mosses and ferns that obscure their branches, where the moisture and mild temperatures and sunlight filtered by the forest canopy encourage the exuberance of begonias, heliconias, philodendron and many other tropical plants in every available space on the ground.

Of over 400 bird species, the most notable is the quetzal, with its long arc of tail feathers. It nests in the trunks of dead trees. Other visually spectacular species include the three-wattled bellbird, the great green macaw, the bare-necked umbrellabird, and the ornate hawk-eagle. Assorted trogons in addition to the quetzal inhabit the reserve, along with more than 30 varieties of hummingbird. About 500 kinds of butterfly are found. Among the more than 100 mammalian species are howler, white-faced faced and spider monkeys; coatis and their cousins, raccoons, and pumas, ocelots, jaguars, tapirs, and kinkajous. Some of these may be seen scurrying for cover as you walk through their territory.