Even during a family gap year, when part of the mission is changing up our surroundings and aiming to see life with fresh eyes, we’ve found it easy to settle into routines. We often frequent the same local eateries that serve up Tico or “typical” food as it’s known around here, and our weekend outings tend to focus on the same few trails. Nevertheless, hosting recent family visitors has encouraged us to look at Monteverde with fresh eyes and in the process we’ve discovered some new gems.

Ficus Climbing

One destination we should have visited sooner, and which only requires a quick half hour, is the hollow ficus tree across the road from the Cloud Forest School. Strangler figs—the common name for many varieties of ficus—are a defining feature of Monteverde. They start their growth in the canopy of other trees, their seeds having been dispersed by birds and other animals, and only then send their sinuous roots down to the ground, eventually strangling their host. The result is a trunk formed by a cylindrical web of roots, hollow  inside where the host trunk has since disintegrated.

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Climbing the ficus tree near the Cloud Forest School in Monteverde.

Ficus trees make for wonderful climbing trees, and though we’ve climbed some great strangler figs in the past, we had been slow to make it to this famed ficus which you can climb for at least 50 feet. We’ll undoubtedly be back.

Ziplining and Suspension Bridges

Commercial ziplining originated in Monteverde and many visitors come up to this region with high-speed flying and harnesses in mind. Our family tried ziplining in Guatemala and Nicaragua earlier this year, both of which were fun, but neither compared to the real deal here in Monteverde. My brother and sister-in-law treated us to a ziplining and suspension bridge trip last month. Monteverde is home to several canopy tours, each offering different benefits, but for our interests—seeing lots of primary forest, experiencing cables and suspension bridges, and being confident of our safety—Selvatura Park seemed to be our best bet. We were not disappointed.

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A 6-year-old ziplining through the cloud forest in Monteverde.

The thirteen cables were nicely varied, some passing right through the canopy of the cloud forest and others, like the kilometer-long cable, suspending over an entire valley, offering  expansive views. One of my favorite cables was the very first which passed by narrow, rustic, wooden-platform bridges high in the canopy. We learned the bridges are remnant sets from the filming of Paddington Bear and that this spot represents his original “Peruvian” home. At another cable, our guides were keen to point out that the Tarzan Swing was optional; it involved a free-fall jump from a platform about 20 feet off the ground while wearing an attached rope which first caught us as we fell and then sent us swinging. This was my kids’ favorite among all our stops. My feeling: glad to have done it once; never need to do it again.

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Enjoying views and listening to migrating Bell Birds on Selvatura Park’s suspension bridges.

After zipping, we spent a couple of hours walking three kilometers through the park’s eight suspension bridges, all hung in primary cloud forest neighboring the Santa Elena Reserve. If you’ve been to Monteverde Reserve and love its red bridge with up-close views of treetops covered in epiphytic growth, you’ll absolutely enjoy this walk.

Orchids

You wouldn’t guess that busy downtown Santa Elena is home to a garden with more than 100 blooming orchids, but the Monteverde Orchid Garden is my favorite new discovery. Entry into the garden includes a half-hour tour, during which I learned all sorts of fun facts from our guide, Daniel: orchids originated in Central America; vanilla pods are essentially pregnant orchids or swollen ovaries pollinated during the flower’s fleeting four-hour bloom; orchids are cheater plants, in that they don’t actually offer pollinators any nectar; and dusty orchid seeds contain no sustenance—unlike a chicken egg, for example, which can feed its embryo on the yoke. Each variety of orchid relies on a specific symbiotic fungus throughout its early stage of growth.

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The largest orchid we saw on the tour smelled like rotten meat.

During the tour, we sniffed orchids that smelled like cloves, rotting meat, bubblegum and urine, and we saw orchids shaped like dancers and spiders. Some blossoms were the size of a child’s head and many others were no bigger than the tip of my pencil. Monteverde is said to be home to more orchids per square meter than other place on earth. This is a great garden for learning more about them.

San Luis Fishing

Tucked in the lower San Luis Valley is a small, family-run ecolodge called Rancho de Lelo. Monteverde friends had raved about fishing for their tilapia lunch in the ponds of this farm, and for good reason. The garden is lovely, including Costa Rica’s national orchid festooning the branches of a tree in the front yard. After ordering lunch, we were invited down to one of the family’s three ponds to net fish for our lunch.

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Pulling up our catch of tilapia for lunch at Rancho de Lelo.

Though on the more expensive end of our mid-day budget ($15 per plate), the food was abundant and delicious, and combined with the gorgeous mountain vistas during the drive down to this farm, made for a very memorable half-day outing. On the drive back up to Monteverde, we stopped to play on the wonderful, old-fashioned merry-go-round across from the San Luis Community Center.