It was an unusually cold and rainy day for December, but Don Jorge kept urging us to follow him deeper into the forest. Fog coalesced and lingered at the tops of the trees, making it impossible to study the canopy. There were seven us altogether, trudging our way down a steep trail, and our duck boots kept slipping in the mud. Every 500 feet or so we’d have to rest our calves—tight and coiled from the downhill tiptoeing—and all the while Don Jorge, our tireless guide, would cut away some overgrowth with his machete. “Solo unos dies mas minutos,” (“only another 10 minutes”) he assured us, but these promises of “an end in sight” grew less and less convincing after the fifth time they were made.
Nervous and agitated, I realized this wasn’t exactly the hike I had promised my fresh-faced college interns. We’d been working at a nonprofit in San Jose, Costa Rica and after a busy construction season (we were mixing cement and sanding wood all day for new orphanages), I thought it’d be a good reprieve for us to get out of the city and get some fresh air. I suggested a part of Costa Rica I’ve known all my life, a forest I considered a little family secret, hidden in some of the country’s highest mountains—an adventure my grandparents would take me and my siblings on every summer we came to visit them.
Despite the frosty rain and the mud and the cramping muscles, all of which were making our descent into the valley more arduous than usual, when I looked around I saw nothing but glowing faces and wondrous expressions toward the Cerro de la Muerte’s awe-provoking cloud forest: a fairy-scene come to life. There was nothing to worry about.
The Cerro de la Muerte, which translates to “Hill of Death,” got its name long before the mountain pass was paved. Ill-prepared farmers traveling on foot used to freeze to death on the three- to four-day journey through the icy, fog-ribbed forests. After the 1940s, the Cerro also became known as the Inter-American Highway, a road that snakes through part of a mountain range called La Cordillera de Talamanca. If you were to follow the mountains south, you’d eventually end up in Panama.
My Tico grandparents had been taking me to the Cerro de la Muerte way before I ever came to appreciate it. To be fair, any place called the “Hill of Death” isn’t going to end up on many listicles or travel brochures, which would rather promote Costa Rica’s well-known thermal hot-spring getaways or beach retreats. But taking friends through Costa Rica’s rarest and best-preserved cloud forests became the most exciting memories I had of my time living and working there. Nowhere else in the country are you going to find landscape straight out of a Tolkien fairytale or see wildlife that is unique to that part of the world.
Long before Ticos got their hands on boxy Land Cruisers and decided sweaters were a good thing to have in high places, the Cerro was given its shape by a tectonic uplift, which raised and separated La Cordillera de Talamanca from other mountain ranges millions of years ago. This is why the Talamanca has developed a plethora of species of animals and plants endemic only to its Andean-esque woodlands. Home to thousands of species of florae and 200-plus species of birds—50 percent of which are only found in the Cerro—the mountain is a hub particularly for birdwatchers and researching biologists.
Heading south up the Cerro de la Muerte from the Valle Central, in just 30 minutes you’ll start to see enormous oaks vaulting over the road. Coppices of twisted branches drip with moss underneath, while every now and then bushes of brilliant hydrangeas and succulents appear, neatly trimmed in front of the quaint rural homes studding the lower mountainside. Perpetual fogs slip in and out of the forests, ladling into sudden gorges that often yawn forth stunning views. In no time, you’ll be itching to get out of the car and explore.
When I was a kid, hiking through the cloud forest with my siblings felt like entering some of our favorite fantasy books. Taking the interns around the trails gave me that same feeling. Many of them would balk and wonder at how something like this could be in Costa Rica.
Some of the best-known hiking can be found in Los Quetzals National Park, which comes up around mile marker 76. But be warned. The park’s trails can be difficult to access in the rainy season, especially without a car that can really kick it into four-wheel drive.
Personally, my favorite hiking and—just as importantly—my favorite place to take friends for an authentic taste of Costa Rican cooking was always La Georgiana.
Passing Los Quetzals and continuing up the Cerro, you’ll eventually reach the páramo, or the tundra—yes, the tundra. At 11,000 feet above sea level, this is the mountain’s highest point. Descend another 10 minutes, the stunted shrubs will return to being tall and mysterious trees, and at mile marker 95 you’ll see La Georgiana.
It’s a quaint two-story building with a bright-red roof, and it sits right atop a 700-acre cloud forest preserve. Part of the restaurant looks like it’s slipping off the edge of a cliff, but the place is sturdy—I promise. Built 10,000 feet above sea level, La Georgiana is the highest restaurant in Costa Rica and, established in 1947, the oldest on the Cerro de la Muerte.
Inside, the open dining hall is warm from the steaming rice, fresh black beans, and soups. The smell of garlic and cilantro stretches all the way out toward the line of windows along the back of the restaurant, where some customers eat quietly and watch fiery-chested hummingbirds lick up nectar from bright-red feeders.
Last time I was at La Georgiana with my large group of excited interns, we were immediately greeted by the restaurant’s owner, Marco Herrera. Normally he jumps at the chance to show anyone the trails and occasionally likes to prattle away about the tapirs, coyotes, or mushrooms he’s seen lately, but that day the restaurant looked slammed with people leaving the city for the holidays. It was up to Marco’s trusty sidekick, Don Jorge, to show us through the Sendero El Descanso, or the “Trail of Rest.” My interns soon realized that the trail’s name was like some kind of ironic joke, and in the rain it can really be a Slip ’n Slide with the wrong shoes.
The sendero travels far down a gorge between two mountain shoulders that roll out behind the restaurant. Along the way, there are oaks 40 feet high, huge tree ferns that look like something out of “Jurassic Park,” and at the bottom there’s a picturesque little waterfall and a stream you can follow if you’re really feeling adventurous.
I was particularly eager to take the interns down into the valley as Marco had told me that from December to June is the best time to see a quetzal—a crimson-chested bird with a viridescent body of feathers and whose singing is eerily similar to a mockingjay from The Hunger Games. These birds are rare, real gems for birdwatchers, and Marco often sees them low in the valley, singing beside the river.
Though my interns and I didn’t see any quetzales on our little foray, we weren’t discouraged. There were still thousands of species of fungi and wildflowers to see, and every now and then Don Jorge would point out a salamander hiding in succulents or animal tracks—we saw tapir and cougar prints—still fresh in the mud.
“Estos son del macho. Siempre viene en la noche para comer los perros,” (“These are from the male. He always comes at night to eat the dogs.”) Don Jorge laughed, pointing to the cougar tracks.
After our hike with Don Jorge, we warmed up with an essential Costa Rican beverage: agua dulce. Why get coffee when you can have hot water sweetened by thick, raw sugar cane syrup? It’s nostalgia in a cup and warms the soul after a long hike in the cold forest. That day, we had coffee too of course—we needed the pick-me-up. Our table was crammed to the edges with piping hot bowls of olla de carne—a bone broth soup cooked slowly with chayote, yucca, camote, and chunks of beef—gallo pinto (the Tico version of beans and rice), picadillos, tortillas de queso, platanos (fried sweet plantains), and loads and loads of sweet bread. Do not leave La Georgiana without grabbing a bag of their pan dulce.
Eating there in silence was perhaps the best part of our trip. Beyond the line of windows, we’d just sip on our soup, watch the hummingbirds, and sometimes stare at the clouds rolling in and out of the forest while falling into dream-like trances. At some point, Marco came and sat with us. He told us about a group of American scientists who like to come to the Cerro specifically to study a rare type of salamander, and about some ornithologist named David Sibley, who’s written many bird watching books and takes his family to La Georgiana for a chance to see the quetzal.
Little details like that give the Cerro de la Muerte and the cloud forests a sort of romantic charm. Every hike here is like a quest to discover something new. It’s these unique perspectives—the memories you make while experiencing a country apart from what it’s typically known for—that make trips to places like the Cerro de la Muerte completely worth it.