There is a rainbow in the sky. And it leads to Monteverde, Costa Rica. This magical community in the cool misty cloud forest has prospered since its founding by the Quakers in 1951. Their search for peace brought 11 families (40 Quakers) from Fairhope, Alabama in the USA to the mountains of Costa Rica to “live simply so others may simply live.” Having no military, Costa Rica was a perfect match made under a perfect rainbow. Lucky for all.
Let’s take a moment to step back and soak in this green lush landscape. Rolling hills. Floating clouds. And those magical rainbows. The pot of gold is its exquisite beauty, rich in Monteverde views with endless streaks of color in the sky. A sense of serenity amidst the horizontal rain. I call it a tropical Scotland. Romantic. Rugged. Raw and Rare.
The town of Monteverde is spread out over these hills, covering the mountains like a gentle blanket. The vibe is calm. But there is a lot to do here.
Throw in butterfly gardens, frog ponds, night tours, suspension bridges, ecotourism, the adjacent tourism town of Santa Elena, and even a cheese factory. And most notably the famous Cloud Forest Reserve. Result = Paradise.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a botanist’s wonderland. Everyone deserves to feel the splendor, cool, majestic expanse of the world’s most renowned cloud forest at least once in her/his lifetime. Jurassic Park size plants sprout everywhere along the cool, brown pathways, reaching hundreds of feet upwards towards those rainbows above. Bucket list material.
Did I mention that at the beginning of my Cloud Forest walk the guide asked us what we would like to see the most? I eagerly replied a Queztal since it was on the cover of my Costa Rica guidebook. And then pushed my luck for a Toucan as my second choice. Maybe it was the rainbow in the sky. Or the lucky pot of gold hidden in this rich heaven earth, but both my wishes miraculously came true! Mesmerizing colors in feather form appeared. Lesson learned – ask for what you dare to dream. Especially whilst standing under a magical rainbow in Monteverde.
Even the insects are beautiful here - where scorpions glow turquoise florescent in the dark under blue light and are not lethal to humans.
Now here is the real question…how did this town get here? At 4,600 feet even the cooking needs to be adjusted to the altitude. They used wood stoves at the time of its founding and daily challenges echoed the living conditions of those first settlers. No running water. No electricity. But gorgeous nature. So Monteverde’s magic prevailed!
Flashback to a compulsory military draft in the USA in 1950 during the Korean War. Conscientious Objectors. CPS camps (Civilian Public Service) required everyone to participate in some form of service, even if they refused to go into the military.
Fates’ twists and turns. Meet John Campbell. He is a dignified man. But ended up working in a mental hospital in Williamsburg, VA for 2 years as part of the CPS program (for the record he had the luck of also meeting Winston Churchill at that mental hospital). Twist. John Campbell gets acquainted with a fellow worker and falls in love with that man’s sister. Turn. John Campbell marries the sister and they start a family. Twist. One fine day someone introduces them to an organic school and farm community lead by educator Marietta Johnston who was “way ahead of her time.” Families moved from across the USA to be near her. Turn. John Campbell moves his family to Fairhope, Alabama in order to educate his own children under Marietta’s guidance. Pause. All if fine and well for a while. Then Twist. The pressure for all men to join the military and increasing ostracism of the Quaker community in Alabama becomes severe. Turn. It is time for a change. Twist. 11 families in the Quaker community decide to relocate outside the USA. Turn. But where?
We all know the answer.
Flash forward. It is now 1951. Time to move. Considerations of Mexico and other places were debated before a cattle boat trip over to Costa Rica ensued. Like William Penn settling in Pennsylvania, the Quakers were in search of a place that supported religious freedom. Costa Rica matched all their criteria. And no military meant that this issue would never become a point of contention down the road (Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948). So Costa Rica it was!
First a 3-month trip from the USA to Costa Rica. Then a 6-month expedition looking for just the right spot. A careful balancing act that landed on the top of that green mountain. Thus the name Monteverde (meaning green mountain in Spanish). A combination of cost and keeping the community together determined the chosen location.
Discovery. There is a lot of lore about exactly how the land was “found.” One story profits that a real estate local on the lookout glanced out the window of a plane while flying over the green mountains and spotted the magic spot. Suffice it to say that after 6 months in limbo, the time for a new home was now. And remember that each family had a different economic budget. So luckily that scout found just the “right” land when patience was starting to run thin and money was getting low.
Let’s climb that mountain! So after an 8-hour horseback ride and oxcart trip above the Pan-American highway and past the Aranjuez River, the new community arrived. And with it came monthly potlucks, May 1st baskets, and sugar cookies. Yum. The tradition of “raising homes” where the entire community helps build what is needed still continues today. In fact, on my recent visit, a new building was almost ready for its big day. A timber frame with 1297 beams and no screws or bolts would be the new Quaker Meeting House. It really is an admirable, supportive way of life.
Say cheese! After settling in Monteverde, the Quakers needed to figure out a way to support themselves. Luckily John Campbell had an idea. Cheese. Lots of it. Yellow. White. Brown. More yellow. Made from local milk. Brought into the factory on horse cart. There was a consensus and the Quaker community backed his vision. So today Monteverde is renowned for its cheese factory. Go local meets Sci-Fi on these historic daily tours! Today, the factory looks like a set design from a Hollywood film shoot. But it is the real deal and the cheese tasting at the end of the tour is delish. I also must add that the ice cream in the dairy shop at the entrance to the factory alone is worth a trip up this unpaved mountain.
John Campbell’s daughter Ruth Beech was kind enough to meet with me at her lovely hotel El Establo, where I stayed for a few nights, and we ate the most delicious homemade rolls with pure butter and jam (and cheese, of course). The hotel lobby is lined with black and white settler photos taken by John Campbell and I spotted a couple with the young Ruth.
El Establo is one of the only Quaker owned hotel establishments in Monteverde, in addition to a backpacker Pension Santa Elena (with an adjoining Taco Stand). There also used to be a Quaker homestay option but the owner recently died at over 100.
The architecture at El Establo is simple and sturdy. The walls are so thick that the internet works in common areas only – which creates a nice low-key social scene. There are 155 rooms and I stayed in a lovely duplex overlooking the hills where rainbows appeared on cue each morning when I woke up. On its property El Establo offers zip lining as well as night tours featuring scary nocturnal animals with glowing eyes. Two pools, basketball courts, and nearby bridge walks round out the entertainment options.
El Establo also features a new spa and acclaimed restaurant overlooking a gorgeous pond. Laggus is worth it in every culinary and atmospheric way – the cuisine, décor, and unusual creatures peeking in the balcony windows add magical allure. Let me put it this way – I spent 4 hours on a challenging hike in sweltering heat to find a Coati before arriving in Monteverde and dining at Laggus. Then in the middle of my delicious entre in this El Establo restaurant, a raccoon-like animal appeared on the other side of the glass. Lo and behold it was a Coati. Just hanging out. Easy. Beats a hike in the heat!
What happened to the Quaker community since its settlement over a half-century ago? Flash forward to 2013.
It is interesting to learn from Sister Ruth Beech that kids who were ages 4 and up when their families settled in Monteverde ended up moving back to the USA. In contrast, most of the younger children and babies born in Monteverde stayed here. So the Quaker community has maintained about 65 members since its arrival in 1951. Intermarriage with Catholics and other local religions has distanced some members from the core – although once a Quaker always a Quaker.
Quakers never swear and are excused from swearing on the bible in court. There is a deep-rooted connection to its values and honesty. They believe the truth must always be told.
And truth be told, the Quaker community, influence and impact on Monteverde has helped establish it as one of the premiere destinations in Costa Rica. So climb that mountain and see what it is all about!
One of my favorite Quaker sayings is, “People who are happiest are people who need the least to be happy”
Ironically in the oasis of Monteverde, there is the most! The most beautiful cloud forest. The most loving Quaker community. The most stunning view in the world. After all, it is somewhere under the rainbow.
El Establo Mountain Resort
El Establo Restaurant - Laggus
Pension Santa Elena
Original b&w photos by John Campbell
Photos and Feature by Jodi Kaplan copyright 2013