Cerro de la Muerte: The Mountain of Death

Part of the Talamanca Mountain range, Cerro de la Muerte is the highest point in Costa Rica and rises 11,000 feet above sea level. Stories were told by our guide of past journeys and unprepared travelers who succumbed to the cold and rainy weather of the mountain, giving the mountain its ominous name. It is our luck that a highway now runs to the mountain’s summit as it gave our group an opportunity to plan a full day hike from the summit.

Because a one-way 10-mile hike would take the entire day, our professors decided we would  start at the top and hike our way down. The bus took us up the winding mountain road and we stopped for a brief moment at an overlook. Supposedly, one could see something of great significance but the cloud cover was thick and we couldn’t see anything, much to the disappointment of Prof J who had looked forward to showing us the view.


Piling quickly back onto the warm bus, we continued our ride up to a point just below the summit where the bus dropped us off and we huddled in packs to keep warm.

It started raining.

Actually, raining is not quite the right word. It started spitting a drizzle that was cold and infused with whipping wind.   Propelled by his desire to not push us through a rain-soaked hike, Prof J wanted to turn back. As an intense non-lover of rain-soaked hikes, I certainly appreciated the effort to avoid such an experience; however, Prof D convinced his fellow chaperon that we could, in fact, find it in our biology-loving hearts to make the trek down Cerro de la Muerte.

So we hiked.


The first part of our hike began at the summit and followed a barren trail through the paramo habitat. Characterized by cold temperatures, harsh slopes, and short shrubs, I could hardly catch my breath. My inner voice rang constant reminders to stay calm and breathe, reminding myself that I was heading down the mountain to more oxygen. Picking my way carefully over wet rocks and around damp shrubs, I saw no sign of wildlife. This part of the hike was quick, cloudy, windy, and cold.

Cerro 1

As we began to move into the transitional forest, the cloud cover began to dissipate and we were afforded incredible views of the valley. I turned a corner to unexpectedly see a rainbow arching over the trees ahead and it was in this moment I thought of Ben.

Benjamin LaMontagne passed away February 22, 2014 and every day I wear the bracelet his mother (my friend) gave me in remembrance of him. The purple and gold bracelet with the words “Remember Ben” inscribed on the top is a daily reminder to not only remember that Ben lived but to also live every moment of our lives in honor of him. When I rounded the corner of the trail and saw the valley, felt the sunshine, glimpsed the rainbow, I thought of Ben and took a moment to reflect on his life well lived.

Cerro 2


“Wait until you see the golden moss,” Prof D said. “You will feel such euphoria.” Considering the lack of cloud cover and small amounts of sunshine, the golden moss was not quite as euphoric as one would have hoped; however, it was quite a sight to see.

Golden Moss

Our guide thought it would be amusing to wear the moss as cover and hide himself amongst the trees:

Golden Moss Luis

Other photos from the incredible hike down Cerro de la Muerte:

Roble Cerro 4Roble Oak

Cerro 5

Cerro 3

A Song to Costa Rica

There comes a point (at least for me) in a long hike when I am simply moving without thought, shuffling my feet forward and hypnotized by the rhythm of the walk. The tall oak trees rose above me and birds called (though I did not see them). This is the moment I remember when our guide started singing and his song carried us down the mountain. 

He sang:
“Que linda es mi Costa Rica
la virgen de los Angeles bajo
y como la vio tan bonito
as cielo jamas regreso…”

And I listened.
“What beautiful is my Costa Rica
The virgin of the angels came
and it see so beautiful it never came back
Because it is so beautiful
They call it the Central America Switzerland.”

It is indeed beautiful.

Next time we leave Savegre Valley and head south towards Drake Bay and Corcovado!

Heading to Savegre Valley

After an early breakfast, we packed up the bus and headed southeast, along the Pan American Highway, towards the first place we would visit: Savegre Valley near Cerro de la Muerte, one of Costa Rica’s highest peaks.  As we drove the 2-hour drive, we got our first glimpses of Costa Rica in the daylight.  Distant mountains hugged the route, peek-a-booing views of the country and valley and giving us brief photographic moments…




Over the next few weeks, we would learn a bit about the history of Costa Rica…

  • Though “discovered” (I use the word loosely) by Columbus in 1502, Costa Rica remained largely ignored by Spanish conquerors  because of its lack of gold and silver, extreme heat, and dense jungle.
  • Colonists successfully settled in the central highlands of Cartago in 1563.
  • Costa Rica became a fully independent country in 1838.
  • In 1949, Costa Rica ended a 44-day Civil War, adopted a new Constitution, and abolished its military.

“But Melissa,” you’re asking, “what do you mean they abolished their military?!”

I mean it as simply as I can put it: There is no army.  In 1949, President Jose Figueres took the keys of a San Jose military fort and handed them to the Minister of Education, setting off a series of events that would ultimately redirect the military’s budget toward healthcare, education, and environmental protection.

We learn there are local police but no national defense force and, over the next 2 weeks, we see that the military budget has been well spent: well-directed investments in land preservation and ecological sustainability where nature thrives, a country-wide emphasis and appreciation for free, quality education, and a high literacy rate of 96%.


The road into the valley was bumpy, narrow, and winding but afforded us magnificent views of colorful homes, bright gardens, grazing horses, and children playing.

Costa Rica 005

Our guide stopped the bus and encouraged us to walk the final mile into the valley so we could experience more of our surroundings.

Costa Rica 001

Costa Rica 009

Costa Rica 002       Costa Rica 003

When we arrived at the Trogon Lodge, we were greeted by colorful flowers, tall oaks, and cerro-de-la-muerte lording over the valley.  A small river wound its way amongst the rocks in the valley and fresh trout (caught fresh every afternoon for dinner) swam in the fish pond.



Costa Rica 010


After settling in to our cabins, our professors and guide led us on our first hike: Cataratas Hike.  The river roared next to us as we made our way along the well-made (though not well-marked) trails.  While I felt comfortable walking quickly, I was intensely aware of this one-chance opportunity to truly BE in this place at this time so I slowed my steps to look, listen, take pictures, and truly enjoy the experience of hiking in the rain forest.  An additional benefit to walking in the back was walking with Prof D, whose extensive knowledge of botany and Costa Rica always provided an interesting learning experience.


Costa Rica 023

How quickly the weather changed in the Valley.  I must have taken off my long-sleeve shirt 15 times.

Costa Rica 027

Costa Rica 024

On the way back to the bus, I stopped to take a picture and, when I looked back up, I realized I was alone.  Not truly: I knew there was a pack of hikers in front of me and a pack of hikers behind me but I was thankful for this brief, private moment in this beautiful part of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica 026


Black Vulture: Spotted 2 Black Vultures in the air…circling and soaring…very impressive wingspans.

Bromeliads: 3,170 species…The flowering plant can take on different shapes/colors.

Tree Ferns: To see ferns as trees fascinated me on this day and every time I saw them throughout the entire trip.

Angel’s Trumpet or “Reina de la Noche”: Intensely fragrant…Grown as a yard ornament…Highly poisonous and hallucinogenic…Known to induce a period of intense violence and temporary insanity (though I have no experience to back up this claim).  Indigenous people used the plant medicinally as well as for divination with ancestors.


Costa Rica 006

Trogon Lodge

My San Jose roommate and I were paired together once again in a small wooden cabin with 2 comfortable beds, a private bathroom, and an outside porch with rockers and chairs.  As long as the wind wasn’t throwing the hot water switch out, there was plenty of hot water in the bathrooms (this would be the last HOT shower I would take for many days as we were headed to a place where I could never quite figure out which showers offered the hot water).  A small heating unit in each bedroom was lit by the staff every evening and provided cozy warmth throughout the entire night.  The view out our window was of another cabin up on the hill and colorful flowers lining a pathway.

Other facilities on the grounds included a conference room, gift shop (where I shopped for my island middle school girls), and a bar and game room.

WHERE WE ATE: Trogon Lodge Dining Room “El Quetzal”

The food served at the Trogon Lodge Restaurant was most certainly some of the most yummy food we would have during our 2-week stay in Costa Rica.  The food was fresh, homemade, and absolutely delicious.  Hanging outside the dining room were hummingbird feeders and after our first lunch we spent a while watching them flit in and out and enjoying a bit of lunch with us.

I found out the Trogon Lodge can accommodate special menus for any dietary restriction you may have, as long as they are informed in advance of your needs.  Each of our meals was served buffet style.

Next post: We go on an early morning search for the Resplendent Quetzal.