The Happiness Equation at Valle Escondido

It is June in Santa Elena, Costa Rica, and we are in our hotel room at Valle Escondido (‘Hidden Valley’). The rain pours in sheets off of the tin metal roof, and I find myself wondering: just how much water can the sky hold? Funny enough, I know the answer to that. In numerical climate models, we can calculate something called precipitable water. This is a measure of how much water we would have pooling at our feet if the sky opened up and dropped everything at once. In the Tropics it’s somewhere around 6-10 centimeters. In the firehose of water pounding the pavement outside the window, I believe that’s an accurate estimate.

The entrance to Valle Escondido Preserve and hotel.

This is the rainy season, after all, and there is a deluge almost every afternoon – especially if the morning has been clear and sunny. The rainforest that carpets the mountains all around us is a huge reservoir of water. Heat from bright morning sunlight lifts that water to fill up clouds that engulf us each afternoon. The humidity climbs close to 100% as the rain begins to fall. Surprisingly, it can feel a little chilly, with temperatures in the mid-60’s. Most people think that a tropical forest might leave you dripping with sweat, but here in the cloud forest, it’s not that hot. The rain makes me happy. It reminds me I’m not in Colorado – and that it’s still raining somewhere on this earth.

A giant strangler fig at Valle Escondido Preserve.

Valle Escondido Hotel is tucked away at the end of a gravel road, down a steeply sloping hill from the main road that connects the village of Santa Elena to the Monteverde Reserve, a few kilometers away. Twenty years ago, I remember the main road as a mud and gravel mess with deep ditches along the side to funnel the torrential rain. But it has long since been paved and lined with sidewalks most of the way to the park.

Along this road are several private cloud forest reserves, and Valle Escondido is one of the largest. It has a permaculture farm, a budding sustainable hotel, and several miles of trails through the forest along the edge of a steep, forested canyon cloaked in frothy waterfalls. The hotel is comfortable, but not posh. While there has been a hotel here for decades, under fairly new ownership, it is undergoing a transformation. The ultimate goal is to maximize sustainability at the hotel, protect the adjacent nature reserve and establish a permaculture education center. There is a small coffee plantation and a tilapia pond. Veggies and leafy greens growing onsite supply the farm-to-table restaurant, and the hotel already hosts workshops on permaculture, one of which was underway when we arrived. Each morning groups of people wandered the premises with notebooks and laptops studying the arrangement of the gardens.

The trails at Valle Escondido lead to a number of platforms that overlook the river canyon.

The owner, who we met one drizzly night as we waited for our dinner, hopes to attract families. There is a large grassy area and pond stretching out from the restaurant and reception area with expansive views of the Gulf of Nicoya in the west. It was designed as a place to let kids run, play and explore, and nearly every night, there were kids burning energy on that field.

Valle Escondido served as our base for exploring the area. We had our best forest experience in Monteverde, but our best wildlife experiences were at the smaller private reserves at Curicancha, and at Valle Escondido. Curicancha sits on the outskirts of Monteverde Reserve and consists mostly of restored, secondary growth rainforest – but it can be a hotspot for wildlife. The challenge, when you’re not accustomed to spending your days staring through the rainforest, is to spot anything at all.

Hiring a guide for a morning was well worth the money. Most local guides have spent half their lives watching the forest and can anticipate what we might see before anything emerges from the draping green vines in the thick canopy overhead. Thanks to our guide – and a great deal of luck – within half an hour at Curicancha we saw toucans, an oropendola, and a bellbird. We also heard crested guans in the distance – but we wouldn’t have known that on our own. He also helped us spot the elusive kinkajou – a distant relative to a raccoon who usually only comes out at night.

Our best monkey sighting happened to be on our own, however, on a walk through Valle Escondido preserve. A rustling in the trees caught my attention – then a flick of a tail – and finally, a white-faced monkey peeked at us through the leaves. There was a whole troop of them passing across the reserve, maybe a dozen or so, a couple of them with babies clinging to their backs. They nibbled as they moved, sometimes stopping to groom each other. We watched from below and followed them along the trail until they moved off downslope and away from us.

Stairs leading up from the waterfall along the trail at Valle Escondido Reserve.

The restaurant at Valle Escondido was always the best place to end the day. It offered healthy, yummy foods and the perfect place to watch the clouds roll in. We would go up to the patio as the afternoon rains began to let up, and often found ourselves to be the first people there. There are actually plenty of restaurants in the nearby town of Santa Elena, but Valle Escondido was so peaceful, we didn’t want to leave the hotel. We also liked the fact that we knew we could eat in the open air (you know, COVID is still a thing).

One night we were the only diners. The clouds rolled thick and fast up the mountain and over us and brought a misty rain at sunset. The mist swirled around us under the lights of the restaurant. I had ordered a wood-fired garden pizza, with pumpkin sauce and arugula and a strawberry-watermelon-papaya smoothie. There was cake for desert – moist and sweet with deep, dark chocolate. I couldn’t believe a piece of frosted chocolate cake could make me feel so happy. But I also know there is an equation to happiness, and this was only a piece of that.

The view of the Nicoya Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean from the reception area and restaurant at Valle Escondido.

Happiness = (Dinner in a restaurant – because there haven’t been many of those in the past couple years) + (Being in Costa Rica) + (Being the only diners) + (Watching clouds roll in from the Pacific) + (Chocolate) + (Being with my best friend)

Sometimes it’s that simple.

The happiness equation. QED.

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