They call it an Elfin forest because it looks like something from a fairy tale — an ecosystem that is not quite of this world. High above 1500 meters, the wind batters the landscape and keeps the trees from reaching for the sky, so nothing grows beyond a half dozen feet above the ground or so. The trees are stunted, twisted; their branches snake among each other and form a tangle, making the passage through impossible. It is generally always raining, or misting, and the water collects in pools at the bases of the tree trunks, sheltered on the forest floor and safe out of the driving wind. It is at these places that the Golden Toads once gathered during their breeding season to find a mate and to deposit the beginnings of a future generation in the calm, still waters of the pools.
I have never been to the specific places where the Golden Toads were known to gather— few living people have. The trail that once led there through the protected forest of the Preserve has been closed for decades, and the trees on either side of the path have conspired to entwine themselves across the empty spaces; they are the living guardians of the lost species’s history.
The closest that the average visitor can get is the ventana at the continental divide; from there, you can look down onto the Atlantic slope, into the vast expanse of forest that makes up the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. On the other side is the drier and more developed Pacific slope, slipping down into the Nicoya Gulf. If you were to continue on, however, balancing your way across the spine of the mountain range, you would, eventually, find yourself standing in the places where the Golden Toads once gathered for their breeding rituals. They converged around the pools of collected water at the bases of the stunted trees, abandoning the safety of their subterranean homes to mate and to deposit eggs in the cool and shallow water before vanishing once again. It might be that these pools do not exist today; then again, perhaps they do.
I have hiked to other places in Monteverde close to 1500 meters; I have seen small pools of water that gather on the Elfin forest floor when the rains come, and I have waited there and inspected the shallow pools for any sign of tadpoles, for any indication that the Golden Toads have, against all odds, returned. But so far, my searches have come up unsuccessful. According to the locals, the toads were never found outside of a 4-square-mile patch of forest — only about one-tenth the size of Disney World— along the ridge-line in the Cloud Forest Preserve. I cannot help but wonder: how could the distribution of a species be so limited? Is it possible that there are other places in Monteverde— other pieces of the Elfin forest— where an undiscovered population of the Golden Toad might still survive?