Into the Brillante: Part I

It’s been two weeks since we arrived in Monteverde to begin our search for the Golden Toad. We arrived to heavy rains that began each day before or shortly after noon, foreshadowing a wet two months and optimum conditions for Golden Toad breeding activities. These nearly mythical amphibians spend the vast majority of their lives underground, emerging only for a few days out of the year when the first rains fill hidden pools in the high elfin forest. If any Golden Toads survived the effects of climate change, chytrid fungus, and human activity, these are the conditions that would bring them to the surface once again. These waters were a rain of renaissance. 

Misty Monteverde

Misty Monteverde

Pri and I spent our first week in Monteverde meeting with local residents knowledgable about the Golden Toad's history, and scheduling interviews with scientists and conservationists for later in the summer. We also ventured onto some of the trails that we used to frequent during the years we’d lived in Monteverde, to survey the damage from last year’s hurricane; these places were almost unrecognizable. I had intended to take Pri through some of my favorite forest in the world, which she had not passed through in years, but when we made the climb up into the elfin forest above the Biological Station, all the old trees that had hugged the trail were gone— blown over and torn into a hundred pieces by the storm. We picked our way through the rubble like a war zone and took a shortcut to the road to make it home before the rains came in. We spent that night charging camera batteries and leaning over our topo maps of Monteverde in the warm glow of our cabin lights, tracing the continental divide with our fingers and doing all we could to read between the lines. Nowhere on our map appeared the word Brillante, but we knew that it was there.

The Reserve has erased the Brillante from its public maps, but the hidden trail continues on along the Continental Divide past  La   Ventana

The Reserve has erased the Brillante from its public maps, but the hidden trail continues on along the Continental Divide past La Ventana

In the books that I’d been pouring over for the last few months, I’d read that the Brillante trail wound through the patch of elfin forest in which the Golden Toads were most consistently observed in the 1970s and 80s, and the Brillante is often reported to be one of the last locations in which the Golden Toad was ever seen. The trail has been closed to the public for decades, and a ranger from the Reserve walks it maybe six or seven times a year at most. Otherwise, the forest remains unentered. After talking through our project with officials at the Reserve and the local residents who recalled when the Golden Toads were plentiful along the trail, Pri was able to secure permission for us to enter the Brillante.

On Thursday, we awoke before dawn to get our gear together and to hike up to the Cloud Forest Reserve. It was a cold morning and so we dressed in layers, with raincoats in our packs and rubber boots on our feet — we had no idea what the long-shuttered trail might have in store for us. We met our two guides— Juan and Alvaro, long-time rangers at the Reserve— just before 7am, and they led us along the Camino trail— a long wide path that had once served as a horse road— and up to the Continental Divide. My rain boots— a size too small— rubbed the skin off my heel with every step we took along the wet, slick trail; it was going to be a trying day. 

One of the public trails snaking through the Cloud Forest Reserve

One of the public trails snaking through the Cloud Forest Reserve

The trailhead for Brillante is almost impossible to find if you don’t know where to look for it. I had heard the trail referred to (although not by name) by local guides many times on my solo hikes in the Reserve. They would stand on the wooden platforms that made up the Ventana overlooking the developed Pacific and virgin Atlantic slopes and say things like, “And there is where the Golden Toad was found, before it went extinct…” The trouble was that they never made any real indication of where, exactly, “there” was; I could not count the times that I leaned over the handrail of the Mirador and squinted into the forest further up the ridgeline of the Continental Divide, where you can just barely make out a sign that reads “No Ingresar” half-swallowed by the trees and clouds. 

On a clear day, you can see the ridge-line that the Brillante trail follows along the Continental Divide

On a clear day, you can see the ridge-line that the Brillante trail follows along the Continental Divide

When we arrived at the Ventana with our two guides on Thursday morning, we were entirely alone. The tourists and sightseers had not yet made it to this farthest point in the Reserve— the place that they would stand to squint into the misty distance, snap some pictures, and then abandon because there was nowhere else to go but back. The trailhead of the Brillante waits like a treasure buried in the mossy wall of forest. We watched Juan slip between the curtains of flora and hesitated, not sure exactly where it was he’d gone. “Should we follow him?” Pri asked, and Alvaro, grinning, nodded yes. 

Pri pushed her way inside and I followed her, and within a couple seconds, the way we’d come was lost and the curtain of the forest closed again. We started walking up the ridgeline and into the Brillante

IMG_8897.JPG

To be continued...