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The Secrets of Cerro de La Muerte

by Michael L. Smith

As the Inter-American highway winds its way through Costa Rica, it traverses a wide variety of landscapes. From less than 300 feet above sea level at the Nicaraguan border, to 11,500 feet on the slopes of the Talamanca Mountain Range, and back down again to below 200 feet, it presents the traveler with a look at several of the many ecosystems in the country. Perhaps the most dramatic stretch runs from Cartago, in the Central Valley, to San Isidro de El General, as it rises from about 5,000 feet through its highest point in Costa Rica at a spot called Cerro de la Muerte or Death Hill.

San Isidro de El General is actually in San José Province. This area, Valle de El General, is a fertile tropical mountain valley with a delightful climate. The newest crop here is oranges, and as the road winds its way down towards the city of San Isidro, it reveals hillsides covered with new groves.

One hundred years ago San Isidro was nothing more than a settlement populated by a hardy breed of pioneers. They survived on what they raised and collected locally--rice, tropical fruits and vegetables, pigs, dairy cattle, corn, coffee, sugar cane--and were basically self sufficient. But for certain goods like clothing, tools and household utensils--manufactured items--they relied on trade with San José.

In those days there was no Inter-American highway. In fact, there was no road of any kind. (The highway came into being as a cart trail in the 1920s.) Valiant men loaded up their backs with 100- and 150-pound sacks of wild blackberries, dried corn and rice, and drove herds of pigs over the mountains to San José on foot. These men, shoeless and wearing little more than one thin shirt and a pair of pants, trudged through the mountains for a month to get their goods to market. There they traded for the much needed tools and utensils and the desired "finer" things available in the big city. After completing their trades they would make the month long journey back to San Isidro loaded down again, this time with the clothes and refined goods that would lend a little civilization to their harsh existence.

The route to San José took them over some of the highest mountains in Costa Rica. It was a treacherous and sometimes frightening way they walked. The most feared spot was one they named Cerro de la Muerte. Death Hill was not named, as one might imagine, for a spot where many men had fallen to their deaths. The area became infamous for the number of brave souls who lost their lives to the bitter cold as they negotiated this 11,500-foot-high section of the trail.

The drive along this stretch is incredible as the foliage changes from the lush greens of a tropical jungle to the stunted, barren growth of a sub-alpine forest. As the highway passes through the 8,000- to 9,000-foot elevations (around marker 70) the cool, wet greenness harbors a forest resident much sought after by visiting tourists. Several farms along this stretch have signs posted to announce their secret. The elusive Quetzal, in full attendance here, is readily viewable. For example, at marker 70 is the Eddie Serrano farm. Eddie was a pioneer in this area, being the first to settle in the untamed forest over 45 years ago with his wife and three children. They survived off the land, cutting trees and dragging them out of the forest with oxen, raising a few dairy cattle and picking wild blackberries. The Inter-American highway was only a gravel road then with one wooden bus running daily between San José and San Isidro.

Today, 69-year-old Eddie, his wife and eight surviving children (they lost seven) continue to work their 100-acre farm. They send 900 pounds of wild blackberries to San José each week, raise rainbow trout to sell in the restaurant in their lodge, and escort tourists along eight trails on their property to see Quetzals. And spotting the emerald green and long flowing tail of a male Quetzal here is a guaranteed proposition--in the mornings they often see fifteen to twenty pairs feeding in the treetops near their home. And only a few hundred feet from their newly built lodge are several Quetzal nests less than 20 feet off the forest floor.

The Cerro is a large area, but the spot recognized by the locals as Death Hill is the peak on which an "antenna farm" has sprouted. At marker 89 is a restaurant called Las Torres (The Towers), across from which is the dirt road up to the towers and a good place to get close to this strange environment. Notice the abundance of water dripping from the rocks--sometimes as miniature falls--and trapped as glistening droplets in the dense carpets of moss.

The view from here is spectacular. No matter which way you turn, you see rocky peaks and lush valleys leading to the horizon. On clear days the Pacific beaches near Manuel Antonio are visible, 25 miles away as the crow flies. On very clear days the Caribbean coast near Limon, over 50 miles distant, can be distinguished.

The flora around Death Hill is bizarre. There are no tall trees, although a great variety of plant life, even bamboo, grows here. But everything is miniaturized. The area is very wet, providing the main ingredient for lush plant growth, but the altitude and mountainous landscape create very cold temperatures and almost constant winds. In this paramo region only hardy, specially adapted species survive, but survive they do. Dozens of colorful lichens and mosses cover every surface. Stunted bushes and grasses seem to thrive, though wildlife is scarce. There are some lizards and insects, but not much else is evident as one walks through the rocky terrain.

San Isidro is only about 85 miles from San José. The 70 miles between Cartago and San Isidro afford a pleasant mountain drive that reveals a lot of the character of the Costa Rican countryside. The highway offers many breathtaking views of wonderfully green valleys and stunning mountainous horizons. If you don't stop along the way, it is about a three-hour drive. If you do stop, you may never get home.

Copyright (c) 1995 by Michael L. Smith. All rights reserved. Please address your comments to Michael L. Smith.

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First Published on the Web on August 19, 1995 by M. L. Smith