(due to lack of internet access, this post was not published until Feb. 15)
It’s 4:20 a.m. on our last day in Cuericí, and all is dark and quiet. Careful not to wake my bunkmates, I slip into field clothes and tiptoe downstairs, where two other classmates and our TA are standing, groggy-eyed but ready for adventure. Armed with headlamps and lots of layers, we’ve decided to make the trek through the oak forest up to a lookout point to watch the sunrise over the Talamanca Mountains.
A hike up a mountain in the temperate zone doesn’t tend to feel taxing until an hour or so into it, but five minutes up even a moderately steep slope in the montane oak forest and your legs are as sore as if you’ve just run a 5K. Your lungs and heart feel like they’re working much harder than they need to be, and the chilly early-morning air is hard on your throat. Nonetheless, our excitement to see the sunrise powers us up the mountain.
The oak forest before 5 a.m. isn’t much to speak of. During the day you can see the ribbon-like, aquamarine tail feathers of the Resplendent Quetzal float and flutter between branches, or hear the warblers singing from the trees. But now, through the darkness, all that is heard is the babble from the creek that runs down the mountain (and provides water to the towns below). No birds, not even insects grace our path. We reach the lookout point having made excellent time; it’s still dark and the mountain line can just barely be seen against the moonlit navy sky.
Once we’ve had time to catch our breath, we bundle up in the layers previously shed while making the hike. The town of San Isidro is dressed in lights, filling the valley between the mountains. One distant mountain peak is draped in a cloud that pours down over its slope, giving it the appearance of a glacier. We watch as a much closer cloud engulfs us from all sides, picking up moisture over the forest and funneling down to the valley below.
The first shreds of light make their way over the far ridge at about 5:15. The sky has a faint pinkish hue, and soon we can see that there is another set of silhouetted mountains beyond the first. Ten minutes later we start to see the dark green foliage of the trees scattered below us. While dancing around to stay warm, we notice some of our “glacier” start to melt away. By 5:37 the sun has crept high enough to drop golden dollops over the trees and valley. Then, out of the silence, a single finch sounds from the shrub behind us. Within seconds other birds of all different species are joining in—morning has arrived.
On the hike back down, spots of sun breaking through the trees light our path. Many birds are up and about, including the female quetzal perched precisely where we’d spotted her mate the day before. When we arrive at the station, we look up and see that the remnants of our glacier mountain still linger. Full of accomplishment and content, we slip into the cabin a few minutes before 6:30, just as the rest of our classmates are gathering for breakfast.