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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Costa Rica’s Moon Run highlights Monteverde’s hidden side

MONTEVERDE, Puntarenas — As they race this daunting, 62-kilometer ultramarathon, there’s a small stretch where the runners are required to do the most counterintuitive thing imaginable: walk.

Participants in Saturday’s Moon Run in Monteverde had to stroll along the 150-meter-long hanging bridge that drapes over the brilliant canopy of one of the world’s rare cloud forests like a string made of metal, so as not to shake it.

“If they’re caught running here they could be disqualified,” said freelance photographer and fourth generation Monteverde native Félix Salazar, who has covered the race annually since its inception here five years ago.

Besides a few athletes looking for record times, it’s hard to see why anyone would want to rush across this scenic bridge without first taking in the intense onrush of nature around them. A blue hummingbird chased butterflies through the maze of leaves and branches that swayed underneath. Early morning clouds motored on at the same tranquil pace of the runners on the bridge, and each runner seemed to be smiling and joking as they passed by.

“Another tough day at the office,” one runner joked before he advanced from the bridge and descended back into a vegetation so dense that any trace of his figure disappeared in seconds. Within the forest at the privately owned Selvatura Park, runners were greeted with mud-ridden paths that quickly turned swamp-like and large fallen branches that impeded their pace.

Quetzals flitted in front of the path as if to cheer the runners on, while echoing cries from wild hogs and monkeys rang through the mist. The route created just for the race was far off the paved steps of the park’s visitor trail and is normally off-limits, as are most of the non-paved trails in Selvatura and other area reserves.

“That’s the biggest complaint about Monteverde is that so many of its reserves are restricted from the average traveler,” Salazar said. “The runners get to see a whole different side of this place.”

From Selvatura’s cloud forest reserve, runners then proceeded west towards the remote mountain town of La Florida de Tilarán where they were met with a punishing climb that foreshadowed a 10-kilometer circuit of steep hillside track.

(Courtesy of Unlimited Productions)
(Courtesy of Unlimited Productions)

Atop the copper-colored, rocky hill, a pair of falcons soared at eye-level. Marching legs churned towards the menacing loop of narrow dirt trail carved through these chains of mountains that no one seems to know the names of. Here, during what most runners described as the hardest part of the ultramarathon, Moon Run co-founder and Monteverde native Andrés Vargas snapped pictures and shouted encouraging words at the runners. With a mural of flowering clouds and wavy green hills behind him, the curly-haired 36-year-old said this race was partly designed to offer up an often-hidden side of Monteverde.

“They see what 99 percent of tourists aren’t going to see,” Vargas said. “It’s a totally virgin area and they’re passing through the same tracks that tapirs or pumas come through. There is flora and fauna that exist here in Monteverde that aren’t in any other place in the world.”

Amanda Zuniga/The Tico Times
Amanda Zuniga/The Tico Times

Vargas should know. Afterall, he was born and raised in these mountains and mapped out the courses for the 62-kilometer ultramarathon, the 42-kilometer marathon and the 22-kilometer adventure race, among other shorter races that took place Saturday. Vargas first hiked from Monteverde to Arenal volcano when he was 12, giving him an intimate knowledge of the terrain.

“I was raised between the moss and the mud,” Vargas said. “I had spent some time away from Monteverde for awhile, but still I always felt connected to the mountain.”

The initial Moon Run was held in Dominical in 2008 and started in the afternoon so that runners would finish after sunset, hence the event’s name. But in search of better infrastructure — and because of Vargas’ ties to his hometown — the race began to be held in Monteverde two years later. “There the seed was planted,” he said.

This year, because of troubles securing permits from public agencies like the Public Works and Transport Ministry to race on public roads after dark, the races were done almost entirely during the day for the first time.

Amanda Zuniga/The Tico Times
Amanda Zuniga/The Tico Times

Despite the bureaucratic hiccup, akin to having to change the Super Bowl from Sunday, Sergio Sánchez, who co-founded the event with Vargas, said it gave the opportunity for participants to fully take in one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful locales.

“That’s the whole objective of this — to show off Monteverde as it really is,” Sánchez said. “They’re going through the most internal parts of the forest and there you get a very up-close relationship with this nature that not a lot of people get to ever see.”

Sánchez, whose company Unlimited Productions hosts adventure sports across Costa Rica, said Monteverde is such a unique backdrop in a country full of natural riches because of its community.

“The community of Monteverde is so unified and there’s a great environment of people here,” he said. “These are a diverse set of people that have a vision and don’t depend on the government to do everything for them because they can do everything on their own.”

Amanda Zuniga/The Tico Times
Amanda Zuniga/The Tico Times

And the community of Monteverde is linked to the event as more than just a beautiful backdrop. This year’s edition of the Moon Run partnered with the Tropical Science Center, a non-governmental research center in Monteverde that prioritizes environmental conservation and education, to spread awareness among racers and community members.

At Saturday’s event, more than 600 runners registered in five different Moon Run races, including 71 in the Ultra Trail. Vargas said each racer brings two family members or friends, on average, meaning that nearly 2,000 people injected money into the local economy this weekend because of the race.

“In the case of assisting Monteverde, that was one of the reasons for bringing the race here,” Vargas said. “So I’m satisfied with that.”

Runner Fidel Ramírez Hernández from Cartago, who finished third place in the ultramarathon for the second straight year, said he’ll continue coming back to the trail run in Monteverde because of the sheer diversity it offers runners in just a single route.

“It’s a very special place,” he said. “Monteverde is unique and it’s always worth it to run here because of how beautiful it is.”

Amanda Zuniga/The Tico Times
Amanda Zuniga/The Tico Times

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