Monteverde, that most remote sanctuary, ‘the last outpost of civilisation’, is now one of Costa Rica’s most-visited tourist destinations. The cloud forest attracted biologists – the first to study ants, and then their students, and finally, as roads were improved and rustic pensiones outnumbered by hotels with gleaming hardwood balconies, tour groups. From the arrival of the first settlers right through to the 1970s, the only place to stay was the original community guesthouse, the Green Mountain Inn. Someone recalls bumping into the owner Irma Rockwell one day in ’70-something and finding her puzzled and anxious: “Why, today I got a letter from some folks who want to come stay here next week, and I just had people here last week”. Yes, well Monteverde has changed.
Being English, I’m not adverse to the fog, drizzle, cold, and dripping forests (or the cheese) for which the area is famous, but for me, the people are more interesting than the habitat, and I’d much rather hang around with a hot drink and talk to old pacifists and colonists and principled dreamers than trudge through mud in search of a quetzal. Monteverde has been coloured in – spare space between homes developed, its population has grown, and the town has become somewhat cosmopolitan, however, in quiet moments, that old Monteverde of optimism, make do and mend, Quaker values and pulling together is there – as are several of the original founders (in fact the local community is largely made up of their progeny, many of them Rockwells, Guidons and Mendenhalls).
In 2001, the original settlers compiled interviews, letters, diaries and pictures and published the Monteverde Jubilee Family Album, a celebration of the first fifty years. It’s a unique record; a good, gossipy read, and it makes going to the middle of nowhere with your cousins and becoming a frontier pioneer sound like a hell of a lot of fun.
Around the same time, I met Stella Wallace, who had been many things, and by then had her bakery (Stella’s Bakery, now run by her granddaughter). The Album features a first impression of Stella, squatting on the steps of a back stoop, ‘wearing a fringed serape, a calf-length purple skirt, dangling earrings and high, black rubber boots’, talking about farting and explaining, ‘in well-bred English tones’, how her husband had done time in Tallahassee.
That aside, Stella was not the typical Monteverdian, and arrived 10 years too late to be part of the original set. A Londoner, she had gone to the US after the war for adventure and a college education. She married Quaker and journalist, Kenny Wallace, had a daughter, Meg, and all three came by truck from Alabama arrived in Monteverde in 1961, after Kenny received a request to teach at the school. Aside from the old truck they had $75, and an idea about homesteading and raising goats. They lived on bananas and goats’ milk for a long time.
“But too much trouble with goats” said Stella. “They got ill in wet weather. We got rid of them and bought cows. Traded a guitar for the first one.” They had little farming experience: “He was a newspaper man and I was a Londoner who wanted to live in the country. We’d lived in the suburbs of Montgomery, Alabama, and we had a ducks and things, and believed in organic farming and all that – like you do when you’re young and stupid.”
In some ways Monteverde life suited Stella’s spontaneous nature: “The third day after we got here, we went to Santa Elena or San Jose, or somewhere, and I adopted two children on the same day. Not a lot of people do that kind of thing, no. Well, we wanted to have little girls and little boys and the doctor we talked to had this girl of two, and so, yes, we adopted her. And then in the evening, he called and said he’d found this little baby boy, 24 days old, did I want him too? Oh well! In for a penny in for a pound! And so we got the two.”
The original settlers, says Stella, were all Quakers, “all believed in the same thing. They were pacifists; a lot of them had been in prison, and they were getting away from draft law. They all helped each other, and it was just very cohesive. The only problem – as far as I was concerned as a big city girl – was that they seemed a little inbred, but oh well.”
I’m fascinated by the concept of utopia, and you’d think a peaceful, close-knit community with strong religious values, living in a spectacularly, dramatically lovely and fecund location would be a model one. Maybe the potential to build something close to a perfect solution, and the effort of fulfilling the early optimism took its toll.
People come to the various permutations of ‘paradise’ Costa Rica has to offer and unravel. It’s something to do with high hopes dashed, a lack of television, and nothing else to blame things on, I reckon. And also – even now San Jose has strip malls and everywhere has wifi – down to there being a hint of the wild west, the undiscovered, about Costa Rica; a notion that the living is a little easier here, which attracts people who find the living a little hard elsewhere.
“Oh yeah, all the crazies come here” said Stella, cheerfully, that drizzly day in Monteverde. “They can’t get on anywhere else. The majority of people that come down here already have problems. Uprooting yourself doesn’t solve the problem – you are forced to face yourself. The Family Album glosses over the breakups and the suicides. Some of the people who committed suicide here would have done so in the states, it’s just they got down here thinking they’d feel better, and of course they didn’t.
“A number of the original Monteverdians came down trying to save their lives I think, and it didn’t work out that way.”
There are people you meet, briefly even, who you never forget. Stella must be in her 80s now, and while I’ll go to Monteverde again soon, I won’t see her, but I’ll think about her. Several books of memoirs, and historical accounts have come out of Monteverde – as well as the aforementioned Monteverde Family Album, so hunt around. I’d love to read Pioneering in Costa Rica by Cecil F Rockwell, and Monteverde Memoirs by Mildred Mendenhall, and I believe there’s a new book written with, and about, Wolf Guindon, one of the originals. My own Monteverde pictures, including a portrait of Stella, are packed away in boxes in London, and I hope that the team that compiled the Family Album won’t mind if I share pictures from it for now. The notorious road is celebrated in two photos – oxen pulling a vehicle out of mud on Trapiche Hill , and another being winched up Coffee Hill; school pupils pose (barefoot) in 1958 and 1963, and another group shot shows (from left to right) Cecil, Marvin, David, Howard and Leonard Rockwell, newly arrived in Costa Rica.