I always wondered what a cloud forest was. While standing in the misty greenery of Costa Rica’s cloud forests with wisps of clouds sweeping past my face, I finally understood. Here I was at a much higher elevation than just a “regular” rainforest enveloped by low-hanging clouds and plenty of moisture.
Cloud forests, which really do seem to touch the sky, make up only 1 percent of the global forest area, which makes them a rare ecosystem. Trailing foliage, colorful orchids, verdant vegetation, and the sound of rare birds singing in the forest make this an exciting eco-tourism destination. Think nature and adventure (if you have some gumption) and you will fall for Costa Rica’s incredible cloud forest, just as I did.
How To Get To The Cloud Forest In North Central Costa Rica
Your destination is the tourism hub of Santa Elena. A bustling village with all your needs, this is where you will stay and eat.
If you are driving, the road to Monteverde is steep, full of potholes, and unpaved. Drive slowly. I took the bus from San Jose, standing room only, and remember the slow line of traffic snaking up the road. I was thankful I wasn’t driving and gob-smacked by the magnificent views.
There are many private transfers, shared shuttles, and taxis available in Costa Rica. Monteverde is about a 4-5 hour trip from San Jose. If you are coming from Arenal, it is a 3-hour land trip or a 45-minute boat ride and 1.5 hours ground transfer. Public buses run from San Jose and Puntarenas.
Pro Tip: The average temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 60 degrees in the evening. Pack close-toed hiking shoes, long pants and a jacket. If you are traveling during the rainy season (June to the end of October) be sure to pack rain gear and a waterproof backpack.
1. Jungle Treks Beyond Your Imagination
There are two cloud forest reserves in Monteverde, Costa Rica. You might just have to visit both! There are regular shuttle buses from Santa Elena to the entrance of both reserves.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the seven wonders of Costa Rica, extends over an area of 35,000 acres and sits at 4,663 feet above sea level. National Geographic once described it as “the jewel in the crown of cloud forests.” Go early in the morning (opens at 7 a.m.) to hike some of the 8 miles of well-marked and beautifully maintained trails. This way you will avoid the crowds (it is, after all, a popular jewel), and will have a better chance of seeing birdlife and wildlife. You can also opt for a bilingual guided walking tour available at the entrance. It was with our guide that we saw our first resplendent quetzal. Keep your eyes open. There are over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles.
Pro Tip: The entry fee for foreigners is $25 USD.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is smaller at 756 acres and situated at a higher elevation (5,250 feet). The community-run cloud forest reserve has 7.5 miles of well-maintained trails, is less crowded than the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and also offers spectacular scenery and biodiversity.
Pro Tip: The entry fee for foreigners is $16 USD.
2. The Chance to See A Resplendent Quetzal
Even those not yet in the “I love birding” camp will be thrilled to catch a glimpse of the resplendent quetzal. This endangered, splendid bird is not called resplendent for nothing! The emerald green and blue feathers along with its red chest, yellow beak, and long elegant turquoise tail feathers are breathtaking to see. No wonder it ranks up there as one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
The resplendent quetzal has been revered for centuries. It was an important symbol in both Aztec and Mayan culture and is a symbol of goodness and light. It is also the national bird of Guatemala and pictured on its flag and coat of arms.
We saw a resplendent quetzal on our guided tour through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and it was a moment not soon forgotten. With a flash of color, it came to perch on a mossy branch. Believe me, we were all breathless as we stood in awe.
3. The Incredible Biodiversity
A visit to one of the cloud forest reserves mentioned above is non-negotiable but, if you have time, visit the Curi Cancha Reserve as well. It was a highlight of my trip to Monteverde. It’s Monteverde, off the beaten path as there are so few people on the trails. The bird watching here is phenomenal. I honestly think that the trip to the Curi Cancha Reserve turned me into a birder. My daughter and I went exploring on our own and saw an emerald toucanet and a blue-crowned motmot with its incredible hanging racket-shaped tail feathers. And, unbelievably, we did go silently sprinting through the cloud forest behind a trail maintenance worker with a machete hanging from his waist when he told us he had seen a resplendent quetzal further down the path. Birding. It can be a bit daring after all.
Read this article for more on birding in Costa Rica.
4. Adrenaline Junkie? Try Extreme Zip Lining In Monteverde
If you love extreme adventure (a bit more extreme than bird watching) then zip lining in Monteverde will be a thrill for you. The height and length of the lines will get your adrenaline pumping. Soaring like a bird over the canopy of the cloud forest is an incredible experience. Freedom and speed all mixed up together. Sounds magical until a bit of fear sets in. At least it did for me. I would say this adventure is not for first timers. I kind of freaked out, although I had previously zip lined in the Costa Rican rainforest near Tamarindo. I completely lost my nerve in the cloud forest, the only one in the group to do so. Luckily the guides were incredibly supportive and rode down with me, right behind me in fact, with their legs encircling my lap. Clearly, my adventurous spirit has its limits!
If you’ve got some gumption and love the thrill of zip lining, here are three places to try for zip lining, bungee jumping, and hopping on a Tarzan swing!
5. The Spectacular Views
The elevation of the cloud forest makes for some breathtaking views. Cerro Plano Viewpoint (Mirador Valle Escondido Preserve) is a super accessible viewpoint and walking distance from many of the hotels in Santa Elena. Sit on a bench and gawk at the vista that stretches over the mountains right out to the Pacific Ocean.
Pro Tip: Plan your walk to see a spectacular sunset and then head to Restaurant Sabor Tico to enjoy a typical Costa Rican meal.
Where To Stay When Visiting The Cloud Forest Reserves Of Costa Rica
There are plenty of places to stay. Here are a couple of suggestions:
- El Establo Mountain Hotel is just outside of Santa Elena. Its spacious rooms have great views over the cloud forest.
- Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge. Love the cloud forest? This lodge is right in the corridor between the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.
Lush cloud forests are just one reason to visit beautiful Costa Rica: